Look in the mirror

2013-08-14 00:00

AFRICA is a continent of young people who carry the tools for building a new society “in their pockets”. They must dust off their pants, kick the habit of blaming colonialism for Africa’s woes — and get going.

This was the clarion call from Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur and billionaire Dr Mo Ibrahim, when he addressed about 150 Mandela Rhodes scholars from all over Africa as the Mandela Rhodes Foundation celebrated its 10-year anniversary in Cape Town earlier this month.

In a hard-hitting keynote address, as part of an intergenerational leadership “master class”, Ibrahim, a trustee of the foundation, challenged Africans who still cite colonialism as the only root of Africa’s problems.

Ibrahim is the founder of telecommunications company Celtel and of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which aims to promote better governance in Africa.

The Mandela Rhodes Scholars have been identified over the past decade for their academic abilities and leadership potential, and have been given scholarships to attend tertiary institutions in South Africa.

“Africa has been independent for 50 years. The problems in Africa can be laid squarely on a very serious failure in governance and in leadership. No amount of aid in the world, no amount of help from the World Bank or from elsewhere can solve African problems. Only Africans can solve their problems and that can only be done though good governance and good leadership,” Ibrahim said.

At independence, the average income or GDP per head in countries such as Ghana, Sudan, Egypt and other Africa countries was higher than those in China, Malaysia, South Korea and others.

“Today, the average income per head in South Korea is 70 times that of Africa. How come those countries went forwards while we, unfortunately, kept going backwards? It cannot just be colonialism. Everybody was a colony at some stage. The United States was a colony and look at where the U.S. is today.”

On top of the “total abuse of governance”, a lack of strong institutions has led to Africa’s current problems.

“Look around and see how many corrupt leaders we have ended up with. Unfortunately, there is this perception that, by being a leader in Africa, the country and its resources are at the disposal of you, your family and your tribe.

“That is the general culture in Africa, with a few exceptions. If we are going to move forward, we need to be honest and realise our shortcomings. What is needed is self-criticism.”

Ibrahim cited examples of Africa’s lack of progress: “The only railways in Sudan were built by the British 60 or 70 years ago … What have we done after that? Nothing.”

In a dig at the African Union, Ibrahim said: “Fifty years ago, we said: ‘It doesn’t matter what the borders are … we will work for African unity.’

“But where is the unity in the AU? We are 54 countries. We don’t allow our people to travel from one country to another. If I want to go to SA or any other African country, I have to carry my British passport. I cannot use my Sudanese passport because I need a visa. Who decided that? Was it the French or the British? Or was it our own leaders? We did that.

“We said we were going to break our borders, create regional communities. How far have we got with it? Do goods move freely in Africa? Where is the freedom of movement of people, goods and capital in Africa?

“Why are we afraid of each other? Why aren’t we trading with each other? Inter-African trade is 11%. Eleven percent of our goods is what we trade with each other. Why is that? Is that because of the colonialists or because of us?

“We are happy for our African Union to meet in Addis Ababa, but where, in fact, is our African union?

“We need to have the courage to look in the mirror — and, if we see something ugly, maybe we are ugly.”

Ibrahim said young people, as those tasked with turning this legacy around, are “the story of Africa”. The rise of civil society, coupled with the communications revolution, will be a “game changer” for Africa, and will serve to hold leaders to account, he added.

“We cannot underestimate the importance of this revolution in communications. It changes the whole landscape around us in Africa. Nobody can hide the truth from us now.

“The importance of civil society harnessing these tools is immense and gives us the opportunity to hold our governments to account and improve our institutions.”

Ibrahim reminded the audience that 50% of African people are 19-and-a-half years of age and below.

“Do you understand what this means? This is a continent of young people. We (the elders) are irrelevant. It is up to you to shape the future of the continent and it is you who need to develop the agenda for the new Africa.

“You are a much better generation than ours. You are better informed than our generation. You are better educated and more capable of organising yourselves.

“Take hold of the opportunity. And stop saying we don’t have jobs, we don’t have this … because of colonialism. All that is rubbish.

“You are responsible for your future. Every year we have millions of young people coming out of school to the job market. Where are these jobs going to come from?”

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation — a partnership between the Rhodes Trust and Nelson Mandela — was inaugurated by Mandela in 2003, and, since 2005, 200 students from across Africa have been hand-picked to study for post-graduate courses at universities or other institutions in SA.

Scholars representing the classes of the past nine years of the programme came from all over the world for the celebrations. Leadership advice abounded from the trustees of the foundation, who also include former UCT vice-chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele, entrepreneur and philanthropist John McCall MacBain, retired Constitutional Court judge Yvonne Mokgoro, senior politician Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former De Beers chairperson Julian Ogilvie Thompson, former Oxford University vice-chancellor Dr John Hood, and Achmat Dangor of the Ford Foundation.

“Lead by example and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes it is necessary to lead from behind. And, if you are a woman, don’t shy away from a nurturing leadership style. More than anything, don’t forget to have fun, to take risks and to sometimes be silly.”

• Sue Segar is a freelance writer, based in Cape Town.

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