A city of discipline and promise

2011-09-07 00:00

OUR Air Rwanda Boeing touched down at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda at 8 pm on a recent Monday night. We were a group of South Africans attending the AfricaSan 3 (that’s San for Sanitation) conference, a meeting of 900 delegates with representatives from all of the 33 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

By 8.30 pm we were on a bus and heading through town, stopping at all the different hotels into which we had been booked. My colleague and I were two of the last to be dropped off, so we had a fairly comprehensive tour of the city before it was our turn to alight. It wasn’t long before the remarks began: “There’s no litter.” “But this place is spotless.”

This was at the end of a working day, when downtown Pietermaritzburg by comparison invariably looks like a tip. It was most astonishing. Not only was it clean, but the public spaces were landscaped, neat, trimmed and attractive. The hotels all looked pretty good too. And this in a country that was convulsed by civil war and genocide just 17 years ago? Wow.

As the week progressed, my impression was not altered. For five days I crisscrossed the city by taxi and moto-taxi (that’s a motorbike taxi —1 000 Rwandan francs or R12 for about 15 minutes), and observed that at all times of day and night, the city is clean and well maintained. The roads are good, the lights work and the traffic is orderly too, unlike the famously dysfunctional traffic of nearby Kampala. I would like to say to the Msunduzi Municipality, forget junkets to Atlanta and other cities in wealthy countries on the pretext of fact-finding tours — go to Kigali. This is not a wealthy country. Although its economy is booming, it has come off such a low base that even in purchasing-power parity terms Rwanda’s GDP per capita is still only one 10th of South Africa’s and 208th in the world (i.e. near the bottom) . Kigali is clean, ordered and functional because those are qualities on which the Rwandese place high value. We apparently do not.

As a visitor knowing something of the terrible history of the Rwandan genocide during which over 800 000 people were killed in just 100 days between April and June 1994, most of them with pangas, I could not help wondering how this country has managed to become functional again and to prosper. Part of the answer­ is that the trauma they went through was so terrible that it has been possible for the new government to lead from strength. Where else in the world, for example, has a government decreed that the whole country will forthwith change its language of business and higher education, in this case from French to English? I was told by a taxi driver that school teachers were given three weeks (“by these people from Uganda”) to make the change.

I understand that there is a strong and well-organised tradition of civil governance in Rwanda. This tradition was exploited by the architects of the genocide. Like the foot soldiers of Nazi Germany, the ordinary people were so used to following instructions that many of them allowed themselves to be brainwashed, and simply did what they were told.

A relatively cocooned week in Kigali and some reading by no means makes me an expert on Rwandan history or politics. I know it is not a genuine democracy, but rather what one might term a benign dictatorship. Unlike the malign dictatorship to our immediate north, where an increasingly bitter and psychopathic ruler has progressively impoverished his once-prosperous nation (whose GDP per capita dropped 20-fold­ between 2000 and 2010 and now sits in the rankings between ­Somalia and Liberia), Rwanda is moving strongly forward.

I saw more major construction under way in Kigali in one week than I have seen in nearly 20 years in ­Pietermaritzburg. If the state­controlled press is to be believed they are making excellent progress with health, education and population control (a serious matter for a country smaller than Lesotho, but with five times the population). But President Paul Kagame, who looks like a gangly, bespectacled professor, allegedly does not take kindly to criticism. In 2007, Reporters without Borders ranked Rwanda 147th in the world in terms of press freedom, and the Economist has ranked it below Zimbabwe in terms of political space for opposition. It will be interesting to see whether and if Rwanda is able to make the transition from traumatised nation under reconstruction, to a healthy democracy where truth and justice can be pursued and upheld without fear or favour.

We South Africans could learn a lot from the Rwandese about discipline, political will and thrift. In turn, it seems they could learn from us about openness and freedom (which in South Africa is now undoubtedly under threat from some powerful quarters). Is it possible for these two admirable conditions to co-exist within one nation? I really hope so.

• David Still is a Pietermaritzburg-based civil engineer, and is also chairperson of the Duzi-Umgeni Conservation Trust.

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