Mamphela Ramphele: What to do when orthodox socio-economic models don't work

A child plants a small plant in the soil. (Photo: iStock)
A child plants a small plant in the soil. (Photo: iStock)

Communities that have shown resilience and shared prosperity have all dug deep into their indigenous cultures to leverage the wisdom of the ancients to govern the commons for the benefit of all, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

Africa as the cradle of humanity is coming back into focus as the global community confronts the existential crisis we face due to the growing severity and frequencies of disruptive climate change events.

The underlying philosophical underpinnings of African societies, Ubuntu, and its equivalent concepts in other indigenous communities, is increasingly seen as the resource the human race should draw on to shape more effective socio-economic and governance systems to secure our global commons.

Andreas Weber, a German biologist, in his recently released book, Enlivenment – Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene, puts it succinctly: "The expanded vision of self-in-reciprocity builds on the wisdom that to exist always requires being perceived, and to perceive is to call into being. Self and other co-exist in a mutually inclusive manner. Neither is possible alone."

OPINION | Mamphela Ramphele: Africa's opportunity to turn climate change crises into prosperity

This is the wisdom many of us in Africa grew up with that: "I am because you are."

We stand at a critical juncture as a human community. Orthodox development models have not served our country, the continent of Africa, and most of the world well. Our own country with persistent poverty, growing inequality and unemployment (affecting close on 10 million able-bodied people), is unlikely to rid itself from this triple burden based on orthodox socio-economic models.

Communities that have shown resilience and shared prosperity within countries and regions where most of the world live have all dug deep into their indigenous cultures to leverage the wisdom of the ancients to work together and govern the commons for the benefit of all.

Elina Ostrom, the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, brought the world's attention to how much more effective and sustainable resource management by communities are. Success factors of "the commons" identified by her global studies turn on trust building and maintaining it: "good communication amongst participants; local level reputation of participants is known; high level of return; entry and exit capability; agreed upon sanctioning mechanism; longer time horizon."

Sustained against all odds

Communities such as Xolobeni (Eastern Cape Wild Coast), Bakgatla-be-Kgafela (North West Province), and the Philippi Horticultural Area in Cape Town, have sustained themselves against all odds by ensuring that the commons under their care are governed along with the success factors set out above to sustain trust and mutual benefits. These places, and many others across our country are ripe for President Ramaphosa's District Development Model.

The government should be building on their successful models of governing the commons to promote prosperity for all, rather than impose top-down orthodox development models.

Take the people of Xolobeni whom I visited last week. They are hardworking people drawing on the wisdom of traditional agriculture, augmented by modern technology in the form of weather forecasts and transportation to markets in Durban and beyond. Each household is set on a piece of land with livestock, arable land, neat living spaces, including burial places for their ancestors, is involved in one or other form of sustainable livelihood handed over from generation to generation.

They are a model of a network of close-knit communities working together to expand their local economy into a major food basket for our country, and to provide eco-tourism services that showcase stone age archaeological sites that dot the coastal landscapes. Every able-bodied person is productively engaged in adding value to the common good. They need social and physical infrastructure development support to sustain their healthy lifestyles and to take their goods to market.

No amount of profit and jobs from the proposed extractive mining project can compensate for the value rich heritage of this land. To add insult to injury, the Australian company, MCR, has been found by a review report by Oxfam to have collapsed a cliff in an ecologically sensitive area in Matzikama, whilst mining for titanium. Why is the Department of Energy and Mineral Resources not taking away their mining licence?

Philippi Horticultural Area encompasses just over 3 100 hectares* of land comprising smallholders and commercial farms, produces 200 000 tonnes of food every year. Whilst most of this food goes to supermarkets, a significant proportion feeds poor households with fresh affordable produce.

Trend to back urban agriculture

There is a growing global trend back to urban agriculture to rekindle the age-old symbiotic relationships between residential areas, community gardens and slaughterhouses serving cities. Proposed property development threats to this area by the Western Cape and their business allies, reflect short-termism and disregard for sustainability.

Imagine how far Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela would have been if they had been supported by our governments over the last 25 years to utilise the close to R1bn in royalties from an Escrow D-Account from the platinum mines in the land of their ancestors. They lack schools, clinics and productive resources that could have seen them become a resilient prosperous community. These resources have been effectively captured by Chief Pilane, the local traditional leader, who has defied court findings against him.

We will be welcoming the 51-year-old Club of Rome, of which I am a member, to Cape Town for its first ever conference in southern Africa on 4-7 November. The theme of the conference, "Our Joint Future – Lessons from Africa" is an indicator of the growing willingness of the human community to explore the wisdom of ancients to address the complex problems we face.

There are very few countries in the world that have succeeded to forge sustainable prosperity on the back of models that are not rooted in the deep emotional and spiritual ties of the wisdom of their ancestors. China, Japan and Korea built their success on their deep cultural roots, and are now transitioning to ecological civilisations. Latin American countries such as Ecuador are also digging deep within themselves to develop and sustain shared prosperity in ecological civilisations.

The question is what stops us as South Africa and Africa from returning to our rich heritage of wisdom?

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA and co-president of the Club of Rome.

*This article has been updated to reflect the latest figures from the Philippi Horticultural Area.

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