Rethinking African Renaissance

File picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

ON THURSDAY, 13 August 1998, Thabo Mbeki, the then deputy president of South Africa, formally launched the “African Renaissance” at Gallagher Estate in Midrand, Gauteng.

It was a little over four years after South Africa’s triumph of negotiation over war, its dismantling of apartheid and its miracle of democracy. The world was still feting these achievements – and Mbeki was scathing as he spoke about the woes of Africa, and what was needed to pull the continent of out what had become a morass.

He spoke about Lesotho being dragged “towards the abyss of a violent conflict, of the Democratic Republic of Congo sliding back into a conflict of arms, of peace having died on the borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia, of strife in Guinea Bissau and of war in Algeria. Thus can we say that the children of Africa, from north to south, from the east and the west and at the very centre of our continent, continue to be consumed by death dealt out by those who have proclaimed a sentence of death on dialogue and reason, and on the children of Africa whose limbs are too weak to run away from the rage of adults,” he said.

“Both of these, the harbingers of death and the victims of their wrath are as African as you and I.” “For that reason, for the reason that we are the disemboweled African mothers and the decapitated African children of Rwanda, we have to say enough and no more. It is because of these pitiful souls, who are the casualties of destructive force for whose birth they are not to blame, that Africa needs her renaissance,” he said.

It was, in many ways, an incredible attack on fellow African leaders.

“Africa,” Mbeki said, “has no need for the criminals who would acquire political power by slaughtering the innocents.” He blamed the continent’s problems, most notably its inability to achieve sustainable economic development, on greed and the abuse of state power.  “The call for Africa’s renewal, for an African Renaissance is a call to rebellion,” he said. “We must rebel against the tyrants and the dictators, those who seek to corrupt our societies and steal the wealth that belongs to the people.”

Many African countries were not pleased with the tone of Mbeki’s speech. It seemed to confirm a fear among them that although apartheid had finally been defeated – with their help in various ways –South Africa, with its strong economy and infrastructure would dominate them and, like the apartheid regime, continue to be the bully of the continent.

The realities of its position in the wider world prompted South Africa to adjust its foreign policy priorities….

In 1993, Nelson Mandela had set out the country’s planned relationships with the rest of the world in a landmark essay entitled “Foreign Affairs”. Its main principles were that “human rights are central to international relations”, “that peace is the goal to which all nations should strive” and that the “interests of the continent of Africa should be reflected in our foreign policy choices”.

On 26 May 2001, Mbeki, the last head of the much maligned Organisation of African Unity (OAU), presided over the launch of the African Union (AU), the formation of which he had played a big role.

The AU differed from the OAU in a number of significant ways. Chief among these was a move away from “non-interference” in the affairs of fellow members to “non-indifference”. This gave it the right to intervene in member states in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Another key difference was the AU’s obligation to continent-wide integration for social, economic and political development.

On paper, these commitments were admirable. In practice though they often drew South Africa into situations they might not have wanted, especially with regard to human rights issues. Thus, the country was sharply criticised from both within and without for what was perceived as inaction over human rights abuses by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, and especially for not arresting the genocide-accused, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, during an AU summit in Johannesburg in 2015.

In the case of Zimbabwe, and in the case of the setting up of a no-fly-over zone in Libya prior to the overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi, South Africa’s defence to criticism revolved around its commitment to dialogue and negotiation in response to political conflict.

This, it claimed, was based on its own experience. South Africa has proved itself more than willing to play its part in peace-keeping missions around Africa. For more than a decade, the South African National Defence Force has deployed between 1 500 and 2 500 soldiers for peacekeeping duties in a number of trouble-spots. But the country’s motives were still viewed with suspicion by some countries on the continent. The question most often asked is: at which point does South 

Africa’s national interests take precedence over its AU commitments?

In this respect, South Africa’s insistence on “selling” itself as the “gateway to Africa” is regarded as problematical. The economies of a number of African countries – including Ghana Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Kenya and Rwanda – have grown dramatically over the past few years, and the number of conflict zones have dropped.

As a member of BRICS, South Africa sees itself as having a crucial role to play in, firstly, allaying the fears of countries to the north and, secondly, helping to unlock the vast potential that exists. But for this to come about, a large dose of introspection by South Africa and South Africans will be needed.

It is the height of hypocrisy to celebrate Africa Day when Africans from other countries are treated with open hostility – indeed, when they are attacked and often killed, and their property is stolen by South Africans.

And the sad thing about this is that leaders in this country – high-level politicians and even kings – refuse to see xenophobia as the reason behind attacks on foreign Africans. In fact, they often fuel these attacks via inflammatory remarks against people who in many cases are not in South Africa by choice.

Thousands of foreigners are refugees from violence in their own countries, in many instances from countries which offered refuge to South Africans fleeing persecution during the apartheid years, but which have now fallen on difficult political times.

Studies suggest that there is a strong connection between inflammatory statements by popular public figures, such as King Goodwill Zwelethini and Herman Mashaba, the executive mayor of Johannesburg, and xenophobic attacks. In his epic “I am an African” speech, Thabo Mbeki said: “I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukane led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mpephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane … My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by … the victories we earned from Islandlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert.”

If we are all Africans, and if we are serious in our celebrations of Africa Day, we must commit ourselves to living together.

Dougie Oakes is in his fourth decade as a journalist and writer. He is also the Opinion Editor for the Independent Media Group.