Former president Nelson Mandela. File Photo: IOL

JOHANNESBURG – The story of former South African president Nelson Mandela and Rwandan President Paul Kagame represents a tale of two cities. 

Coming out of 350 years of oppression with all the deep race-based disadvantage was a model nation, one full of hope. The Madiba Magic was at work. 

Rwanda on the other hand had undergone calamitous shame with almost 1 million lives lost in 90 days of genocide. There was absolutely no hope. Yet 25 years later, Rwanda is a nation with much hope. A model state in Africa with evidence of what to live for is in the eyes of the Rwandese, challenges not withstanding. More cynically, one would ask what was Kagame’s magic that lasted against what was Madiba’s magic that faded over exactly the same period of time. 

This is the classical case of two cities, a state which is best captured in the book titled Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemuglo and David Robinson. Jared Diamond, in reviewing the book, said: “Should be required reading for politicians and anyone concerned with economic development”. 

Between March and May, I attended the 5th UN Conference on Big Data for Official Statistics in Kigali.

The meeting presents an opportunity for technology, statistics, geography and money to exchange vows in support for the Sustainable Development Goals. This was held at what was declared Regional Big Data Lab for Official Statistics hosted at the National Statistics Institute of Rwanda (NSIR) in Kigali. 

In 2007 the African statisticians convened for the second African Symposium for Statistics Development (ASSD) following on the inaugural one held in South Africa a year before. 

The ASSD launched the Young African Statistician movement. Statistics SA and the NSIR reinforced this twin nation phenomena as they built formidable relations. But 25 years later the Siamese profile of these twin nations has ceased, not because of the increasingly frosty relations, but on dependency in development practice and performance.

Kigali shows evidence of knowing why nations fail and how to pursue success, while Pretoria has shown zero knowledge of this at best, or at the worst applied purposeful knowledge on how to push South Africa to the precipice. I have witnessed how war devastates human prospects for a better life in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan in the past two decades.

Rwanda exists in a literal war zone of the Great Lakes. The heightened security visibility everywhere is a sore reminder and evidence to this. However, Kigali seems to have raised the stakes of investments in spite of the war. South Africa has to secure inspiration from Kigali – how did the phoenix rise from the ashes?

As we prepare to renew our vows on May 8 with the election, South Africa may have to turn to Kagame for inspiration in order to reset the Madiba Magic. Madiba and his compatriots kept and delivered on the promise of Freedom in Our Lifetime. We have failed the test of “it is in your hands now” passed down to us from these luminaries. 

Salma Ingabire – a successful Rwandese business woman and a former member of the Young African Statisticians once asked me: “When you tear at Madiba’s legacy, what will South Africa turn to for hope?”

Perhaps the answer to her profound question is this: Tomorrow let us go and vote to make freedom in our lifetime an instrument for changing the lives of South Africans and actively defending our democracy. Madiba will then rest peacefully. 

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. The views expressed here are his own. Meet him on www.pie.org.za and Twitter @PaliLehohla

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