UPRISING: The writer says the uprising in north Africa points to an urgent need to address socio-economic and political rights on the continent. Picture: Reuters

As uncertaintY around the election of the head of the AU commission continues, Africa must not lose sight of the equally important task of creating a new, long-term growth and development path.

Whatever the outcome of the election process, African unity remains critical to address the twin challenges of democracy and development. A common agenda is needed – no country can go it alone surrounded by a sea of poverty and instability. Recent developments in the Arab world point to an urgent need to find a new path to address the civil, political, social and economic rights for all.

Political developments that led to the removal of long-standing rulers in the Arab Maghreb Union have become common references in contemporary discourse on political problems afflicting many parts of Africa. No political protest, whether related to the oil price in Nigeria or service delivery in SA, passes without any such comparison.

Understandably, comparison between the developments in the Maghreb and other parts of Africa is unavoidable because of shared geo-political realities as well as similar social and economic conditions.

More than the quest for power, which has become a hallmark of political contestations on the continent, the mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were triggered by the failure of socio-economic system to address the needs of the people. It was also a struggle for democracy and human rights.

Lessons for the rest of Africa need further interrogation than has been the case hitherto. In many ways, we are alerted to the dawn of a new social reality as democracy has suddenly ceased to be the preserve of a few powerful individuals and factions. The internet revolution and its social networks are making it possible for democracy to be exercised by anyone, everywhere.

The power of the military and secret police in any oppressive system is being put to the test.

Responses to this social order need to focus more energy on the search for better alternatives to the underlying causes than the symptoms of the bigger problem.

At the heart of this lies the need to pay equal attention to democracy and development.

The old argument that development can be achieved only in autocratic environments is not viable, as much as it did not achieve positive results in the Maghreb and other parts of Africa or the world.

Amid the failures of development, oppressive governments are increasingly finding it difficult to justify their own existence.

Even in Libya, generally credited as having made some advances in development, the internal situation was long ready for change and the Nato invasion capitalised on a state that was already approaching its deathbed.

Any attempt to redress the situation should first be located within its historical context. In particular, it has to do with understanding the political choices made soon after independence. In many countries, one-party rule became a common characteristic in the early years of independence.

Almost all countries on the continent, including Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, opted for this approach as the consolidation of a school of thought, known as dependency theory, which argued that the Third World needed an independent growth path to that followed by the highly industrialised countries.

It was reasoned that because Europe was responsible for the underdevelopment of Africa, it was not possible for Africa to develop along the same path followed by Europe. Independent self-reliance schemes were introduced.

Colin Leys writes in his book, The Rise and the Fall of Development Theory that for several reasons, including the lack of industrialisation and Cold War challenges, dependency theory initiatives – such as the self-reliance schemes in Tanzania and nationalisation efforts in Zambia – were unsuccessful.

By the end of 1980s almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa are reported to have achieved negative economic growth, and were highly indebted to the donor community.

The recent drive towards democracy across the continent is being threatened by the slow growth rate achieved in the last two decades.

Economic growth achieved recently in many countries, driven by the boom in the services industry, has not been sufficient to address the scourge of poverty and underdevelopment afflicting most people in rural and urban areas.

Rapid urbanisation in possibly all African cities has also not assisted. Instead, it has created unprecedented infrastructure backlogs in the cities.

There are limited current and historical benchmarks for Africa to learn from. Not even the developed world offers any development path for Africa to follow.

Germany and Japan were bailed out of the devastations of the World War II under more favourable terms than those imposed on Africa by donor countries and the international-lending institutions.

The global recession, fuelled by the collapse of financial institutions in the US since 2008, has also raised questions about the suitability of the free-market model as a way forward. This prompted neo-liberal thinker Francis Fukuyama, in his latest contribution, The Future of History, to appreciate the problems with the free-market environment.

It is only because of the lack of critical left-wing alternatives, in response to the global crisis, that Fukuyama can commemorate the continuous invincibility of the free-market model. But whatever the ideology, the free-market model is not the way out of the situation in Africa.

Throughout the world, left-wing politics are still reeling from the after-effects of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. There is no doubt that, by the time of its demise, socialism had suffered profound credibility setbacks, having been enforced with unprecedented brutality.

Writing in his memoirs On My Country and the World, Mikhail Gorbachev argues that while the October Revolution was inevitable, it did not have to be enforced with such levels of brutality.

Not even the rapid industrialisation achieved since 1917 could convince citizens in the republics to vote in favour of retaining the union once granted referendums after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The majority voted against retaining the union in any form.

The historical experience suggests that socialism can no longer be driven by the concept of introducing the dictatorship of proletariat, which in all countries, including Russia, Romania, Albania, Poland and Cambodia, meant nothing but the dictatorship of a few individuals and families.

In the current environment, any socialist alternative can only be driven by rapid industrialisation within a democratic culture. Since the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, many Chinese leaders have recognised that it will take many years before China can become a truly socialist state. China has since invested massively to industrialise the country as an integral drive towards socialism. While industrialisation in China remains attractive to many African countries, the lack of democracy makes the Chinese model less suitable for Africa.

What must the continent do? There is no doubt that Africa is faced with an emergency situation to close a developmental gap with the developed world and emerging world powers such as China, Brazil and India. A new revolution driven by industrialisation and high economic growth is needed over a long period of time.

As a way forward, Africa needs a politico-social and economic context that pays equal attention to democracy and development as necessary conditions to achieve a two-digit economic growth over a long period. The new trajectory also requires complementary interventions within and between countries.

At a country level, Africa needs social democratic or centre-left politics with local characteristics to also address the linguistic and cultural uniqueness of the African political milieu. Many countries, including SA, have taken this path, although in SA the model is constrained by the existence of two nations in one country and the racialisation of discourse.

Leading figures in the ANC and the government expressed concerns about the abuse of the judiciary by predominantly white parties, the DA and AfriForum, who litigate on matters that require political engagement and possibly consensus. Increasingly, there is an attempt to thrust the judiciary into the centre of the political discourse.

The solution is not to reverse the gains of democracy, including the role of the judiciary within the three-tier governance system.

The government still has significant scope to regulate the economy to achieve social transformation. There is nothing wrong with the regulation of key sectors of the economy, including the booming mining and energy sectors.

The challenge has more to do with knowing when and how to regulate and having the capacity to do so. The problem arises when regulation becomes an ideological exercise without aiming at addressing specific and well-defined economic problems.

Governments can also play a leading role in the development of critical infrastructure needed to achieve economic growth, although in almost all countries this has been constrained by corruption.

To offset these constraints, Africa also needs a new political culture populated by politicians and public servants who trust their ability to make a positive contribution.

Any politician or public servant who is not sure about his capacity to deliver is likely to end up being corrupt because of uncertainties about the future. This will require more emphasis on education.

Emerging politicians should embrace and boast about their educational prowess. Political responsibility should, therefore, not be treated as a right but a privilege to serve your community.

At the regional level, Africa requires a new approach that incentivises good and punishes poor performance. There is a compelling need for the separation of the political and the economic unions.

The political union must deal with geo-political issues, including fostering a lasting climate for peace and stability. Its membership should be open to all countries on the continent.

The economic union, on the other hand, must deal with all economic issues, including regional integration and industrial development.

Only countries that meet certain requirements, such as prudent fiscal and monetary policies, should be allowed to participate in the economic union, which must also capitalise on local resources to establish a regional petroleum and mining company to build capacity and exploit natural resources in the region.

Achieving regional integration cannot be limited to sympathetic overtures. It needs responsibilities and equal commitment by all countries.

Necessary endeavours are needed to deal with problem situations such as Somalia, but it is inconceivable that any country can enter into a monetary union with another in such a dire state.

n Nkuna is a commentator