The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) recently hosted its inaugural lecture at Wits University. The topic was “Building the African state in the age of globalisation – the role of social compacts and lessons for South Africa”.
The keynote speaker, Professor Thandika Mkandawire, rose to the occasion with a most graceful handling of this complex theme and its sub-parts.
Professor Mkandawire, a native of Malawi, is the current chair of African Development at the London School of Economics. He is perhaps most widely recognised for his previous position as Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.
Having attended both the inaugural lecture and subsequent seminar, I was most impressed by the comfortable manner in which he straddled the worlds of “high intellectualism” and everyday practicality.
In the spirit of a generous academic, he guided us, his audience, in making connections across issues that are increasingly confined to the narrow concerns of distinct disciplines.
Indeed, development necessitates that we go beyond disciplinary boundaries and understand how economic theory might relate to political history; how psychology impacts on science and thus, practically, how a somewhat standard phenomenon such as economic growth can result from diametrically opposed forms of social organisation, autocracy and democracy.
Without the ability to navigate this complexity, it becomes difficult to construct a development trajectory that is both theoretically and programmatically sound.
I have not stopped thinking about this question since and it had particular resonance because it highlighted the insufficiency of post-modern “complexity” thinking.
Implicitly, Mkandawire was suggesting that after all factors are considered, a bottom-line or dominant driver must exist in every nation’s development story.
It was at once refreshing and surprising given the comfort he had generally displayed with the dialectical nature of development issues.
Indeed, my own inclination is to reject suggestions of an only way.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does a stellar job of arguing against thinking about people, places or indeed, development in terms of a “single story”.
Nevertheless, that Mkandawire chose to conclude his lecture by asking us if humiliation could serve as a strong enough impetus for Africa’s development, reflected something I could definitely identify with: complete exasperation and desperation for an Africa that is peaceful, economically productive, politically inclusive, generally conducive to the expression of our rich history and validating of our humanity.
It is exasperation with being the world’s basket case, the perennial example of malnutrition, state failure, disease and all things undesirable, that makes one think that perhaps an emotion as grim as humiliation is our best ticket out of this fate.
If the black pride that the Bikos tried to help us muster cannot propel us forward, if Diop can’t convince us we built the pyramids, then perhaps the project to revive Timbuktu is also a misguided investment in the restoration of memory and identity.
Because frankly, if the positive theories of who we are cannot motivate us to greatness, then the endless deluge of theories that deepen our understanding of the problems, with little in the way of solutions, should be just as irrelevant.
These range from the mineral resource curse theory to the Guns, Germs and Steel case made by Jared Diamond; colonialism to neo-colonialism or lo and behold, ethnic over-diversity!
These ideas are so plentiful and often come from well-intentioned scholars who seek to demonstrate that a particular confluence of material factors is not conducive to development.
Without explicitly saying so, one senses in their writings an attempt to de-racialise our woes and silence ill-informed bigots who may blurt out “Black people simply can’t… (this or that)”.
“It’s geography George, not Okonkwo!” one hears Diamond saying through his analysis.
Juxtaposing these theories with words sung almost daily in one or other corner of South Africa, Kaze senzeni na?” (What have we done?), and it’s clear that whether in the form of George’s bigotry or the reflections of Africans themselves, there is a sense that despite unfavourable material conditions, Africa’s woes can be attributed to the historical agency of Africans.
Although clearly framed in terms of victimhood, the question Kaze senzeni na? also suggests that we believe ourselves capable of acting, albeit subconsciously, in a manner that would attract oppression, poverty and all the ills that colour the story of modern-day Africa.
While these words seldom fail to bring tears to my eyes, I find hope in the notion that there are still elements of agency in our narrative of victimhood.
Because if we’re honest about it, an entire library of Harvard PhDs theorising about our under-development as a logical outcome will never be a sufficient explanation for why our children must go hungry; must become soldiers before they hit puberty; must die sooner than their global peers.
So Mkandawire’s question remains and indeed, necessitates a whole set of other enquiries around its validity.
Nevertheless, let’s assume for a moment that humiliation is indeed our last resort.
Does it humiliate us enough that American Ivy Leaguers lead the charge against the Congolese wars?
Does it humiliate you when George Clooney is treated as the only valid source of knowledge on the plight of Sudan?
Does it humiliate you when your policy choices are based on the knowledge of foreign consultants as opposed to local people?
Does it humiliate you when you ride into your home township or village on the ill-gotten comforts of a 4x4?
Does it humiliate you when you see intelligent Africans reduced to bumbling fools because an imported language of the minority has the most supreme status in your land?
Does it humiliate you when the symbols, songs and heroes of your liberation history are co-opted by cunning politicians for the narrow goals of electioneering?
Does it humiliate you to depend on the largesse of foreign aiders who depict your children with bloated tummies to get money out of George towards your education budget?
Or how about when you’ve bought the finest Western garb, twang in your best Western language, with your Western university degrees in tow and are simply dismissed as an African elite whose interests must be inherently opposed to the ordinary African’s?
Does the popular notion that a foreign hippie is more concerned with your HIV-infected cousin not humiliate you?
If we must resort to humiliation, then we must be willing to do the next logical thing: develop a theory of Us against Them.
We must be clear on who constitutes Us and then treat the rest as Them. And the point of it all? – to completely annihilate Them with the best education, health and welfare outcomes.
Economic growth can enable much of this, but not without a rich conception of African development.
Heck, I’m humiliated enough to want to annihilate them on the damn happiness index!
n Mthembi is an entrepreneur within the renewable energy space. She writes in her capacity as an independent political analyst.