By Dorothée Enskog*
“An African Renaissance is under way,” said the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, in an interview. He also discussed the immense economic and political progress achieved over the past two decades, acknowledging that major challenges must be overcome to eradicate the African continent’s poverty and underdevelopment.
How has South Africa evolved since the first democratic elections were held in South Africa nearly 20 years ago?
Thabo Mbeki: We defined that our task was to transform South Africa into a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous country 20 years ago. A lot of progress has been made with regard to democracy. I do not think there is anyone today who questions the fact the we have a democratic country. There may be all sorts of challenges, but basically I think that objective has been achieved.
Now with regard to a non-racial society, I would say that some progress has been made but that many challenges remain. With regard to gender equality, there has been some improvement, with higher female representation in the economic and political system. More generally, the workload linked to fetching water from rivers and firewood and so on, traditionally carried out by women, has been somewhat reduced with the introduction of clean and piped water, electricity… So there is some progress there.
With regard to creating a prosperous society, there has indeed been progress. The growth and the emergence of a quite significant black middle class is a fact. It’s a reflection of that prosperity which gets spread around, but we nevertheless still have a very large volume of entrenched poverty in the country.
20 years is not enough to address all of these challenges. South Africa clearly needs more time to be able to say: ‘We’re now satisfied, we’ve made sufficient progress.’
Do you believe that South Africa will be able to achieve these tasks during the next two decades?
It is difficult to give a time frame. It’s a continuing challenge. The sooner they can be achieved, the better. But it’s largely dependent on the availability of resources.
You served as president for 10 years. What were your biggest achievements and the main challenges you faced?
The African National Congress (ANC) agreed on a Reconstruction and Development Programme in 1994, defining what we wanted to do to transform South Africa into a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous country, so what I just explained.
Another major change since 1994 is that South Africa has normalized its relations with the rest of the world after a long period of international isolation, because of the apartheid system. That’s gone very well. South Africa is now a normal member of the international community.
We had and still have to struggle against poverty. The section of the population worst affected by that poverty is women.
Turning to the African continent as a whole, would you say that an African “Renaissance” is an aspiration or a reality?
The African continent has accepted that it must achieve its rebirth. We should understand that “Renaissance” in the context of what happened in the past, as a departure from the past that was plagued by
• political challenges, like military coups and civil wars;
• economic challenges, such as increasing poverty; and
• the marginalization of the African continent in the conduct of international affairs, particularly during the Cold War, when the continent was in fact directed by the super powers.
The continent has developed politically, with an overwhelming majority of the countries now being governed by properly elected governments. There has also been a radical decline in violent conflict. Since around 2002, the G8 has invited delegations from the African continent to its annual meetings. They could no longer discuss the future of Africa on their own, without us. Africa has also developed economically, continuing to grow during the global financial crisis of 2008 and in its aftermath. An African “Renaissance” is clearly under way.
What are Africa’s greatest assets?
Its material and human resources. The continent is blessed with large quantities of natural resources, which have been behind much of the economic growth that we’ve witnessed over the last 10 years.
Africa also has a lot of arable land that is not being used. This is obviously another important asset. The utilization of that arable land, irrigation, modern methods of farming, the development of the necessary infrastructure to make sure that the produce reaches the markets, however, needs to be improved.
The continent has access to a number of renewable energy sources, with enormous hydro-electric possibilities along the river Congo, for example. We could light up a lot of the continent, if this energy was used. There is a lot of discussion about putting up solar panels in the Sahara desert, which is virtually unoccupied and could produce so much energy that it could even be exported to Europe. And let’s not forget about the potential use of the water that surrounds the continent – the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.
Yet another asset is our young population. We don’t have an aging population with fewer and fewer workers maintaining an increasing number of older people, like in Europe and Japan. We have this workforce. The challenge that comes with it is that it needs proper education and skills, as well as job opportunities. It can otherwise become a threat to the stability if it remains unemployed and impoverished.
Which challenges need to be addressed most urgently?
Offering appropriate education and training, responding to the demands of the modern economy and modern society, remains a major challenge.
The continent also needs to integrate economically. Create larger markets, because many of its countries are very small, and in that sense they are not economically viable. This in turn means that infrastructure, such as roads, needs to be integrated. Infrastructure is also important with regard agriculture, which employs a majority of the African population. Improved infrastructure supports agricultural and rural development.
Implementing the policies that have been agreed is also a challenge. Everybody also agrees that the continent should not continue to be overly reliant on natural resources.
You’ve got to diversify your economies.
Yes. There have been many policies to address this diversification: How it should be achieved and so on. The challenge is how to implement them. If these challenges are addressed together, they would help to take us another step forward.
Africa’s share of foreign direct investments is continuously rising. Is there a reason to be concerned about a new type of “colonialism”?
I don’t think so. The African continent has got specific formal agreements with both China and India, regulating their relations – the nature of the economic relations, education and training, infrastructure, health. These agreements avoid a replication of a colonial relationship. Because we’ve got the assets in which foreign investors are interested in, we have the power to say: ‘Fine, I recognize your interest in this asset, but you must recognize my interest. Therefore, let’s reach an agreement.’ So we are not, by any means, powerless. This is our vision of our future.
How important is the role of the financial sector in the continent’s development?
The financial sector is a very integral part of this development, with regard to the access to credit, to the possibility of attracting investments into equities, the possibilities of financing trade… One of the continent’s challenges is to further develop the financial services sector in every respect: There are only a few stock exchanges, so potential investors might not find that the market is big enough. The debt market is tiny, with only a few African countries issuing bonds. There are few financial institutions ready to insure against the risks. The further development of the financial services sector as well as proper regulation are important.
Do you see Africa specializing in certain areas over the coming years?
It’s clear that Africa has established its place in terms of natural resources and that that’s going to continue. The dependence on commodities may support our industrialization process, if the African economies diversify using the existing value chain. A mine, for instance, requires certain inputs to produce what the mine needs. A mine’s output could also be used. South Africa, for example, produces a lot of platinum. You need catalytic converter vehicles to reduce vehicle emissions. So rather than export the platinum to make catalytic converters and then export them back to us, why don’t we produce these ourselves?
Africa’s unused arable land could be irrigated and may very well help to address the world’s food security problem. Issues linked to land productivity would need to be looked at closely.
How do you see Africa evolving over the next decades?
The eradication of poverty and underdevelopment is fundamental to the future of Africa. These are big goals, big challenges. To eradicate poverty and underdevelopment, and not just alleviate it, you’ve got to do many things: develop infrastructure across the board, not only for energy and transport but also set up schools and hospitals. The health challenge on the continent is a result of the underdevelopment of the health infrastructure. Even if we were able to supply medicines cheaply, there is no adequate infrastructure in place to deliver them to the patients. Clinics and ambulances are lacking. We should persist with those goals over the next 20, 30 and 40 years. If we can achieve these, then we’ve made major, major progress.
Is an African Union, like the United States or the European Union, a long-term possibility?
There’s a majority view on the continent, among Africans, that Africa must unite. Nobody would question this perspective, this vision. The integration of the African continent is driven by this central perspective, building from below. You integrate at the regional level and then you expand from the regional to the continental. You cannot impose it from above.
This is an objective which all of Africa is very committed to pursuing, because as Africans we know that we all share a common destiny. There’s no way that any African country can achieve success standing on its own. It would require you to work with your neighbor, because whatever happens in one country impacts the other. It’s a matter of necessity to work toward this unity, because we share this common destiny.
*Source Credit Suisse