Poverty Hunger Disease Violence Ignorance Negligence Decay
Take your pick from the headline list. These words are frequently used by non-Africans to stereotype Africa. And to bolster this image, the statistics shout just as loud against us. The entire continent, home to almost a billion people, contributes only about 2% to world GDP. So roughly, 17% of the world’s population only manage to add a meagre 2% to its combined economic output every year.
But Africa is an entirely different place to Africans. We the people that live here and are children of this soil know an Africa that is vibrant, progressive, eager, friendly, caring, complex, competent, and most of all, developing at an unprecedented pace.
Why then, are there two starkly conflicting views of exactly the same place?
Short of falling into the philosophically redundant argument of environmental factors versus human factors, the most obvious explanation would be an existential one. People who do not live here compare what they see and experience to what they are familiar with. And those with the hardest critical voices usually come from developed western (or westernised) countries where they have fought all their battles ages ago, or where development capital has been streaming in for a century or more.
People who live here, Africans, are at the threshold of the development trajectory and have only had that same privilege over the past half a century, and often much less. We see an entirely different Africa, one with unlimited potential, huge promise and even bigger opportunity. We see the progress from year to year, we create it, we experience it, we measure it. And we know how hard won it was, and most important, I think, we realise how much more work there is to be done.
It always amazes me when I talk to foreign business people how glibly they file us in some convenient partition of their own minds. They look at our human situation and click their tongues. They look at our infrastructure and express the wish if only there were enough money in the world to build all the roads, railwaylines, harbours, houses, and a host of systems required to make a modern country just that – modern. Collectively, in their view we are something of a basket case. Although they never say so, I often wonder if, in the back of their minds, they are not echoing Edward Longshanks’ famous dictum of the 11th century: “ The problem with Scotland is that it is full of Scots.” Maybe that is our problem. Our continent is full of us!
As a realist I have to admit to every epithet applied to us. Certainly, across this continent one does find individuals, communities, regions, and even sometimes, countries in which the majority of these derogatory descriptions are true. But that is looking through a screen with a particular negative bias. Wherever I have gone in Africa, I found exactly the opposite. Many years ago obscured, but of late, more and more the general trend.
Perhaps the most visible proof of the new momentum that is pushing Africa along, is the tempo at which large African corporations are entering new markets in neighbouring countries. Whenever I turn on the television, it baffles me to see how many similar trade names are in Ghana, Nigeria, the DRC, Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, and of course the whole of southern Africa. Only then do I realise there is a host of South African companies that have entered these markets in a very aggressive way. Not like 20 years ago when SA companies only entered African countries in secrecy, avoiding all public attention. No, today they are out there flaunting their corporate colours, and I assume, flexing their corporate muscle.
This dualistic (and uninformed) view of Africa leads me back home where of course, it is just as relevant. Sure, in Namibia one also finds the wild, undisturbed Africa, but for that, one has to abandon the well-travelled roads and venture deep into the desolated areas. But almost next door, one finds communities, often very far removed and isolated, where the children go to school, there is a mobile communications base station, a clinic, a police station, and invariably, a general dealer and grocer.
When I look at the process of institutionalising our independent history, I am also justifiably proud. Whereas we were a vassal up to 1990 with all major structures deployed and controlled from South Africa, today all these institutions are modern state needs, are local.
Which bring me to my crucial question for 2012. Is this the year in which we are finally going to see a National Pension Fund? It is now thirteen months since the new CEO took over at the Social Security Commission and I am burning to know when the fund will be launched and how it will be structured.