Joel Netshitenzhe - Local Government Conference

28 July 1999

28 July 1999

Southern African Development Community towards a common future

I was informed that other speakers, during the course of this morning, will be dealing with very concrete issues pertaining to the activities of local government. I was therefore given a responsibility to take you to the clouds with some reflections on the issue of the African Renaissance.

But perhaps it is important to emphasise from the outset that when we talk about governance, we are first and foremost talking about people. The tendency amongst ourselves is to reflect on the powers and responsibilities that we have in various spheres of government. That’s been part of the debate in the process of constitution-making in South Africa - to talk about provincial, local and national powers and responsibilities. As such, we tend to forget that we do not have a local people, a provincial people or a national people. We just have people.

Therefore, the issue of partnership amongst the various spheres of government in the implementation of programmes becomes very critical. No-one can gainsay the fact that local government is one of the most critical spheres in ensuring that programmes of development are carried out. Because - to agree and slightly disagree with Magang (the previous speaker) - local government deals not so much with bread and butter issues but in the African context it deals with Sadza and Kapenta, Vhuswa and Mashonzha.

One of the issues that we need to consider as the premise of our approach to the issue of the African Renaissance is that it has gained wide currency throughout the continent, particularly amongst the intelligentsia and the political leadership. But the fact of the matter is that this is a campaign that has been initiated by the political leadership; and contained in that is a challenge: Is the African Renaissance merely a political construct? Is it merely a political campaign or is it much more than that? I think we will all agree that it is much more than a political construct.

Therefore one of the challenges is how to ensure that this concept captures the minds of the mass of the African people on the continent so that it becomes their way of life, an inspiration to their actions.

Secondly, how do we ensure that the articulation of the concept of the African Renaissance and the enthusiasm for it are seen to be the property, not only of the political leadership on the continent, but also of the ideological leadership including our intellectuals, our religious leaders, artists and cultural workers. How do we ensure that in our operations, even at the level of local government, we are inspired by this concept of the need for Africa to renew herself.

One of the realities that we have to address, and this is another challenge, is that in my view, Africans are not a unique people with some mythical characteristics - sometimes we call it ubuntu here in South Africa. We are like any other people with differences, be they ethnic, religious, gender or sometimes even racial differences.

The challenge we face is to balance between the manifestation of those differences and the things that unite us. And this applies as much to social groups as it would even to cities and villages. It should be expected, for instance, that Durban and Maputo and Nairobi will compete as ports on the East Coast of Africa. But should that competition be cut-throat? Are there things around which we could sit down together and say we need to ensure a division of labour.

The point I’m making is that competition on its own, differences on their own are not a negative thing. The question is how to manage them in the interest of the continent, in the interest of our villages, in the interest of our cities.

Now that the issue of the African Renaissance has been spoken about for a number of years, we in South Africa and I suppose amongst our neighbours, have been battling with the definition of this Renaissance and how it should manifest itself!

The tendency has been to say that if you visit Zimbabwe, if you fight with a Swazi or if you fall in love with a Mozambican, that is the African Renaissance. That needs to be challenged because it’s not a matter of choice that Africans should breathe African air; that they should consume African products; that they should subsist from African soil. It is in their very being as human beings that neighbouring Africans will trade; they will fight; they will empathise; they will compete and they will love one another or even hate one another. That does not constitute the African Renaissance or its negation.

And therefore it becomes critical that when we talk about the manifestation of this renewal, we should identify flagship projects which we can use to promote what is seen by many people as merely a philosophical idea. I’ll come back to this in my concluding remarks.

In many reports and analyses in the media especially here in South Africa, there is a tendency to narrowly associate this idea of renewal with individuals. Indeed in East Africa, in West Africa, in Southern Africa and elsewhere, the issue of the African Renaissance has been raised by far-sighted leaders. But when we do that, sometimes we tend to forget that there are very objective realities that make this renewal a necessity and, for the continent, a matter of life and death.

Some of these realities include:

  • the fact of the development of the world economy in the current age;
  • the search for bigger markets, for cheaper labour, and for lucrative destinations for portfolio capital; and
  • the new technological revolution.

All these are realities that make it possible either for Africa to take advantage of the new world situation, to leap-frog some of the stages through which the world has gone in order to reach the highest levels of human development, or to sit back under the African tree and perish.

The other reality is the fact that we do not have what to some were protective barriers and to others, challenges and threats, which existed within the context of the Cold War. Then, it became easier if we were an ally of this or the other bloc to get aid, sometimes without much responsibility. But today the world is a different place and we need to come of our own, demand what we believe is due to the continent and make an input into what happens in the world as it affects our continent.

Of course another reality is that an African Renaissance cannot be undertaken within the context of the political paradigms that we have had in the past: that everything African is good and therefore we do not need to be self-critical of ourselves when we go wrong.

This new situation that allows us to do this is partly a consequence of the liberation of Southern Africa in which Africa played an important role. Indeed, without the kind of unity that required that we ignore the beam in our own eye, that liberation might not have been possible. But this new situation makes it possible for us in our discussions, yes to drum up our own successes and promote them, but at the same time to be self-critical and look at how we improve the way we do things.

There are many issues that one can raise with regard to the objectives of this Renaissance. Without going into detail, I think the fundamental question is that we want Africa to embark on a course of rapid industrialisation and development. We want to ensure that the African child can be afforded the best in education, in health, in entertainment. We want to ensure that the African village can become one of the nodal points, like in the rest of the world, of the utilisation of technology for purposes of the improvement of the quality of life.

But we also want the African person to be proud of him-/herself, to be proud of who we are, ensuring that we do not see ourselves as failed mirror images of Europe or the Americas.

During the 1970s, when some of us were still young, we came across a philosophy and a movement among students, called ‘Black Consciousness’. One of the things that still linger in one’s mind, which I believe is relevant to this concept of the African Renaissance, was that self-pride should be a way of life, an attitude of mind.

This becomes even more critical for Africa in the current age because, with the development of global communication, with the flow of portfolio capital around the world at such a rapid pace and an attempt on our part to attract investments, the tendency develops for us to start behaving (without being derogatory) like beauty queens on a catwalk, with a judge based in Europe or in the Americas who will say ‘yes, beautiful’ and therefore we will invest or we will provide aid.

One of the problems in South Africa with our new democracy and given the skewed distribution of wealth is that, with every step you take, when you do things that need to be done in order to ensure social development, you look over your shoulder to say: But what will the whites say? They will say is that we are still primitive! And then you desist from implementing programmes of radical transformation.

Therefore, the issue of self-pride, self-appreciation on the part of the African child and the African people in general is one of the most critical elements of this African Renaissance.

There are many things that need to be done practically. As I said earlier, we should not mistake the natural things that Africans do amongst themselves and to one another as the manifestation of the African Renaissance. Some flagship projects and some programmes need to be embarked upon to highlight this renewal.

With regard to this conference in particular, one of the questions is: how do we share our experiences in the various African localities with regard to African democracy, or if you like, democracy as it manifests itself in Africa.

From time to time, I suppose because of the seeming intractability of the problems that South Africa was facing, what we have achieved tends to be exaggerated as miracle. We say we have got good local government which is participatory and so on. However, we are still grappling with the difficult question of how to ensure alignment between the progressive policies of democratic local government and the reality of African traditional leadership. It’s an issue that we still have to address and an issue around which there is a lot we are learning and we can learn from our neighbours in Southern Africa and further afield

Amongst other issues that will need to be taken into account as we work out programmes is how to give intellectual as well as cultural impetus to the African Renaissance. A number of conferences have been held and the idea that has developed now is that perhaps we need to move to sector specific conferences. This includes conferences of economists, experts on local government and historians so that we have an intellectual underpinning to this concept of the Renaissance.

It will also have to include the twinning of our universities on the African continent because (again, to be self-critical) the tendency even in our country is that when we think about twinning cities and universities, we think about Europe and the Americas. This brings us back to that question of a way of life and an attitude of mind.

We need also to look at the issue of the traders in ideas, the journalists and communicators. Almost ingrained in ourselves, as a reflection of the psychological state from which we are trying to extricate ourselves, is the mindset that Africa can never do good.

I always pose the question, if you were to ask a South African: When last did you hear about Kenya or Tanzania in the local media - on radio and on television - the answer would be: a year or two ago, when American embassies were bombed and when the FBI descended on the "Dark Continent". Before then and since then, nothing much, if anything at all. Perhaps when a ferry sinks, when there is a disaster, you will then hear about Dar Es Salaam. Indeed, for this African Renaissance to succeed, we will need to change the paradigm of ourselves as activists, as people working in various spheres of government, but also as the media.

Perhaps this might not be part of your programme but amongst the things that we need to consider - and some of them are already on the table - is building partnerships in the celebration of the millennium among African cities and villages. It’s one of the concrete things in the form of entertainment that can bring our people together. There are major sporting events that are coming: the African Cup of Nations beginning of next year, and the All-Africa Games in a few weeks time. If we work together, we can ensure that these become Renaissance events. We can thus use concrete things as flagships to demonstrate the need and the manifestation of the African Renaissance.

Another issue I suppose you will discuss is the question of urban renewal. Someone observed: Harare’s so clean, and Johannesburg is so dirty! What is it that South Africans can learn from Zimbabweans? How do we ensure that we promote the good experiences that exist, from this smallest example to the major ones, including the celebration of the restoration of democracy in Nigeria, the progress that is being made in the DRC, in Sierra Leone and so on! This should help serve as a catalyst to encourage further progress in tortured places like Angola.

One of the major problems that we face, which should again engage our minds as we think about programmes, is the brittleness of the African State. This is critical even at local government level. To give an example, you had for many years in the FRG, a group called the Badermeinhof Gang. Almost on a monthly basis there were bombs exploding but no one saw that as a challenge to the integrity of the German State, that it was about to collapse. You had bombs exploding in the United States before and during the Olympic Games but no-one said the state in the USA was about to collapse. Yet in Africa when things like that happen, so brittle is the African State that people say it’s about to collapse and sometimes it does collapse.

This brings to the fore one of the major challenges that we face at various levels of government: that is the question of legitimacy. I hope during the course of your discussions, this issue will feature. Legitimacy is not a matter merely of conducting elections, but also of how we relate on an ongoing basis with the mass of the people.

It’s a problem that we face in our country because of inexperience and other subjective problems. Whilst there might be much appreciation amongst the populace about what is happening at national and provincial levels, there’s usually very serious criticism about the performance of local government. This is a matter of serious concern because the legitimacy of local government is critical to the legitimacy of democracy, of government and of the African State per se.

We raise all these issues so that as we search for their answers, we can ensure that all the good things happen for the African child to play in the African sun, confident that the future holds prosperity and a better life for him/her, confident that we can have better cities and better villages which utilise the best in world technology to attain a better quality of life, but remain truly African.

Thank You.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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