Africa: its potential, and its prospects

Written by Elorm Haligah

“Africa must create an environment where people are rewarded for their hard work and not their personal contacts” – Mmusi Maimane 

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the annual lecture at The Royal African Society in London. The keynote speaker was with a man that I have been following for a very long time now, Mmusi Maimane. For a lot of people in South Africa, Maimane represents a new type of politics on the continent. He is currently the leader of the opposition party, The Democratic Alliance.

The reason why this is so significant, is because The Democratic Alliance has traditionally been seen as a racially divisive party and historically a place where Black South Africans seldom felt welcome. However, around the time of Barack Obama’s presidential election in the United States in 2008 the party was inspired to launch a rebrand of their image. The then party leader, Helen Zille pledged that the party would be more reflective of the nations rich racial, linguistic and cultural heritage. Zille also emphasised that she wanted the party to be a “party for all the people” and not decline into a “shrinking, irrelevant minority”. Therefore, the election of a black man is his mid-thirties, who appears to be in touch with the people has seen the party’s image rebrand come into fruition it seems, to a certain extent. Nevertheless, I was most interested in finding out if his politics truly represented a new politics that Africa as a whole could use to rebrand its image and reach its full potential. After hearing him speak, I was certainly convinced that this was his aim based on a few things he had said.

Firstly he made the point that governments must do everything in their power to facilitate small business. If we look at South Africa alone, youth unemployment is currently at 48.8%. Quite frankly, this is very worrying for one of the continent’s most developed nations. The benefit of having small businesses are endless for any country. Not only does it allow someone to turn their passion into a job, but it plays a pivotal role in alleviating youth unemployment. Small businesses traditionally have the privilege of putting low skilled but hard working young people, into a job to enable them to develop and nurture their skills. The freedom and responsibility a young person will get working for a small business in comparison to a multinational corporation, provides an unrivalled opportunity for them to develop their leadership potential.

Another thing he said was that Africa must create an environment that people get rewarded for their hard work and not their personal contacts. I remember visiting Ghana last year. I spent time with kids in a slum and spent some time with kids from private schools. The biggest difference between the two groups were their life experiences. Chances are, the people that went to the private schools, are going to end up in the higher echelons of influence, simply because their uncle or their cousin was able to make that introduction for them or give them that job, regardless of whether or not they worked hard to get there. Nonetheless, if our continent is to truly represent its people, it is so important that those from all backgrounds feel like they live in a meritocracy in order to breed an environment of fairness and hard work.

Finally, he mentioned that Africa must define its own national and international interests not relying on the likes of China. On the one hand, although countries such as China are welcomed throughout Africa as a partner, it cannot be denied that fear exists because of the unevenness in this relationship which will lead China to devour Africa and once again lead ordinary Africans to being excluded. The challenge here is that many feel a lot of deals involving African countries are not made for the benefit of its citizens. China has been Africa’s biggest trade partner since 2009. Bilateral trade stood at just under $11bn in 2000, by 2006 this figure had jumped to nearly $60bn and in 2013 bilateral trade had soared to $210bn. However, the argument that a lot of people bring to the table is that China is developing a colonialist relationship with African countries and their trade and investment is actually doing more harm for Africa than good. There is nothing wrong China remaining a strong partner with Africa, but African governments should make sure the benefit is mutual by increasing trade ties with China to enter into other Asian markets on a larger scale and to add a different dimension to the Africa’s export products.

The wonderful thing about Maimane is that he has spotted some key solutions that should really help to combat some of Africa’s major issues. He now has two main challenges. The first one being winning the election in 2019. Four years is a very long time in politics and so it is hard to predict. However, given Maimane’s meteoric rise to prominence, I certainly wouldn’t rule him out if I were a betting man. The second challenge is if he is elected, it will be to implement the policies and principles that he has pledged as solutions. In politics it always easier said than done especially if you are in opposition and so it will be interesting to see what actually happens if he gets into office. Nevertheless, in the meantime the best thing he can do, is continue to hold not only the current South African government to account, but keep on challenging the political status quo in Africa. His youth brings a different perspective to African politics and it is my hope that his rise to prominence does a lot to inspire other young trailblazers across the continent, to continue changing the story of Africa.

To find out more about The Royal African Society click here.