(1997) The Idea of an African Renaissance, Myth or Reality?

Ambassador James A. Joseph
© Michael Kinsey, Fair use image
Ambassador James A. Joseph
“Image Ownership: Michael Kinsey”

Corporate executive, ordained minister, and university educator James A. Joseph served as United States Ambassador to post-apartheid South Africa from 1995 to 1999.  Ambassador Joseph returned to the United States to deliver the speech below to the General Convention of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity in Washington, D.C. on August 3, 1997.

I come to you from a liberated South Africa, a nation that many of you helped to set free. I come from a continent about which more is written but less is understood; so I come with a message that is straight-forward and simple. Like the Apostle Paul on his return from the provinces, I come to bring good news, but I also come with an appeal for your support of a new generation of Africans who have a bold, new futurist vision for their countries and their continent; but who live for the moment between two worlds, an old order that is dying but not yet dead and a new order that is conceived but not yet born.

The reports coming out of Africa are often confusing and contradictory:

Transformation and reconciliation in Southern Africa; conflict and crisis in Central Africa; new leaders with new vision in some areas and old leaders desperately hanging onto the past in others. It is now obvious that one can not speak of Africa as one continuous stream of ideas and social arrangements providing either cultural unity or political uniformity. There is much that unites Africans; W.E.B. Dubois reminded us at the turn of the century of the common bond created by “the problem of the color line,” for example. But the first thing that must be accepted and acknowledged by any one who dares to write or speak about the new Africa is that what seems self-evident in one area may not be the reality in another. Far too many people who would not dare to speak of a homogeneous Europe or Asia speak of the more than fifty independent nations of Africa as if the continent was a single political entity.

It is indeed difficult for many Americans to grasp either the extraordinary range of cultural, political and economic diversity or the immense size of a continent so large that the whole of China, the continental United States, Europe, Argentina, India, and New Zealand can fit within its boundaries. It is even more difficult for Americans to recognize that any idea of a retreat from the African continent at the very moment so many countries are poised for an economic takeoff would be neither good for Africa, the United States or an interdependent world.

It is good to return to Washington and to see a new focus on African policy, for it had become fashionable to denigrate Africa, to focus more widely on national disasters than national development. Even some African American journalists with a thin slice of African experience extrapolate from that experience, sweeping negative generalizations about the entire continent. To speak of an African renaissance, as new leaders like South Africa’s Deputy President Thabo Mbeki does, is to speak of renewal and rebirth. It is to recognize that despite recent events in the former Zaire, Congo Brazzavile and Sierra Leone, there are dozens of African countries that are literally reinventing themselves.

Many Americans know about poverty in Africa, but few Americans know that the economies of thirty African countries grew at a rate of more than 5% last year and a few at even 10%. Many Americans know about crisis and conflict in Somalia and Sudan but few know about the changes that have led to more open societies and stable economies in Botswana, Tanzania, Benin, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana and many other countries. There are still violent struggles for power and even an occasional over-throw of popularly elected governments, but the real story in Africa is the story of development, reconciliation and nation-building.

The New Africa

It is a great pity that the press, for much of the last six months, focused more on Mobutu than Mandela when it is was abundantly clear that Mandela represented the future and Mobutu the past. There is a new breed of African leaders — embodied not so much by a Mandela who, like Gandhi and Churchill, transcends history but by mere mortals who are, nevertheless, pragmatic, aggressively opposed to the old corruption and strongly committed to the rule of law. Some may not have met all the criteria for democracy as they assumed power, but most have come to recognize the benefits of protecting human rights, promoting a market economy and encouraging civil society.

Speaking both as a son of Africa and Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan recently described the momentous changes in Africa over the last five decades as part of three waves. “First came decolonialization and the struggle against apartheid. Then came a second wave, too often marked by civil wars, the tyranny of military rule, and recent economic stagnation. I believe,” he argued, “that a new era is now in progress, Africa’s third wave.”

Whether you call it an African renaissance as Thabo Mbeki does or a third wave as Kofi Annan does, there is no question that something new and something different is happening in Africa. But why is it, you may ask, that the picture painted of Africa by so many journalists, and even the conventional wisdom about Africa, continue to be so negative and discouraging? On March 13, 1997, sixty-nine of the most experienced and reliable observers of Africa met at Arden House in New York to answer this and other questions. In considering the negative images of Africa to which Americans are exposed, they concluded 1) that this view of Africa is far from the reality of Africa and 2) the negative images are “far more a testament to the limitations of American media coverage, coupled with the legacy of deep-seated cultural attitudes and stereotypes, than to the far more hopeful current reality of many African states.”

It is time for us to purge our minds of the stereotypes and biases that we have been fed about Africa. To paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folks, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that some people are poor– all people know something of poverty; not that some people are wicked — who is good? Not that some people are ignorant –what is truth? No, the tragedy of our age is that we know so little of each other.” If Dubois were alive today, he would certainly say that it is time to get to know Africa, to understand the magic, not just the myths, of this wonderfully diverse continent. If the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, the potential of the twenty first century may be the potential of men and women of color.

The 21st century may not be the African century in the same way in which the twentieth was the American century, but it is most certain to be the century in which many African nations take their place at the table of a global economy that offers economic growth and broad-based development.

Whether we are African Americans who feel a special affinity with the continent or just plain Americans, black or white, who recognize that a new partnership with Africa will be of mutual benefit, it is time to expand the constituency for Africa and to make the case for increased engagement at the highest levels of public policy and the most influential board rooms of private enterprise. Many leaders of the corporate business community are among the most enthusiastic proponents for increased engagement with the African continent because they see the potential for a partnership of mutual benefit. In Southern Africa where I am fortunate to live and work, trade with the eleven countries of the region is already roughly equal to U.S. trade with all fifteen of the former republics of the Soviet Union.

But to speak of an African renaissance is to begin with the transformations taking place in South Africa. Much has been written about the South African miracle and the Mandela magic, but the renaissance in South Africa is a historical moment that must be cautiously nurtured and continuously supported far into the future, rather than simply celebrated as an event in the nation’s past. What happened in 1994 was the beginning of a process and not the end of a straggle.

In South Africa, national renewal begins with forgiveness and reconciliation. As President Mandela explained to black South Africans, who had accused him of bending over backwards to placate whites, the new South Africa “had to adopt strategies that would prevent whites from being driven into the arms of the right wing. That weapon of reconciliation,” he said, “saved the country from bloodshed.” The capacity for forgiveness and the commitment to reconciliation have provided stories of hope and healing that future generations will labor long and hard to understand and explain. But while forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential and remarkable phase in the South African effort to enlarge the concept of community, to embrace a larger segment of humanity, the efforts to extend the boundaries of freedom will be judged in the final analysis by how far they extend the benefits of freedom.

What Pericles described in his famous oration as democracy once meant that the people have the power, but it is increasingly coming to mean that the people have the vote which is not necessarily the same as having the power. There is general agreement among Africa’s new leaders that if democracy is to have lasting meaning, political empowerment must be accompanied by economic empowerment. This, along with cultural renewal and reaffirmation, may be the most fundamental challenge, indeed, the fundamental opportunity, presented by the African renaissance.

Why Africa

Let me now shift gears and turn to the question some of the skeptics are probably asking, why should Americans be concerned about Africa? The first answer is economic. In the oval office last week, President Clinton reminded me of the economic potential of Africa by pointing out that “As these economies grow, America’s prosperity and our security will benefit. The United States supplies just 7 percent of Africa’s imports today, but already that supports 100,000 American jobs.” Flanked by Vice President Gore and South Africa’s Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, we talked about the new Africa fully cognizant of the fact that trade between the United States and Africa, now in excess of 18 billion dollars, is growing at a faster rate than trade in any other region; that more than 20 percent of U.S. import of crude oil is from Africa; and that much of the minerals of strategic interest to the United States are to be found in Africa. With a population of more than 600 million and the standard of living rising annually, it is no wonder that Ron Brown warned us two years ago against allowing the emerging markets of Africa to fall, without contest, into the hands of the Europeans and others who were among the first to recognize the economic potential of the new Africa.

A second reason for a new partnership with Africa is political. We share similar national interests and we face similar international threats. I have seen first hand the threat to Southern Africa of drag-trafficking, international crime, terrorism and the spread of disease. As the world is discovering Africa, so are the purveyors of all sorts of social pathologies that threaten to weaken or destroy the gains now being made. A stronger, stable and prosperous Africa will be better able to address these new threats as well as work in partnership with others to protect and improve the quality of life globally. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals are all coming to recognize that in deepening our relationship with Africa, we are establishing a partnership of mutual benefit.

The third reason for a new partnership with Africa is humanitarian. There is much talk of the need for an American policy that moves from aid to trade. But for many of the poorer countries that are still straggling with the legacies of what Kofi Annan described as the second wave, there will be a continuing need to empower the poor and the marginalized to be active participants in their own development. This form of participatory development or assisted self-reliance must, for the moment, remain as much a part of our strategy as trade. It not only promotes development and democracy, but it creates future trading partners as well

A fourth reason for caring about Africa, for establishing a closer relationship with Africa, is moral. Many of the new leaders are demonstrating a commitment to the public values that we have long affirmed, but not always practiced. Many of the new democracies, particularly in Southern Africa, are rainbow nations with the need for a new kind of pluralism. Many of those who are most strongly Africanists are also the ones who most strongly embrace the continent in all its variety. If they succeed, they will be able to demonstrate to a badly fractured world that diversity need not divide; that pluralism rightly understood and rightly practiced is a benefit and not a burden.
At a time in which we in the United States are engaged in our own conversation about race, there is much to learn from the new Africa about the politics and place of race in an interdependent world. In South Africa, in particular, there is the beginning of a new kind of conversation that emphasizes the need to come to grips with the past before there can be any real progress in shaping a new and different future.

To the economic, political, moral and humanitarian arguments for increased engagement with Africa, I must add one other that is unique to the history, tradition and social condition of much of this audience. It is probably best described as existential. Whether you belong to the ranks of those African Americans who feel a special kinship with Africa, as I do, or those who dismiss the Afro-connection as romantic nonsense as some others do, there is no denying that 12 percent of the American population claim Africa as their ancestral home. It is also the home for hundreds of millions of black men and women who know first hand why W.E.B. Dubois described the problem of the twentieth century as the problem of the color line. Many of them suffered with us as we endured the pain of billy clubs, water hoses and the other brutalities of Mississippi and Alabama just as we suffered with them when their children were killed in Soweto and their brothers and sisters shot down in Shaspesville. It is not, as some charge, that African Americans are romanticizing Africa to buttress their identity. It is simply that for many there is a historical tie to a place and its people that goes beyond color and culture to provide an enduring sense of connection and community.

Like me, many of you grew up committed to two great movements, a civil rights movement in the United States and a liberation movement in Southern Africa. Our heroes were not only Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, but Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela as well. We shared the pride of the first wave of African independence with Kwami Nkrumah, Jorno Kenyatta and Julius Nyere. We felt the frustration of the second wave with military coups, failed states and dysfunctional leaders, and we now share the enthusiasm of the third wave with Africa’s new leaders who point to clear signs of an African renaissance. The gut feeling may be partly existential, but the hard facts are economic and political.

Nothing Can Stop Africa Now

The message I bring, then, should now be clear. I appeal to the members and friends of Alpha Phi Alpha to join the emerging campaign to reverse the image of Africa as a continent in crisis, a place of poverty, a region of failed governments and missed opportunity. A new day is dawning. The window of opportunity for an African renaissance is wide open. Future generations of African Americans will not look kindly upon us if we permit that window to close without an all out effort to help establish what is essentially a partnership of mutual benefit.

Just before I left South Africa for the United States, almost 1,000 African Americans stopped over in Pretoria on their way to Zimbabwe for the African-African American Summit. When asked why so many African Americans were converging on Southern Africa from so many directions, the Reverend Leon Sullivan said “The time has come for African Americans to help Africa with educational skills, our money and our political power … We have an obligation and a responsibility to do so … As black people we are one family, and in this world today, we rise together or we fall together.”

Let me, thus, conclude with a very direct answer to the question I posed at the beginning by quoting President Mandela’s likely successor in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. Speaking to the South African Constitutional Assembly, he said “Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop Africa now. Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace. However it might sound to skeptics, Africa will prosper. Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we may have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us say today–nothing can stop Africa now.”

I appeal, therefore, to the men, women and friends of Alpha Phi Alpha to tell everyone you see and everyone you meet that nothing can stop Africa now. Sing it in the streets and shout it from the roof tops, the idea of an African renaissance is real.

Nothing can stop Africa now.