Mandela message for troubled times

Probably the most prominent Mandela quote has become “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. It encapsulates the history of the man, its nation and indeed the aspirations of a whole continent.

Countless documents, conferences, processes, activities have targeted regional integration as the response to the pan-African dreams that energized the liberation movements post-second World War II. The diaspora found it easy to identify the continent as one single entity, given their own difficulty to trace their roots back to pre-slavery original communities. The history proved the concept more challenging for those who never left their singular context. For most, regional integration proved too abstract and remote. Even nation building was categorized as a foreign import.  It is, therefore, no surprise, that pan-Africanism remained for a long time an intellectual stimulus that need not to be followed by accountable acts.

Obviously to understand any given reality context is everything. It is a no brainer to admit an archetype is influenced by history and circumstances. The particularities of South Africa were always going to mark its trajectory once the apartheid ended. It took a Mandela though to navigate what many thought was a promised disaster, or at best an unachievable dream, into a positive experiment with global impact.

Mandela gone we are all orphans. The beacon of tolerance and wisdom he represented is hard to replace. In a world of fake news, crass political commentary, fascist and xenophobic tendencies, egocentric exhibitionism and unparalleled levels of inequality, the world looks affected by a selfish wave that has now reached the institutional order, carefully built over the last seventy years. It is happening fast. Populism is becoming mainstream. In fact, populism has always been a shortcut definition for ugly things many find difficult to classify.

Africans are not immune to these changes. They indeed are exposed to global trends like any and influenced by whatever decisions and choices made by the powerful. By virtue of a population explosion, at a time of dramatic fertility reduction in other regions, in a not so distant future, one in every two youngsters in the world is going to be African. This youthness offers challenges and opportunities.

It will be difficult to build cities in twenty years when others took two centuries to develop them. I will be hard for economies to create millions of modern jobs in an equal short time lapse when others achieve those goals when rules were more favourable and congenial. The industrialisation focus pan-African institutions have espoused is possible, but not easy. Commodity dependence, poor policy coherence and managerial capabilities, skills mismatch, lack of adequate infrastructure and reliable energy supplies, strong head winds and technological developments rob the possibility of merely imitating others success.

We live in a world were 1,7% of the world debt incurred by 1,3 billion Africans is more problematic than the same percentage being acquired by 5,9 million Danes. Africa typically generates less than 1% of patents registration at a time when intellectual property dominates the value chains.

For all these and many other reasons it is easy to conclude young Africans are in a fix. But we should remember “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. Historically what is proven is that each time a new wave of technological developments took place human beings adjusted over time and so did the systems of production.

The economic trajectory of humanity is one of economic growth and capacity to absorb demographic growth. Economists have studied different waves of structural transformation that respond to new demands and more sophisticated technological developments. It is far from obvious that current technological developments will produce necessarily negative effects in the world of employment and overall economic growth. It is less sure inequality will stop its dramatic rise.

The consequences of our lack of knowledge about the impacts of technology fuel fears and anxiety, not to mention the obvious demonstration of our inability to predict. It is hard to imagine societies that would survive with mostly older people leaving even older, in the company of robots and machine-efficient systems. Artificial intelligence requires real intelligence, but also a different way of dealing with intelligence. For instance, young minds absorb the new algorithmic multi-tasking micro-jobs of the future better than older brains.

Seizing opportunities requires more than before speed and strategic leadership. Africans are often frustrated their leaders leave them wanting. Connected like never before their levels of patience are diminishing fast. Ericsson forecasted that between today and 2023, mobile subscriptions in the continent will grow by an average of 6% a year to just under 1 billion from 700 million today, while mobile broadband subscriptions shall grow by 16% a year to 880 million, from 350 million today.

The way Africans are governed will have to evolve. Hopefully taking advantage of a more open, youthful and ambitious lot, facing challenges that are very different from societies embracing a fortress mentality because of their fear of the future. The widespread mistrust towards political representatives will need to be addressed, by tackling high levels of inequality, squandering of natural resources, rent-seeking mentality and refusal of multi-diversity acceptance. This requires titanic efforts.

I grew up to ten without seeing a telephone. How could I have imagined possessing in my palm a cell phone with more computing capabilities than Apollo 11? It was impossible to predict. I also grew up doubting the apartheid would ever end. But not only it did, but when it happened all those who supported it before rallied to bury such connections. Mandela certainly believed the end of apartheid would happen as he skilfully recounts in his “Long Walk to Freedom”. He has thought us all a lesson that should serve to open our minds to what now only looks impossible. Hopefully it will not take as long.

Carlos Lopes is a Professor at the Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town and former Executive Secretary of UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Published at New African, July 2018

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First published by NEW AFRICAN MAGAZINE