Hope for Africa

Africa is often seen as a ‘hopeless continent’ – in political and economic discussions a certain tone is adopted, which is patronising and mostly assumes the worst.

As if somehow African countries, and African people, are facing issues particular to that part of the world – issues that cannot or will not be resolved due to the very nature of the place and people. I confess at times I also fall into this way of thinking and talking. Why?

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It’s not just racism- that may form part of the attitudes between ‘North and South’ or ‘developed and developing’ countries… But it’s also about ‘our’ (mostly European and North American) worldviews and cultures being so different from ‘theirs’ that we find it hard to imagine Africa finding its way on its own terms and in its own time.

‘Africa time’ is a well known reference to the way things happen more slowly in Africa, in general. It may sometimes refer to a more relaxed way of living than the more frantic and rigidly scheduled Western way. But mostly it is a sneering comment on inefficiency and a lack of motivation.

The cultural difference encapsulated in this phrase is lost on most people- Africans are people focused, rather than time and task focused. And what a wonderful, far more life-affirming way to be!

This is of course just a brief attempt to explain something much more complex and multi-layered than one blog post could cover. The impression that Africa is ‘hopeless’ and ‘doomed’ to endless wars, genocides, famines and corruption is what I want to briefly discuss here – and where I think hope for Africa lies. Because in my heart of hearts, even on my most discouraged or cynical of days, I want to believe there is still hope for Africa.

South Africa recently celebrated twenty years of democracy – in other words, the first fully democratic elections took place twenty years ago. It reminded me of how hopeful and idealistic I was – at 18, these were the first elections I could vote in, and it really felt like we could change the world. Change the course of history, and right all the wrongs of our predecessors. Like it was all up to us, we had that sort of power…

I worked for the International Electoral Commission during those turbulent elections, and on one of the special voting days before the main one, we set up in a local ‘township’ (where black people lived during apartheid, and still mostly do today!) for those who needed special access – the elderly or disabled. We had to be escorted in with riot police, army and tanks because the ‘township’ was rioting. I remember feeling nervous but exhilarated to be part of what I thought was the birth of the ‘rainbow nation’…

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Twenty years later I must say I have more doubts and fears than hope. I am less certain of our power to change the world – especially in light of the huge influence the mining industry and other transnational corporations have on our political and economic systems.

I have at times withdrawn from it all – not watching the news or entering political discussions because it was all too fraught with emotion and disillusionment for me. I have veered between ‘white guilt’ and anger at those who over simplify South Africa’s complex history and current challenges with such flippant terms.

Yet my hope for Africa, although not quite as idealistic and simplistic as it was in my youth, has remained something like an undercurrent in my research and writing. It is now more nuanced, however, and perhaps more humble…

This has kept me from complete despair when my frequent trips to see family and friends still living there, and a recent 3 year stay in Cape Town, showed a disappointing ‘disconnect’ between the progressive intellectual views I encountered in my research (in development studies, international politics and peace studies) and the views of people actually living there, and making this so-called community-building journey daily (rather than simply waxing poetic about it in academic papers and conferences).

Recently I asked myself: what exactly is my hope for Africa? Sorting through my many impressions and disappointments over the years, I felt I was left with nothing but ashes (especially after the Marikana massacre, which I have written about extensively elsewhere). But when my head had given up, my heart whispered insistently: what about the women?

Yes, what about the women of Africa? Those strong, feisty, beautiful women. So gorgeous in their natural, down to earth, self-assured ‘woman-ness’. So fierce and persevering as mothers.

Often the sole income earners, often raising families without their men. Often taking on parents, or grandparents taking on children… It’s mostly the women doing all that, keeping the communities afloat despite the ravages of colonialism, apartheid, abuse and AIDS…

Which to me speaks of deep reserves of compassion, courage and generosity.

Capacity building for Africa? Rather empower Africa’s women to do what they do best… In fact, I think the ‘West’ could do with some capacity building lessons in this regard! When I look at ‘Western’ societies, what I feel is most lacking is compassion, courage and generosity.

So this is one of my key hopes for Africa – that the women would rise up and balance things out in this terribly male-dominated political and social space. But what exactly do I mean by this vague statement?

In a practical sense, I long to see the women of Africa (and the world) rising up, seeking redress, fiercely protecting the children, grabbing back the reigns of schools, etc.

I am well aware of how overly simplistic this sounds, and I don’t have all the answers or a detailed plan to offer here – but this blog is not meant to offer policies and tailored ‘solutions’ anyway.

That’s not my style, and wouldn’t be in keeping with peace building principles either. Far better to open the discussion with a few thoughts and observations, and allow others to take it up in their various fields of endeavour…

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Basically what I am hoping for, is not just for more women to participate in various levels of politics and society – those changes are already underway. But what we really need, that is still somewhat lacking, is a paradigm shift from exclusively male ways of seeing and doing things, to incorporating and even sometimes favouring the feminine viewpoints and skills.

One example of this would be the people-focused rather than task-focused approach referred to above. Because in addition to being seen as a ‘developed vs developing’ attitude, it can also be seen as one of many ways in which traditionally male perspectives differ from the feminine.

(Please note I am referring to masculine/ feminine here, i.e. the different gender paradigms, not necessarily male/ female biologically; and general characteristics, not assuming this is true for all)

Just as there has been a gradual paradigm shift among progressive academics and politicians – away from elitist and racist worldviews to (working towards) more inclusive, pluralistic narratives… There needs to be a concurrent (worldwide) paradigm shift – acknowledging our ‘gendered’ views of the world, and healing our gender relations.

And when this gender synergy, as I like to call it, is rebalanced, empowered, unleashed… Watch out world! Africa will no longer weep and whine, but roar!

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