Last week, the eyes of the world were on South Africa when an incredible discovery of intact hominid fossils was revealed to the public at the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg.
Christened Homo Naledi, this early hominid is believed to be an entirely new species of ancient human relative, and what scientists will learn in the coming months could tell us much about our identity as humans.
The name Naledi is the SeSotho word for star, derived from the name of the cave system where the discovery was made – the Rising Star Caves, located in one of the most fossil rich areas in the world.
This discovery adds much weight to the claim of Africa as the birthplace of modern humans. It points to a time over two million years ago when the continent was at the very centre of our advancement as a species.
It is in Africa where the first tools were used, where fire was first controlled, where the first crops were planted. The continent gave birth to civilization – to humanity, as we know it.
But following brutal centuries of colonisation, war, famine, poverty and exploitation, Africa has paid a heavy price. Several democracies on the continent are under threat. Various countries are locked in internal conflict. People are persecuted and displaced.
Every day, thousands of Africans risk everything to escape these hardships; to leave the countries of their birth in the hope of building a future for their families elsewhere.
It is these stories that feed the wave of cynicism – of Afro-pessimism – that so often comes to define Africa to the rest of the world.
But at the same time, Africa has a brilliant story to tell. It’s a story of growth and potential, of resilience and ingenuity, and it is a story that gets overlooked far too often.
A while back, while addressing an audience back home at the University of the Free State, I asked whether anyone could name the country that has shown the fastest GDP growth in the world over the past half century.
No one could, and I’ll spare you the Googling. The answer is Botswana – South Africa’s landlocked northern neighbour.
At the time of its independence 50 years ago, Botswana had one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world. But after enjoying the longest economic boom in Africa – including an average growth of 9% per year from 1966 to 1999 – it is now considered a middle-income country.
And Botswana is not alone. Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies over the past decade are in Africa, and a dozen African economies have been growing at over 6% per annum for several years now.
Since 2000, trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200% while the continent’s foreign debt decreased by 25%.
This is the story of Africa that we should be telling. That despite our massive challenges, it is a continent of enormous hope and potential.
But if we are to ensure that this is the African story that prevails, we have to take great care in how we map Africa’s course. It is up to us to enable the continent’s growth. It is up to us to safeguard its democracies. And it is up to us to ensure that the interests of its nations are served when defining its foreign policy.
The party I lead in South Africa – the Democratic Alliance – has a vision for our country that sees it very much as part of an African success story. Our vision recognises that no country in the region can go it alone, and that the fates of African nations are very much tied together.
We refer to this as Vision 2029, because it describes what South Africa could look like ten years after a DA-led government wins the next general election in 2019. And when we speak about this vision, most of our focus is on what it will take to get the economy growing in order to create jobs.
The biggest challenges we face in South Africa are the very same challenges our African neighbours must deal with: inequality and unemployment. In South Africa, more than a third of the working age population doesn’t have work, and two-thirds of them are under 35 years old.
This is a massive demographic bulge of increasingly desperate and frustrated young people. For most African nations, this is a ticking time bomb that can no longer be ignored. For this generation of Africans to remain hopeful, it is essential that they become active participants in the economy.
In the DA’s vision, we see this happening through an explosion of entrepreneurship.
Contrary to what our own ANC government along with many other African governments may think, the state cannot create these jobs. Government infrastructure expansion can provide a foundation for job creation but the sustainable job creation can only be led by the private sector.
And by private sector, I don’t mean the large established businesses. Our steel and mining sectors are shedding jobs, not creating them, and most of our large enterprises are simply in a holding pattern.
The bulk of the growth in jobs is going to come from small enterprises. And, as governments, it is absolutely crucial that we recognise this and do everything in our power to enable entrepreneurial growth.
In short, this means removing obstacles to starting and running a business rather than creating them. It means streamlining bureaucracy, cutting out obsolete red tape and simplifying labour legislation.
Africa is brimming with entrepreneurial success stories, often in spite of government. The way a country like Kenya has embraced mobile technology to facilitate payments and money transfers is an inspiration to the world.
Now imagine if governments across Africa decided to support this entrepreneurial spirit by rolling out broadband, by offering business advice, by making start-up capital available, and then getting out of the way to let small businesses thrive. Those fast-growing African economies I mentioned earlier – they will become the norm on the continent.
Of course, the other way to expand your growth is to expand your markets. Right now, Africa trades more with the EU than it trades with itself. In Western Europe, intra-regional trade accounts for roughly 60% of its total trade. In Africa, this is only 10%.
Cumbersome import and export processes, border post corruption and the hassle of visa requirements act together to discourage regional trade. The introduction of one-stop border posts, single regional visas and simplified paperwork could unlock massive markets right on our doorsteps.
With the right kind of investment in infrastructure such as electricity, broadband and road and rail networks, along with a business-friendly and labour-flexible approach, we can get Africa working.
But enabling growth, trade and job creation is just one half of the job. The other half has to do with protecting Africa’s fragile democracies from corrupt and destructive forces intent on grabbing power and privileges. Sustainable economic freedom is only possible if founded upon continued political freedom and democracy.
In South Africa, as in many other African countries, this is an ongoing battle that we dare not give up fighting. Factions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have moved to capture crucial institutions of democracy by deploying loyal cadres to bodies ranging from the state prosecutor and investigation unit, to the national revenue collector and the state broadcaster.
The intention of this state capture strategy is clear and unambiguous: to control who gets investigated, who gets prosecuted and what gets reported. At the same time, these top positions are used as loyalty rewards in a far-reaching patronage system designed to keep the president powerful and deployed cadres dutiful and submissive.
This is not unique to South Africa. Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe has long used this strategy to cling to power for almost 40 years. And more recently, Burundi’s President Nkurunziza has counted on his self-appointed judiciary to rule in favour of a third term of office.
If Africa is to succeed, then it is crucial that these democratic institutions are firewalled against manipulation. The courts, the tax collectors, the prosecutors and the media must remain independent.
This is a battle that my party, the DA, fights every single day.
Finally, it is imperative that Africa finds its geopolitical space, and that this truly serves the respective national interests of its states and the continent.
Ahead of its National General Council in October this year, South Africa’s ruling ANC recently released a number of discussion documents that point to policy directions to be debated at the council.
These documents make numerous references to foreign policy issues. And, as has been widely reported in international media, the takeout is baffling, if not downright worrying.
In a recent piece in the Economist, the party’s proposed foreign policy direction is described as “clueless and immoral”. Regressing back to a Cold War polarisation of East vs West, the ANC somehow manages to lament the fall of the Berlin Wall, to side with the Chinese government over the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and to paint the Russia-Ukraine conflict as some kind of directive from Washington.
This clumsy attempt to malign the West and align with the East doesn’t appear to fit in 2015, but one must understand the underlying post-colonial history of African nations to make some sense of it.
For many African leaders, it is easier to turn to a country such as China or Russia – in spite of their questionable human rights records or their flailing economies – than it is to trust their former colonisers.
Many Eastern countries such as Malaysia and South Korea – and now also China – have worked their way through some of the same challenges that African nations are now grappling with.
The problem, however, is that there is seldom reciprocity in these relationships. In South Africa, we know only too well what happens when you tie your fate too closely to a country such as China. Even before their currency devaluation dragged our own currency down, they virtually destroyed our steel industry by dumping their cheap steel there.
The dangers in choosing your geopolitical friends based on post-colonial history are there for all to see.
In South Africa, our biggest trading partner is still the EU. We also enjoy crucial access to American markets through membership of the AGOA agreement. We simply cannot endanger these relationships by re-enacting some decades-old geopolitical polarisation justified by a sense of struggle loyalty.
South Africa, and the rest of Africa, must define their national interests by what is truly beneficial to their people. What promotes the growth, the development and the stability of the country? And when choosing partners to help achieve these goals, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Africa can work with both the west and the east.
Of course, there are many more issues that Africa has to grapple with as we navigate our way through the 21st century.
How do we industrialise our economies without the carbon footprint of those economies that did so in the 20th century?
How do we address the root causes of the deadly wave of migration out of the continent?
How do we bring back the enormous wealth of talent lost to Africa in the Diaspora?
How do we deal with human rights violators such as Sudan’s President Al-Bashir, when the International Criminal Court is not trusted by many of Africa’s ageing leaders?
These questions can only be answered by Africans, and it will require a bold new generation of African leaders to break from the post-colonial mindset that often still holds their countries back.
It will require working democracies, where power is handed over at the polls in a fair and transparent manner.
It will require millions of young Africans to roll up their sleeves and do for themselves what their governments can’t deliver – a continent of resourceful and creative entrepreneurs.
It will require a modern and forward-thinking Africa that has found its place in the world, and doesn’t hesitate to act in its own interest.
It is time for Africa to finally shrug off the shackles of its colonial past, and for the continent to reclaim its place as the centre of humanity once more.
I truly believe that, within our lifetime, Africa will become a Naledi – a rising star – once more.
By Mmusi Maimane