Can South Africa lead Africa?

The upcoming elections in South Africa might be an opportunity for change in the country and the whole continent.

Each year, Africa spends $40bn on imported food [Reuters]

Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom reached its promised land in 1994, but twenty years later the mission misses its inspiring leader. The ANC has done wonderful work during this period, but I will highlight only seven accomplishments.

First, the country has created an opportunity for a growing number of its children to get better education that was unimaginable before. Many South African universities have a majority African student population; the University of Pretoria, which trained bureaucrats for apartheid in the past, now boasts a black student population of 56 percent. Second, the government has built 1.4 million houses in townships which have improved the quality of life for 5 million individuals and families. Third, the country has repaid apartheid’s enormous financial debt and remains free from the clutches of the IMF. Fourth, the country’s infrastructure has been upgraded. Fifth, more people have access to clean drinking water and access to medical services. Sixth, because of democracy, citizens are now free to challenge their government without fear. Seventh, more educated Africans have better access to economic opportunities their parents only dreamt of.

The free South African state has also played a progressive role across the continent. Its first major interventions included mediating the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and advancing peace in the Great Lakes Region. Under President Thabo Mbeki’s leadership, South Africa inspired the transformation of the African Union and the establishment of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

South Africa election rally ends in violence

These achievements notwithstanding, South Africa’s liberation have not realised its economic potential. It is yet to transform the economy’s industrial base to improve its global competitiveness and create sufficient employment for the masses. South African investors have penetrated African markets, but their interventions have been as exploitative as former colonial powers which drained African resources without contributing to development. South Africa has yet to develop a strategic economic partnership with its neighbours that can tap the resources of the region for mutual gain.

Overcoming local failures is intertwined with regional and continental development. The fundamental question is: Will the May election deliver a new vision and strategy that can rekindle the hope for a better future of the anti-apartheid struggle or will it reproduce the visionless rentier class that now dominates the ANC?

The potential for change

The May election offers a great chance to reset the government’s agenda and offer a bold plan for all of Africa. If the ANC wants to avoid South Africa becoming just another post-colonial state, it must put forward a vision and a practical strategy for leading the continent.  

A new strategy must combine efforts for development of both the domestic economy and economic relations with the rest of the continent. At the heart of the scheme should be a regional approach to industrialisation geared to advancing Africa’s global industrial and scientific competitiveness. South Africa is the most industrialised country on the continent but its development impact has been limited – even within its own borders. Such limitations can be overcome by establishing five jointly-owned public/private enterprises to spearhead South African and African development.

First, South Africa’s energy giant, ESKOM, can be re-designed as an enterprise jointly owned by five regional blocs each contributing a share of the assets. Given the urgent need for electricity in Africa, the company should develop internal and external operations around the continent. Such a corporation should be run on commercial basis, but its profits should be reinvested around the continent. It is only in this way that Africa can challenge the Chinese, Indian, and the US agendas designed to dominate Africa’s energy sector.

Second, with South African leadership, higher and technical education can be boosted by creating five regional research universities, located in West, East, Central, North, and Southern Africa, whose objective would be to pool scientific/technical capacity. Each of these institutions would aim to develop specialised areas of research and technical knowledge. These institutions can be supported by a surcharge on African resources.

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Third, Africa spends $40bn annually to import food which can be produced at home. Several countries have leased arable land to China, the Gulf, and others, but these leases are unlikely to boost Africa’s food stocks. To undo the food deficit and reverse the land grab tendencies, a continental public-private investment bank (in which South Africa would be a major stakeholder) should be established to empower small African farmers. This would enable the continent to become self-reliant in food production and revitalise rural farming. Increased food and fibre production will make the African food basket cheaper and Africa more competitive.

Fourth, establishing African owned joint enterprises to process the continent’s natural resources will develop intra-African economic networks that ought to retain more capital within the continent. Such enterprises should involve share holders from all regions of Africa.

Fifth, much of the continent’s health infrastructure is in a sorrow state yet the country maintains a well-developed health sector. Thus Africa’s deficit in health care is a potential market that can be tapped for mutual benefit by establishing an African health industry led by African joint-enterprises and the regional research universities.

Finally, South Africa has an advanced construction industry. The rest of the continent lacks such capacity which has been increasingly exploited by China. It is feasible to establish several major share companies that can develop this market for mutual benefit. 

South Africa has numerous industrial and scientific advantages while the rest of Africa has enormous resources. If these assets are effectively combined, Africa’s development deficit will vanish. But this can only be realised through carefully coordinated strategy that combines African resources and markets with South African capacities in key sectors.  

Seizing this opportunity requires visionary leadership which Africa currently lacks, and so does South Africa. The upcoming elections offer a chance for the ANC to reinvent itself and invigorate African economic renewal. Let us hope that this opportunity to exorcise colonial legacy and reinvent all of Africa is not squandered.

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a professor of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota, a research Fellow at the University of Pretoria, and a member of the African Academy of Sciences.