Inaugural Lecture of the Parliamentary Millennium Project, by the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, Gallagher Estate, 1 April 2006

Madame President of the Pan African Parliament,
Madame Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly,
Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the NCOP,
Honourable Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Your Excellencies, Ambassadors and High Commissioners,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and gentlemen:

INTRODUCTION

Thank you very much for inviting me to deliver this Inaugural Lecture of the Parliamentary Millennium Project. I have been asked to speak on the topic: Perspectives on and of Africa.

Let me also thank our two Houses of Parliament for taking this initiative, which was started by the previous Speaker of the National Assembly, the Hon Frene Ginwala. I would also like to extend my appreciation to an African institution of the new millennium, the Pan African Parliament, for hosting this lecture in its current home.

I do not know how many of us here remember in any detail the national and global climate generated by the advent of the year 2000, signifying the end of one millennium and the beginning of another. But I would dare say that the most prevalent mood was one of hope and confidence about a better future and a new beginning for all humanity, including its African component.

For many across the world this 'new beginning' was viewed as a period of learning from the past, and optimism about renewed prospects of dealing with the challenges confronting all humanity. World leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations' Millennium Summit and adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration.

Among other things, the Declaration said:

"We believe that the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalisation becomes a positive force for all the world's people…Only through broad and sustained efforts to create a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity, can globalisation be made fully inclusive and equitable. These efforts must include policies and measures, at the global level, which correspond to the needs of developing countries and economies in transition and are formulated and implemented with their effective participation."

If all this was implemented - towards the creation of a global human society characterised by a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity - it would indeed mark a new beginning for all humanity.

Closer to home, the World Bank published a book boldly entitled - "Can Africa claim the 21st Century?"

In response to this we asserted without hesitation that the 21st would indeed by an African Century. As a token of its seriousness in this regard, our continent evolved the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union, confident that the new body would be the critical instrument we would use to achieve the goal of making the 21st an African Century.

We are today privileged to present this, the first in a series of lectures programmed by Parliament to explore perspectives on Africa, and together explore our role in shaping a better tomorrow for ourselves as Africans.

Confident in our assertion that this is the African Century, we locate our contribution in the context of challenges we face to make that ideal a reality. We place specific focus on the need for us as Africans to contribute to the consolidation of the continental and global consciousness required for this transformation, but remain mindful of the fact that the effort to achieve that consciousness will necessarily involve a struggle between the Afro-optimists and the Afro-pessimists.

Perspectives on Africa…

Since we have been asked to speak on Perspectives on and of Africa, it might be useful that we say something about the very word "perspective".

Two definitions of this word in The Oxford English Dictionary are:

"A visible scene; a (real) view or prospect; especially one extending in length away from the spectator and thus showing distance, a vista" and,

"A mental view, outlook, or prospect, especially through an imagined extent of time, past or (usually) future; hence sometimes = expectation…"

These definitions would suggest that we should therefore talk both about the "visible scene" of Africa today, and an African vista, or Africa's prospects "especially through an imagined extent of future time".

So, to have a perspective about something, signifying a "mental view" about the past, the present and the future, necessarily assumes that there must have been information, events and processes that shaped that mental view.

Accordingly, perspectives on Africa must also be based on information, whether correct or otherwise, events and processes about Africa and in Africa.

Dealing with this matter a number of questions arise, like: What past and present information is available on Africa? Who gathers and disseminates such information? Who interprets events and processes in Africa? From what point of view are these interpretations made? Whose views dominate the daily discourse in our country and in the rest of the continent? In other words, what is the world outlook of those who present news to us, those who analyse events and those who interpret processes taking place on the continent? Whose ideas drive our societies!

A certain continuum in the global perspective on or of Africa makes it inevitable that we look back into the history of this continent, aware of the time limitations imposed by this Lecture.

Let us begin with some of the most systematic distortions of the African history and the place of Africans in the historical scheme of things, which took place especially in 19th century Europe.

The European historians of the 19th century were consumed by the cancer of racism and the firm belief that there were no human beings on earth who were divinely endowed with intelligence, fortitude and wisdom than those who populated the European countries.

About blacks they were absolutely sure that these were not only incapable of making any significant contribution to human civilisation but were in fact sub- humans who needed the tutelage, on everything, of the matured European peoples.

Thus, began a distortion of who was responsible for one of the greatest civilisations in human history, the Egyptian civilisation, which left a permanent mark on all subsequent civilisations.

Accordingly, the 19th century Europeans, who by this time had enslaved Africans and believed that intelligence and wisdom were their god-given gifts, could not contemplate the possibility that blacks - representing the wretched of the earth - could have been responsible for such an outstanding civilisation, began ascribing that civilisation to everyone except black Africans.

In this regard, the historian Basil Davidson has observed that: "None of this rather fruitless argument, as to the skin colour of the ancient Egyptians before the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century A D, would have arisen without the eruption of modern European racism during the 1830s. It became important to the racists, then and since, to deny to Africans any capacity to build a great civilisation. We should dismiss all that. What one needs to hold in mind is the enormous value and direct relevance of the Pharaonic records to Africa's remote history." (p 50, African Civilisation Revisited).

The outstanding scholar, Martin Bernal, also addressed this issue in his seminal work, Black Athena. He wrote about how European scholarship in the 19th century sought to deny the fact reflected in ancient Greek texts that the ancient Greeks had learnt much of what constituted Greek civilisation directly from the Egyptians. He wrote:

"In the long run we can see that (the eminent place of) Egypt was also harmed by the rise of racism and the need to disparage every African culture; during the 18th century, however, the ambiguity of Egypt's 'racial' position allowed its supporters (among European scholars) to claim that it was essentially and originally 'white'. Greece, by contrast, benefited from racism, immediately and in every way; and it was rapidly seen as the 'childhood' of the 'dynamic' 'European race'." (p 189)

It was this European racism and attempts to deny Africans any capacity to build great civilisations that made even late 20th century European historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, boldly to declare that Africans had no history. For instance Trevor-Roper said:

"Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness …and darkness is not a subject of history…We cannot therefore afford to amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe." (p 12, General History of Africa, Vol. 1 - Unesco)

Chairperson, I take it for granted that all of us know the irrefutable fact that the Egyptians who build that great civilisation were 'black with kinky hair' as the great Greek historian, Herodotus said.

To disabuse Hugh Trevor-Roper and others like him of the false notion that from its infancy, the universe of human evolution was made in the image of Europe we shall state some few facts.

Blacks invented the art of writing in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics. In later years they modified it into a phonetic sign language consisting of twenty-four word-signs, each of which had one consonant. These were the foundation of the emergence of the modern alphabets.

Among others, the ancient Egyptian tombs are famous for the mummies that date back thousands of years. To be able to do mummification these Africans had to master a number of different disciplines, including physics, chemistry, medicine and surgery. The Egyptians mastered these disciplines over many years of experience and later taught, especially the Greeks, who in turn spread this knowledge to the rest of the Western Europe.

Egyptians were able to do mummification because of their high expertise in surgical techniques. Between 5600 and 5400 years ago Egyptians produced what is today known as the Smith Papyrus, which is a treatise on bone surgery and external pathology.

The Greek, Hippocrates, regarded as the father of medicine, studied in the temple of Memphis in Egypt where he learned from the library of a great Egyptian physician, Imhotep, whom the Greeks called Askelepios.

Ancient Egyptians invented mathematics and divided it into arithmetic, algebra and geometry. This knowledge was later passed on to the Greeks.

The development of the ancient calendar began in Egypt, initially by observing the behaviour of the Nile River which had three cycles of four months each.

Egyptians also engaged in engineering, construction, shipbuilding and architecture.

They then imparted their vast knowledge to the Greeks most of whom became very famous such as Plato, Pythagoras, Eudoxes, the mathematician and astronomer, Hippocrates and many others whose work reflected the great and pervasive influence of the black Africans.

The great Egyptian civilisation was followed some millennia later, by the civilisations of Nubia, Aksum, Mapungubwe, Ghana, Mali and Great Zimbabwe.

The Malian civilisation reached its pinnacle when Timbuktu became the intellectual and trading hub between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Timbuktu was a confluence of ideas, languages and cultures. We are proud that today we are in partnership with the government of Mali working together to preserve and restore the thousands of ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu, which tell a story of a great civilisation and a centre of learning.

To put this in context one needs to juxtapose the civilisation of Timbuktu to Europe's state of development during the same period. Much of European society was characterised by high levels of illiteracy, acute poverty and violence. To use the Hobbesian phrase, "life was nasty, brutish and short".

However, this period was also particularly a time of great expansion for the Islamic empire that by the eight century included much of North Africa, parts of West Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, India and Indonesia. With Baghdad as its intellectual capital, this empire regarded information so highly that it offered traders a book's weight in gold for every book put on sale.

At the time when rats spread the septic plague, or "Black Death", that would decimate one third of Europe's population, Africa was part of a global order in which literacy, intellectualism and trade flourished.
With Timbuktu as a major trading and intellectual centre within the Malian empire, it is clear that Africa was not only a repository of knowledge from ancient civilisations across the world but evidence also indicates that Africa should also be regarded as an important conduit for knowledge to Europe during its Renaissance in the late 15th century.

The 19th century Europeans that Basil Davidson and Martin Bernal spoke about not only convinced themselves of their own superiority and the inferiority of blacks. They used their colonial power, which followed the period of slavery, the gun and the whip, systematically to impose their perspective on or of Africa on the rest of humanity. This reflected the change in the relations between Africa and the West, characterised by the spoliation or subjugation of Africa for the material benefit of the West.

The millions of Africans transported to the Americas as slaves made these regions and the European countries that owned them prosperous on the back of black slaves while under-developing the African continent.

When it became morally and otherwise impossible to continue with slavery, Europe colonised Africa and practised slave labour. Through this method, which included actual killings of those resisting conscription into labour camps, it is estimated that between eight and ten million people in the Congo basin lost their lives during the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium.

Indeed, during the long period of colonialism, there are many examples of how African resources helped the development of Europe, even paying their war costs during the two World War Wars. For instance, from 1943, Britain and United States of America (USA) had an agreement on what was called 'reverse lend lease'. This meant that USA loans to Britain during the war would be repaid by raw materials.

Britain did repay the USA with raw materials. They repaid with tin and rubber from Malaysia, cocoa from West Africa which was worth $100 million; and diamonds from South Africa brought in more millions as Harry Oppenheimer reported to his fellow directors in 1946 that: "sales of gem diamonds during the war secured about $300 million for Great Britain." (p 187, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney).

Further, at the end of 1950's, the sterling reserves of a small colony like Sierra Leone had reached £60 million, which went into the coffers of Britain. In 1955 the British government was holding £120 million derived from cocoa and mineral sales from Ghana. Africa's total contribution to Britain's sterling balances in 1945 was £446 million, which went up to £1,446 million by 1955, more than half the total gold and dollar reserves of Britain and the commonwealth, which amounted to £2,120 million. (p 188, ibid).

The Democratic Republic of Congo whose rubber was sourced through slave labour helped the Belgium of King Leopold II to emerge from a small underdeveloped country at the beginning of the 19th century to a developed country in the 20th century, and continued to rescue these Europeans during the Second World War.

After Germany had overrun Belgium, the Belgians set-up a government-in- exile in London. A Mr Godding, who was the Colonial Secretary of the exiled Belgian Government, explained how they paid their expenses during this time:

"During the war, the Congo was able to finance all the expenditure of the Belgian government in London, including the diplomatic services as well as the cost of our armed forces in Europe and Africa, a total of some £40 million. In fact, thanks to the Congo, the Belgian government in London had not borrowed a shilling or a dollar, and the Belgian reserves could be left intact."(p 188, ibid).

These are but a few of the many examples that demonstrate how over centuries, African resources, human and material, ensured that Europeans live a better life and enjoy the good things of life while the countries of Africa were pushed deeper and deeper into the mire of poverty and underdevelopment.

Today, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Belgium is about $302 billion with a population of 10 million people. The GDP of the DRC is estimated at $10 billion with a population of 60 million people.

The combined GDP of France and Britain, two countries that achieved the largest colonial presence in Africa, is about $3,5 trillion, while Africa has a combined GDP of about $600 billion.

As we are assembled here, as Africans, our struggle is to engage in both the total emancipation of our continent from the social, political and economic legacy of colonialism and apartheid as well as to reclaim our history, identity and traditions and on the foundation that our ancestors built for all of humanity, rebuild our societies to ensure that they are developed and prosperous.

It is our task to give life and meaning to the objective in the UN Millennium Declaration to "create a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity…"

And yet despite the adoption of this goal by the governments of all countries, because of the stubborn persistence of perspectives about Africa that are centuries old, even today we are told that Africa does not exist.

"Does Africa exist?" This was the question posed in the lead article of an influential American foreign policy journal, American Diplomacy, on 26 July 2001. Appearing barely a week after African leaders took the seminal step to transform the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (AU), this widely distributed article gave a rare glimpse into the thinking of a section of the American Foreign Policy establishment.

The author, Dr Michael Radu, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia started by rubbishing Africa's efforts towards greater Pan African unity as being as useful as "the reshuffling of the chairs on the deck of the Titanic". He went on to state that "there is no such thing as 'Africa' in any meaningful political and cultural sense …(and)… beyond accidents of geography, there is no such thing as 'Africa'. "

In what have become the common ingredients of Afro-pessimism, Radu goes on to portray Africa as being incapable of plotting her own future due, on the one hand, to her diversity in terms of language and religion and on the other, allegedly endemic "tribalism, corruption, genocide, failing states, poverty, and HIV/AIDS."

He then advises that to advance, Africa should engage in "self-criticism and (take) steps toward more honesty, free markets and elite accountability."

(Radu, M. 2001. "Does Africa Exist?" American Diplomacy, 26 July 2001.)

While one is tempted to write off Radu's comments as mere crude simplifications of Africa's complex challenges, it is important to place it in the context of two powerful phenomena impacting on Africa and the world.

These are, firstly, the deeply entrenched tradition of "otherisation" of Africa, to borrow a word from Ali Mazrui, and secondly the renewed vigour among Western scholars to assert that African states, are ineluctably unable to bring about the kind of change required to improve the lives of ordinary Africans.

In the wake of 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States of America (USA), the latter tendency started creeping into the work of a number of well-placed Western scholars - with some even arguing for reversion to former imperial policies. Most notable among these was the call made by a senior British diplomat, Robert Cooper, for what he called "a new liberal imperialism".

Cooper premised his argument on the notion of the existence of states in various phases of modernism, with the post modern states being those of Western Europe and North America, while pre-modern states are those of the developing world and "all over Africa".

According to Cooper this "reality" requires a new way of dealing with the risks this presents to world peace. To this end Cooper states:

"The challenge to the post-modern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the post-modern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era - force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle."

(Cooper, R. 2002. Why we still need empires. Guardian Unlimited, 2002.)

In the same vein, Gordon Frisch suggests that:

"Before any political solution can work, law and order, almost totally lacking in sub-Saharan Africa, must prevail. To accomplish this, as history has proven time and again in Africa, the most effective means is by the use of mercenaries. Neither the UN nor civilized governments have the mandate or the will to do the job. Once peace has been 'made', then perhaps the UN could participate in 'keeping' it. Then, African governments should invite former colonists back as partners in running their countries, developing their economies and educating their people."

(Frisch, G. 2003. Africa - Staring Into The Abyss Send In The Mercenaries And Re-Colonize.

The other tendency, referred to earlier as the "otherisation" of Africa, has an even longer history. This phenomenon of defining "the other" as the antithesis of what is the norm, the acceptable, was often used to justify actions of an inhumane nature. Under the guise of "saving" or "bringing civilisation" to "the other", policies and practices such as colonialism and apartheid could be sanctioned. In its most brutal expression people could be deemed commodities, as with the case of slavery.

By denying people the cultural or social traits of the "civilised", the powerful could denigrate a people's history. Coupled with a continued process of indoctrination this would eventually also erode the self-worth and sense of humanity of "the other".

The African continent and her people have suffered this fate in a very real sense. Peoples' identities were destroyed, whether by replacing their indigenous names with foreign ones or wiping away place names through to the destruction of cultures and traditions. Colonial education simply denied Africans their claim to a past by denouncing the relevance of their experiences.

Sadly, the impact of these phenomena persists, and if allowed to continue, poses the risk of leading to a world in which "might is right" and diversity and self-determination are seen as constituting a menace to "order". It is in this context that Africa's quest for renewal and the affirmation of our culture, heritage and identity need to be understood.

This mammoth task confronts us not as a desire to provide a romanticised view of Africa's past, or merely "to set the record straight", but as a responsibility to achieve the "shared future" of which the Millennium Declaration spoke. The razilian writer and pedagogue, Paulo Freire says:

"It is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well (because) only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both."

(Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

This task cannot be achieved as long as we defer to our former colonisers the important matters that affect our countries and people. We would not achieve true liberation as long as we do things merely to be in the good books of those who are powerful, even when such actions are inimical to the independence and development of Africa.

Indeed, we will continue being the wretched of the earth as long as we are not free to make our own decisions about our own destiny.

Ngugi wa Thiongo says in his book 'Detained: A Writers Prison Diary'.

"Obedience of the oppressed to the oppressor; peace and harmony between the exploited and the exploiter; the slave to love his master and pray that God grant that the master may long reign over us: these were the ultimate aesthetic goals of colonial culture carefully nurtured by nailed boots, police truncheons and military bayonets and by the carrot of a personal heaven for a select few. The end was to school Kenyans in the aesthetic of submission and blind obedience to authority reflected in that Christian refrain, Trust and obey." (p 42).

Africans have long battled with this demand to trust and obey those who have destroyed our continent. The question is whether some of us still, quietly, trust and obey because we cannot free ourselves from the political, social and economic stranglehold of our erstwhile colonisers.

We transformed the OAU into AU because the former had accomplished its mandate to free our continent. We needed the structures and mandates of the AU to steer us through the waters of the 21st century and deliver us into an Africa that is developed and prosperous.

We are confident that working together, as Africans, trusting and obeying ourselves as Africans, listening to our own voices and responding to the dictates of our people, it is possible to ensure, through New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the development and prosperity of our countries, individually and collectively.

Chairperson,

Through the AU and NEPAD it is possible to address the main challenges facing us. These include:

* The challenge of fiscal independence. We are all aware that many of our countries on the African continent are heavily reliant on donor money to meet our budget needs. We have to address this matter, working out programmes that would deliver our countries from this stranglehold which makes it difficult freely to choose the route we want to take so as to develop our countries.

* We need to build capacity in policy making processes and build strong and viable policy-making institutions such that we achieve policy- making autonomy where our decisions and policies are rooted on African realities, experiences and aspirations. Some of these decisions may coincide with others elsewhere but they should reflect African needs and challenges.

* We need to consolidate our work on peace and security for all our people and invest in mechanisms that work on reconciliation processes, peace management and on programmes that would help bring about unity in our diverse societies.

* We have a duty to accelerate and strengthen the development agenda of the continent and work together to increase the effectiveness of NEPAD programmes. One of the NEPAD programmes, African Peer Review Mechanism has demonstrated that when we are determined to succeed, it is possible to achieve our goals. We should build on the progress made in African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and other programmes of NEPAD to move forward faster. In this regard, we are proceeding with our efforts to create an African Infrastructure Fund financed by accessing African institutional funds.

* There is an urgent need to answer the question - what forces constitute the African progressive movement in Africa and what should we do to mobilise these progressive forces to ensure general convergence of views and perspectives on Africa and the manner in which we can accelerate our renaissance.

In his book, Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan described some of the important global players in this manner:

"On the all-important question of power - the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power - American and European perspective are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transitional negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realisation of Immanuel Kant's "perpetual peace". Meanwhile, the United States remains mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable, and where true security and the defence and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americas are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. They agree on little and understand one another less and less.

"The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defence policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways." (pp 3-4).

I have quoted this passage at length because I would like us to reflect on what this obvious celebration of power and force means to us as Africans.

In reality, for us it coincides with the call made in the aftermath of September 11 for the developed North to institute a so-called "liberal imperialism".

Regardless of the noble vision contained in the Millennium Declaration about a shared future for all humanity, including ourselves, we have to contend with the reality that there are important voices in the countries that sought to deny the fact that the Egyptian civilisation was African, the countries that asserted that Africa has no history outside its subjugation by Europe, the countries that viewed it as their natural right to enrich themselves at the expense of Africa and the Africans - powerful voices that are arguing for the denial of our right to self-determination.

These are the same countries that dominate and benefit most from the process of globalisation, which provides the basis for the argument the political should match the socio-economic - that global socio-economic domination should be matched by global political domination.

To return to our subject - Perspectives on and of Africa - it is only if we confront these and other realities in a manner that empowers us to deal effectively with the many problems that are a legacy of many centuries of subjugation, that we can and will build a continent that is free, independent, peaceful, democratic, developed and prosperous.

I have no doubt that the leadership represented here as well as others across the continent have the necessary capacity to assist the African masses correctly to analyse our collective strengths and weakness and on the basis of an objective appraisal, plot our way to a better tomorrow.

Within this perspective, we must continue to claim the 21st as the African Century, ready to engage in serious, protracted and popular struggle to transform this noble dream into reality. For us the new millennium must continue to communicate the unequivocal message that - Africa shall be free!

I thank you.

Issued by: The Presidency
1 April 2006

 

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