This week’s labor strikes by public-employees in South Africa are the first big test of Jacob Zuma’s presidency in South Africa. His vote totals were lifted by union workers who now want large pay increases in a stagnant economy. If Zuma says no, he runs the risk of heading down the same path as his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who choose fiscal discipline over populist policies. Zuma will pay a pay in social unrest if he chooses the same path as Mbeki. South Africa is deeply divided between haves and have-nots. Mbeki was tossed out of office early partly because of growing resentments of have-nots who feel the ruling African National Congress, rhetoric notwithstanding, cannot act on behalf of ordinary people. Zuma’s political base consists of the very people who want government to do more on their behalf whether public finances are adversely effected or not. Zuma must heed their call, if only to make his break with Mbeki years clear.
Archive for July, 2009
William Easerly, the economist and skeptic about aid to Africa, has penned a valuable essay on Obama’s rich speech on U.S. relations with Africa and the region’s own future. In the windup, though, Easterly hijacks Obama’s speech in order to reinforce support for his own take on Africa. In laying out his own well-established ideas on the occasion of Obama’s visit to Ghana, the essay gives Easterly — a brilliant polemicist and an enormously-talented economist — a fresh chance to show-off, scoring points that make him seem smart at the expense of others. Notably, he once again portrays Africans themselves as innocent bystanders, passive victims in a global con game. In doing so, he runs the risk of demeaning Africans — and reinforcing delusional notions of Western superiority (including his own). His central notion — Bottoms Up — ignores the importance of leadership — a success factor that can be exaggerated but is nonetheless critical. He makes the same intellectual sin as many utopian leftists — in thinking that small disconnected initiatives can together add up to a sea-change. They do not. Go look at India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil — in all these cases rapid development occured, to a great degree, because of Top Down leadership. Even in India’s case, where the leadership came significantly more the private sector and civil society.
Zambia’s president, Rupiah Banda, is openly targeting the Post newspaper, the country’s leading independent media voice. He has even said he wishes the paper were closed.
The story of the news editor’s arrest is Orwellian. The editor simply emailed pictures of a woman giving birth under a tree without the help of nurses because the nurses had gone on strike – because government pays them peanuts – to government officials. Her point was to make them see how serious the situation was. But government officials turned around and using an archaic law about pornography, accused her of sharing pornography with them (since the woman in the picture was obviously naked as she gave birth).
George Orwell would be pleased with the creativity of these officials. The pictures of the birth were not even published in the newspaper. The editor just emailed them to these government officials so that they could act quickly about the nurses crisis and she has been arrested for pornography!
Why is the government of Zambia cracking down on its small but vigilant independent press? Why is Lusaka’s Post newspaper targeted by new president Rupiah Banda?
Banda won a narrow victory in recent elections following the sudden death of his predecessor. Perhaps to solidify his base — and quell complaints that vote-stealing won him the election — Banda is cracking down on dissent, and hounding the excellent Lusaka Post newspaper, the strongest independent voice in the country.
This week, the government hauled into court on bogus charges the news editor of the Post. Is the shut-down of the paper next?
Worth noting that Obama, in an address on his departure from Accra airport yesterday, invoked King’s visit to Ghana 52 years ago. At Nkrumah’s invitation, King attended the independence ceremonies of Ghana from formal British rule.
“Freedom is your inheritance, hard won 52 years ago by men and women determined to cast off the title of subjects for the title of citizens, and claim for themselves and their children the liberties that are all of our birthrights. Dr. King came here to Ghana to witness the culmination of that struggle. He watched as the Union Jack was lowered and the Ghanaian flag was raised at the parliament. He marveled at the site of the Duchess of Kent dancing with the new Ghanaian President at the state ball. And in a sermon he gave upon returning home to America, he said of this new nation, “There is a great day ahead. The future is on its side.” Those words ring just as true today as they did more than half a century ago.”
Obama’s bow to Ghana’s historic hospitality was important. Nkrumah indeed aided the civil rights movement in the U.S. by extending an invitation to King — and then having then Vice President Richard Nixon turn up as well!
In one bold stroke, Barack Obama is now the world’s most prominent spokesperson for African self-reliance.
What white global leaders have never been able to say — stand on your own two feet! – a black man with, as he put it, “African blood” coursing in his veins, has declared.
“We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans,” Obama said in an address to Parliament that was televised across the continent. “I say this knowing full well the tragic past that has sometimes haunted this part of the world. After all, I have the blood of Africa within me, and my own family’s story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.”
Obama’s post-racialism is nowhere in evidence today in Ghana, where his pride in his African-ness and his blackness make him sound at once like a African nationalist and a social conservative.
The American president’s emphasis on self-reliance — on reinforcing and recognizing that Africa can and does work, thank you — is welcome. Yet he also exaggerates the potential, however real and enduring, of the agency of Africans. Yes for too long Africans have been dismissed as bit players on their own stage, or they have been viewed as props in the tragic-comic theater of Western intervention. Obama is of course correct to reclaim the African as the center of the reclamation of Africa as such. Yet he goes too far in suggesting that the legacy of exploitation of Africa — of slavery and colonialism, and post-colonial dependency — has no bearing on events of the day. Obama may well come to revise his notion, implicit if not made plain, that Africa somehow today stands outside of its own history. Africa does not. The president’s existential philosopher is a good antidote to the endless encouragement Africans receive by well-meaning Westerners to remain dependent and shackled by the past. Yet the past remains alive in the lives of everyday Africans. This stubborn reality is no less an aspect of African existence than the transformation in body and mind that Obama extols.
How big is Kenya’s image problem? Well, pretty large. This beautiful and well-endowed country is the birthplace of Obama’s father, yet political strife, official corruption and the whiff of terrorist movements made the U.S. president scratch the country from any list of possible destinations on a brief Africa trip this month. Obama instead chose Ghana, a peaceful west African country where the American president is wildy popular. In a speech t0day in Ghana, Obama managed to avoid naming Kenya at all, even when describing his father’s childhood as goat herder. Obama’s Dad, in a reflection of the importance of the brand named “Africa,” comes from Africa — everywhere and maybe nowhere. Or perhaps Obama didn’t want to deflate his Ghanaian hosts by invoking a rival African country. Indeed, West and East African often vie for supremacy at international meetings, on the faculy of American universities and, of course, in their own regions. Rare is the West African who succeeds in East Africa; and the reverse is true as well.
Africa is often presented in the media as a nuisance, a place of stress, deception and ultimately disappointment. Yet the truth is that many Africans are alive in the moment, entirely present, partly because of the legacy of culture and partly because the conditions of their lives demand they pay a great deal of attention to the present. This present-ness pervades ordinary life in Africa and the African capacity for being present, whether in city or countryside, is one reason why Westerners are attracted to the diverse people of the region.
Giles Foden, author of the great novel, “Last King of Scotland,” about Idi Amin’s Uganda, gave a clever interview last Saturday to the Financial Times in which he confessed that he “often” visited “Africa in order to relax. Indeed, he did not say which countries he visited, perhaps wanting to maintain a sense of mystery around his special locations. Surely Foden can find relaxation galore in any number of African cities. My favorites for “relaxing” are Accra in the West and Kampala in the East. Both are very safe, happy, interesting places that have grown surprisingly cosmopolitan in this decade and yet remain relatively inexpensive and “user friendly.”
Robert McNamara’s death Monday provoked a predictable outpouring on the Vietnam War and McNamara’s role, as Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson, in widening and prolonging the war. Decades later, McNamara won new attention for belatedly admitting that he was wrong about the Vietnam, which he finally had realized was a “civil”war within Vietnam and not a srategic battle in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When McNamara made this admission, most notably in a documentary aptly called “The Fog of War,” he was grudgingly given some respect for finally accepting reality.
The trouble with the “new and improve” McNamara was that he remained wrong about the Vietnam War, which wasn’t a civil war but rather a clumsy, boody and ultimately fruitless attempt by first the French and then the Americans to repudiate the overwhelming support in all of Vietnam for the independence leader Ho Chi Minh. When fighting the French, Ho was enamored to the democtatic ideals of the U.S., but American support for France drove him into the arms of Mao and communist China. Ho was no Jeffersonian of course. His notions of governance sprang from the experiences of Lenin and Stalin. Yet defeating the U.S. in a war was not a task for democrats with a small “d” in any case. The Vietnamese triumphed against the U.S. and its puppet psuedo-state in the soth because of their nationalist fervor, intense discipline and tactical superiority.
Back to McNamara who after leaving the Johnson administration was rewarded for not going public against the Vietnam War by being named president of The World Bank. At the helm of this international lending institution, McNamara doggedly pursued the goal of driving national governments out of the business of taking care of essential services and the management of core economic functions. Many Asian governments resisted; so did some in Latin America. In Africa, however, the World Bank under McNamara steamrolled opponents, dismantled state structures and quickly (and all too effectively) began to open African countries to market forces.
McNamara’s exuded a smug confidence that all this “liberalizing” was for the best. He was not completely wrong. Yet just as he was blind to policy errors in Vietnam, he was blind (deaf and dumb) to critical mistakes made by the bank in sub-Saharan Africa. These mistakes led to weakened African governance, opening the way for the unchecked spread of HIV/AIDS and a higher incidence of civil strife. McNamara’s role in Vietnam is rightly emphasized but his destructiveness in an African context should not be forgotten either.
Obama’s scheduled visit to Ghana provides me with an opportunity to briefly examine the role that domestic U.S. politics plays in American relations with Sub-Saharan Africa. Even in Obama’s skillful hands, Africa remains a prop on which conflicting ideas about American identity get played out. The extent to which Obama’s African-ness benefits him as president is a work in progress. As president he wants to avoid an African quagmire, where good intentions go awry. Yet as an African American, he wants to remind one of his core group of supporters where his “roots” are. In The Guardian of London, I tease out some of these confusing and contradictory pressures on U.S.-African relations. The article, published through Project Syndicate, is part of a longer study I’m doing on Africa and the West.