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ImageIn this provocative article, Elijah Litheko, South African Human Resources expert, argues that the continual disempowerment of the African people is a call for us to shape our own agenda in order to achieve true empowerment


The key priority for Africans today is to address the continual disempowerment of the African people and to identify how we can rescue ourselves. In my view, the disempowerment of Africa has taken place in three key phases

The two new stations – CNBC Africa and Al Jazeera International which are both set to go live in the next 6 months or so – will intensify the media spotlight on Africa at a time when the northern hemisphere view of the world is being increasingly challenged by economic realities and reforms at the United Nations and multilateral institutions.

The Phases of Disempowerment

The first phase saw the conquering of Africa by the West, leading to destabilization and control by the occupiers.  This had serious implications in terms of who Africans were; their culture and the natural path of development and progress that Africa’s societies would have made.  The destabilization led to social dislocation as the powers that be imposed their lifestyles, values and standards on the African people.  They saw the Africans as a resource, like any other resource, available to utilize for their own economic means.

The second phase of disempowerment was through the effective ‘Balkan-isation’ of Africa.  By splitting us up into various countries, states, ‘bantustans’ and the like, the controlling powers magnified the differences rather than appreciated our spirit of Ubuntu/Botho as Africans.  During this phase, an African person was not allowed to give any thought to his/her own development or growth; their focus was on satisfying the needs of their masters.

The third phase addressed the educational and social aspects of our societies.  Because we were seen as a resource like any other, educating an African was not a priority as the African was only given the necessary tools to fulfill the needs of the master.  In South Africa, in particular, laws were put in place to ensure that the development of an African person did not happen.  As a result, we, in South Africa, have seen centuries of under-development and today we are suffering the consequences of that in a big way

The Marginalization of Africa

All these factors marginalized the African people as a player on the world stage. Conditions did not make it possible for Africans to develop or stick their necks out – those that did like Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Onkgopotse Tiro, Tsietsi Mashinini, and many others in the case of South Africa, suffered severe consequences. This marginalization and the inhibition of the potential of Africans had dire consequences in all spheres of human development – political, economic, educational and social.

Now that Africa is so-called free, and I say, ‘so-called’ as this freedom is still a misnomer because, in reality, there is little truth in it. The world stage today demands of nations and states, capabilities that would ensure the successful advocacy of their nation’s agendas at world forums. These capabilities, in my view, are political power, economic power, military power, a sound education base, social equilibrium, innovation and so forth. The majority of African states are lacking desperately in all these key essentials for successful performance and delivery at the world stage.

The world, in today’s terms, is like a Premier League and to play there and be accepted as a Premier League player you need to bring certain qualities on board as highlighted in this article. Africa, in my view, has been denied the opportunity to develop these capabilities and competencies for its own people for centuries and now, with the pseudo-freedom that African states have attained over the years, Africans are expected to perform at the world stage/Premier League with veterans without the necessary supporting infrastructure. This is setting Africa up for failure. The other challenge that Africans face as late comers on the world stage is that the multilateral economic structures that are in place today – World Bank, IMF and others - are Western-created and African leaders have difficulty in acknowledging that they are operating within structures over which we have no control to reform and align to the continent’s socio-economic challenges.

Placing Africa in the Premier Leagues

After World War II, the Marshall Plan was developed to rebuild Europe. The Plan focused on not just the infrastructure of the region but also on its economic recovery and stabilization of its social fabric. In South Africa, the Nationalist Party adopted a number of strategies that ensured that White South Africans, particularly the Afrikaners were taken out of the poverty trap of the 1940’s and early 1950’s that some of them harshly experienced. Both Europe and White South Africans generally can play on the economic world stage because of the support and resources that they were showered with at the time when they needed them most.

When Africa gained its freedom from its colonial masters there was no dedicated plan, like the Marshall plan, which was put in place to ensure that the African people, denied growth for so many years, could become world players, as was the case with Europe after World War II, and South Africa during the reign of the Nationalist party. Instead, we hear talk of FDI (foreign direct investment) i.e. the continued economic subjugation of Africans to another master.

So when is the real problem of Africa’s underdevelopment going to be tackled so that Africans can also be perceived as FDIs in other countries and be their own masters like many nations in the world are? When as Africans we start to empower ourselves and to take decisions that are in the best interests of the African people. When we determine our own agenda and ensure that it is an agenda that reflects our priorities, needs, values and the diversity of our societies. When we start mobilising resources whose main focus is to empower us and promote us to the world stage as key players. If that does not happen, our people will continue to be marginalized and our countries taken over economically. But, this time, it will not be by military might or forceful occupation, but by the consent of our elected African leaders.

If this trend of economic subjugation by other nations continues unchecked, Africans will be relegated to the position of perpetual servants of other nations in the guise of FDI, democracy and entrepreneurship. When these unsavoury developments manifest themselves, as they have started to, nobody in the world will remember that the failure of Africans to rise to the challenges and demands of today’s world is due to centuries of underdevelopment. What a callous and inhuman assessment of the real problems facing African people.

This is a cry for help extended to all people in the world who believe that progress and human development is an inalienable right for all mankind.

Elijah Litheko is the Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of People Management in South Africa. He holds an MBA from De Montfort University (UK) and a postgraduate Diploma in Labour Law.

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