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Nothing About Us Without Us -- Decolonising Africa's Development

Mbeki's 'I am an African' speech laid the conceptual framework for what was articulated as the 'African Renaissance' and later still as 'Africa Rising'.

25/05/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 25/05/2017 07:06 SAST
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As we mark Africa month in order to "promote African unity, deeper regional integration and recommit Africa to a common destiny and to engage in conversation within the broader theme of decolonisation", it is perhaps appropriate to consider how the main vehicle to achieve these lofty ideals, The African Union, proposes to drive the continent's development into the future. At the heart of the African Union's vision for the future of what is undeniably the world's most unevenly developed continent, sits the deeply ideological belief in a top-down 'development' model that calls for the continued extraction and export of cheap raw materials alongside increased financial and trade liberalisation. This vision is encapsulated in the African Union's African Mining Visions (AMV) Document.

While the AMV may appear on the surface to be a noble vision of creating shared prosperity, the deeply entrenched ideological biases which underpin the core AMV values, remain an area that requires a deeper process of decolonisation and introspection. With the recognition that a process of decolonisation is a critical part of any African future, the ongoing efforts to develop and reclaim the rightful place of an African worldview and identity within the global contestation of ideas and systems, especially within the aftermath of a universalising colonial project of domination and control, has moved from the abstract production of knowledge to congeal into a fully-fledged philosophical, political and economic movement by Africans to re-appropriate control over the right to "define for themselves who they are and who they should be" (Mbeki, 1998), but which right is still broadly defined by the ex–colonial powers of the West.

This overarching right to determine the paradigm under which Africans are allowed to view the world, is realised in practice through the irresistible imperative towards globalisation, based on a philosophical, ideological and economic outlook, derived almost exclusively from the European experience and worldview. This movement of Afrocentric thought and political will has a long history of dialectical engagement, stemming from the visionary articulation by Cheikh Anta Diop in his 1948 essay "When Can We Talk of an African Renaissance?" The dialectical process of renewal/reclamation, gained impetus as the continent emerged from the period of formal colonialism in the 1960s, and intellectual giants ranging from Senghor who saw the Negritude movement as essential to an African Renaissance, to Nkrumah who argued for a new "African personality" and a new "consciencism".

With the emergence of an apparent resolution to the last colonial conflict in Southern Africa in the 1990s and the emergence of Nelson Mandela as a new icon of an African Renaissance, the dialectical impetus of an African Renaissance was renewed and was most famously elaborated into a critical and urgent philosophical, political and economic project, by then Deputy President of the South African Republic, Thabo Mbeki, through his "I am an African" speech. The speech laid the conceptual framework for what was later articulated as the "African Renaissance" and even later still as "Africa Rising". This intellectual and popular moment within the African psyche spurred African Heads of State to adopt the African Mining Vision in 2009.

The conceptual framework which thus underpinned a continent wide conversation about how to frame the development of Africa, was one which aimed to provide a renewed paradigm "away from a model of extractive resource exploitation based on a high dependency on international export markets". The AMV should thus be seen as part of a broader effort by the people of Africa to emerge from the devastation of colonialism, which ravaged not only the bodies, land, mineral and resource wealth of the continent for the benefit of Europe, but which also resulted in a structural and violent effort to entrench a universalising project of Western epistemology and has historically and contemporaneously resulted in what Teboho Lebakeng describes as"[t]he ensuing violent destruction, in the physical sense and in the form of epistemicide, [which] facilitated the imposition of colonial moral values, traditions, philosophical outlooks, aesthetical preferences and economic fundamentals" (T.Lebakeng, 2014).

The AMV, I will argue, is striking in its unquestioning acceptance and immersion in old colonial assumptions of political and economic thought and instead of offering an alternative paradigm, only succeeds in domesticating old European universalising ideas of domination and control. Thus the AMV succeeds in replicating old colonial extractivist models which have historically and contemporaneously produced extreme inequality.

An estimated 90 million people could potentially be displaced in Africa, 30 million of which would be due to mineral-based development alone.

In the recent publication, Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics: Nature and Society, Professor Patrick Bond of Wits University notes in one chapter that "The removal of non-renewable minerals, oil and gas - and the failure to reinvest profits from these resources - leaves Africa far poorer in net terms than anywhere else on Earth. That bias towards non-renewable resource depletion without reinvestment meant the continent's net wealth fell rapidly after 2001. Even the World Bank (2014:vi) admits that 88 percent of Sub-Saharan African countries suffered net negative wealth accumulation in 2010." This brutal reality of the past is underscored by research by feminist organisations likes WoMin, that in the next half century "an estimated 90 million people could potentially be displaced in Africa, 30 million of which would be due to mineral-based development alone".

Thabo Mbeki in his "I am African" address to the United Nations in 1998, affirmed that "[t]hese economic objectives, which must result in the elimination of poverty, the establishment of modern multi-sector economies, and the growth of Africa's share of world economic activity, are an essential part of the African Renaissance." But crucially, Mbeki continued; "... the African Renaissance, in all its parts, can only succeed if its aims and objectives are defined by the Africans themselves, if its programmes are designed by ourselves (sic)."

Thus from the question posed by Cheikh Anta Diop, through Senghor and Nkrumah and up to Mbeki, the central point has always been about the right to decide for ourselves. The question is thus who gets to decide for whom? The central element that has underpinned most social struggles across time and space and which finds expression contemporaneously as "Nothing about us without us" remains as critical today as it was when Cheik anta Diop first asked the question.

With the vast majority of people on the continent who are likely to be affected by the extractives industry either directly through mining activities or indirectly through environmental degradation, being structurally and systematically excluded from participating in developing documents like the AMV, the question of whose interests are being considered becomes increasingly important and the challenge to Africans across the continent is to ensure that African Elites are not left unhindered to continue the colonial subjugation of our people, natural resources and environment.