By Simon Howell
Watching the news the other night, it occurred to me that African politics, and politics in general, is awash in contradiction. In the one clip soldiers were seen stalking the streets of Harare, no doubt wondering when the election results would be revealed. In the next clip, a smiling Thabo Mbeki, making jokes in a cathedral, while distinguished guests made all the appropriate noises. Of course this would not be a contradiction if we were all stuck within some hardcore realist paradigm, but then things such as SADC, SACU, NEPAD, and the “African Renaissance” would probably not exist.
Indeed it is the last piece of political rhetoric that belies, or invokes, the greatest contradiction. Disregarding that a “renaissance” is an extremely euro-centric idea, as far as I understand a renaissance is evoked in order to offer some form of belonging, a “togetherness”. Implied within this notion of “togetherness” is the idea of helping one another, of attempting to build a better life for everyone involved. This leads me to ask, that if Zimbabwe has soldiers on the streets, and Thabo is making jokes in church, is there really a “renaissance” occurring, and if so, where is it?
Now I would love to put this down to simple one-off coincidence. And yet these coincidences keep on occurring. Last time I checked there was a genocide going on in Sudan, Libya was still a rouge state, there is unrest in Kenya, the DRC, and the list just keeps going on. If Africa is going through a “renaissance” then it seems to be a very silent, and bloody, one. The problem is, that so long as it is silent, or more accurately, none existent, the majority of this continents citizens continue to suffer.
But perhaps I am being to harsh. The AU did send troops into Sudan, there have been talks with Mugabe, and Kenya is cooling down. And of course, Africa’s past is riddled with the results of Europe’s last “renaissance” i.e. colonialism, which as we all know, is the perfect scapegoat for non-action. Yet it still seems that there is a massive disparity between rhetoric and action. The “renaissance” sounds like a good idea, it makes good speeches, and it gets votes. Theoretically this type of regionalism could really do a lot of good. Pragmatically however, the practice of rhetoric is superseding any real instantiation of action.
Regionalism has been proved to work (look at the economic clout of the “golden triangle”). Regionalism however requires very real measures, very real policies, and very real politics. It cannot be built on flowery notions of some European model that really did not do that much good anyway. Moreover, it requires the active participation of all the states involved. Dropping border controls, liberalising trade, and encouraging inter-state dependency is risky business, but the results that can be achieved are staggering. Moreover, it sends a message to the “outside” world that African states can actually work together, and that this region, the “dark continent”, does have something to offer the world. A “renaissance” perhaps, but one that needs to be actively and critically engaged with, rather than becoming nothing more than a figure of speech.