22 January 2012

Africa: Thabo Mbeki Speaks On African Problems - 'Ugandans Shouldn't Wait for AU to Teach Them How to Manage Oil'

Photo: Al Jazeera
Brega, Libya: The "interventionist approach" to conflicts such as Libya has been called into question.

Moderator, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani: We brought President Thabo Mbeki to MISR because of his stature as an African stateman and because he combines statecraft with serious thinking about the issues that play the statesmen. President Mbeki has been probably the most central figure trying to bring peaceful, consensual forward looking conclusions to internal conflicts in a number of countries; Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Sudan come to mind. The first question is from Robert Kabushenga.

Robert Kabushenga: I would like to argue that the failure by the political class including non-state actors and the intellectuals to evolve an original African world view is responsible for the failure of internal reforms and has created a vacuum for external intervention. Every time there is a social movement it is killed by a lethal combination of foreign interests and local reactionaries. Since you are a thinking President and state actor, what do you think?

Mbeki: On the assumption that one thinks, I am not sure that I would agree about the continent having failed to develop a world view whatever that means. Part of what has happened over the years, particularly through the OAU and AU, the continent has in fact paid a lot of attention to developing policies appropriate to respond to the challenges the continent is facing.

But the problem is implementation. Indeed to some extent it is a reflection of a certain level of dysfunctionality in the way our governments work. It may very well be that when we come back home we get overwhelmed by our immediate national challenges and fail to integrate within the national policy what has been agreed continentally.

Our being overrun by foreign countries; I don't think it is because we don't know what to do about ourselves. I was at an international conference onetime and one of the ministers accompanied me to the airport and we had a lovely chat in the car. He said to me look, next time you come, please look for me and we continue this discussion. So he gives me his business card.

I look at this business card, it has got his name and address and all that here at his home. On the other side, it has got his name but his telephone number and address are in Paris. So you find him this side of the card or the other side. That is part of the reason we get overrun by these countries....because we have among ourselves forces that are indeed ... hired to collaborate.

Oloka Onyango: My question is about South Africa and its place in the reformulation of Africa. To what extent is the internal reform process in South Africa after Apartheid moving away or confronting a Zimbabwe like situation particularly over the question of land?

Mbeki: It is true that in the last maybe two three years, we have had incidence violence by South Africans against other Africans who come into the country. Essentially it's a struggle, a tension among small traders. People set up little shops in the African areas. Because of the conflict in Somalia, there are a lot of Somalis in South Africa. They will stay in one little room many of them, to keep the cost and standard of their own living down, and under sale pricewise the next door shop of a South African.

A lot of the conflict has arisen out of this, not because the population is generally xenophobic. Indeed because of the mining industry from the 19th century, the process of other Africans migrating to South Africa has been going on for a long time.

By 1995, we had over a million people originally from Malawi living in South Africa. There is no general problem of xenophobia but these problems do arise. The challenge of the eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa is difficult. We are talking about a system that has evolved over 350 years.

If people understand that with a challenge of that kind, you need time. Indeed when you refer to the matter of the land question in Zimbabwe, we tried to discourage the Zimbabweans from taking that position. We had become reformist ourselves. I doubt in the South African instance if we could take the same route.

Again it has to do with how you manage the political situation. South Africa has got a white minority population which is bigger than the population of New Zealand and a number of European countries. It is a big minority which has got to be integrated in this new South African reality. These are the practical challenges when dealing with this issue of internal reform. It is moving slowly but the question is can it move faster? I am not sure about that.

Josephine Agiire: It seems to me that some of the constraints around African intellectualism are some of the causes of the failure of social movements across the continent. Given that you raised an important question around African renaissance, at that time we hoped that some new discourse around africanness was going to take a new dimension but it seems that we are sliding back. What is your vision of African intellectualism?

Mbeki: I am quite sure you are better qualified to answer that question. Earlier today Prof. Mamdani made some comments which relate to this and I agree with him. He was saying that if you look at African universities, leave South Africa and North Africa, the belt in between at independence, you only had Makerere and Ibadan universities and then the others developed.

Therefore most of the universities were a product of the post-colonial period. The second point he made which I agreed with is that then the ruling groups in our countries took fright at the universities as centres of learning and knowledge which would take positions which are critical of these ruling groups and therefore acted in ways which sought to intimidate these universities and run them down. When we grew up there was indeed a very vibrant African intelligentsia which was very much engaged in these issues. I think there was a period when that intelligentsia in a sense got intimidated. It didn't have the space.

I am sure you have read the things Ngugi Wa Thiongo wrote on this matter in terms of what happened in Kenya. That narrative is correct. Perhaps the problem we have is that we haven't recovered from that in all sorts of ways; including the financing of universities. This matter requires a conscious intervention by other African intellectuals.

Prof. Mamdani: Augustine Ruzindana: "No? Wafula Oguttu? No? (Andrew Mwenda shouts out from the crowd and says Wafula has been arrested, three hours ago.) I think you see we pick people who put themselves on the line.

Andrew Mwenda: Whether it is in literature, philosophy, politics or art, there is very little output about Africa by Africans. Our freedom today is fought for by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, our press freedom is fought for by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, our civil wars are ended by UN peacekeepers, our refugees are fed by UNHCR, our economic policies are determined by the World Bank and IMF, our poverty is fought by Bono and Jeffery Sachs, our crimes are adjudicated upon by the ICC, our liberation is achieved through NATO war planes. I just wanted you to comment on that part of Africa that is happening today.

Mbeki: If I had the power, I would arrest you (loud laughter from audience). Of course you are quite correct. But I think part of what has happened is that the progressive movement on the continent is in retreat. That progressive voice which was trying to define where Africa should go died with the universities because of the manner in which the ruling groups in African countries acted against universities.

All sorts of people got into all sorts of problems and then came the end of the cold war, what this seminar is discussing now. First of all we had to deal with the reality of neo-colonialism on the continent. Remember the big debate leading up to the formation of the OAU, when the continent got split into two groups, the Monrovia Group and Casablanca group. That had to do with the same question you are raising. At least the Casablanca group was saying our independence must not only mean that we raise a new flag, we got to do something about our conditions and the nature of our relations with our former colonial powers.

I think overtime that Monrovia group; the people with addresses on different sides of the card, that group has gained in strength and the progressive movement on the continent has gone in retreat. This is the big challenge that we face on the continent. How do we rebuild this progressive movement on the continent so that we come back on this matter of we determine our own future? In order to get there, you need to come back and say you cannot change Africa without having African drivers to change the continent.

Who shall the drivers be? I don't know how we shall succeed to build this movement and bring us to the period before. But if we don't do it, nothing is going to change. If we don't we will continue to be infiltrated and be more dependent on all of these other people that you are talking about. All of us know for instance that a lot of your NGOs, civil society organisations on the continent are financed from outside the continent. These people called civil society, who must always be consulted about everything, who pays them? How African are they? It's a reflection of the weakness of the progressive movement on the continent and therefore our inability to come back to that period in the 60s when indeed as Africans we were trying to do something to say where should we be tomorrow.

Andrew Rugasira: My economic theory teaches me that the private sector is the engine of growth and it's a class of people that creates wealth. It also teaches me that the role of the state is to create that enabling environment where the private sector can create wealth. But in many contexts, the public sector constrains the private sector to create that wealth. What role do you see the African private sector in contributing to the socio-economic transformation of their societies? What role do you see for an activist private sector in bringing about some of the changes we would like to see?

Mbeki: According to my economic theory, I think that everybody accepts that private sector engine of growth, state facilitates is not correct. I think it is generally accepted even by the strongest proponents of this thesis because both the private and public sector have a role to play in this regard. One of the reasons the private sector is important is because it owns capital.

So indeed it would be very foolish for anybody to say to anybody who has got capital, I don't want you to use capital to result in economic development.

Indeed part of what African governments have had to do in terms of privatisation is because in many instances, state corporations run into a loss and require subventions from the budget to keep them going. So rather than spend this capital sustaining a business which is not running well, and therefore take money away from schools and so on, the people privatise.

Indeed if this private sector could say, in my own interest, in order to make profit, I need to invest in the Ugandan economy so that it grows and I will make profit. I think that is what the private sector should do and become activist in that way. The Economic Commission for Africa is setting up a group to investigate the illegal export of capital from Africa and their estimate is that annually, the continent losses $50 billion through illegal export of capital.

I hope the private sector can be active in that way too to stop that from happening. We are losing a lot of that capital exported by the private sector which impacts negatively on the potential for growth. The activism of the private sector ought to focus on what are the things we need to do in order to generate this capital and invest this capital in conditions that encourage that investment and indeed do what to ensure we don't lose this capital.

Sylvia Tamale: I am not a business woman, I am not an intellectual, I am a poor woman from Nakapiripirit and I happen to be sexually attracted to fellow women and I have HIV/Aids. I hear there is an MP back in Kampala who has tabled a Bill because I have HIV and if I get into an intimate relationship with my partner I will be killed. Politician to politician, what would you say to that MP, his name is [David] Bahati?

Mbeki: I would say to the MP, really my own view is that sexual preferences are a private matter. I don't think it is a matter for the state to intervene. Of course he will take a different view and would probably say to me it is African culture. But how do you do it? You know in South Africa during the apartheid years, they prohibited sexual relations across the colour line. What was illegal was black man-white woman, white man-black woman getting together. And they had a law which was called the Immorality Act.

You had police officers raiding people's bedrooms, literary and people would be dragged off to court because they had committed an offence. I mean, do we want that? That you have a police officer knocking at your bedroom door to find out who you are sleeping with? It doesn't make sense at all. That is what I would say to the MP. What two consenting adults do, is not really the matter of law, we got too many other problems.

Patrick Bwanika, Social Scientist: In an article in one of our dailies, I read that when you were still in the high office, you neglected the reality of Africa and you were so much taken up by western standards because you were groomed there. If the father of pan-Africanism were to be here, would he be a sad person?

Mbeki: He might indeed be a very sad person. I think part of our challenge as students is really to study. You might read articles like the one you read. The fact that the thing is printed and has been broadcast does not mean it is correct. As students we really need to cultivate this capacity or to inquire, to doubt everything. Just question everything I say. I hear the issue raised about these Africans and why are they looking for aid; aid is bad and so on. I am saying Ireland, Portugal and Spain and so on developed the way they are because they received aid. It was perfectly okay for them to get aid why is it not alright for the Africans? I am not saying the manner in which we handle that aid is necessarily correct but I think in principle it is quite wrong.

A series of questions from Makerere University students on how best Uganda should manage its oil resource; the AU's supposed failure to hold African leaders to account and the need for restoration of term limits in Uganda.

Mbeki: The management of African resources is quite important and the use of those resources to benefit the population. The question about Uganda; you are Ugandans, the oil has been found. Don't wait for the AU to come and tell the government of Uganda what is going to happen. It won't come. It is a matter that you have got to handle yourselves so that indeed these resources will impact on the population. This is true also of the expectation that the African Union is going to go around on the continent telling Presidents and heads of state to retire. They are not going to do it.

This is part of the inquiry we should have in our minds. This business of term limits came as the African continent was democratising in the 90s on wards and it was a reaction to what had happened before - of people staying in power too long. It was a tactical thing. We have transformed it into a principle. The British don't have term limits, who says they are not democratic? But to turn it into a principle of democracy, a lot of the world would then be undemocratic because they don't have this principle. I don't know the politics of Uganda (loud chattering from audience) but I mean if there was a challenge like that, deal with it. But whatever the political problems you people might be facing deal with it.

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