I have recently started frequenting a quaint little pub in Bryanston in the north of Johannesburg, South Africa which has a lot of English patrons. It is a great place to enjoy a few pints of Guinness or some Irish whisky under the African sun after a long day at work (or even during office hours if you are me).
Since I started frequenting this pub I have noticed that these English expats who make up a large proportion of the customer base of this pub spend most of their time at the pub not only drinking copious amounts of alcohol as is the English tradition but also whingeing and complaining about South Africa and Africa and making fun of the continent and its “stupid” leaders as they are wont to call them. They never get enough of complaining about the corruption within the ruling party in South Africa, the high crime levels mostly the fault of black South Africans and in fact as one of them recently told me, ” I came to South Africa thirteen years ago with lots of optimism, hoping to experience the Rainbow Nation, but after having been a victim of crime once too often and having seen the racist policies of the ruling party I have become a bigot and have begun to detest everything that is represented by ANC-led South Africa.”
Being an understanding sort of chap (or at least I’d like to think I am) I was happy to let all of this slide until I pitched up at the pub in my ANC cap last week and one of the English patrons took offense and began to voice his displeasure at the fact that I had come wearing an ANC cap. I avoided making a big issue out of the whole thing but left there reflecting on the irony that an Englishman, who had left his home country to come and live in South Africa and was enjoying a great life on the southern tip of Africa was coming down hard on me for wearing a cap with the ruling party logo on it. This would have been fine if it was an isolated incident but through my frequent visits to the pub I have noticed that this is a common view that is held by these expats and they take every opportunity to belittle Africa and defend Europe.
In their eyes corruption is a uniquely African phenomenon and African leaders could learn a lot from their European compatriots. With the likes of Laurent Gbagbo and Robert Mugabe still in office it becomes very difficult to defend the continent when such accusations are thrown around, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the hypocrisy that lay behind all these sentiments. While the ANC in South Africa is undoubtedly corrupt and guilty of gross abuses of power in its seventeen years of governance so far and many other African leaders are equally guilty on this score, one need only look at Tony Blair’s government and the amount of scandals they got involved in to see that corruption is not unique to Africa alone and self-serving political leadership is to be found everywhere. We all know that Margaret Thatcher and the Tories where no saints either in their many years in power. If we cross the Atlantic we have the example of Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal, George Bush, Dick Cheney and the likes of Halliburton etc.
While I am no apologist for corrupt African leadership and am of the opinion that they should all be brought to book for abusing the power entrusted to them by the people, I also am of the opinion that European and North American political leadership is in no way better than African leadership when it comes to corruption, brutality, abuse of power and personal enrichment. The only difference is that whilst African leaders are often guilty of brutalising their own people and committing the worst atrocities against their own people, European and North American leaders have mastered the art of doing the same thing to people of other continents in order to enrich themselves and promote their own agendas. Witness America’s illegal involvement in the destabilising of the popular Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the eighties, Bush/Blair in Iraq and Afghanistan calling the murder of innocent civilians “collateral damage” whilst engaging in a war to promote the business interests of companies closely linked with them, Obama has been no different despite the deceptive oratorical skills and charisma, Putin and his brutal massacre of civilians in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus region etc.
What the Europeans and North Americans have mastered is the art of being brutal takers in their engagement with other peoples and they are happy to set aside the very principles they claim to promote in doing so. They are willing to sacrifice the lives of other peoples if it benefits them and their peoples. The attitude of the Europeans and North Americans in their engagement with other peoples can be accurately described by the words Charles Dickens uses in his epic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, when talking about the character Monseigneur, “Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on its own way, of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way-tend to his own power and pocket of his pleasures, general and particular, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that the world was made for them. The text of his order (altered from the original by only a pronoun, which is not much) ran: the earth and the fullness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.”
This is the same attitude betrayed by these English expats at the pub and is indicative of an attitude that prevails in Europe and North America’s engagement with the rest of the world. It is the attitude of people who are takers and not passive receivers and is in many ways the kind of attitude that Africa must adopt in its engagement and trade with the rest of the world in our century. For too long Africa has been a passive receiver and now it’s time that we become takers. In our engagement with Asia, with North America, Europe, South America and all the other continents we need to take on the mentality of takers.
They need us much more than we need them, if we just get our act together. We have all the resources they need in order to grow their economies and just need to grow our human capital and skills base in order to exploit these resources to our benefit, something we can do without outside assistance if we use all that we have at our current disposal. We need to set the agenda for trade and if it doesn’t benefit us then we refuse to engage. We need to engage at a global level on our terms and stop buying into this idea that we still need external help and support to sort ourselves out. We just need to get our act together and realise that we are in no way inferior and hence need not be dependent. This is where plans like NEPAD fell apart because they were still too dependent on outside support for success even though they claimed to promote independence and self-sufficiency.
The world belongs to those who are takers and this attitude of superiority that is being shown by these English expats at my local pub is indicative of a taker’s mindset in Europe and North America’s engagement with the rest of the world and needs to characterise Africa and its leadership in their engagement with the rest of the world in this century. Even the Chinese in their engagement with Africa have shown a certain superiority complex and it is important that we address this now before it becomes a problem for future generations of Africans in this century as we look to turn Africa around.