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Opinion: No man is an island

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Monday, 12 February 2018 10:40

That great English poet John Donne, unlike Russia’s ­Alexander Pushkin, did not have African blood coursing through his veins, as far as we know. Yet his elegiac ‘No Man is an Island’ is a wonderful expression of the Zulu idea of Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, meaning that a person is a person through other people. The short form Ubuntu, meaning ‘I am because you are’, has come to encapsulate a central tenet in South African philosophy.

Donne ends his meditation in a similar vein: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ These parallels between Zulu concepts and European poetry point to a universality in the belief in community and cooperation.

At the same time, it is part of the answer to the vulgar xenophobia and narrow nationalism on display in the US presidency and in the wave of fascist movements in ­Europe. Not only did the recent White House outburst prompt the African Union to demand an apology, but it led to diplomatic protests from more than 20 African states. It also provoked a strongly worded open letter to the White House from 78 of Washington’s former ambassadors pointing out ­Africa’s historical and contemporary contributions, as well as the interdependence of all peoples. It is a measure of the current political climate that such a point needs to be made publicly to a US president.

Other liberal commentators pushed back against the latest nationalist myth-making, citing the official data showing that 41% of African migrants to the US have a bachelor’s degree or higher – compared with 28% of US citizens as a whole.

Apart from confirming that some of Africa’s best and brightest minds are key to the West’s, and increasingly Asia’s, productive and creative economies, these figures tell a starker story about socio­economic realities on the continent. Much more will have to be done, not just on the policy level but also in terms of nurturing creativity and innovation.

Two decades ago, the late Claude Ake, one of Nigeria’s foremost political scientists, wrote: ‘The assumption so readily made that there has been a failure of development is misleading.’ Instead his conclusion was: ‘The problem is not so much that development has failed as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place.’ He would, however, be heartened to see that development – industrial policy and leapfrog technologies – is today very much on the continental agenda.

Apart from the effort, particularly in commodity-dependent economies, to diversify and industrialise, negotiations for ­Africa’s Continental Free Trade Area have moved into the technical stage. A summit to sign the agreement should occur before the end of March. With manufactured goods accounting for 41% of intra-African trade, according to UN data for 2014, a wider free trade area could give a fillip to diversification efforts. Africa may benefit from opening its trade, just as some regions seek to put up new barriers. Ubuntu.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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