An “active citizen and change agent” is how Dr Mamphela Ramphele describes her current role. “I’m focusing on connecting networks of change agents in Africa so there can be greater momentum for change across the continent.” It’s an apt priority.
A revered anti-apartheid campaigner, change has been a constant thread running through her career, one that has included roles such as medical doctor, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, board member of Anglo-American and managing director of the World Bank. Having recently sampled, and moved on from, the field of party politics, her eclectic experiences as both activist and global public servant have sharpened her views on the ability and willingness of many African leaders to deliver positive public change. Hers is a cutting assessment.
“Many of them have a mindset no different to the colonial rulers they replaced,” she says. “The language of politics in Africa is the language of the ruling party. The idea that government is meant to serve citizens is not accepted in many countries.” Instead, she continues, the mindset is one of overpowering loyalty to the country’s leader, overshadowing everything else.
“We have seen countless examples where people are afraid of being seen to be not loyal,” she says. “All of this is driven by a narrative of entitlement to rule, which is extremely dangerous as it holds African citizens captive: ‘we have liberated you so we are entitled to rule you’. And so the commitment to service does not exist. African countries have all the resources they need to be successful but this mindset is a persistent barrier to further progress.”
Continent of contrasts
The problems cited by Dr Ramphele are in stark contrast to the many positive developments that have ricocheted across Africa in recent years. Increased foreign investment, a strengthening middle class and rapid economic growth for many countries are just a few of the myriad factors driving the continent forward. Even infrastructure, so long a barrier to accelerated growth is (slowly) improving, while its natural resources remain rich and plentiful.
So valuable are these natural resources – which have long lured investors from around the world – it seems pertinent to ask whether their abundance may have contributed to the sense of ‘entitlement’ she cites. Dr Ramphele, though, refuses to see them as anything other than a blessing. “It’s not the resources that are a problem, but really the management of the resources,” she says. “Look at Norway. They have turned their oil resources into wealth for their future generations. The same with Botswana – former leaders were aware of the country’s diamonds but they refused to let anyone start to mine them until they were clear about how the resources were going to be managed.”
Nonetheless, she says that improving governance in Africa is a two-way street. Citizens, too, need to recognise the gravity of their role in holding policymakers to account. “Too many still accept being treated as subjects, rather than citizens,” she says. “It’s not only the leaders’ conduct – it is citizens accepting this position. Many will tell you that if they don’t, then they run the risk of being abused. But for governments to be truly accountable, the word ‘citizens’ needs to be more operative in Africa. This will help prevent leaders opting to stay in power, irrespective of the democratic wishes of their people.”
Shine a light
Among the many chapters in Dr Ramphele’s cv is a stint on the board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organisation dedicated to enhancing good governance and leadership across Africa. The foundation provides an annual statistical assessment of the quality of governance in every African country, and also awards a prize for a former head of state or government who has achieved excellence in leadership. Dr Ramphele says that these standards are met when there has been a shift in the mindset of leadership, citing Cape Verde’s story as a case in point.
“We heard from its president when he came to collect the Mo Ibrahim prize that when they first took power they had that sense of entitlement and this caused them to lose an election,” she recalls. “And so they had to go through a major internal review which crystallised what government is about and what public leadership is about. And when they were returned to power they went in there as public servants. And that’s why Cape Verde has moved from abject poverty to become a middle income country, even without the resources that other African countries possess.”
Mauritius and Botswana, too, come in for high praise. “In Mauritius, the country benefited from having political leaders who focused not on themselves but on what they could do to make their country successful,” she says. “It was about investing in the people of Mauritius, using their talents and skills, and the natural beauty of the island, to become a successful African country. The same with Botswana. Whatever mistakes its leaders have made, the reality is that Botswana has been very consistent about using its natural resources to invest in its people.”
Such examples prove that good governance exists and indeed flourishes across Africa. But, again, she is keen to reiterate that it only occurs when leadership and citizens take ownership of shaping the future together. “This will enable accountability to flourish and ensure that leaders will only be returned to power if the people feel they will be able to continue serving them, not because they feel entitled.”
On with impact
Dr Ramphele may have stepped away from South Africa’s political limelight but it is clear that her self-described wish to be an ‘active citizen’ means that she remains determined to keep moving forward, leaving her mark wherever her goes.
“I grew up with hardship around me and when you succeed you realise you are there for a purpose,” she reflects. “And so, wherever I have been – whether as a medical doctor or as an academic or researcher or executive – my purpose is not occupying the position but instead how I can make a real impact. This requires a willingness to take a risk of challenging convention. As my last engagement with the party political process shows, you are not always going to succeed, but the fact is I would rather fail trying than fail to try.”
Her primary focus now is to help the continent’s army of young people understand the power and potential they possess. Africa has more people aged under 20 than anywhere in the world and Dr Ramphele recognises that the continent’s future prosperity hinges on maximising this demographic dividend. “They really need to have the courage and to remember that there cannot be change without risks,” she says, perhaps recalling the apartheid struggles of her youth.
“They have to be willing to risk some discomfort in the short term for the long-term benefit of turning this continent, with all its magnificent resources and beautiful landscapes, into a continent we can all be proud of.”
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