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Re-imagining African Agency in Times of Crisis: the Covid-19 window for change

Young African Magazine

Re-imagining African Agency in Times of Crisis: the Covid-19 window for change

Published 30 May 2020

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On Africa Day 2020 The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and The Higherlife Foundation partnered to host a webinar on Re-Imagining African Agency in Times of Crisis. The webinar offered an intergenerational conversation moderated by Ms Judy Sikuza, the CEO of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Opening remarks on Covid-19 were delivered by Dr Kennedy Mubaiwa, Chief Executive Director of The Higher Life Foundation. Keynote remarks were provided by the Chairs of the two Foundations, Professor Njabulo S. Ndebele and Mrs Tsitsi Masiyiwa. This was followed by a panel of young leaders from diverse sectors, joined by a youthful audience of over 670 Africans across the continent and in the diaspora. What follows is a reflection on the conversation and its broader significance this Africa Month.

“We pass through this world but once and opportunities you miss will never be available to you again.” – Nelson Mandela

These words are particularly resonant this Africa Month. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people across the world to remember that we only pass through the world once, without knowing how long we have. With this mindfulness comes a greater awareness of each moment as an opportunity to act. Before the pandemic we took our freedom – our ability to exercise agency – for granted. Now stuck indoors and contemplating our sudden inability to act, the Covid-19 pandemic also invites us to pause and look at the world around us from a place of stillness. The pandemic has shown us that the sutures on the wounds of the past are terribly flimsy. The millions of African people living in poverty are least able to socially distance or observe hygiene measures because of overcrowding and inadequate sanitation provisions. The public hospitals that the poor rely upon are under-resourced and neglected; public schools have struggled to continue with online learning. Many systems are functioning, but we are a very long way from the human flourishing imagined at that first convening of the Organisation for African Unity in 1963.

As governments and leaders across the world make unprecedented interventions and dramatic redistributions of resources, we have an opportunity that we may not be presented with again in our lifetime. History shows us that in every human catastrophe lies an opportunity to rebuild anew, to renegotiate the social contracts that structure society. In his opening remarks, Professor Njabulo Ndebele noted that Africa has an incredibly young demographic, and that it’s an optimistic time to be a young African leader. “You will be called upon to make very complex decisions that affect your fellow citizens. These will be thrust on your shoulders and your minds, when you are much younger than most of us who have taken on responsibility. It will become the norm for young people to become presidents, Vice-Chancellors of universities, CEOS, and leaders in scientific research. You should accept this challenge with open minds and open hearts. You should prepare yourselves well for this historic task. Aim for the highest standards possible in your work.” Professor Ndebele recalled the vision and the potential of a single market in Africa, and reminded us that the struggle for freedom may take a long time but it is always possible in the end. “As Africans, we do not yield to adversity. We try by all means to triumph against it.” The four panellists, all alumni of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and Higherlife Foundation, are examples of precisely the kind of leadership roles young people are currently taking in Africa. Dalumizi Mhlanga, Chiedza Juru, Barbara Karuana and Daniel Ndima are all exercising influence in their respective spheres. Moderator Judy Sikuza asked them each to share how they view this moment of crisis/opportunity as a chance to reimagine African agency.

Rethinking the structures and systems that hold Africa back

How do we understand agency? Agency refers to our ability – as individuals, groups, organisations, and even nations – to act decisively in relation to the social structures around us. These structures are what we inherit from previous generations: established economic, political and social systems such as religion, education, and culture, all of which affect the way power and wealth are distributed in society. The financial system is one such structure – it shapes people’s lives in ways which most have little influence over. Dalumuzi Mhlanga is the Founder and CEO of Notto Inc, a FinTech startup that focuses on credit scoring. Dalumuzi explained how the financial system currently makes it very difficult for many African families and businesses to access loans. One must have a good credit rating to access a large loan. Anyone who is employed informally or cannot provide a payslip will not be able to build a credit rating by paying back smaller loans, even though they do earn regular income. Dalumuzi sees the current moment as an opportunity to intervene in this system. “As young people we have a unique window to reimagine and restructure our reality. This is really a critical inflection point. How can we help people to qualify for credit without having to get into debt?” He says that five years ago, regulators and banks would not have been open to a shift, but in this window they “are more receptive to new ideas, and to reimagining how the financial system and credit works, so that African people can build wealth.” For Dalumuzi, it is critical that we use the unique window provided by the pandemic to reimagine how credit works, acting decisively to change a structure that is holding Africa back. His highest hope is that in 50 years’ time we will reflect on this inflection point as one where we turned the tide for Africa.

Storytelling and self-determination: building Africa’s confidence

Historically there is a strong link between African agency and the struggle for self-determination. Self-determination is usually understood as the right of a group of people to unite and form their own government, free from oppression by outside powers or colonisers. The desire for self-determination stems from a sense of national identity, and cultivating a robust and healthy national identity goes beyond the attainment of independence. Storytelling has an important role to play in the development of our individual, national and pan African identities. Barbara Karuana is a Kenyan filmmaker and the Outreach Director of Good Pitch Kenya. In recent times, she has seen an exponential increase in the availability of stories by Africans and about Africans, compared to her childhood spent watching American TV that did not represent her. She says it’s an exciting time to be an African creative due to the technological platforms available, and that she is personally committed to expanding the reach of African stories so that people across the continent can access each other’s narratives. For Barbara, one of the most positive things about the current moment is that Africans are documenting it themselves, in real time, via mobile phones and on platforms like TikTok or Twitter. This democratises storytelling, and means that there will be a rich archive of stories that current and future generations can draw on, in comparison to earlier chapters of Africa’s history which are under-documented. When moderator Judy Sikuza asked about opportunities presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, Barabara gave the example of American films which are made after a period of crisis or catastrophe, in which an individual overcomes extraordinary odds. “These films amalgamated citizen stories to create narratives of success, which is partly where Americans get their extreme confidence in themselves, their government and their ability to thrive. This crisis will give us the opportunity to see people in African spaces who are innovative, who are bold, and who are brave. We have a chance to make stories about them, which will serve as inspiration for future generations as they face their own crises,” she said.

The role of leaders in re-imagining Africa’s future

Leadership is inseparable from the question of African agency – in order for the continent to take its place on the global stage with confidence, we need leaders that are ethical, courageous, and grounded in values. Both The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Higherlife Foundation work to develop the leaders that Africa needs, and we share a belief that young people are the rightful custodians of Africa’s future. Mrs Tsitsi Masiyiwa, Executive Chair and Co-founder of the Higher Life Foundation highlighted the importance of values-based leadership in her opening remarks, sharing the four pillars taught at the Star Leadership Academy in Zimbabwe. She highlighted servant leadership as “a characteristic that will take us out of the storm we’re in and put us in a place we are resilient enough to weather another one. Servant leaders put others before themselves, which takes humility and a love for humanity.” The learners of the Star academy are also schooled in tenacity, a characteristic Africans have developed in response to our history of adversity, and accountability, a characteristic we need to build a culture of in African politics. The final value is responsibility, which invites leaders to “lead lives of no excuses in which we celebrate our victories, but also take ownership of our mistakes”. Mrs Masiyiwa’s call for value-based leadership and the development thereof in young people was echoed by Chiedza Juru, the General Manager at the Star Leadership Academy and an alumnus of the Higherlife Foundation’s Joshua Nkomo scholarship. Chiedza believes in the Pan-African vision of a continent that is united, free and in control of its own destiny, and that leadership is an essential factor in that vision being realised. “I always worry about what will become of our agency as a continent if we don’t unite, if we don’t harness our youthful population, and our abundant resources, and create economic value and have a voice.” Chiedza shared how her own experience of receiving a leadership development scholarship was life changing, and exposed her to how other young Africans were confronting challenges in their own national contexts. She argues that we prioritise “raising servant leaders that have a sense of identity, that love their country, and that have the right values.” Without ethical leaders who assume responsibility and who are accountable for how they use power and exercise their agency, Africa will struggle to realise its full potential.

Finding our inner strengths, as we search for solutions

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on supply and demand dynamics in global trade. There has been a scramble to procure testing kits and personal protective equipment, and nations have been racing against one another to secure supply. Some well-resourced nations with greater bargaining power have been able to secure good deals, while others have had to think quickly about how to kick-start the domestic production of these essential products. Nations have had no choice but to become self-reliant, and re-examine the vulnerabilities built into certain global trade dynamics. Daniel Ndima is a scientist specialising in structural biology. He is the co-founder and CEO of CapeBio Technology, a company which has recently developed a rapid testing kit for Covid-19 which can produce results in an hour. The kits are manufactured locally and significantly speed up the availability and processing of tests. Daniel sees the Coronavirus as one of many pandemic outbreaks still to come. “We now have an opportunity to rethink and recreate an ecosystem designed by Africans,” he said. For Daniel, the diversity in Africa is a source of great power, which we should leverage lest it be used against us. “We can modernise indigenous knowledge systems and leverage African resources to develop pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. We should be turning to African values, instead of aspiring to go to Europe or America. We have everything we need.”

The Covid-19 pandemic is also an opportunity for us to re-examine the structure of African economies, designed originally to benefit the colonial countries or our more influential current-day trading powers. Daniel argues that we need to break down some of these systems and create new ones so that we are geared towards Africa’s prosperity. “It’s time to take those spaces. Political spaces, leadership roles in various industries, Vice-chancellor spaces! We need to take all those spaces.” Reclaiming our agency will require confidence and trust in ourselves as Africans. “We need to trust in our capabilities and our capacity as diverse nations of Africa, in our inventions and innovations, and in our talents. Most importantly we need to trust our people who are capable, who have dreams and vision. We have all the possibilities of creating a new society for Africans. If there was a time for us to take our spaces - the opportunity is now. Now is the time to be proud of being Africans, and to take ownership of our actions and of every space that we can find.”

It starts with healing, and a single step

There is much to be done, and the moment for Africans to exercise agency and shift the structures and systems holding us back has arrived. Judy asked the panellists what is missing, if everything is in place for us to take these steps? Chiedza provided a reminder that the conversation about healing in Africa often ends with the liberation generation – those that fought for freedom from colonial powers. The wounds of the slave trade and colonisation undermined Africans’ dignity and confidence. “We must acknowledge that pain: you can’t deny it, but you need to be able to move on from it. We need to look at reconciliation, and remember that young people have had their own struggles. There is pain coming from tough economic circumstances, not being able to get educated or put food on the table. We need to look at healing in both generations,” she said.

After an engaging Q&A with the young leaders in the audience, Tanya Masiyiwa, Executive Director of Delta Philanthropies, gave an overview of the conversation. She concluded with an invocation to get started, so that in 15 years’ time we would be hearing from the future presidents and CEOs in the audience on how they turned things around. “There is so much power in just starting. Start with what you have, where you are. We have the skills, the intellect, the grit and the resilience to create an Africa that only we have imagined, that others are yet to see.”

Audaciously reclaiming African agency in every moment

Every Africa Day we commemorate the self-determination that African nations achieved through the struggle for independence. In 2020, Africa Day is a reminder that freedom is always hard-won, that it requires that we claim and activate the agency we do have in a given moment or opportunity, and that it is achieved more easily through co-operation and collective effort. Judy closed her moderation by reflecting on the crossroads presented by the Covid-19 crisis. “We can either view it as a path to further deterioration as a continent. Or we can recognise that we are already doing the things that allow us to reimagine and redefine society. We have the audacity to believe in a reimagined continent, and in our skills and talents to fundamentally shift society. We really have a beautiful window, amidst all the challenges, to dig deep, to find our agency, to find our resilience, and our creativity. Let us remember that it is in our hands to create the future that we want.”

“You have to carefully choose the opportunity and make sure that history would be on your side.” – Nelson Mandela

By Abigail McDougall, on behalf of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Higherlife Foundation

More about The Mandela Rhodes Foundation:
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