Every morning, I wake up and see people busily going about their business of the day. What I find lacking, however, is the ends to which all these efforts are directed. On the whole, Africa faces a myriad of developmental issues, yet very few countries have defined a common vision or inspired a sense of urgency to which all citizens should work towards. What we often see and hear about are complex development plans that are not properly interpreted nor easily accessible by citizens. Shrouded in secrecy, civil servants who are supposed to work to realise them are often not exposed to the entire content, making them go through the routines without the added benefit of being inspired by its purpose or higher social good. While writing a paper for a course during my masters, I came across China’s 24 Character Strategy and it blew me away. It made me realise how great leadership could inspire citizens to a common purpose and how much could be achieved if that purpose is followed through long enough. The 24 Character strategy was roughly translated as follows:
“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
This was given in the early 1990s by their leader Deng Xiaoping in response to the global backlash from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the sense of alarm following the collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe. The key assumption was that the economic prosperity and stability achieved through the use of the strategy would give China greater international influence and diplomatic leverage as well as a robust, modern military. And as is seen with China’s rise since then, the results have been staggering. China has overtaken the US as the largest economy in the world, it has grown its military from a large antiquated force into a modern capable military, It’s influence in the international space has increased immensely and China has become more assertive in its dealings with my dear Africa. So then, will it not be wise for us, African countries, to learn from this?
Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly: This calls for cool heads at all times. That to strengthen our position among other countries in the world we need to observe and analyse their actions calmly and not just be reactionary. It’s about thinking deeply about what is in Africa’s best interest. It’s about not being in a hurry to prove a point but remaining cool, and being strategic with our responses to situations. Here, one thing that still baffles me, is the fact that a lot of our leaders are still steeped in the ideological battles of the cold war. I am a big believer that what African countries need are pragmatic solutions, that our goal should be self reliant and development, and that the best way to get there is what matters. “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, what matters is that it catches the mice!”. I was at the Pan-African congress last year, and was so surprised to find that its whole focus was on independence era ideologies – whether Africans should be governed by socialism or capitalism. What we, the people of the continent, need right now is socio-economic development and we want the most pragmatic way to get there. Both socialism and capitalism have their flaws, and in this globalised world it often makes little sense for us to find the need to be chaining ourselves to one particular ideology. If need be, let’s come up with our own ideology. We need to put Africa in a better position that future generations will be proud to call it home.
Hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership: Herein lies the main meal. I have often found that the international media, in efforts to atone for the negative portrayal of Africa over the years, are resorting to unnecessarily hype any effort from the continent no matter how mediocre they sometimes were. I have no problem with this, where I begin to cringe is when we begin believing them and adding to the hype ourselves. This has left me yet to be fully comfortable with the African rising narrative. I think its important to tell our stories, but hyping and substance are two different things. Indeed, we are doing a lot on this continent, and of course they need recognition, however that recognition should not make us complacent, in knowing the that bigger challenges we face will require greater efforts from us than the we have put in over the years. Why should we even find the need to let people know that we are successful in the first place. Its more important to be than to seem to be. Yes, we have been misrepresented for long, but in attempts to correct this, we should not be over-eager to showcase the rosy side of the picture to the detriment of developing the whole picture. Maybe we need to put our heads down and do the work that needs to be done, then the world will have no choice than to invite us to the table.
Learning from the experiences of others holds true in the case of men as it does for countries. The Chinese came out with a strategy that wasn’t just a written plan but was a call to action that every citizen could relate with, whether in the public or private sector. It is time for African countries to develop that clarion call, that sense of urgency that makes every citizen part of a higher purpose for the betterment of all, that their efforts will build a better future for the next generation and those yet to come. It will take strong leadership. It will take deep reflections. If we truly want to develop us a people, we must create that call that will bring everyone to the table to contribute.