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The United Spider Webs That Tie Up The Elephant: Thoughts On The New Thabo Mbeki School

Nieria End Sars Protest

By: Toyin Falola

It is a privilege for me to have given the Inaugural Lecture at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, the University of South Africa, on Tuesday, October 26, 2020. I would like to share some of the thoughts that I generated and the positive responses to them with the broader public. I do so with the understanding that two eyes are better than one, and a finger cannot lift a large basket to the head: these are two African proverbs that illustrate our collective responsibilities to communities.

Over the last couple of weeks and from one country to another, Africa has been going through many protests. In South Africa, there is a protest against Gender-Based Violence with the hashtag #EndGBV; Nigerians have spent the last two weeks on the streets and through their smartphones to protest police brutality with the #EndSars trend. The Nigerian situation became even worse when people were being killed during the protest, the peak of which culminated in a massacre by the same people paid and assigned to “protect” them. Elsewhere in Congo, Africans are suffering a substantial humanitarian crisis with people being brutally exploited for inherent mineral resources on the one part, while another community called Ituri had several indigenes massacred in retaliation for the death of a soldier. They protest with the hashtag #CongoIsBleeding.

If you think it could not get worse, let me take you on a trip down to Ivory Coast and Ghana where the high rate of child trafficking has led to mass agitations coordinated through the hashtag, #ChildTrafficking in both countries. Cameroon, Liberia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and others are not in any way exempt from these social media-driven protests that have further enhanced the energy of African youth to reinvent their socio-economic and political ambiance. Bedeviled by civil war, protesters are demanding change in Cameroon with the #AnglophoneCrisis trend. Simultaneously, Namibia is framed #ShutItAllDown to depict the people’s opposition to the ongoing gender-based violence in the African country. Following this trend and in facing their leviathan, Liberians are agitating with #RapeNationalEmergency, as rape was becoming part of the everyday living experience of the people; Zimbabweans with #ZimbabweLivesMatter is a collective response to police brutality and arbitrary arrests; and #EndPoliceBrutalityInZambia is the Zambian version of the Zimbabweans as well as the Nigerians’ call for police reform.  These series of “African-wide” protests portend the depth of the rot in these modern states and the looming crisis that stare these states in the face.

It is noteworthy that the current civil unrest in Africa is not limited to those countries mentioned above. And even within the aforementioned countries, problems facing humanity in each of them are multifaceted. While these issues are present today, they can be traced historically to colonialism in Africa. For instance, racial prejudice (endemic in South Africa), corruption (practically in every African country), and police brutality—which also cuts across the continent but is rampant and protested against in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Zambia—all exhibit what the Nobel Laurette, Wole Soyinka, referred to as déjà vu in tragic vein.

Here, I will use the example of police brutality to buttress the above. During the colonial era, the police force was mainly used to suppress revolts, riots, protests, dissents, and even to intimidate the opposition. This was the State’s surest means of forcefully holding onto power and enforcing compliance. Given the colonial administration’s lack of democracy, the use of force was the adopted solution to contrary views or the populace’s dissatisfaction. Hence, the culture of brutality and violence; the logic of power and exemption of dialogue or peaceful resolution were injected into the political culture of modern African states with this use of the police force. This was later joined by other security units in these states as a willing tool of perpetration. The attainment of independence could have provided an excellent chance to rectify this error, but this was not the case. Instead, Africa hurriedly slumped into a military rule that lasted decades where crimes against humanity was perpetrated brazenly without regard for human lives. Although democracy has returned for a while, the culture of impunity instilled has remained and currently plagues the continent. In any case, it was the failure of this repressive form of governance that brought about military rule in most regions. In light of comparative advantage, it has been common knowledge among social scientists that, uniform and outfits apart, both civilian and military administrations in these states share the same bias.

In the absence of colonialism and military rule, African democracy is handicapped by a recurring problem—leadership failure. Since the Western colonizers’ departure, the primary factor inhibiting significant growth and development for more than half a century in these countries relates to leadership deficit. African leaders either implement bad policies or poorly implement good ones. At other times, it is the reluctance even to implement any at all. It can then be consensually theorized that what Africa needs is a readdressing of the very problem at the epicenter of its other challenges—leadership.

In South Africa, there is a protest against Gender-Based Violence with the hashtag #EndGBV

With the arrival of the Thabo Mbeki School, Mother Africa has something to smile upon as an innovative beacon of hope—perhaps it is the exact healing balm Africa has long sought. In my last opinion piece on this creative idea, “Renaissance Reborn: The Thabo Mbeki School and the Transformation of Africa,” I highlighted the importance of the institution. Some of these include “addressing the development challenges of societies in Africa; searching for new knowledge and ideas, being in the forefront of the logic of invention and the logic of discovery; contributing to global discoveries; providing knowledge that accommodates inclusive growth, African thought, issues of sustainable development and human cohesiveness; reshaping public-private sector relationships and determining the role of the public sector in economic development.”

The feasibility of achieving the above desire is not in doubt. This is especially the case with the School’s commitment to the teaching and training of students in “Citizenship and Development Studies, Leadership Studies, Peace and Development Studies, Study of Government Affairs, Urban and Regional Affairs, Simulations and Futuristic Studies, Security and Intelligence Studies, Sustainable Livelihood and Resources Management.” The afore-listed have been carefully developed to cater to all the leadership needs of Africa. Put differently, the idea to make this new soup has been conceived; the above are the ingredients needed to make the soup. And when all ingredients are set, there are other things to take care of, such as the cooking utensils, the level of fire required, the cook(s) involved, etc. hence my further suggestions.

While delivering the presentation in charting the pathway to greatness, I called attention to seven (7) vital and critical areas that the Thabo Mbeki School, like any other African university, should actively look into:

  1. Funding: Crucial to every significant project, the School must carefully devise a way to provide an alternative funding system, independent of the government. A foundational funding system is vital to ensure that the School does not have expensive tuition, which financially decides who can and cannot attend the institution. Indeed, the reality in South Africa, as in other government-owned public universities in Africa, is that many of them are populated with angry students who, in-turn, protest hikes in education fees at every opportunity they get. Funding also majorly impacts universities’ infrastructural development just as it affects the quality of learning delivered to students and contributes to the general public, as inadequate funding certainly impedes research.
  2. Research: It is crucial not only to academia’s growth but also to the polity’s socio-economic and political development. With Research and Development (R & D) always dependent on the growth of the economy in a continent with very low GDP, countries operating below the 1% target of the African Union (AU) show the critically poor state of Africa’s research funding. Besides, there is also a scarcity of Full-Time Equivalent researchers in the continent as universities heavily rely on post-graduates and lecturers for research production. While heavy teaching schedules inhibit junior academics, senior scholars have to contend with school administration, mentoring, and teaching. More time needs to be created for research to combat the continent’s long-standing problems. With the goal of TM School producing great leaders, it also needs to focus on creating great thinkers—excellent researchers and problem-solvers. I also recommend the creation of an outstanding academic journal publication and website that exhibit sections organized by theme. Not only will this form a “Leadership Archive” but also a model for other schools in South Africa and Africa at large. Research output should also be made to address general issues in the private sector and Africa’s matters. They should also not only be archived or stored in the libraries but also reach actual policy-makers for consideration and possible implementation if found worthy. While the methodology of research also needs to be thoroughly Afrocentric— presenting African solutions to African problems—there is the need to ensure that private establishments also support research to fulfill their Corporate Social Responsibility, thus alleviating the pain of funding.
  3. Staffing: I strongly recommend a continental composition in the form of frequent, periodic visitation of academic work to ensure rich, diverse African knowledge to foster an environment towards realizing a Pan-African ideal that resonates with Nkrumah’s United State of Africa. Ultimately, this would aid in research regarding other parts of Africa in this institution to maintain core originality with deep input and close guidance from academics who could relate to the research, especially from their countries or regions. It also ensures that the data interpreted are accurate and the solutions proposed can realistically cater to the identified problems. It is time Africa stopped looking across the Atlantic or depend on aid beyond the Mediterranean. This way, the Thabo Mbeki School should also be open to qualified personnel comprised of people of African origin both on the continent and in the Diaspora. In other words, while the School is located in South Africa, it belongs to all Africans to whom President Mbeki provides a model of servant leadership and change agent.
  4. Entrepreneurial Leadership and Preparing Youth for the Job Market: An entrepreneur’s dexterous leadership skills might be the way forward from a myriad of problems facing Africa. As a meticulous human and material resources manager, management skills such as planning, communication, decision-making, delegating, problem-solving, and motivational skills are essential to leadership and contribute to each graduates’ employability.
  5. Students’ Inclusivity and Enabling Environment for Further Growth: Swimmers, drivers, engineers, doctors, scientists, and even teachers become who they are partly because of the attention given to the theories and manuals related to their professions. Continuous practice and involvement in the learning process open a unique vista of knowledge to attain and maintain their stellar reputation. This makes the practical aspect of teaching and learning an essential feature of knowledge that needs to be incorporated into leadership training. Students need to be included on a ratio basis with lecturers in massive decision-making bodies of the School up to the Senate where they observe, contribute, and learn. Student associations and organizations starting with the student union, journalism clubs, debating societies, etc. should be actively encouraged and supported. The Students’ Union Government should be given considerable autonomy, especially over student welfare matters. It should be such that it can be regarded as a mini-state where university administrators act as mentors who intervene where necessary and call to order where vital. It should also be a compulsory aspect of student learning with them being actively engaged at one level or another. This way, the orientation of graduates produced is built to be constructive and positively responsive. They can make mistakes, make amends, and learn from and through it. After all, perfect practice makes perfection, and the more the training, the more the expertise.
  6. Employment Opportunities and Job Creation: While it is one thing to be skilled and employable, it is another to be employed. Frustration in the job market have proven quite potent in developing attitudes of disinterest among students about learning; uncertainty about the future impacts students such that it becomes difficult to motivate them while also addressing the problem of discipline in light of their disinterestedness. The reason for this is not far-fetched. Education is viewed as a one-way ticket out of unemployment, access to a good life. Hence, when the almighty solution turns out to be a hoax, the uncertainty affects students’ psychology. The university should have a think-tank or board to oversee leveraging in networks, both in public and private sectors, to assist in student employability.
  7. Educational tourism: Lastly, I recommend a learning process where the School organizes periodic tours of Africa in which students learn the culture of leadership and the peoples of Africa with practicality. Also, these learners should understand the dynamic of challenges in the continent from country to country from a relative perspective. Indeed, time during these tours could provide an avenue used as fieldwork experience for students, lecturers, and FTE researchers. By physically studying their respective research areas, made easier by the guidance of diverse lecturers who handle research within their homeland, the possibility of quality research can only be imagined.

Considering the conception of this School and as one committed to combating the leadership problem in Africa, I make a toast to our ancestors—Gamal Nasser, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Bantu Biko, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and many other African great minds—another toast to the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, and a final toast to Africa.

The Author, Toyin Falola, is a Board Member of The Thabo Mbeki School, Honorary Professor, University of Cape Town & University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair The University of Texas at Austin

 

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