Looking into the gutter…

Opening a World Assembly of Youth seminar in Tanzania in 1961, Julius Nyerere said: “The true purpose of wealth is to satisfy very simple needs: the need for food, the need for shelter, the need for education and so on. In other words, the end of wealth is the banishment of poverty … There is enough wealth in every state for every individual to satisfy these basic needs.
“But the moment individuals in any single state begin to use wealth not for the satisfaction of those needs, not for the abolition of poverty, but for the purpose of acquiring power and prestige, then there is no longer enough.
“Then wealth tolerates poverty; then wealth is no longer to poverty what light is to darkness.
There is not enough wealth in any nation to satisfy the desire for power and prestige of every individual, so what happens? There is then ruthless competition between individuals – not to get wealth to feed themselves, or to clothe themselves, or to house themselves – but to seize enough wealth to give themselves more power, more prestige than their fellows…
“When that stage is reached, one millionaire is prepared to spend millions simply in order to destroy another millionaire.”
That was about two years before a pivotal stage in Nyerere’s dream for a unified Africa was to be achieved in Addis Ababa with the launch of what was then called the OAU and is now the African Union.
For Nyerere, a socialist standpoint was the primary means by which Africa could achieve its developmental aspirations.
I, like many other people across the world, admire Nyerere. So, it really pains me to have to admit that the man was naïve; a hopeless romantic who believed in mankind’s intrinsic humanity (almost like Kaunda).
In his idealism, he over-estimated not only man’s capacity to do good, but indeed his willingness to do good.
So, while he knew that greed was a destroyer of nations, he simplistically thought man’s atavism and primeval instinct to dominate could be tempered by the state.
He little thought that Africa would soon produce its own millionaires who would pursue accumulation of wealth and power so that they could then accumulate even more wealth and power – at whatever cost.
And so 52 years after Nyerere’s words of caution on how wealth should be used and spread, and 50 years after the formation of the African Union, the continent is now a land of glaring contradictions and juxtapositions.
We will talk of surging economic growth spurred by the commodities boom, while at the same time we bemoan intolerably high unemployment, hunger and insecurity.
The experts will tell us that Africa is on the right path, that it is no longer the Economist’s “Hopeless Continent” or Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.
They will tell us that Africa is rising and wax lyrical about how all the meaningless economic indicators point to a bright future.
But the truth is Africa is in the gutter. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde put it beautifully in “Lady Windermere’s Fan” when one of his characters remarked: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The “experts” on Africa are with us in this gutter, but they are seeing stars of booming GDP growth rates and massive returns on the stock exchange as minerals are pillaged and shipped to foreign shores to prop up industries there and create wealth for other people’s children.
The politicians in Africa are lying in the gutter with us, seeing stars that make them postulate about how they have been steering the continent on the “right” path because internet connectivity is on the rise – as if people eat gigabytes!
The businesspeople in Africa are rollicking in the gutter, utterly pleased with the stars that tell them that this continent is the last – and most profitable – investment frontier.
And what of the rest of the people in the gutter? Those who are not “experts”, politicians or businesspeople? French philosopher Julien Benda, back in 1927 had an interesting thing to say about those lying in the gutter.
His take – while assessing the development trajectory Europe was taking in respect of its society and its intellectuals, vis-à-vis the moral obligations of the state ‑ was that Europe was lying in the gutter and staring into the gutter.
And up until the African state understands the purpose of wealth and how it can be used to bring real development – and not just vacuous sounding “economic growth – to ordinary people, like the Europe that Benda saw, we shall continue lying in the gutter ‑ looking into the gutter.


May 2013
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