Hope for Africa

Living in a near failed State like Zimbabwe and watching the news about the rest of Africa, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the continent. But I have recently spent time in Namibia, Kenya and Uganda. Last week I was on a Parliamentary trip to Kampala, the Capital of Uganda, which lasted 5 days.

I must say that we were impressed with Kampala – it’s a City of 5 million people, about 80 kilometers across, a major City by any standard. Uganda has had its share of the “African” disease – bad government, corruption and human and legal rights abuse; the expulsion of the Asian business community and the economic collapse that followed, but what we found was unexpected.

The City is clean – I seldom saw any litter, certainly none in the City center, no pot holes and the gardens immaculate – I have always judged communities by their gardens as a community that plants trees and flowers and mows the lawn, is a stable and progressive community. On a day trip to Jinga we passed 5 nurseries selling trees and shrubs. The country does not experience winter and gets two wet seasons a year so it was green and vibrant. Plant anything and it grows.

Our human contacts were no less impressive, Ugandans are confident in their skins, open and friendly. I never felt any sense of insecurity even though there was a security clamp down at the time due to some intelligence about a threat. Every meeting we attended was on time and well organised, if our driver said he would be at the hotel to pick us up at 10, he was there with a protocol officer who could not have been more helpful and facilitating.

In Parliament we observed the Committees at work; we watched a sitting of the House and heard some debate. It is clear that Parliament is a strong, independent institution and clearly takes its role as the watchdog of the people very seriously. We heard senior officials from the Prime Minister’s Office being grilled over unauthorized expenditure – a tough no hold barred session. We watched another committee grill the senior officers from a Rural Council over a debt of $40 000 that had not been accounted for – they were given a week to produce the culprits and the truth or face serious consequences.

It was a real privilege to be able to see an administration in Africa working so well and to recognise that this was really Uganda at work – not some foreign consultants or expatriates, but the real thing, all home grown and indigenous. The staff and Members of Parliament that we met were charming and confident and well aware of the crucial role they were playing in their society. I was deeply encouraged and we learned a great deal from our counterparts about how we might improve our own performance at home in Zimbabwe.

For those of us who have made Africa our home of choice, these examples of a functional society that is self confident and progressive, are important because we all need hope while we struggle with the present and the past. Africa is on the move. This year the continental economy will grow faster than any other, we are at last making some inroads to the poverty of our people and our institutions are slowly growing in maturity and strength.

Of course there are problems and we saw those – the massive informal sector, run down railways system, large areas of low grade housing and clear evidence of insecurity of tenure. The school system is mixed – half private and half State and the standards vary a great deal. You really need to be able to afford private education to equip your children with a decent education. Health care is also very disparate – the poor get a low standard of care while the rich can get what they want. The economy is dominated by that of Kenya but regional institutions seem to be working better than here in southern Africa.

The problem of the Big Man persists, Mr. Museveni has been in power for many decades and while we were there he fired his Prime Minister for what seemed to us to be very flimsy reasons – the real reason probably being that he was clearly intending to challenge the President in 2016. Power is highly centralized but the State works and there is quite a lot of new investment which suggests that policies are reasonably investor friendly.

Next door is Rwanda where once a week the State President goes onto the street to collect litter, where millions of peasant farmers have been given secure legal title to their land and are now owners, not occupiers. I looked at the departure board in Nairobi airport and saw 12 flights to Kigali. The economy there is booming and there is a new sense of purpose and enterprise. This was the country that just a few years ago was witnessing the murder by machete of 80 000 people a day for months. It is all about leadership.

When I flew from Nairobi to Harare three weeks ago there were just 12 passengers on my flight. On the ground we were the only flight being processed, on the way into town we used a short road project that was first given to a local firm for execution at a cost of $80 million for 17 kilometers. When they failed to fulfill their contract it was taken over by the State agency. There was no need for the new road; the old one was quite adequate but our President felt that he wanted a new road to showcase visitors – purely an ego issue.

Our economy is in dire straits, accompanied by company closures and declining revenues to the State, only six per cent of our population is working in a formal job, half of them for the government. Our present fiscal situation is totally unsustainable yet our President insisted on travelling to New York to strut on the world stage and took over 100 people with him at a cost of millions. After 34 years there is no understanding of just what is important and what is counter productive.

It’s easy to be discouraged when you face a situation like that and many in Zimbabwe are desperate about the situation they find themselves in right now. Uganda and Rwanda show us that these things pass, that around us Africa is growing up and coming to terms with its past and dealing with the present very well. Every Zimbabwean needs to visit these places, if only to see that there is life after all in Africa and eventually we will also win through.

But winning is not going to be done by foreigners – that is our job and only Zimbabweans can liberate themselves and find a future.

Eddie Cross
29th September 2014