Thabo Mbeki, African globalist, speaks on the challenge of change

Diplomatic necks craned and voices buzzed as President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, flanked by Cabinet members, strode into a sardine-packed hotel ballroom to give a lecture on Thursday evening during his state visit to Greece. His discursive talk, co-sponsored by the South African Embassy and ELIAMEP and expansively titled «Contemporary International Problems,» was a genially delivered but hard-hitting exposé of problems arising from or exacerbated by globalization – chiefly democratization, eradication of economic want, and fighting corruption – and the dangers of not addressing them in a timely, comprehensive and, above all, multilateral fashion. Diving straight into his theme, the president said there was «not enough will and imagination» in fighting issues crucial to the 21st century. Citing Michael Edwards, author of «Future Positive,» he asserted that despite dizzying contemporary advances, «we are still incapable of living at peace with ourselves and each other.» And posing a neat dual challenge – the struggle against poverty, and the struggle for development – he asked, how can we (as in humanity) respond to these and other major challenges? He painted his own continent’s past as a catalog of failure, with the present showing some few green shoots among the still-bare fields – thanks not least to some recent, pan-African initiatives he has spearheaded. Africa presents «a very sorry tale,» with an unsavory history of coups and instability, and «growing and absolute levels of impoverishment» throughout the continent. Responses were also poor: «Africans watched and waited» as outsiders launched initiatives to solve the problems. Though these were «truly well-intentioned,» they failed partly because Africans were unable to elaborate on their progress, mere bystanders in a long, costly and largely futile series of initiatives. In turn, this African passivity encouraged World Bank development officers to act (in WB President James Wolfensohn’s term) like «viceroys» or «deputy kings» who would offer up grand but unworkable plans. Helping themselves One response on a regional level has been the changeover from the long-failed Organization for African Unity to the African Union, a shorter acronym but with bigger plans. The AU is promoting a series of measures – largely voluntary thus far – for closer African cooperation aiming «to determine our own future.» This is partly to address grievous human rights abuses like in Rwanda, where 1 million people died in a 100-day killing rampage in 1994 and during which «the rest of the continent didn’t do anything;» forceful intervention to protect «human security» will be a future reality. Another aim is tackling problems of poor governance, very broadly construed. Initiatives include peacekeeping or «standby» forces (divided into five brigades), an African court of justice, and a novel idea for a peer review system among African states. He admitted to a «slow uptake» of this last idea, but he claimed the take-up rate is improving, thanks to a growing understanding that the intention is positive rather than damning. The overall aim is to promote greater collective self-help and to respond positively to the challenges of interdependence, rather than wishing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist. Evidently he considers South Africa to fall under these broader rules as well as being a leader in making them; his country «can’t act on its own,» but only in concert with the rest of Africa. And he deftly turned the tables on Africa-bashers by holding that these initiatives, if successful, could serve as an example to others (citing Latin America). Even if the «viceroy» era is past and a «common, shared vision» more attainable, drumming up more aid for Africa remains a difficult task. The well-known (and famously unmet) official UN target for developed states to give 0.7 percent of their GDP for aid has been around, he suggested drily, for longer than he had been alive, while the challenge of global poverty, which he called a «scandal,» was worse than ever. The G-8 group of wealthy countries has posed an African Action Plan on which he urged rapid follow-up. Global warming, racism, and oppression of women were other urgent problems of the «global commons,» though he conspicuously left out one of Africa’s worst scourges, the AIDS epidemic (from which Nelson Mandela’s son recently died). He also skirted discussion of politics in South Africa, where his leadership style has not gone unchallenged. Thabo Mbeki’s known penchant for building models and intellectual digression was well in evidence – at one stage, he expressed fascination for newly acquired knowledge on the changing migratory habits of hake and lobster as evidence of global warming – while the AU’s initiatives remain exploratory. Even so, his message about the need for self-help among Africans, who he insisted are now «determined to break with the past,» provided a welcome counterbalance to his customary calls for greater aid from what used to be called the First World. The message – neatly summed up by Theodore Couloumbis of ELIAMEP as putting a floor under humanity without placing a ceiling on progress – was well-received by his international audience. Their appreciation might, however, have been more evident without the incessant ringing of mobile phones, an annoyance oddly fitting the day’s theme of coping with new challenges, yet graciously overlooked by the unflappable famous visitor.

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