- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2000

Assuming power in June 1999 with the new millennium impending, South African President Thabo Mbeki announced the 21st century an "African Renaissance," implying that the new century would see Africa breaking with a past of economic decline, mismanagement, corruption and authoritarianism. The "Renaissance" was interpreted as committing Mr. Mbeki to multiparty democracy and good governance in Africa.

At the United Nation's Millennium Summit in New York, Mr. Mbeki referred to "the billions … [who] struggle to survive in conditions of poverty, deprivation and underdevelopment." Alleviating these scourges is fundamental to Mr. Mbeki's "Renaissance."

The key question is: Does the Third World accept this responsibility?

The evidence is conclusive. Mr. Mbeki has castigated the West for the "deliberate and savage violence of poverty and underdevelopment" and the demand for a debt write-off against rescheduling reflects entitlement, not responsibility. Most of Africa views all Western models as an imposition.

Ironically the "emergence" of a new Africa comes with calls for greater aid, trade concessions and assistance.

The orthodox interpretation of the "Renaissance" is flawed, for it is neither a forward-looking politics of accountability and achievement nor the acceptance of proven economic and political models.

Mr. Mbeki's "Renaissance" is psychological the search for a new African psyche. In "The Wretched of the Earth," the Algerian Frantz Fanon argued that the psychological and not economic or political damage inflicted on the peoples of Africa by colonialism, was the most pernicious. Echoing this, Mr. Mbeki asserted at a recent Conference on Racism in South Africa that "The imposition of the ideology of the dominant group has led to the weakening of the self-respect … of the dominated."

In South Africa, these ideas were articulated by Steve Biko in the 1970s and thereafter by the Black Consciousness Movement. Nelson Mandela was jailed during this period of ideological ferment and was not influenced by them as Mr. Mbeki was.

Mr. Mbeki has intellectual pretensions foreign to Mr. Mandela. In the words of Mondli Makhanya a prominent South African journalist "A hallmark of the Mbeki presidency has been … an intellectual superiority complex." Mr. Mbeki has a need for recognition that Mr. Mandela acquired by default.

Mr. Mbeki called for the emergence of a "new person" at a recent African National Congress meeting and for "African solutions to African problems."

Others also have called for a revitalized psyche among Black South Africans.

Black South African politics is experiencing racialization. A de facto merger of the two major black parties has occurred. Black nationalist sentiments are increasing, and the formation of an alliance of white political parties the Democratic Alliance will intensify this racial cleavage.

Kader Asmal a minister and ANC intellectual has argued that Mr. Mbeki's Renaissance has linked globalization, Pan-Africanism and Pan-South Africanism and is "leading the charge to transform global trade, financial and security institutions."

Mr. Mbeki and his ruling elite are not quarantined from popular and politically correct intellectual trends including "multiculturalism" and cultural relativism. The latter has spawned offspring, including Afrocentrism a black nationalism that shades into black racism.

This is what Mr. Mbeki's Renaissance is about plugging Africa into the multicultural, Afrocentric "current" and using the latter to advance Africa's global interests.

Speaking at the Conference on Racism, Barney Pityana, chairman of the Human Rights Commission said: "We must challenge many of the social and cultural orthodoxies that have gone to make the taken-for-granted life-world of a Europeanized South Africa. What needed to be done was to see what Africa had to offer. Different cultures and value systems needed to be evaluated on an equal basis."

The central aim of Mr. Mbeki's "Renaissance" is to re-establish the pride of black Africans in their achievements and history. But because the current pickings are thin, the search becomes backward-looking. But even here the ground is barren, and resort is made to the politics of empty slogans, "Renaissances and new persons."

The psychological core of Mr. Mbeki's Renaissance means it has no intrinsic policies. Reality and reason are unlikely to sway Mr. Mbeki and other African leaders from their chosen paths.

Mr. Mbeki's handling of the Zimbabwean chaos and Robert Mugabe's outspoken criticism of the West made little sense. The ZANU-PF refrain is, "Until we regain possession of 'our' land we remain psychological victims of colonialism." Mr. Mbeki adopted a hands-off approach for two reasons. First, he recognized that Mr. Mugabe's politics, while not clothed in Mr. Mbeki's nuanced and moderate language, was the politics of the "Renaissance." And, secondly, the adoption of such an approach gave flesh to the idea that there are "African solutions to African problems." The latter expressing the Afrocentrism and non-universalism of the "Renaissance."

This Afrocentric heart to Mr. Mbeki's Nietzschean Ubermensch "Renaissance" also explains his misguided attempt to chart an African way of understanding AIDS and the HIV virus.

Those who have a genuine concern for Africa need to recognize the "African Renaissance" for what it is. They must note that a growing African recognition of Africa's plight does not necessarily entail an admission of the relevance of Western models.

Kierin O'Malley is a former member of the South African Parliament and now is a political consultant.

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