From Kwame Nkrumah to Nelson Mandela, every extraordinary post-colonial African leader shared a common dream: living in a free, united and prosperous Africa. That dream has been deferred, continually, because of the numerous and complex challenges faced by our continent. In the 21st century, the rise of Africa has once again become a genuine possibility. Whether it is economic growth in some countries or visible aspirations for genuine democracy in others, numerous books, journals and articles have been written in recent years about Africa’s potential for greatness. At the heart of this African renaissance lies South Africa, the continent’s southernmost member state.
In embrace of this present-day challenge, last month, the South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Africa Program jointly hosted an open discussion on the future of South Africa. The four sessions that formed part of the conference focused on South Africa’s current socio-political context, opportunities and challenges for economic growth, the use of social media for political activism, and the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The esteemed speakers included political leaders, scholars, business leaders, and policymakers. Their diverse views on South Africa’s past, present and future created a forum that embraced history, confronted reality, and provoked possibility.
I certainly sensed widespread optimism about South Africa’s future. Indeed, our country has come a long way since the transition to democracy in 1994. The South African Ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, was one of the first speakers. He not only lauded the post-apartheid government’s major successes but also assured us that the legacy of Nelson Mandela is an enduring one. Mr. Rasool also added that although South Africans are more united that ever, and enjoy all forms of political freedom, millions of her citizens still live in poverty. Recognition of this reality, and how to overcome it, set the tone for the rest of the day.
The panelists discussed the need for more inter-African trade through regional integration; for better use of Africa’s human capital; and the necessity for South Africa to create a knowledge-based economy. In an era of economic gloom in Europe and North America, South Africa needs to identify emerging growth sectors and make strategic investments. The challenge is striking a fine balance between continued growth, increased popular pressure for socio-economic empowerment, and the consolidation of our gains from the last 18 years. That is the test for the ‘new’ South Africa, which is integrally tied to the destiny of Africa.
It was not a typical conference in which only recognized experts shared their perspectives: it gave a platform to SAWIP students (including myself) to express our views on the future of our country. In a continent where over 50% of working-age youth are unemployed and disenfranchised, it was inspiring to hear my young colleagues talk about issues such as education, reconciliation and the lessons from the life of Nelson Mandela. Add to this the space for inter-generational conversations between South Africa’s anti-Apartheid heroes like Reverend Frank Chikane, and SAWIP students who endeavour to be the heroes of the future, and this is what makes SAWIP an excellent development program for young leaders. It creates the space for progressive dialogue, allowing young South Africans to share their stories, and in so doing it acknowledges that genuine empowerment begins with the freedom to voice one’s opinions and share one’s own story.
The presence of many global leaders at the conference from the public and private sector showed that many people look to South Africa for leadership on a variety of issues affecting the continent and the world. But we also agreed that South Africa needs to empower millions of her own people to create the type of society Nelson Mandela once envisioned. The SAWIP students are committed to be a part of this journey, and transform the idea of ‘the African century’ into reality, today.
For more information on the event’s speakers, webcasts and podcasts of the conference, visit the Wilson Center's website.
Saif Islam (SAWIP Class of 2012) is a Masters student in International Relations at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is passionate about the people of South Africa’s potential for greatness and the potential of the region as a major role player in international affairs. His long-term ambition is to pursue a leadership career of service through diplomacy.
The South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP) is a six-month leadership, service and professional development program that recruits 15 high-potential South African students from three top South African universities each year in pursuit of its mission to inspire, develop and support a diverse new generation of emerging South African leaders from multiple disciplines.
Visit www.sawip.org or follow @SAWIPlive for more information. For program or donor queries, please e-mail email@example.com.