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As we celebrate Africa Day, it is still the greatest — and most bitter — irony that the continent that is the cradle of humanity and has fuelled the world’s industrial development still lags so far behind the rest of the globe. Africa’s riches, human and mineral, have powered the development of the North over the last two centuries, especially Europe and the US.  

The world calls us the “Dark Continent” — even though it is their legacy of colonialism, slavery and exploitation that led to this. Africa today is deindustrialised and destabilised. Our diamonds are mined and then taken to the factories of Antwerp, India and Israel to be cut and polished and sold for far more than they were back home. Ivory Coast, followed by Ghana, leads Africa in producing 75% of the world’s cocoa. But the continent benefits from only 5% of the US’s $100bn-a-year global chocolate market. 

A century ago, Africa supplied the world’s rubber. Today we have to import tyres. A similar pattern emerges with the minerals essential for the manufacture of batteries, a vital part of the just transition to renewable energy. It is the same with the copper that is an essential part of the electric motors. 

Repressed and colonised

Africa remains colonised too: the winds of change that gusted in Ghana’s independence in 1957 and culminated with SA’s democracy in 1994 blew in new forms of repression. Not all of it was foreign; much of Africa’s woes are self-imposed. Corruption and corporate collusion exact just as harsh a toll on citizens with a legacy that is as potentially long and toxic as colonialism. SA’s notorious state capture is the latest example, compounded by the country’s ongoing inability to bring the masterminds, the infamous Gupta brothers, to justice. 

Africa’s economies are simple when they should be complex; people-intensive when they should be automated. Having industrialised at Africa’s expense, the US and Europe sit back and bemoan the surge of refugees from Africa. These are people who have been forced from their homelands because of the geographical and political instability directly caused by climate change. Africa, which is deindustrialised, is paying the harshest price for the carbon emissions of the North — droughts and floods of biblical proportions, and extreme hot and cold spells destroying harvests and compromising water supply and quality.  

Our security has been ransomed to foreign powers. The consequences of the war in Ukraine are disproportionately felt in Africa too: from a lack of grain to African governments being told to take sides or face direct or indirect consequences; vital aid being withheld or critical foreign investment redirected. It is an intolerable situation that once again reinforces the continent’s modern history as the chattel of the world, to be used and discarded at will. And in the process Africa becomes even more volatile. 

Change ahead?

But it need not be that way. We can — and we must — reimagine our continent. We created an environment in the revolutionary movements where we were sold the idea that our governments would provide. If we can break away from this legacy, if we can get the next generation to understand that we need technocrats to run government, the face of the continent will change. 

Africa can be the breadbasket of the world. It doesn’t have to be Ukraine. African children can grow up to lead the world without having to travel overseas to find their fame and fortune. We have the ability; Covid-19, the greatest public health crisis in recent memory, proved that. Despite having to play second fiddle to get the all-important vaccines, Africa had its own centre for disease control, its own ability to manufacture the different vaccines and, most importantly of all, the necessary know-how to sequence and identify mutations in the virus before the rest of the world. 

We achieved that in my own country through the pioneering work that has been done in fighting HIV and Aids. Our reward was for the Omicron variant to be immediately tarred as the deadly “South African strain” and for international contact with the country to be immediately and totally curtailed, with devastating consequences. It was a despicable act of global prejudice and hypocrisy, the latest chapter in a story we have been forced to live in for the last 400 years and more.  

It’s time for African excellence to be rewarded. We have to develop and sustain world-class educational institutions. I imagine an Africa where the innovators and the experts in our industries are world leaders, like they were not so long ago in astronomy, deep-level mining, metallurgy, medicine (the world’s first open heart transplant), navigation and defence technology. The portents are there in M-Pesa, the world’s first mobile bank, and SKA, the world’s largest radio telescope, in the vanguard of so much more. 

Having industrialised at Africa’s expense, the US and Europe sit back and bemoan the surge of refugees from Africa.

I imagine an Africa able to defend its member states by creating and developing the technology and capability necessary to maintain and protect our sovereignty without having to depend on a foreign Big Brother, whose national interest is not actually in our interest. Given my own country’s role and learning in resolving its own intractable crisis with the help of other African countries, I dream of African countries helping to bring about a lasting and just peace in Ukraine.

We are truly the only non-aligned continent in the world, which is why the current six-nation African peace initiative to Kyiv and Moscow is so important. On a personal note, I hope for my own country to find its moral compass and condemn Russia for its barbarity and then help forge peace — because that is what true leaders do, not slavishly stand by when crimes against humanity are being committed in the full view of the world. 

Africa 2.0

This is not only my dream, but the dream of the next generation of African leaders; the youth. Thanks to the African Youth Survey, we know that they dream of a future in which their lives will be better than the ones their parents had, and to do that they need hand-ups, not handouts. Africa 2.0 doesn’t just have a dream for Africa; it has a business plan, a plan to improve the lives of this generation and the lives of their communities.

It is difficult for anyone to properly imagine how tough the lives of African youths are; 75% of them are worried about instability, and half of them have been personally affected by conflict and terrorism. I have a dream that one day one-third of African youth won’t have to struggle to access clean water every day of their lives (today half have to spend up to a quarter of what they earn to buy fresh water).  

I imagine an Africa where the innovators and the experts in our industries are world leaders, like they were not so long ago in astronomy, deep-level mining, metallurgy, medicine, navigation and defence technology.

I imagine an Africa where its people don’t have to leave their homelands to get a glass of fresh water or sleep safely at night. I imagine an Africa where its youth don’t hanker after moving to the US — and staying there to get the opportunities they are being denied at home. Our struggle must be one for the creation of jobs in our own countries, so our people can work towards building  long-term sustainable wealth.  

I imagine an Africa in which access to Wi-Fi and cheap, affordable data really is a basic human right. I imagine an Africa where access to information is democratised, where access to the knowledge of the world always is available everywhere, rather than one where only 12% of the continent’s youth can afford to connect every day. Imagine what could happen if they could use it to become part of the global economy and change their lives for the better?  

Most of all, I imagine the achievement of the African Century; Africa achieving its potential on its own terms in partnership with the world, not at the end of a begging bowl. And I am hopeful. There is a coalition of the willing and able in the world who do not see Africa as a basket case, but as a breadbasket of opportunity. 

Thanks to US president Joe Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit, which was held late last year, we truly have a New Deal for the continent that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. My Africa, our Africa, is no longer the Dark Continent where hope goes to die. Instead it can become the source that inspires the whole world to hope anew. 

The time has finally come for Africa to reignite our collective struggle; to fight with renewed confidence for a future that is truly our own, proud and united in our ability to forge our own destiny. 

Ichikowitz, an African industrialist and philanthropist, chairs the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, which conceptualised and funds the African Youth Survey. This opinion piece is based on the keynote address he delivered to the Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Governance’s annual Africa Business Conference, held under the theme “Reimagining Africa’s Growth on Our Own Terms”.  

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