The hope of Arab Africa – a perspective from the South

Malusi Mpumlwana

The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have taken the world by storm, if not by surprise. Palestine and Lebanon have always lived out their volatility in the open, but the long-term governments of some of the other countries that have since broken into open rebellion have always seemed to have the lid fairly tightly sealed. One wonders how this would have played out in the continuous South African uprisings of the 1980s. There are similarities and significant differences between the South African and North African experiences.

Both parts of the continent had strong authoritarian regimes with powerful security agencies. Both regions had the strong support of western powers, notably the United States, and working relations with them. In both regions, there are sometimes social tensions of race.

But the differences are much more pronounced. While in the Arab north there never was a statutorily differentiated citizenship in terms of race, in South Africa the struggle for democracy was also a struggle for racial equality and common citizenship. This racial dimension also played out in other areas such as access to economic opportunity and quality education so that South Africa’s black majority experienced exclusion.

Second, the uprisings in the north were more about demands based on expectations that the government should have seen as legitimate, made by a citizenry that had rights. Because of those rights, the security forces in Egypt were ambivalent about crushing the uprisings, and because of them, too, the deposed President Mubarak faces charges over his use of security forces against the uprisings. In South Africa, the rights were presumed not to exist.

The denial of fundamental citizen rights for black South Africans became the main focus in the engagement of philanthropic foundations and foreign donors in solidarity with South Africa’s oppressed majority. The apartheid regime’s 1978 Fund-raising Act was designed to monitor, regulate and minimize the capacity of civil society organizations to raise and receive foreign funds for their humanitarian work.

Lessons to be learned from the experience of others

These notable differences notwithstanding, there are lessons to be learned from the South African experience in regard to engagement by foreign foundations in the democracy era.

Foundations like the Ford Foundation, the W K Kellogg Foundation and others have each had a long history spanning over 20 years of philanthropic investments in southern Africa. Under apartheid, their focus was on supporting the under-served, mainly in key areas such as education, health, leadership, strengthening civil society and economic opportunities. The common objective, albeit with different approaches, was to improve the quality of life and demonstrate philanthropic solidarity.

With the coming of democracy, the approach changed. Before democracy, educational opportunities were provided in anticipation that the black majority would be called upon to assume leadership of the organs of state and government. After the fall of apartheid, it was no longer a matter of anticipation but of providing for the glaring gaps between the required skills and what was available. The skills deficit quickly became apparent when the post-apartheid democratic government legislated that first preference be given to blacks and women in any job, provided that they were adequately equipped.

Foundations have the advantage of being able to provide what may be considered as ‘venture capital’ for the social sector to fund experimentation on matters that, if successful and effective, may well inform public policy. This is a very important role, especially in a new democracy where public policy is informed by much idealism. Before we look at what part foundations can play in the creation of new societies in countries where repressive regimes have been toppled by the Arab Spring, let’s examine some of the difficulties that are likely to beset those countries as the dust settles.

Erring towards retribution

A major lesson from the South African experience is how to navigate the delicate balance between restitution and retribution. The pursuit of wrongdoers from the previous regime deprives the cause of liberation of its moral force and vitiates the righteousness that should form the foundation for a just future and which should serve to humanize the oppressors. If the Arab north tilts more to the side of retribution, it will take much longer to stabilize into a constitutional society.

Africa has come from a colonial and apartheid past. In its journey it has seen military dictatorships, coups and counter-coups, and one-party states. Presidents have tended to cling to power for the duration of their lives. In time the continent has learned to live with living former presidents. It has come to accept that there will be regular elections through which leadership changes, and that there is indeed life for presidents beyond their term at State House.

What the bulk of the African continent has yet to progress towards is a society where a person’s worth is measured purely on the sovereignty of their citizenship – not on their ethnic identity or their association with the strong man of the land or the security forces. This is the call of the constitutional state where the constitution is the supreme and inviolate law that protects the people’s rights and their equal standing before the law.

The path to that kind of constitutional state in such a tumultuous transition as has been seen in North Africa will best be paved by a careful balance between retribution and restitution. Consider, for example, the moral value of Hosni Mubarak’s confessing his guilt of power abuse and returning the millions of dollars he stashed away, but being pardoned and continuing to live as a citizen of a democratic Egypt. The Arab Middle East has yet to see the spread of former heads of state living as ordinary citizens under the leadership of their successors. Arab Africa might well lead the way in this direction.

Three demons …

The transitional societies of the past 20 years or so, from Russia to South Africa and Zimbabwe, have taught us to anticipate the possibility that today’s liberators may succumb to three other tendencies of which civil society needs to be aware. One is the tendency for liberators to use their role in liberation as currency to purchase subsequent privileges. In Zimbabwe, to be a veteran of the Chimurenga, the war of liberation, is a very important qualification for access to privilege and opportunity.

Playing a role in achieving freedom and justice is a laudable thing, and society should recognize and memorialize it. However, the nobler way to demonstrate society’s gratitude is for society to treasure the highest ideals of that struggle – the absolute worth of its citizens and the charter that makes them a nation: the constitution and its institutions.

The second demon that follows the end of the euphoria of liberation is disregard for human rights. This almost naturally flows out of a failure to balance restitution against retribution; and can also present itself as a cousin of the entitlement of struggle credentials.

The third demon is the cancer of corruption. This phenomenon is another manifestation of a culture of personal entitlement and a selfish attitude to life. As opportunities open up in a transitional society, so this practice spreads.

…and the means of their exorcism

The best way of checking these demons is a strong and active civil society, backed by a vibrant and dependable home-grown (rather than foreign) media. Foreign foundations can usefully provide support to strengthen institutions that serve as the voice of citizens and invest in citizens’ crafting their own solutions to their problems. Better still, indigenous philanthropy – funded and led by Africans – should defend the civil rights of citizens in Africa. Organizations like TrustAfrica offer hope for democracy and civil society in Africa, creating spaces for Africans to engage in dialogue around these challenges and supporting civil society in turbulent environments like Zimbabwe and post-transition countries such as Liberia. More Africans should invest in such organizations to strengthen their legitimate voice in support of the voiceless in Africa.

Arab Africa stands at the threshold of a momentous change. How it translates its great opening of democratic space into a rights-based society will determine what legacy it provides to the rest of the Middle East and the world. If it succeeds in taking the high road away from the temptation of retributive fratricide, the greater the harvest of its historic transitions will be. May the spirit of freedom that seized the young, and especially young women, give birth to a greater sense of the worth both of themselves and of others. As Nelson Mandela has said:

‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’

Malusi Mpumlwana
is a trustee of TrustAfrica. For ten years, ending August 2006, he was director of Africa programs at the W K Kellogg Foundation. Email

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