Monday, January 15, 2007

Exporting hope or foolish dreams?

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has been exporting many things to other African countries it never exported before. South Africa’s DStv dominates the airwaves across the continent. It is not unusual to meet Africans thousands of miles away from Johannesburg who have an intimate knowledge of Egoli, the South African soap opera. Security companies run by South Africans are major players in the private security market. On an unsavoury note, South African mercenaries can also be found peddling the destructive skills they learned during apartheid. At the same time, South Africa is also exporting another commodity which stands in stark contrast to this, namely the promise of a peaceful transition. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is core to this. The concept is a benchmark of how to build peace in many countries. Liberia is one of the more recent recruits to the methodology, following Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.

Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, from where I write this article, has suffered terribly over the last few decades. Civil war which started in 1989 has devastated the place. Locals refer to the various bouts of fighting as World War I, II and III, and they are not far wrong. It is estimated that over 200 000 people died, out of a population of just over three-million.

Monrovia still carries the scars. Ruined and bullet-marked buildings dominate the capital.

A high number of war-disabled people are visible on the streets. The average life expectancy is just over 40. There is no mains water or electricity. This has been the case since 1990, when Charles Taylor’s rebels knocked out the electricity plant. When he became President in 1997, he vowed to restore it but, instead, more war followed. Taylor, who lost power in 2003, is now awaiting trial in the Hague for a list of offences that could stretch from Cape Town to Cairo. Since the end of Taylor’s reign, there has been some progress. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman head of State in Africa, was democratically elected in January. Reconciliation is high on the agenda and the South African model is the talk of the town. Liberian truth commissioners visited South Africa recently and are now beginning their own TRC.

But what is it about the South African model that is so alluring? The answer, despite the problems South Africa still faces, is that it offers hope.

When you drive through the streets of Monrovia, as someone not worried about where your next meal might come from, over potholes and past children playing in squalor, you, invariably, wonder what makes people continue each day. The answer is simple – they have no choice. Families must be fed. But, despite daily struggles, people also care about the bigger picture. There are over 30 newspapers and dozens of radio stations. Talk shows are dominated by discussions about hope for the future. The country wants its dignity back. The image of South Africa is of a country that achieved political peace through creating a common vision through compromise. We can debate for eternity whether this has been realised or not, but the basics are undeniable. A route was taken post 1994 that circumvented cycles of retribution. Cycles of retribution destroyed Liberia.

So whether the view of South Africa abroad is rose-tinted or not, it is hard to dismiss some lessons. Of course, part of me wants to run out on to the streets of Monrovia and proselytise about the dangers of importing goods from another country that is still in the throws of change. But, as I write, frantically hoping the generator won’t run out of fuel and crash my laptop that is probably worth more than many people’s yearly income, I just don’t have the heart. And, after all, surely hope and the virtues of a compromised peace are not the worst things to be selling.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 1 September 2006.