Encouragements and Insights on Life, South of the Sahara

From a colleague of mine at UC Santa Cruz, Paul, a South African, talks about his experiences traveling throughout Africa, south of the Sahara. We’ll post our Kickstarter video soon, I swear. A few more edits to go!



I watched the movie and read the Kickstarter discussion of your project. Good luck with this effort – I will support it wholeheartedly both financially and in any other way that i can.

I have some thoughts on the state of of Africa, particularly South of the Sahara. As you know, I was born and raised in South Africa and traveled extensively in Africa south of the Sahara while I lived there. I spent the first half of 1983 traveling overland from Johannesburg to Kano, Nigeria, a trip that took 6 months using “major” roads in Africa. (To give you an idea of the state of roads in central Africa, we literally had to rebuild two bridges, originally built in Belgian colonial times in what was then Zaire, just to get from Rwanda to Kisangani, the second largest city in Zaire!).

I estimate that around half the population south of the Sahara can barely read or write. Countries in this part of Africa have the lowest per capita GDP and the lowest per capita income in the world. People who are regarded as living below the poverty line in the US would be wealthy in comparison to the majority of people in South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Congo. The majority of people in these countries would regard themselves as very fortunate to have a 2 room mud or corrugated iron hut in which to live with 2 square meals per day.

The principles of individual liberty, ownership of property, free trade and capital investment in enterprises to stimulate employment and create wealth, which are almost “given” in the western world, are more or less alien concepts to most people and certainly much of the leadership in Africa. The African way is that the tribal chief owns all the land and apportions it more or less as he sees fit to the population, favoring those that favor him. Despite the existence of constitutions (in some countries) and public statements of some politicians there, the leadership generally still think this way. It is not in the interest of that kind of leadership to have a highly educated population of independent thinkers. Education and building an economy that raises the well being of every citizen is not a primary objective of such leaders, despite lip service to the contrary.

Sub-Sahara Africa has more natural resources, arable land, mild climate and access to water resources than the entire North American continent. If it were managed with the same underlying philosophy as the western world it could surpass the US and Europe in the quality of life of its citizens (quality of life can be objectively measured by using a set of metrics such as access to education, amount of crime, existence of public transport, access to healthcare, public facilities such as libraries, etc. – the UN has defined such a formal set of metrics). Yet one need only compare the quality of life of the citizens of Johannesburg, or Harare or Dar es Salaam or Maputo with, say, Vienna or Munich or Zurich or Vancouver or Auckland or San Francisco to see the vast gulf in the underlying philosophical approaches to life in these cities.

So how to fix all this?

I have pondered this question long and hard. I personally despaired for Africa, seeing no solution in my lifetime to these problems, and came to the west. But I would be willing to help any enterprise that I see has real potential for changing this sorry state of affairs.

In my opinion, the only way Africa will become a better place is if its leaders start to seriously want to build liberal market economies. To do that you need educated people that have the knowledge to innovate, the courage to take personal and financial risk and a society that understands and supports such risk taking. You need a stable legal system that endorses and protects individual freedom, trustworthy and dependable law enforcement and financial practices and institutions that stimulate economic development. You need public institutions that are able to encompass widely differing opinions and ideas without collapsing or the use of force to protect the set of ideas of one group.

Creating this in sub Saharan Africa is no easy challenge. This part of the world has never experienced such governance in recorded history. It literally requires fundamental cultural change for the population of an entire sub continent.

I think that you are right to start with education. The enormity of the task, however, intimidates me. Today most adults there are focused on finding food, shelter and clothing. Education to many is a luxury that is completely unaffordable. Even if the current youth can be educated, it will take several generations before the effects of such education can materially affect the quality of leadership in Africa. By then the current form of leadership may have so worsened the poverty in these countries that it would be even harder for the next generation to get an education (witness Zimbabwe, Congo, Kenya, Central African Republic all of which have only become poorer and more dangerous in the past 10 years).

When you have lived in Africa it gets into your blood – the natural environment and wildlife is just spectacular. The colors are different to anywhere else in the world – brighter and more striking. Many of the people there are empathetic, friendly and beautiful in their own ways. It is hard to leave there. I would love to see real change there. Despite my despair for Africa, I will do what I can to help you. I wish you and your colleagues the very best of luck!


2 responses to “Encouragements and Insights on Life, South of the Sahara

  1. Wow! Paul has some real words here – deep stuff that resonates well with me. This just instantaneously expanded the scope of this new frontier Reclaim is looking at, in my perspective. We can talk and dream of implementing great change in a foreign place, but we will actually be lucky just to adequately observe and understand the enormity and complexity of the new world we are visiting. I hope we can learn half of what Paul has learned!

  2. Paul actually has already helped in getting us connected to people in South Africa. Lots of cool stuff happening as we build these “Academic Bridges.”

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