The universal deficit

Nelson Mandela’s greatness was in his absence of bitterness and the lack of interest in the trappings of office.

Spending 10 days in Africa, out of which seven were in Cape Town, which is perhaps one of the world’s most beautiful cities, does not make one an expert on Africa. So, it is with no pretensions to such a claim that I write this week’s column.

Nelson Mandela

The subject matter of most conversations in South Africa, whether on television or in person, is the brazenness of the dictatorial and brutal regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Nearly two weeks after the conduct of presidential elections there, which he is supposed to have lost, Mugabe is hanging on to power while life for the ordinary Zimbabwean plumbs new depths.

In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, from taxi operators to taxi drivers to hotel staff, the focus is on how and when the power-sharing arrangement agreed to between the incumbent President and the opposition leader would be implemented. Thousands of jobs in the tourism industry depend on good governance and political stability. Since riots broke out in January after the political stalemate, many foreigners have cancelled their visits to Kenya.

The inflation rate is well above 20 percent and many Kenyans openly fear that they may be forced to carry millions to the grocery store, as they do in Zimbabwe where the inflation rate is well beyond the descriptive powers of this columnist. The Kenyan shilling is depreciating against the emaciated American dollar.

In the relatively stable and prosperous South Africa, dark clouds have gathered to stay. Thabo Mbeki, the current President, is widely considered to have failed to carry forward the momentum of the Mandela presidency. His indecisiveness, among other things, has resulted in power shortages. Four hours of load-shedding, while nothing new to Indians, is the norm now in many cities in South Africa. Mines and factories have to cut output and the unemployment rate is hovering near 25 percent.

The all-embracing pragmatism of Nelson Mandela had given way to slightly shriller calls for black solidarity. Many key sectors and companies complain of a lack of skilled manpower. In condemning the impasse in both Kenya and Zimbabwe, Mbeki did not even remotely match the eloquence of the taxi driver who drove this columnist to the airport in Johannesburg.

This should have been the time when the fruits of prosperity would flow to the millions of poor in Africa, raising their standards of living faster than before, as the demand for commodities reigns strong in the world. Instead, the continent’s big nations are grappling with poor quality of leadership that has bedevilled them for the most part of recent history, with the odd shining exception.

The one man who stands tall, not just in the continent but perhaps in the whole world, is Mandela. In his 90s and mostly out of the public glare, his autobiography (The Long March To Freedom) is a must-read not only for ordinary mortals, but also for politicians in India. For sheer inspiration, few lives could stand up as better examples than that of Mandela. South Africa could have easily gone the way of many other African nations —embittered, divided and impoverished. Mandela masterminded a different destiny. His greatness was in his absence of bitterness to his worst enemies and his singular lack of interest in the trappings of office—and in perpetuating his hold on it.

Political discourse and exchange has become so poisoned in India and civility so rare that the visit of L K Advani to the residence of Sonia Gandhi was big news. If one reads of the extent to which Mandela reached out to the whites before and after independence in South Africa, we would realise that India’s underdevelopment is not in income per capita, but in dignity per capita.

Bare Talk was depressed to read in recent weeks that there are several mini-Africas inside India. Tales of demands for bribes ranging up to 30 percent of project outlays and equity stakes in companies have been reported. Indian industrialists are finding it easier to do deals overseas than invest in resource-rich Indian states, whose chief ministers appear to be behaving exactly like African despots. It appears that the resource curse is on India too.

Asia met the savings deficit of America with its own surplus. Similarly, the leadership deficit in the US, as Joseph Stiglitz put it in a recent column, could be met with surplus from the developing world. That is not to be. This deficit appears universal.

In India, neither the conduct of the ruling coalition in the last four years nor that of the opposition reassures the people that better quality of leadership is in store in future. It is really up to the younger generation of politicians to break free from the petty legacies of their elders so that a youthful India could also become an inspiring India. They could do a lot worse, to begin that mission, than by reading the autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

This piece was first published in MINT on 14th April, 2008.