Africa’s recent history has been dominated by the struggle for freedom from colonialism and, to a lesser extent, the Cold War. This liberation struggle was a fight for self-determination and not for liberal democracy or another political system. Generations of Africans sacrificed and died for freedom and independence. Consequently, freedom is a strong theme in African political thought and culture. The great biblical freedom narrative of Exodus – the Israelites being delivered from the oppression of slavery in Egypt and journeying towards the Promised Land – was often referenced to inspire Africa’s “Moses-generation” freedom fighters.
Creating the Africa we want can only happen by increasing the freedoms experienced by Africans. Any system that offers wealth and security in exchange for the loss of human freedom would be a betrayal of the generations that came before. We need to trust Christ to set us free from both internal captivity and external structural barriers, such as:
1. Trauma and identity: The first freedom in Africa needs to be internal healing from the effects of generational trauma. The older generation of Israelites, although physically liberated from slavery still carried Egypt in their minds as they wandered in circles in the desert. Likewise, the young students of South Africa’s #FeesMustFall movement sought to express their desire and need to be decolonised. Internal freedom for the Israelites eventually came through turning away from the gods of Egypt. This was a generational transition and the new generation affirmed its identity through the circumcision of all male Israelites, a symbol of their historical foundational covenant between Abraham and God. The most important work in restoring the traumatised African soul is the rediscovery of African identity. Part of this will be through the power of the stories that we tell ourselves and one another. Our restored identity and our common generative stories play a foundational role in the restoration of relationships with ourselves and each other.
2. Structural barriers: Much of the poverty in Africa is caused by structural injustice – often a legacy of colonialism. Scarcity was deliberately created to drive Africans off their land and into the labour economy. No amount of individual effort could overcome these barriers. Africans are capable, resilient innovators who are actively engaged in improving the condition of the continent. However, their resilience is constantly challenged by a hostile environment. Amartya Sen talks about poverty being a series of unfreedoms, limitations in people’s capacity to make choices and act on those choices.39 For Africans to co-create we need to have our agency restored by removing these unfreedoms. The church’s prophetic tradition is essential to come up against these unfreedoms and to help liberate Africans from all that reduces, perverts or destroys life.
3. Central control: In South-East Asia (particularly South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) highly centralised governments were able to exercise control in order to drive state-directed development plans, in partnership with the private sector, to beat poverty in a single generation. In Africa, while there is much talk of national development plans, many centralised elites use their power for self-enrichment through extractive, rather than inclusive, institutions. The Israelites in the wilderness considered returning to slavery in Egypt for the promise of food and security. At present in Africa, this trade-off is not even an option – increased elite control as impoverished people and not brought wealth (with the arguable exception of Rwanda). Africa cannot entrust its freedom to its leaders alone. There is a need for effective central government, but ultimately the people are the guardians of freedom and our governance institutions must reflect this.
We must avoid Joseph’s mistake of using the power he gained in Egypt to accumulate centrally-controlled land, livestock and wealth for Pharaoh at the expense of the people. He was called by God to hold food in reserve for the country so the country would not be ruined by the famine. He did feed Egypt and the nations, but he went beyond God’s call and also ended up building an empire for Pharaoh and reducing the people of Egypt into servitude. The people survived, but in many ways the country was ruined. This empire, and the power it gave Pharaoh, meant Joseph’s own people were enslaved a few generations after his death and had to be liberated by Moses in order to fulfil Abraham and Josephs’ dream of inheriting the Promised Land.