Since last Sunday evening, a conference themed “History didn’t end in Africa: Ideas and ideologies shaping Africa’s future”, has been taking place at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Villa la Collina, Lake Como, outside Milan, Italy’s fashion capital.
There are lakes, and there is Lake Como as those who have been to this neck of the woods will testify. And last time we were across the lake from la Collina at the Rockefeller Foundation’s retreat, there were a couple of clever Ugandans there.
The conference this time was organised by South Africa’s Brenthurst Foundation which, again I am aware, is very popular with Ugandans who are enamoured of the geopolitical stuff they put out.
Not surprisingly, therefore, there were a couple of South African “comrades” in the house. The most quiet and mild-mannered of them, if not in the whole conference, was the one who otherwise shouldn’t have been – former (acting) president Kgalema Motlanthe, who stepped in when Thabo Mbeki resigned following a (now President) Jacob Zuma-engineered party coup against him in September of 2008.
Now I shall only dwell on this briefly and then move on. If you want to be blown away with the dramatic behind-the-scenes story of what happened in that Mbeki ouster, then you must read Frank Chikane’s book “Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki”. Chikane, who was a cleric, was a loyal Mbeki, so it is remarkable that he was still able to tell a good story without groveling too much to Mbeki.
Anyway, when you have many South African “comrades” around, and there is fine wine at dinner, you know that the story will eventually drift to the days when the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe relocated to Uganda in 1988. So we traded those Uganda stories with the “comrades”.
Mbeki was not in Umkhonto, but Motlanthe was. When the apartheid regime nabbed him, he spent 10 years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.
And this is what makes an encounter with Motlanthe remarkable. He is modest and humble to a fault, to a point that you think to yourself, “there is something wrong here, this is not real”.
So it was that at a dinner speech, Motlanthe was asked a question that suggested that South Africa had something to teach the rest of Africa. His answer was that we should not forget that South Africa is Africa’s youngest independent nation (South Sudan is the newest, but it was already part of an independent Sudan and broke away because of the “bad politics” of Khartoum).
Therefore, he said, maybe it’s the rest of Africa that has something to teach South Africa, not the way round. I was caught off balance by the humbleness of the reply, but it said a lot about Motlanthe.
And it was also at that point that it struck what is really different about Africa today. It is really the first time since the late 1960s that we don’t have a classical liberation movement active anywhere on the continent.
Yes, there are the Sahrawis, but the Organisation of African Union (OAU), now rebranded African Union, long ago recognised them (prompting Morocco to walk out of the OAU).
There are the Casamance militants in Cameroon, but their issue is really nothing that can’t be resolved by an enlightened government in Yaounde when strongman Paul Biya eventually leaves and there is someone willing to offer them decentralisation. The Touaregs in northern Mali got a little excited last year, but blew it when they allowed al-Qaeda-linked religious extremist to hijack their cause, and thus created an existential threat for French neocolonial interests in the region, and Paris sent in its troops and they got hammered. And then there are the chaps in Darfur.
But none of these are Frelimo, National Resistance Movement (NRM), Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Robert Mugabe’s Zanu, or even the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Africa is actually becoming quiet and, for a journalist used to the big resistance story, boring.
What is happening in the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan today is, if you think of it, simply murder on a grand scale. There is no high-sounding ideological story there. There is no redemptive subtext anywhere in the madness. You can only count bodies so many times. It gets tiring after a while.
So it comes down to this: South Africa may no longer be Africa’s largest economy, but it remains its richest nation by far. That a man who led it can sit quietly in a corner in a small conference, and only draw attention when he is called upon tells us, if I may tweak the title of the wonderful Letta Mbulu song, that there is something in the air. We just have to put our noses up and smell what it is.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com): Twitter:cobbo3