Leadership for transformation conference

African Broadband Revolution 2005- 6 to 8 April 2005, Johannesburg SA

The power to change is in the palms of our hands

Published: 04-APR-05

By the time you read this, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe will doubtless be sitting back on a comfy chair, drawing contentedly on a Cuban cigar and sipping a fine single malt whisky as he savours his victory in his countryís latest elections.

There may even be the odd deranged observer mission which declares the polls free and fair, in spite of the litany of monstrous atrocities which have gone unchecked in the days and months leading up to the ballot. One thing is for certain: his fellow African leaders will nod sagely.

The more thick-skinned will even offer congratulations, and mouth platitudes about the people of Zimbabwe having spoken, when they will, in reality, have done no such thing at all Ė not with the gags on the media, the police clampdowns on anything that looks faintly like an opposition and the ongoing suppression of basic human rights.

Another certainty is that South African President Thabo Mbeki will continue his policy of quiet diplomacy towards his northern neighbour, much to the consternation of opposition groups at home and human rights organisations across the world. What they need to realise is that he doesnít have much choice. As a rapidly emerging world leader, it would be singularly inappropriate for Mr Mbeki to openly chastise a fellow president, power-crazed dictator or not. And the consequences of inciting a bloodbath on South Africaís doorstep are terrifying, even to the most rabid anti-Mugabe campaigner.

Mr Mbeki may be many things, but a fool he most certainly is not. So if he successfully cajoles the cranky Mugabe into retirement, as we suspect he is trying to do, and as he did so well with Charles Taylor in Liberia, the world will applaud his political acumen. If there is one major criticism of his approach, it is that he has not shared his vision with those around him. It is impossible to buy into someoneís plans if you donít know what they are.

Besides, the African Union has hardly been consistent when it comes to its treatment of maverick leaders. Why should Mr Mugabe change his ways when he sees people like Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Paul Biya and even Laurent Gbagbo treating their countries like their personal fiefdoms, without fear of censure? What increasing numbers of commentators are suggesting is that the power to change Zimbabwe must come from within that country itself. Just look at South Africa, where sustained pressure from the people themselves was the single biggest factor in the overthrow of a fundamentally hideous apartheid regime. Or Nigeria, which is finally forging the democratic future it deserves after years of brutal military rule. Itís not perfect by any means, but it beats the heck out of Abacha.

What Zimbabweans do have on their side, as do millions of Africans, is a burgeoning channel with which to interact with the outside world, do business and change their lives. Itís the muchtalked about mobile telephony revolution, which is touching every single aspect of life on this continent in ways that we could never have dreamed about a few years ago.

The beauty of this unstoppable GSM force is that governments have very little control over it. Once they have taken the initial barriers down, they can do very little to stop the sweep of cellular telephony, which is narrowing the digital divide far more effectively than any number of computers could do in the next century.

We touch on this phenomenon in this issue of Business in Africa, for touch is all you can really do with a topic like this. We could fill our magazine with the effects of mobile telephony for the next year without repeating ourselves, if we so wished. Such is the nature of the beast.

The important point about mobile communications, that we can never make too strongly, is its ability to act as an agent of change. It knows no formal boundaries, respects no petty laws, rides roughshod over manmade obstacles and restrictions. It is this ability that we as Africans should harness to grab our rightful place at the global table, to realise our own hopes and dreams, to expose wrongdoing and abuse, to form powerful networks of people who want something better for themselves and their children. It is a fitting analogy for the people of Zimbabwe who feel they are getting a rough deal.

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