When I immigrated to South Africa from America in January 1989, South African President PW Botha hadn’t yet suffered the stroke that catapulted FW de Klerk to power. George Bush Sr was sworn in as America’s 41st president and President Michael Gorbachov led what was called the USSR.  Civil wars ripped apart Angola, Sudan, Liberia, Ethiopia and Mozambique – all had linkages to Cold War – a crippling experience for Africa with long-term consequences.  The US, USSR and China supported various regimes and guerrilla movements across the continent.

South Africa’s first legal protest

Now in its last days, the Cold War gave rise to social movements like Solidarity’s legalisation in Poland, the Berlin Wall falling and killings in Tiananmen Square.  Anti-apartheid campaigns were gaining momentum, but South Africans were living in a nationwide State of Emergency. Most of the world still glanced the other way at the brutality of the apartheid government and the crimes against humanity committed elsewhere in Africa.  Yet profound changes were afoot.

Images of women with flies in their eyes nursing emaciated infants, mass starvation, children wielding AK-47s, dictators in military uniforms, potholed dirt roads and burned out buildings dominated the world media about Africa.  These weren’t the images I knew.  To me, despite the obvious problems, Africa was a continent of immense possibilities, of stunning beauty, with extraordinary people.  Drawn to Africa like a magnet and despite the protestations from family and friends, I knew in my heart that it was the only place I wanted to make my future.

The day Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years

I was privileged to walk in South Africa’s first legal protest march in January 1990 in Cape Town. The following month I sat on the ground 50 yards from Nelson Mandela as he made his historic first speech as a free man. Every month history happened at breakneck speed as apartheid was structurally dismantled.  In April 1994 I stood for hours to vote in South Africa’s first democratic election alongside thousands – office workers, business owners, domestics, gardeners and others dressed in their Sunday best – never allowed to vote before only because they weren’t white.  At the same time that I was casting my ballot, hundreds of thousands were being massacred in the most efficient genocide the world had ever seen in Rwanda.  Both countries could have evolved so differently, yet each are regarded now as African success stories.

Waiting in line to vote in 1994

During nearly 24 years I’ve travelled to half of Africa’s 54 countries, to modern cities; unserviced slums; overcrowded refugee camps; and remote areas off the map.  When Mozambique received its annual rainfall in four days in 2000 and while stranded in Maputo, I saw first hand the vital importance of  radio information during an emergency.  While driving through the Sahara in 2002, the sky went dark as a swarm of locusts descended. Days later the creepy insects were still popping out.  Four years ago I trained hundreds of Somali women refugees living in the Dadaab camps how to use our wind-up and solar radios.  Not one woman had ever turned on a radio in her life.  Just last year I was gifted with a Maasai name, Naramatt (the one who milks cows efficiently, I think), by Maasai women that I work with in Kenya. I’ve met with people who had never seen a white person and those who think whites are the cause of their problems.

I’ve witnessed dramatic changes everywhere like the explosive growth of cell phones. I recall cellular service giants Vodacom & MTN in 1994 saying that by 2004 they expected the market to be 500,000 subscribers.  They were wrong by 21 million.  Africa’s cellular network has always been superior to America’s.  The Internet is widely available in every city and large town, but has yet to reach outside metro areas in any scale.

When I first arrived, vehicles in rural areas belonged to the UN, NGOs or governments. People walked long distances to do anything and there were a few bicycles.  The mini-bus taxi wasn’t yet on the roads. Today mini-buses are to me more dangerous than malarial mosquitoes. Traffic and air pollution, by-products and symbols of the middle class, have taken over once sleepy cities like Bamako, Kampala and Dar es Salaam. Stores stocked their shelves with items mainly from South Africa or Europe.  Made in China wasn’t seen much.

China’s interest in Africa started decades ago and it’s now a critical supplier of oil, minerals and other raw materials to fuel its still-booming economy. Its economic muscle and influence have increased to the point where now China is Africa’s biggest trading partner worth an estimated $150 billion in 2011, a whopping 30% increase over 2010. China’s influence is evident in South Africa’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a tourist visa to attend Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday party.

Unlike the Western approach of insisting on an agenda of democracy, human rights and ‘structural adjustment’ by the IMF, the Chinese seem to have no moral imperative to change Africa.  They don’t seem to tell Africans how to run their countries, to want to convert them to their religious beliefs or turn them into black Chinese as the French did with their ‘colonies’.  Given the economic mess in Europe right now, having diversified investors and business partners is essential for Africa’s increasingly brighter future. Sub-Saharan Africa is the third-fastest growing region in the world, behind China and India.

A market stall in rural Rwanda

Ubiquitous and cheap Chinese products – pots, pans, plastic items, solar lights, batteries, hair accessories, cell phones, soy sauce and rice noodles – line shelves from kiosks to hypermarkets.  You might even think that this is somewhere in Hong Kong; it’s a market stall in rural Rwanda.  Affordability is key for Africans as they move up the economic ladder, which they are doing in record numbers.

Bright orange Chinese construction vehicles can be seen across the continent building much-needed infrastructure. Nairobi roads have been jammed for so long that I would have supported the Taliban building them.  Many Africans tell me that the Chinese are racist and refuse to mix with them.

Western companies employ Africans at all levels including top positions and boards. In Chinese companies bosses and workers alike are Chinese; Africans work in the lowest level of positions, if at all. Animosity towards the Chinese by Africans is palpable.

I laughed when I read that Richard Dowden, executive director of the Royal African Society is offering a prize for the first person to find an African bossing Chinese workers. Unsurprisingly, it remains unclaimed.

I have seen many significant and positive changes across Africa. Change needs to accelerate in real partnership with the continents largest trading partners (China particularly), themselves being responsible corporate citizens and creating well-paid skilled jobs, supporting entrepreneurial business by utilising local products in their supply chains and helping to expand sustainable economies across this amazing continent.

When I write about my next two decades in Africa, I hope that the next revolution will be a bright green one where Africa produces an abundance of food to feed its people.  I can only hope that the new wealth will be responsibly used to stimulate employment, foster eco-tourism and ensure meaningful educational opportunities for girls instead of buying guns, fighter jets and presidential planes.  Combatting climate change instead of each other I hope will be a dominant story. I count on social entrepreneurs, especially women, to lead the way to create pivotal social change. It is my hope that I’ll be able to tell about how I’ve seen that the cures for HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB and other diseases save lives. Large-scale electrification from renewable energy sources I hope will bring African homes and enterprises reliable electricity and that women and children will finally be liberated from the horrors of dangerous kerosene.  This electrification will, in turn, ensure that technology cascades far and wide. And finally, I sure hope that free and fair elections break out in every country and responsible leaders are elected who graciously step down when their terms end.

I enthusiastically look forward to the next 24 years in Africa. I’ll keep this blog handy in 2036.  Chopsticks anyone?

by Kristine Pearson