Last week, millions of people joined former President Nelson Mandela in celebrating his 94th birthday.
Africa has produced many ordinary persons whose accomplishments have been extraordinary and yet it must be accepted that the symbol of Africa’s painful past will always be people like former President Mandela, not least because he campaigned for the role, but his ascendancy to the current icon status represents a contradiction of that life presents and the incredible African capacity to allow history to tell its own story without expressing bitterness.
In the search for builders and drivers of what it means to be African, we often forget to cast the net wider beyond the obvious.
As I reflected on the true meaning of Mandela’s legacy and the fact that in the global market place of images and sources of inspiration, he occupies a dominant space, I could not help but look back at Africa’s past with a view to identifying, profiling and documenting the lives of Africa’s corporate pioneers.
Often we overlook the impact of men and women of ideas who have made their mark on the African experience.
The heritage of Africa is far too complicated to be reduced to the exploits and accomplishments of just a few. Each African state has played host to incredible individuals who make life easier and bearable through actions that deliver food on the table.
Africa’s colonial past and the limitations it imposed cannot be erased, but the future can be secured if the present is allowed to play its part in shaping and defining the character of tomorrow. By devoting so much time to the pain of the past, very little time is left to embrace the challenges of the present.
The stories of people and institutions that make a difference in our lives ought to be told so that a new crop of individuals can be motivated to climb the ladder of opportunity.
Mandela’s journey is told so that never again shall we allow the same experience to be repeated in the name of progress.
However, the post-colonial experience has produced its own pioneers and game changers whose accomplishments ought to be showcased in the interests of creating societies that live up to the promise of a better life.
Who is to tell the story? How should the story be told? The story of Mandela through his birthday is now known globally and the selective memory of his legacy would suggest that it is and should be encouraged for people to endure pain for collective gain.
There is no doubt that if Mandela were to be allowed to speak his mind he may have a lot to say about his inner feelings, but in the interests of progress he has become a new prisoner where even the perpetrators of his painful past would swear that they were not willing participants of the experience.
The flag of Africa represents the aspirations of all its inhabitants. The fact that we have a colonial legacy is not accidental but a reflection of the fact that at the point when other people assumed control of the native space, the power balance was skewed against the majority.
The numerical superiority of indigenous people was not sufficient to tilt the power balance and the same situation remains in the commercial and financial spaces. The supplier base of Africa remains small while the consumer base is large.
The process of democratising the market place necessarily calls on us to think outside the box.
The mere fact that Africa was the last continent to be decolonised exposes the weakness that has allowed non-indigenes to have a better claim on its resources and potential.
I have learnt to accept that I know very little about what makes Africa tick. My literacy about the people and institutions that are responsible for bringing food on the table is low and perhaps it should be, for in the final analysis, it does and should not matter who, for instance, produces the car as long as it does what it is supposed to do.
However, each generation produces its own heroes and icons and the fact that little investment has been made in identifying and showcasing the best that Africa has produced must be a problem that Africans must address.
By investing in the knowledge of the past, it will be easy to appreciate that behind the stories of Africa’s corporate giants is a story of an individual or individuals supported by a circle of friends, family and even fools.
The individual or individuals in question were just ordinary people who understood that the end game of any commercial enterprise must be the consumer. So when people say the consumer is king, it is just a demonstration of the fact that no amount of sloganeering or propaganda can produce business success if there is nothing of value to transfer to the user.
The selflessness of individuals, who conceptualise an idea and proceed to convert such ideas into concrete products, must be understood beyond the profit motive that is often put at the centre of any discussion on the motives that underpin business initiatives.
For a selfish business person would have to consume what he or she produces. The true nature of business and its actors is often evident in the manner in which transactions are consummated.
The seller is responsible for determining the value at which he or she is willing to exchange a physical product for cash and the buyer has to make an election of what he or she is willing to pay.
It is only when the two parties agree that a transaction can take place. Accepting that commerce has its own rules, it is obvious that two parties that engage in an exchange of value process must be satisfied at the point of transaction to leave very little room for third parties to intervene.
A process that opens the door for third parties to intervene will create its own distortions of the nature that often is counterproductive.
The attitude towards business and its actors is no different to the attitude that the colonial actors took on freedom fighters. Most of the people who sought a just and equal society were called names and yet what they sought ultimately was to create an environment for the very people who were against change to prosper.
It has been suggested that the people who have benefited most from Mandela’s legacy are the people who did not want him to be free.
At workplaces of Africa, it is not uncommon that workers despise their employers and equally consumers despise their suppliers in the market place.
Ideally, consumers should be the ambassadors of suppliers and must take an effort to appreciate the role of suppliers in delivering a better life.
However, although it is through the efforts of individual suppliers that the promise is delivered, it is not unusual that credit is often taken by non-actors including the government and its actors.
The people who produce goods and services without any promise of success need to be appreciated and recognised not because the market requires this but because Africa’s past was not structured in a manner where commerce and industry played the kind of roles that we now expect.
With a short corporate journey travelled so far, the few names that are in the African theatre ought to be celebrated.
By adding my voice on this matter, I do hope that this will encourage new conversations to take place and more effort to be devoted to invest in the knowledge of commerce and industry and through the experiences of the few who have dared, a lot can be learnt about what matters in the construction of viable and progressive societies.