A Return to Afro-Centric Governance and Development 

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By Tonderai Chiyindiko & Caryn Green, 4 August 2023

This article is the third in a series of blogs and opinion pieces, providing a context for and presenting research findings from Sibikwa Arts Centre’s Urban Culture, Democracy and Governance Labs. Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, this Urban Labs initiative is a pilot programme exploring cultural and creative approaches for pragmatic public participation in local policy development and implementation – actioning democracy in local communities across the City of Ekurhuleni.

A Historical Perspective of Governance and Development in Africa

In discussing urban development and cultural governance one thing that becomes painfully apparent is how the case studies, theories, methodologies and knowledges are predominantly derived from a Western and Eurocentric outlook. This starting point creates several challenges for those in the global South seeking to utilise the full gamut of cultural governance and urban development. 

Indeed, what exists in governance and development policy and practice – built on historical systems of colonialism – is often at odds with traditional, distinct and diverse cultures of African localities, and certainly for those who live in modern African cities. This tension is amplified by ‘informal’ cultural rules that shape society far more than ‘formal’ legislation. As highlighted by Aborisade Olasunkanmi, “the basic cultural values in African tradition… are indispensable values that remained resilient despite all effort by the west to jettison African cultural values and replace with their own”. 

In this regard, the important role of ‘cultural intelligence’ in urban development – looking at traditional governance models for collectively building our society, located in cultural philosophies, values and practices that prioritise indigenous knowledge and wisdoms and communal responsibility – becomes more urgent and necessary. 

Principles of Afro-Centric Governance and Development

African society has to some degree always been about cultural plurality not homogeneity as multiple ethnic groups would live together under some kind of collaborative governance structure, yet the impositions of modern cultural governance advocate for a more top-down approach without input from those affected the most by such measures.

That policy is developed by “experts” sitting in ‘ivory towers’ – therein lies the problem, in that within the traditional African structures of governance, no-one went somewhere secluded to develop something which would be beneficial for the community. The imbizo, kgotla or mbuza describe not only the space which would be convened (under a tree) for discussion and deliberation of matters pertaining to that community’s well-being, but also the collaborative nature of governance and decision-making which characterised that society. 

It is therefore important that Afro-centric and indigenous models of governance are put forward as alternatives to the present models so that whatever policies are developed can have a better chance of being effectively implemented for the betterment of the lives of citizens and city dwellers.

Considerations for Governance and Development in South Africa

For a country like South Africa, it is important to note that in as much as modern development and cultural governance models are what have been the central building blocks for policy formulation – there has been little to show in terms of how effective such policies and interventions have been. Of course, this should not come as a surprise because the infectiveness of these has been in the making for several years.  What has not been there is a sense from the authorities that it may be necessary to change course and adopt more indigenous ways of organising life and space which emerge out of the familiar cultures which are homegrown and therefore fit for purpose.

Though many of the stakeholders often tout ‘implementation’ of policy as the key problem, arguing that great policies have been developed – this way of looking at the situation is somewhat narrowminded and does not pay full attention to the complexities of policy development and policy implementation which does not pay sufficient attention to African paradigms.

What we certainly cannot do is to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, by dismissing the indigenous Afrocentric governance models, but rather we must make concerted effort to engage those models on the same playing field as the Eurocentric and Western models we have embraced wholeheartedly at the expense of our own.