What can South Africa be? … What can Africa be? … What can the world be? … And what must we do to make it that way?
Just as Nelson Mandela dreamt of a prosperous and unified future for the people of South Africa, philanthropist and entrepreneur Bill Gates laid out his vision of how we can create a better world of opportunity for all during his keynote address at the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture today.
The 2016 lecture was hosted at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi campus, in honour of the Mamelodi families who lost loved ones during their apartheid struggle more than 20 years ago.
“The theme of this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture is ‘living together’. This is fitting, because in many ways, ‘living together’ was also the theme of Nelson Mandela’s life. The system he fought against was based on the opposite idea – that people should be kept apart, that our superficial differences are more important than our common humanity.
“Today, South Africans are still striving to ‘live together’ in the fullest sense, but you are so much closer to that ideal because Nelson Mandela and so many others believed in the promise of one South Africa,” said Gates.
But while progress has been made in pursuing the ideals of Tata’s democratic nation of equality, it often seems like a stuck record – the needle holding the promise of a symphony before skipping backwards once again.
In his keynote address at the 2015 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, French economist Thomas Piketty noted that income inequality in South Africa is “higher than pretty much anywhere else in the world”.
“In general, African countries tend to have higher rates of inequality than countries on other continents. And despite healthy average GDP growth in the region, many countries have not shared in it,” said Gates.
“Gross inequalities exist both within countries and between countries. Until progress belongs to all people, everywhere, the real promise of living together will remain elusive.”
Power lies in the hands of South Africa’s youth
Gates explained that the topic of youth would always arise in his many meetings with Mandela, and noted how passionate Madiba was about harnessing the power of young minds.
“I agree with Mandela about young people, and that is one reason I am optimistic about the future of this continent. Demographically, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and its youth can be the source of a special dynamism.”
Gates said that in the next 35 years, two billion babies will be born in Africa. By 2050, 40 percent of the world’s children will live on this continent.
“The real returns will come if we can multiply this talent for innovation by the whole of Africa’s growing youth population. That depends on whether Africa’s young people – all of Africa’s young people – are given the opportunity to thrive.”
In order for this to happen, Gates explained that four key issues must be tackled – health and nutrition, education, productivity and economic opportunity, as well as good governance.
“When people aren’t healthy, they can’t turn their attention to other priorities. But when health improves, life improves by every measure,” said Gates.
HIV/AIDS has been a serious and ongoing issue on the continent – more than 2 000 young people under the age of 24 are newly infected in sub-Saharan Africa every day, and Gates explained that more creative ways to make testing and treatment accessible and easier to use will be vital.
Other issues include tackling malnutrition and malaria.
“When children’s bodies and brains are healthy, the next step is an education that helps them develop the knowledge and skills to become productive contributors to society. In Africa, as in the US, we need new thinking and new educational tools to make sure that a high-quality education is available to every single child.”
Healthy, educated young people are eager to make their way in the world. But Africa’s youth must have the economic opportunities to channel their energy and their ideas into progress, he said.
And for Gates, all of these things – advances in health, in education, in agricultural productivity, in energy – won’t happen on their own. They can only happen in the context of governments that function well enough to enable them.
Africa can achieve the future it aspires to
“If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: Africa can achieve the future it aspires to. But that future depends on the people of Africa working together, across economic and social strata and across national borders, to lay a foundation so that Africa’s young people have the opportunities they deserve.
“Nelson Mandela said, ‘Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.’
“But our duty is not merely to arouse; our duty is to invest in young people, to put in place the basic building blocks so that they can build the future. And our duty is to do it now, because the innovations of tomorrow depend on the opportunities available to children today,” said Gates.
“It’s clear to everyone how big and complicated the challenges are. But it’s just as clear that people with bravery, energy, intellect, passion, and stamina can face big, complicated challenges and overcome them. There is so much more work to be done to create a future in which we can all live together. But there are also so many people who are eager to get to work.
“Let’s do everything within our power right now to help them build the future that Nelson Mandela dreamed of – and the future that we will achieve together.”