Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, wants to resurrect – phoenix like – the African Renaissance, the precursor to the New Partnership for African Development or NEPAD.  And there is nothing wrong with his ambition to help realise the aspirations of Africans.

The problem is that the African Renaissance was a big idea – a high level concept – which was meant to empower Africa and Africans to take control of their own destiny.  It was a cerebral and worthy response to the conditions under which Africa has laboured for too long.  It seemed to be as much a product of Mbeki’s academic background as anything else, and it never really survived contact with reality – either in Africa or globally.

Quickly – almost too quickly – the African Renaissance was translated into a shopping list of big infrastructure and other border-line vanity projects. Briefly roads, bridges, ports, irrigation and sanitation projects burst like fireworks in the night sky into the planners dreams.  Dog in the manger donors, recoiling at the prospect of paying out yet more large sums, failed to step up to the plate citing very credible concerns about governance, accountability and corruption.  The brief flame of the African Renaissance settled into the steady low heat of NEPAD, an organisation which radiated all the outward signs of a solution looking for a problem.  Far from the then epicentre of African politics (which stubbornly remained in Addis Ababa with the African Union), the NEPAD Secretariat fought a rear guard battle against its logical integration into the AU’s quick sand like bureaucracy.  It was hard to escape the view that the main motivation for this resistance had much to do with salaries and benefits (both better in South Africa than in Addis Ababa).

But perhaps things are not that bad.  Maybe this is the time to reinvigorate the African Renaissance as a guiding principle, just this time with a different implementation mechanism.  Perhaps donors should not be called upon to give large sums to build national infrastructure.  What is perhaps more appropriate is to use the African Renaissance as a rallying point for future commercial investment in Africa.  In the short term, some investments will prove to have been built on sandy soil.  But the world of international finance is a lot more hardnosed than that of development.  Corruption and malpractice do not allow long term investments to prosper and grow – or to turn profits for their investors.

Providing donor funds are specifically ruled out as a funding source or safety net, there is a chance that the African Renaissance could blaze a trail for good, clean economic growth in Africa.