(In August), a book I authored titled Africa’s Soft Power: Philosophies, Political Values, Foreign Policies and Cultural Exports was launched in the form of a webinar by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Institute for the Future of Knowledge, South Africa.
As opposed to hard power (the power of coercion), soft power (the power of attraction) is derived from the non-coercive attributes of states such as an admirable philosophy, an attractive culture, appealing political values and a multilateral foreign policy.
Professor Kammila Naidoo, executive dean in the Faculty of Humanities at UJ, opened the lively discussion. Prof Thuli Madonsela, former Public Protector and the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University (South Africa), chaired the event, while I was the main speaker. The discussants were Prof Peter Kagwanja, president and chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi, Kenya; and Prof Christopher Isike from the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
In her opening remarks, Prof Naidoo noted that the publication was the first book on Africa’s soft power and that the author’s quest to Africanise the concept was commendable in light of the negative stereotypes, such as diseases, corruption, war and famine that are associated with Africa.
I noted that the book focuses on four key states in Africa: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt, and seeks to Africanise the concept of soft power by highlighting the prominent African philosophies of these states, including Omolúwàbí, Ubuntu, Harambee and Pharaohism respectively.
A common denominator of these philosophies is that they stress collectivism as opposed to the Western notion of the primacy of individualism and a realist international order.
Nigeria’s soft power includes the continental and global footprints of Nollywood (movie industry); Afrobeats (music industry); multinational corporations and mega churches; the promotion of democracy, technical aid, peace-making and peacekeeping; and its role in international organisations such as the Economic Community of West Africa States, the African Union and the United Nations.
In concrete terms, Nollywood and Afrobeats have promoted Nigerian culture and challenged global anti-Nigerian sentiments.
Abuja has achieved its foreign policy of the promotion of democracy in states such as Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Togo, and peace-making and peacekeeping in Liberia and Sierra Leone, providing 80 percent of the troops and 90 percent of the funding in the process.
These soft power gains are, however, constrained by political corruption, a democracy deficit, the country’s image crisis and Boko Haram terrorism.
South Africa’s soft power is derived from diverse sources, including its norm entrepreneurship, evident in its voluntary nuclear disarmament and acting as the pathfinder of organisations such as New Partnership for African Development and African Peer Review Mechanism; its hosting of sporting events and educational exchanges; peace diplomacy and democracy promotion in places like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo; the state’s liberal constitution and the ideas of its charismatic leaders; and the reach and influence of the country’s companies and civil society.
The concrete benefits of these soft power sources include the successful bidding and hosting of the first (and only) FIFA World Cup in Africa, South African universities’ attraction to African students, former President Thabo Mbeki’s ideas that are ingrained in key African institutions such as NEPAD, and the country’s reputation as Africa’s sole member of BRICS and the G20.
Tswane’s peace-making in Burundi and the DRC are equally germane. This soft power display has enhanced South Africa’s image, prompting scholars to describe the country, using monikers such as “a major peacemaker” and “symbolic representativity”.
South Africa’s soft power is, however, undermined by the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment; as well as political corruption; double standards on human rights and xenophobia.
Kenya can lay claim to soft power in the cultural realm, evident in its booming fashion industry, success in athletics and its tourist attractions. This is supplemented by its peace diplomacy, economic diplomacy, and the success of its multilateral foreign policy.
The dominance of Kenyans in athletics competitions has enhanced their profile and they have, in turn, provided a rich reservoir for sports diplomacy, seen in the intersection of sport, politics and diplomacy.
For example, Tegla Leroupe was a peace envoy in the conflicts in northern Uganda and Darfur, and was subsequently appointed as the UN Ambassador of Sport by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006.
In terms of economic diplomacy, the Mombasa seaport is an important soft power resource in that it reinforces Kenya’s profile as the gateway to East Africa, as landlocked states such as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, as well as South Sudan depend on Kenya for their goods. Nevertheless, Nairobi’s power of attraction is undermined by incessant electoral violence, ethnic politics and endemic corruption.
Egypt derives its soft power from its skilled workers, the Mo Salah effect and Pan-Arabism.
Mo Salah is an important soft power individual due to his remarkable success at Liverpool (Football Club), such as his emergence as the top goal scorer in the English Premiership in 2018 and 2019. His contribution to the team resulted in Liverpool winning the UEFA Champions League and English Premiership titles in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Salah’s soft power is seen in his engagement of Islamic practice on the field of play, which has reduced Islamophobia in England and possibly beyond.
Skilled Egyptian workers, especially in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, have become an important source of symbolic nation-building and public diplomacy, as the Egyptian government often adopts rhetoric such as “Sons of Egypt Abroad” to celebrate their success.
Cairo’s power of attraction declined significantly post the Arab Spring as a result of political instability, human rights abuses, and economic challenges, especially the high levels of poverty and unemployment that have combined to frustrate the execution of Cairo’s foreign policy.
The first discussant, Prof Kagwanja noted that the book’s focus on Africa’s soft power signifies that the continent can be seen in the same light as other key states such as the United States, China, Germany and Brazil that exercise power in international affairs. He added that it shows that Africa has influenced other regions through the instruments, mechanisms and philosophies of its soft power.
Prof Isike, the second discussant, argued that de-Americanising and Africanising the concept of soft power was critical to the development of studies on soft power in Africa.
The book makes an important contribution in showcasing Africa as a model of soft power and debunking the negative stereotypes that have hindered Africa’s development.
In her concluding remarks, Prof Madonsela highlighted that the book reinforced that Africa can be seen beyond the lens of Western epistemology, pointing to the role of South African Ubuntu which epitomises the sharing we have witnessed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Nigerian Nollywood that promotes core values such as integrity and honesty. – Premium Times
Oluwaseun Tella is Director of Future of Diplomacy at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge