by Mandy de Waal (@mandyldewaal) If you read the London Financial Times earlier this year, you may have noticed a good news story about how technology is markedly improving people’s lives in Rwanda. This is in direct contrast to what is happening in South Africa.

FT’s David White writes of how problematic it was for locals to register land transfers, and how this has change. “From mid-year [2015], registration can be done online,” he writes, adding, “For people with no internet-capable device of their own, this could be done at a government centre, or a cyber café, or the place perhaps where they already buy phone airtime and do their mobile banking.”

Paul Kagame, courtesy of Wikimedia
Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, courtesy of Wikimedia.

This initiative — which saves Rwandan citizens time, hassle and money — is a direct result of the central African country’s drive to remake itself using technology, and has earned that country (and its president) praise from the international press, as well as global business leaders, academics and the leaders of other states.

Rwanda’s impressive technology gains and economic turnaround has smartly positioned that country’s president as something of a darling of the west, despite Paul Kagame is busy amending Rwanda’s constitution and petitioning for a third term.

Rwanda’s darling tyrant

Politico magazine refers to Kagame as “The Darling Tyrant” and Tony Blair calls him a visionary, while Bill Clinton declares that Kagame is amongs “the greatest leaders of our time”.

The vision and drive to transform the landlocked agrarian economy decimated by a genocide — in which close on a million people died 21 years ago — is very much Kagame’s. Dubbed “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman” by the New York Times, when Kagame became president of Rwanda in 2000 (before which he was vice president and minister of defence), the authoritarian ruler helped realise a road map for transforming his country.

Called Vision 2020, this policy was formulated over two years from 1998 to 1999 with a series of ‘national reflection sessions’ to inspire Rwandans to turn from the past toward the future, and to think about the nation they wanted to become. The plan for renewal rests on six interlinked pillars, namely governance, an efficient state, well-developed human capital, solid physical infrastructure, robust private enterprise and modernised agriculture.

But the big push behind the development program is technological. Kagame — whom the New York Times says “loves technology” — drives the development of IT skills and education, and public-private technology partnerships; and he has overseen the flourishing of a robust, technology-rich physical infrastructure. The Rwandan president actively promotes investment in the ICT sector, often travelling to IT hotspots around the world, such as San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.

The bottom line?

In July 2015, the World Bank projected an economic growth rate of 7.4% in 2015 for Rwanda, which would climb to 7.6% in 2016. The World Bank also projected that Rwanda’s poverty rate would decline from 63% in 2011 to 54% in 2016. What this means is that the country will move some 1m people above the poverty rate.

SA’s stagnant growth rate

In stark contrast, SA’s growth rate is stagnating. In 2012 and 2013, our growth rate was 2.2%. Last year, this dropped to 1.5%.

Twenty one years ago it was inconceivable that the central African country would outpace our own. As Rwanda was flowing with rivers of blood, SA was participating in its first democratic election and funds were pouring into what was then dubbed the “Rainbow Nation” — Africa’s miracle state.

Jacob Zuma, 2009, World Economic Forum on Africa 10, courtesy of Wikimedia
Jacob Zuma, 2009, World Economic Forum on Africa, courtesy of Wikimedia.

But in the 21 years of SA’s democracy, this country had nine ministers of communication, before our president, Jacob Zuma, recently split off the telecommunications and postal services under a newly created government department called Telecommunications and Postal Services, now run by a man called Siyabonga Cwele. In his book, The Zuma Years, political analyst Richard Calland calls Cwele a “Zuma-loyalist securocrat”.

A medical doctor with a master’s degree in economic policy, Cwele championed Zuma’s Protection of State Information Bill and pushed for the disbanding of the Scorpions, but is best-remembered — because of the sensational media headlines — for his wife’s drug problem. (Cwele claims he was unaware that his wife was a drug smuggler.)

Author and veteran investigative journalist, Jacques Pauw, describes Cwele as a “a former ANC underground activist in the mid-80s” who hails from Zuma’s home turf, KwaZulu-Natal. Cwele was appointed as the minister of intelligence in May 2008 and oversaw “a radical restructuring of the country’s intelligence structures, which resulted in the State Security Agency, with a R3 billion budget, being established,” Pauw wrote in City Press.

A sea of chaos

In his new incarnation as the minister that should be effecting SA’s technology policy, Cwele is drowning in a sea of chaos. There’s been a ping-pong of blaming and finger-pointing on digital migration with fellow Zuma loyalist, Faith Muthambi, who currently heads the communications department.

The SA postal service remains a mess in its management, operations and protracted strikes. The rollout of broadband has been another finger-pointing exercise that has largely stalled, and senior officials are departing from Cwele’s ministry in droves. It might come as a surprise but, unlike Rwanda, SA doesn’t even have an ICT policy in place.

What happened to SA’s tech ministry is symptomatic of all those sectors of national and local government that are dysfunctional. Politicking, mismanagement, corruption and cadre deployment are obstructing the bureaucracy that’s supposed to get things done, with disastrous consequences for SA’s economic development.

In stark contrast, Kagame’s Rwanda is a model of economic success. The Economist writes: “Rwandans are healthier and better educated than ever. Business is booming, corruption minimal and foreign investors flock to the country.”

Kagame vs Zuma

Make no mistake, Kagame has significant failings. His intolerance of opposition or critique has left him without a succession plan. The deaths, disappearances and imprisonment of his detractors are a blight on his record. But Kagame’s country prospers.

SA has its own populist tyrant at its helm but, unlike Rwanda, our narrative is a story of wasted potential. We are the prize fighter gone to seed — stumbling and struggling to even make it into the fight.

Read more:

  • War Crimes and Rwandan Realities in The New York Times.
  • Inside the Tech Revolution That Could Be Rwanda’s Future at Time.

Mandy de Waal


Mandy de Waal is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow her on Twitter at @mandyldewaal or email her at MandyLdeWaal [@]


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One reply on “Africa Dispatches: A tale of two countries”

  1. Great article @mandyldewaal
    Our ICT challenges and digital readiness has to be of the utmost importance for both citizens and economy. Interestingly enough there was an extensive research done last year on the ICT sector and Digital Readiness of SA by the WCU. Something I am writing up. But great write-up Mandy

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