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Friday, January 1, 1999 Published at 19:05 GMT

World: Africa

Africa 1999: A renaissance?

Zimbabwe has faced a tough year

By Africa Correspondent Jane Standley

Although you may not believe it after another year of fighting and famine, Africa - the most troubled of continents - is being reborn.

The "African Renaissance" is the philosophy of one of Africa's most powerful leaders, South Africa's Deputy President Thabo Mbeki.

Jane Standley onboard Africa's renaissance train
Mr Mbeki rejects the stereotyping of Africa as trapped in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering he says renewal is underway.

The socio-political journey of renaissance has been mirrored by a luxury train journey on board which I joined Africa's leaders to ask about the continent's future.

It was an image from another era, from the days when presidents and kings swept through their lands waving from magnificent train carriages.

South Africa

[ image: Thabo Mbeki:
Thabo Mbeki: "It's about creating a new Africa"
South Africa has built what it calls the world's most luxurious train and Mr Mbeki, who will take over from Nelson Mandela after 1999 elections, is using it to publicise African achievement - and the aspirational philosophy of renaissance.

"It really is about creating a new Africa, about engaging millions of Africans in a sustained struggle over a long period of time in the search for a better life, to end poverty and oppression, to regain dignity," he says.

The glory of Africa's cultural heritage - and its more recent embracing of democracy and the free market - are celebrated at every stop of the journey. Everywhere, the southern African leaders on board religiously proclaim that the renaissance is on track.


All, including Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, struggle to put their fingers on hard evidence of a rebirth:

"It is something spiritual - but it's a concrete thing. Maybe not too material but it's a concrete thing - it's there - we're not just talking we're doing things."


[ image: A view from another era]
A view from another era
Zimbabwe may have staged a rousing welcome but it was an uneasy stop for the renaissance train. An economy in ruins and a foray into Congo's war have stirred up civil unrest at the rule of President Robert Mugabe.

He is more old style African leader than renaissance man. The Zimbabwean navy formed the guard of honour but when I asked sailors if they have seen any battleships they replied: "No, just hardships."

The renaissance train became more like a magical mystery tour looking for real evidence of renaissance rather than sliding currencies, falling economic growth and, of course, a plague of new wars.

The presidents sitting down to a nice lunch in the luxury dining car chewed over their continent's future. They dismissed the sniggering and name calling that has already begun - the joke that African Renaissance is really African re-nonsense.


[ image: Africans hope talk will translate into progress]
Africans hope talk will translate into progress
South African analyst Richard Cornwall supports the philosophy - but highlights the hurdles.

"I think the continuation of armed conflict, the proliferation of weaponry which contributes to the culture of violence, and the culture of violence which is now extending beyond simply armed conflict - to involve drug smuggling, slavery - that's where it has to look with the greatest fear," he says.

"Where it has to look with the greatest hope is at immense resilience of African civil society, and it's ability to survive despite the fact that all the clinical indications are that the patient has been long since dead."


Thabo Mbeki shares the belief in his continent's people and refuses to let the wars get in the way. Colonial damage and Cold War interference have left a lot for Africa to recover from.

"There would never have been need to talk of an African Renaissance if there were no problems. So I am certainly not discouraged by the fact that there are problems - because that's precisely what we seek to address - the problems."

There was another celebration at the end of the line - a vocal affirmation that the renaissance has not yet fallen off the rails.

The sentiment is positive but as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe struggles to keep in tune at an impromptu presidential karaoke session, it is clear that Africa needs more than just new words set to old tunes.

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