Back to the future: African countries should base their post-Covid plans on their shared heritage.

6 min readMay 25, 2020


By Dean Muruven, WWF Global Freshwater Policy Manager

© Gareth Bentley / WWF-US

Our freshwater team was in the middle of a planning session around COVID-19 responses a few days ago when a colleague raised the question of how do we put something out in the world that is not just another now more than ever narrative?

If you are wondering what that is, just run a Google search with the term now more than ever COVID. Every person or organization that has been fighting for a cause has told the world that now more than ever we need to address their cause. Whether it’s tackling the climate emergency, improving our health systems or increasing food security, it’s all been now more than ever — and that’s just talking about system level change. If you drill down a bit further, the now more than ever list is endless from needing more social entrepreneurs to supporting more small businesses. If you carry on down to a more personal level and you are a parent, then you might be saying now more than ever we need to value teachers and our education system.

As I began to sift through the now more than ever stories, my attention shifted to my home continent, Africa. While some countries are starting to emerge from their lockdowns, the picture in Africa is bleaker as the pandemic slowly tightens its grip on the continent — threatening to overwhelm healthcare systems and devastate vulnerable communities and economies.

This leaves African policy makers in a tough spot. They have to ensure that adequate policies are in place to deal with the present pandemic, while simultaneously focussing on the future policy landscape — and all within the constraints of their limited financial and human resources. And there is a lot of noise out there with buzzwords like new normal and build back better (which is critical, by the way) plus all the now more than evers. So where do they even start to define their policy responses?

© WWF / Simon Rawles

I believe we should start by looking not forward but back to Africa’s rich heritage and culture. In particular to the concept of Ubuntu, which is hugely important to me and my fellow South Africans. An Nguni term, Ubuntu in its simplest form places an emphasis on ‘being self through others’. It is a deep and powerful concept but the philosophy behind Ubuntu goes way beyond that. It is a form of humanism which can be expressed in the phrases ‘I am because of who we all are’ or ubuntu ngumuntu ngabantu in the Zulu language. But it is not unique to South Africa. Zambia’s former President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda described it as Africa’s worldview of societal relations, while Angola, Botswana, Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanznia, Uganda and Zimbabwe all have words with a similar meaning.

It is a proudly African construct.

There are three principles behind the philosophy.

1. if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life

This speaks directly to the current experience of so many of us as policy makers weigh up lockdowns vs livelihoods.

2. to be human is to affirm one´s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.

This principle is at the heart of what comes next. Alarm bells are already ringing with UN Food and Agricultural Organization and others estimating that 265 million people around the world will face acute food insecurity by the end of this year — double last year’s total of 135 million people, more than half of whom were Africans. The pandemic also threatens to push 40–60 million people into extreme poverty, resulting in the first increase in global poverty since 1998. The World Bank projects that 23 million of those people will be from sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for the bulk of the global under-five mortality rate, with diarrheal diseases a major contributor. And it’s clear why. Africans make up a significant proportion of the 2.1 billion people who lack access to safe, accessible water at home and the 4.5 billion people who lack access to safely managed sanitation.

© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

This begs the question, whether we have adequately recognized the humanity of others? At the onset of the COVID crisis, we had presidents and prime ministers telling us to wash our hands in clean water as good hygiene would reduce the risk of contracting the virus. But as those shocking statistics show, in 2020 that is still not a simple — or indeed possible — task for billions of people.

Recognizing the humanity of others links to one of the key constructs used to describe Ubuntu — human dignity: the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings. Clearly, ensuring access to clean water and safe sanitation, food sovereignty, tackling poverty and improving livelihoods must be at the heart of any journey towards a society based on human dignity.

But this is not a journey that we can embark on alone. Robert Sobukwe, a famous South African anti-apartheid activist, said back in 1959 that “there is a growing feeling among politically conscious Africans throughout the continent that their destiny is one, that what happens in one part of Afrika to Africans must affect Africans living in other parts.” This is a great bridge to the third principle of ubuntu.

3. the king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.

Building back better after the pandemic provides an opportunity for Africa’s leaders to design human centered policies, rooted within the philosophy of Ubuntu — policies that will be based on improving the dignity for all Africans. This will allow Africans to write a new script for ourselves so that future generations will proudly say “I am because, they were.”

Free flowing Luangwa river in Zambia© James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

There is one final critical element of Ubuntu, it is not just what we do but it is the spirit in which we do it that also matters. Providing water, food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions should be done in harmony with nature.

Africa will need to keep its rivers clean and flowing and secure its most important sources of water to ensure food security, as they nourish fields and livestock and sustain freshwater fisheries that feed tens of millions. Similarly, freshwater ecosystems are a central component of sanitation systems and so are fundamental to efforts to improve the health and well-being of people across the continent. Finally, redirecting funding into sustainable infrastructure will be crucial to building back better.

Africa’s rivers are her lifeline. We need a New Deal to keep them healthy — for the benefit of people and nature.

So whether you are an African policy maker planning for the future, a business leader looking to boost the sustainability of your operations in Africa or an investor lining up significant support to aid post-COVID responses on the continent, do so through the lens of Ubuntu and ask yourself whether your interventions recognize the humanity in others and if it is done in the spirit of preserving Africa’s natural resources.

As Africans we have an existential connection to nature and we must strive to keep that intact irrespective of the path we choose.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki said it best. “I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land. I am an African!”




Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.