Anton Rupert, an extraordinarily successful businessman who founded and built up a huge empire, once said that people who do not believe in dreams are not realists. Right. We agree. But you can’t achieve a dream without facing reality.
If you have been following this series of blogs you will know by now that Open Africa’s vision, dubbed an African dream, is to link the splendours of Africa in a network of tourism routes from the Cape to Cairo. This in the interests of spreading wealth (job creation) in synergy with expanding biodiversity. Finding money to do this brought us face to face with the first reality, which is that it is very difficult to raise funds for grass-roots initiatives. We know that now but didn’t in the beginning. Initially we believed that given the vast amounts of money allocated to upliftment in Africa, any plan that was effective and economical on top of that would easily attract funding. This turned out to be naïve for many reasons.
Most aid funding is channelled through governments and once caught up there is practically inaccessible to NGO’s. Funding from corporate social investment programs is available but takes a huge amount of effort to secure. It also tends to be inconsistent in that it follows whatever causes are receiving the most attention from time to time. Another thing, howsoever good social entrepreneurs may be at accomplishing their cause, this talent is seldom twinned with fundraising flair, which is a quite different skill. All we know for sure is that it is about building relationships, which is what this blog is really about. So please you tell us if we are succeeding or otherwise in striking a responsive chord with you? If not, we have a problem, and if still not after you have looked at www.openafrica.org then the problem is doubly serious.
Once the Open Africa vision could be proclaimed as something to which Africa’s people can subscribe, associated with pride and holding a promise in which all can genuinely believe, we needed a symbol to reflect the spirit of this. Quite different talents are required for such things and when an artist volunteered to have a crack at designing something, the only lead we could give him was that we wished it could somehow be associated with fossilized human footprints discovered near Cape Town. The earliest evidence of the existence of humanity in its present form, these footprints were whimsically referred to as those of Eve and noteworthy in terms of global interest in such things, the issue of the National Geographic magazine that carried the story of their discovery attracted the second highest readership count of that magazine ever recorded – second only to the landing of a man on the moon.
Rick Gore, the senior assistant editor of National Geographic, who wrote up the story of these footprints, ended the article with the following words, echoing the yearning of people everywhere to reconnect with the Earth and with their roots – one of the main themes of the Open Africa:
“We cover the prints with sand and head back down the beach. I turn and conjure a parting image of that lone figure standing atop the dune, hair blowing in the breeze, dark skin aglow in the sunset. In my mind she will forever be Eve. I know that’s romantic, but I’m a modern human, and I need my symbols and stories to make sense of this world. I imagine her taking that first step down the dune. It’s a small and tentative step, latent with curiosity, and 117 000 years later we still don’t know where it will ultimately lead.”
This African Footprint is intended to encourage amplification of the Open Africa vision in the minds of all those who care about Africa’s people, plants, and animals.
Africa has its own champion of champions, Nelson Mandela. At the time Open Africa was established he was president of South Africa and had come to be known as one of the world’s leading citizens. Reflecting on it now, our approach to him to become Open Africa’s patron was audacious, for other than passion we had little more to offer in terms of credentials that deserved the support of this great man. In the closing paragraph of a letter to him then we wrote, “Open Africa under your patronage could turn 21st Century Africa into a society at peace with itself, a relaxed society in which rest and leisure are an integral part of daily existence; a society in which people can take survival for granted, so that their efforts may be directed at achieving cultural excellence. It is our view Mr Mandela that you could inspire the sense of single-minded purpose that would make this happen.” We believed that then and we still believe it now.
Others were also pledging support, from all walks of life, some voluntarily with offers of expertise. These spontaneous subscribers to the Open Africa vision inspired the formation of Team Africa, an informal alliance of all those who want to see this dream accomplished.
Implementing the Open Africa initiative led to the development of www.openafrica.org and then the first route, the Southern Overberg Fynbos (featured in these images). Dreamers are visionaries and according to the futurist, Joseph Okpaku, they tend to dispense with the stepping-stones in crossing the river from the known present to the unknown future. Visionaries simply conjure the picture of a Utopian end in mind, and then work backwards in trying to find a way to get there. That is exactly what we did, with the kind of idealistic verve that inevitably leads to some hard encounters with reality later on. But for now we weren’t worried by such trivialities as to where to find money, how to build relationships, what to do about capacity building and so on. Bedazzled by our own vision, we hurtled along regardless. Not regardless of some core principles however, one of which was that we would never impose anything on communities from the outside. Our role is that of a catalyst in an initiative in which the participants make all their own decisions.
Following the Open Africa idea, for that is all it was to begin with, a think tank was formed to come up with a plan. By 1995 the plan solidified into the vision to link the splendours of Africa in a continuous network of tourism routes from the Cape to Cairo. The next thing was to operationalize the how part of doing this. We decided from the start that the way to go was through utilising IT and the web in particular, even though it was only in its infancy at that stage. We imagined, as we ask you to imagine, a network of participants connected to Africa’s magnificent wildlife, plants, and landscapes linked across borders according to their particular features on a website that could be interrogated for information from anywhere in the world. On the one hand this would put these participants into collectives that galvanise them around a vision of common purpose, enabling collaboration and better coordination, whilst on the other it would place their wares in the global marketplace without financial or other barriers to entry. Dr Don Pinnock, a noted academic, author, magazine editor and journalist called it “an African Dream” and through his good offices compiled a map for us to illustrate what was intended.
Publication of the map in Getaway magazine (www.getaway.co.za) served as the catalyst for the formation of the Peace Parks Foundation (www.peaceparks.org) by billionaire industrialist Anton Rupert. The PPF’s aim is to facilitate the creation of a vast network of transfrontier parks, a concept that has since made great strides and one that complements the Open Africa initiative perfectly. Bigger parks not only mean better conservation but also more attractions, creating greater opportunities for the local entrepreneurs Open Africa nurtures. So we were off to a good start.
The formation of Open Africa has its roots in the lead up to the freeing of Nelson Mandela back in the early 1990’s. Worried that the euphoria surrounding the prospect of South Africa’s political emancipation was masking the other great problem, of joblessness not just here but in Africa generally, Noel N de Villiers was going around giving addresses on the seriousness of this and how it could at least be partially overcome. His line was that Africa is too far behind in the traditional sectors of the world economy to compete well enough to avoid massive poverty, but that, paradoxically, the global environmental crisis was providing an opportunity to change all this.
Africa covers one quarter of the Earth’s land surface area. This continent is custodian of most of the world’s animal and plant species and also the birthplace of humankind. In the scenario likely to develop where green concerns focus the attention of people everywhere more and more on nature, the rarity value of these assets could be turned into a huge attraction for tourists. The kind of tourism this attracts has to be special however. Not only to create jobs but to inspire those who are benefiting from it to conserve the resource base, for poverty is ravaging nature in the same way as it is devastating the people who inhabit it.It was thinking along these lines that started what became Open Africa.