Kweku Mandela Amuah, grandson of Nelson Mandela, returned to South Africa as an adult and shares his grandfather’s dream of a better Africa for the future. With his cousin, he co-founded Africa Rising, an organization dedicated to empowering young people.
He is also a film producer. His latest project, Inescapable, recently showed at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Directed by Arab-Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda and starring Marisa Tomei, it’s an action thriller centered on Syrian operatives. Because of Syria’s ongoing civil conflict, parts of South Africa stood in for the country during the film’s production. Next year, Mandela Amuah is also planning on releasing a documentary about his famous grandfather, which will feature he and his cousins asking candid questions of the African icon.
There are lessons in leadership to learn from Mandela even when he stepped out of office, Mandela Amuah tells Arabic Knowledge at Wharton. He also discusses his social initiatives in South Africa, and the continent’s transforming business realities. “African countries tended to undervalue their natural resources and not actually control them,” he says. “I think that’s something that a few governments in Africa have looked at and are trying to change. They’re trying to diversify beyond being seen as a place to get natural resources.”
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Would you say there’s an African renaissance going on right now?
Kweku Mandela Amuah: I would definitely say there’s one going on. I would say it’s been going on for a long time. It wasn’t as galvanized by young people as it is today. If you look at the population, I think close to 70% of the population is under the age of 15. So I think it’s important to create opportunities for young people and also give them a chance to stand proud among people around the world, to know what it is to be an African.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell me why pride and confidence in the young African is still an issue, given that apartheid ended years ago?
Mandela Amuah: A lot of it has to do with society. A lot of it has to do with the perception that people have around Africa. You’re constantly seeing famines and negative media stories about the place you’ve grown up. It’s hard to be positive. It’s hard to be proud. The other problem we have is access to information, whether it is the Internet or books and magazine. For a long time, people in Africa who lived in poverty were deprived of that. So giving people opportunities to expand their horizons and believing what they have is achievable is so important. The more we do that, the more pride we start to see in young Africans.
We spoke at Harvard earlier this year. What was unique was that there were a lot of African students. But when we asked the question, “When you finish your degree, are you going to come back to Africa?” A lot of them couldn’t answer that question. It is vitally important they do come back here. They don’t necessarily have to go to a multinational or corporate company. Come here and be an entrepreneur. There’s opportunity to do that. The nice thing was that we were on a panel with three people who had done that. They had come back to Africa and started businesses that were now thriving. I think that’s critical as well. For a long time, there has been a brain drain. Some of our most successful doctors, professors, and engineers have gone overseas to ply their trade because unfortunately, the monetary situation is much better there. But I think it comes down to pride. If you have pride in your country, you want to be there, regardless of how harsh or big the obstacles may be.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the different challenges in being an entrepreneur in Africa versus overseas?
Mandela Amuah: One is access to clientele that have the monetary power to spend. Logistics can sometimes be hard in terms of how systems work, exporting and importing. Skills are a huge problem, as well as labor force. There’s a combination of things that make it a little bit trickier in Africa. But those things are going to change over time ultimately. It takes individuals and giving people these opportunities in order for these things to change.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned in an interview in The Observer newspaper that finding a gap in the market, just as Taiwan and South Korea did, was vital to the economy thriving.
Mandela Amuah: I was explaining the difference between Taiwan and Ghana, since they both gained their independence at the same time. Ghana invested heavily in education. They created free universities and free schools. For the first 10 years, they saw a boost in their economy. After that, they saw a decline. They were the first tier in producing natural resources but not necessarily turning them into [products]. There wasn’t a lot of diversification, whereas Taiwan supports diversification within their economy. It wasn’t totally linked to education.
So if you were a 50-year-old guy in business who didn’t necessarily have an education but had the skills, the government would support you in your business trade. That allowed the economy to diversify. Ultimately you saw a lot of growth in the last 50 years. It’s a similar thing here. A lot of young people here think they have to go to university and get a degree to become a doctor or lawyer or an accountant. Those are good professions and I’m not taking anything away from them. But there are other opportunities — to be restaurateurs, bus or taxi drivers; to be painters and be successful; to be filmmakers and be successful. It takes support of not just the government. I think that’s something we need to get away from. It takes the support of the actual community we live in, the society we live in.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think Africa has infrastructure lessons to learn from the Middle East as well, since they’re one of your nearest neighbors and quite prosperous in some areas?
Mandela Amuah: Definitely. We are able to get lessons from various places around the world. Infrastructure is such an important part. One is it creates jobs ultimately. More importantly, it creates presence in those communities where people can be proud. Transport has always been a huge issue in Africa. We’ve managed to deal with that. I think people have adapted. But I think for the next 10 to 20 years, there’s a huge emphasis from governments to work together to implement strong infrastructure development programs. People should also get involved with that and I think the key is to look at public-private partnerships, where potentially communities incur funds and build infrastructure from them.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: The economic climate of Africa is booming and positive compared to the U.S., Europe and China. What are some of the things that Africans can do to take advantage of the economic opportunities?
Mandela Amuah: You have to go out there and find them. I think again access to information is not as easy as it is in the U.K., for instance. There is a means and ways for people to do that. It probably takes a bit more hard work. The payoff will be equally satisfying if they do that. That’s something we’re trying to impart to young people starting in South Africa but we want to spread [the message] to the entire African continent.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: With economic ties to the Middle East increasing, how do you see the relationship between Africa and its neighbors changing?
Mandela Amuah: I think Africa and the Middle East have always had a strong relationship. There’s a strong Muslim presence on the continent. North Africa has very strong ties with the Middle East. In terms of development, very early on, a lot of Middle Eastern countries saw potential in Africa and invested in it. So the links there are very good from that point of view. I see them growing and I’m hopeful that Africa will reach the development level that you see in much of the Middle Eastern region.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Africa is still hitting its stride in the economic boom. You mentioned there were mistakes made in the past in another newspaper interview. What are some of the lessons Africans have learned from these mistakes?
Mandela Amuah: I think it’s a combination of things. A big issue that Africa has had in the past is a lack of unity and cooperation to work together. That’s changing with the formation of the AU [African Union]. There are now strong links and African countries are investing in each other’s countries. Another big thing that is talked about quite readily is African countries tended to undervalue their natural resources and not actually control them. I think that’s something that a few governments in Africa have looked at and are trying to change. They’re trying to diversify beyond being seen as a place to get natural resources. They want to show culture, they want to show their music and art. These are all promising things that in the past haven’t been done to a great enough extent.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You founded Africa Rising. Why did you feel you had to start this type of organization?
Mandela Amuah: It was a combination of things. As a young person from Africa, I felt we have to be more vocal about our continent and focus on the positive things coming out of it. The other reason was that in the middle of 2009, I traveled to New York with my cousin Ndaba, with whom I cofounded Africa Rising. I just remember being asked a lot of weird questions about Africa, like “Are there lions on the streets?” and “Do we have elevators in Africa?” I just thought it was important to transcend that and show young people around the world that we’re not different at the end of the day. We have jobs. We have aspirations. And for the most part, we have structural development that you have in other countries. It may not be to the same extent but it is growing by the day. There are a lot of good things to look for in Africa. A lot of times in the media, we tend to see the bad sides — conflicts and poverty, famines and droughts.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So is part of the mission of your organization to bring that message to the rest of the world, not just in Africa?
Mandela Amuah: Well, no. I think we have to start here in Africa ultimately. If we can achieve a sense of pride and belonging and positivity in young Africans, it’ll be something infectious and widespread. I was speaking to an editor at The Economist and she was saying that on her trip to Africa — something she had seen throughout the continent was that young people were expressing this positivity to her, something she hadn’t seen before. So I think it’s something slowly taking shape.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the projects that African Rising has sponsored or working on?
Mandela Amuah: Currently, we’re working on our flagship project, which is our leadership development program. We’re partnered with a number of schools in Soweto, which is the largest township in South Africa. The focus is really to help kids in their last year of studying and prepare them for entering university, but also to focus on how they present themselves, and doing that in a positive way. Helping them to understand that’s critical in how they move throughout life and obviously getting into the job force, so it’s really preparing them for the next stage in life.
And then we have a series of campaigns we work on. One of them is called “Born Healthy.” It’s basically spreading information through brochures we print. In rural areas in South Africa, we have high child mortality rates. We give new mothers basic information on how they can protect their children in their first three months, which are the most critical months in their lives. We’ve also now started an initiative where we’ve partnered with a trust to spread awareness and raise funds for Tourette’s Syndrome, which is something quite prevalent in South Africa. Most of the population doesn’t know about it so it’s actually fallen under the “Born Healthy” campaign.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You produced a film called The Bang Bang Club starring Ryan Philippe about the end of apartheid from the perspective of four photojournalists. How has your background in filmmaking helped you in realize the importance of the image of young Africans to themselves and outside of Africa?
Mandela Amuah: I grew up watching films and being immersed in the world they built. And a lot of the world they built revolved around Western countries. I think in my films I tend to tackle serious subjects. I want to show them honesty at the end of the day. I want them to have a transcendent message and be an example to people in some small way.
The unique thing about Africa Rising is that we came back from the New York trip and about three months later, we decided to have a meeting with friends and like-minded people, and said, “This is what we’re embarking on.” We had artists and musicians come along. And they all felt the same way, which was unique. We had a hundred people in the same room saying we have to do something about this. That’s the motivation for me every day.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I understand you’re working on a film about your grandfather Nelson Mandela?
Mandela Amuah: It’s a feature documentary that took me a couple of years to do. It’s really something focused on my cousins and myself asking questions to my granddad that we always wanted to ask him — his life lessons and the trials and tribulations of his life. Originally when I was asked to do it by my family, I was reluctant to do it. I knew it was something that was extremely close and extremely personal to me. I’m always reluctant to tread that space. “When do you let go?” I don’t think you can in this type of situation so I struggled with it a bit. I think I got the composition right ultimately. What we made was actually quite unique and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the world. We’re aiming to probably release it in July or August of 2013. We haven’t confirmed the date.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us a preview of some of the important lessons your grandfather talked about?
Mandela Amuah: He talks about a combination of things. He said that for him, basically stepping down as first-term president was such an important thing. He felt it was his way of setting an example. Some leaders take that to heart. But I think in life, all you can do is try to set an example and hope your community and the people around you will take something away in some small way.
He also talked about growing up in rural South Africa and how hard it was to comprehend what was going on in Johannesburg and some of the major cities where segregation was so rife and how unique it was for him to come to Johannesburg. Before that, he hadn’t really been exposed to that. It was his real education ultimately — watching human attraction and human nature and reflecting on that. He talked about how important it is when things move so fast and reflect on what’s going on around you. They were little anecdotes that really stuck with me personally.