The great lessons from Ethiopia

The great lessons from Ethiopia

When you set an appointment in Ethiopia with Ethiopians, always remember to define if it is Ethiopian or the other internationally acknowledged reference times such as the GMT. While a good part of the world celebrated the switch-over into the new millennium in 2000, Ethiopia only did so at the end of 2007, and that was for the Ethiopian calendar the year 2000. Ethiopia, like many African countries, has gone through a period of economic and political turmoil.

In the seventies and eighties, Ethiopia was in the news for all the bad reasons of abject poverty and starvation. The beauty of this Queen of Sheba nation was devoured by the vagaries of strife. In 1982 I had to flee to then Bophuthatswana, due to political turmoil in Lesotho, and when I got there, I found the late Lehlohonolo Pheko, a lawyer by profession, who had also fled Lesotho.

In discussion with Pheko, who had worked in Lesotho for a number of years and travelled broadly, including to Ethiopia as a civil servant of Lesotho, he reflected on how in the seventies the Ethiopian intellectuals had become disenchanted. Pheko told a sad anecdotal story of a woman who picked up a discussion with him, who was shabbily dressed. She was absorbed by her knitting, but still found the time to ask Pheko where he was from.

In a rather disinterested way Pheko replied that he came from Lesotho and the increasingly irritating discussion, which started to take the form of an interrogation, underpinned by an interesting level of intellect, ended up somewhat taming the arrogant Pheko. When Pheko had a turn to cross-examine her, he found out that this shoddily dressed woman was in fact a law professor, the works of whom he was familiar with and an interesting discussion ensued. The harsh conditions in Ethiopia hardly spared anyone.

Sixteen years later in 2000, I visited Ethiopia on South Africa’s national carrier SAA on government business, and witnessed very much what Pheko told me back then. Begging by children, women, men, girls and boys was very prevalent. But by the end of 2005 something had started changing in Addis and across the country. As Ethiopia entered the new millennium in 2007, it had shown clear signs of becoming a construction site, and that continues unabated 11 years later, with no end in sight.

Accompanying the rapid growth in the construction sector are agriculture and manufacturing, the latter drawing heavily on the booming agricultural sector. Understandably, there are base effects here, but over a sustained period of time the growth compounds and almost mimics what China experienced on its growth path. An addition to Ethiopia is the massive diaspora that they have had, who are now investing heavily back home.

As the economy grows, inflation is also rising, and the Birr, the local currency, has been devalued by almost more than two-thirds. A $100 bill (R1267) would buy you Birr 887 in 2005, whereas now it buys you Birr 2700. In early 2000s I recall meeting the then Minister of Communications Dr Matsepe Casaburri in Addis at the Sheraton Hotel. She wanted to withdraw money from an ATM at the hotel, but was suspicious and sceptical of the technology. Instead, she walked to the hotel desk and asked them to rather draw the currency than from the ATM.

As she got her money, she said: “Oh, I do not want my card to disappear in this machine and I am leaving early tomorrow.” Today Addis is totally different. The ATMs are spread throughout Addis and you do not have to think twice before you withdraw Birr or use your card to pay anywhere. The Ethiopian Airline is indeed dominating the skies not only in Africa but elsewhere. It successfully elbowed our ever financially comatose national carrier. The princesses of Sheba have shed that skeletal frame and label of the starving Ethiopian children and their real beauty, and seductive looks explain why King Solomon could not resist the queen.

There is a good story to tell here and there is a lot the rest of Africa can learn from Ethiopia. The prospect for a demographic dividend for Ethiopia while dim, like a thread in a paraffin lamp, it can be elongated and brighten the prospects for the descendants of Queen Sheba. l Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.

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