Of renaissance and rhino stew

So what is the “African renaissance”, and where is it going? Cut to a new and kitsch clip joint called Caesar’s Palace, Gauteng, perched just off the unfashionable side of Johannesburg International airport’s runway number two (no relation) and close to the historically derided suburb of Benoni.

Why Caesar’s Palace? I have no idea. But while the underprivileged of all conceivable races were hunched over blackjack tables and throwing their pensions into slot machines in the horrendously tasteless casino down below, in a conference room on the upper floor the minds of the African nation were gathered.

The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology had invited a select few hundred of us to deliberate on the meaning of that very idea of an “African renaissance”, and come up with some ideas about how to put it into practice.

It was one of those gatherings where everyone showed up, dressed for a party, and then sat there looking at each other, wondering who was going to break the ice and tell us what was what.
We all understood the question, but, from the urbane and charming Minister Ben Ngubane down, none of us knew the answers.

Fortunately there were some experts on board who took it upon themselves to give us some clues. Foremost among these, of course, was that celebrated “Renaissance Man”, Thami Mazwai.
Mazwai has many well-known opinions about how to make the “African renaissance” happen, and is not afraid to regurgitate them, time and time again, in public.

One of his recurring themes is that, in order to give Africa its pride back, everything in Africa should be Africanised, renamed and given its proper African place. “We are still worshipping our former masters in everything we do,” he said, referring to the fact that we tend to dress, eat and think like the people who colonised us.

Notwithstanding the fact that he himself had driven to this most unAfrican of venues in an extremely unAfrican automomobile, and was now standing before us in a shamefully unAfrican suit and tie, and addressing us in one of those oppressive ex-colonial languages we are all in the habit of using at functions like these (although he did point out that he should not be expected to get every nuance of this offensive and difficult language right—“You can take me out of the Transkei, but you can’t take the Transkei out of me!”)—he seemed to have a point.

Following his reasoning as he meandered through his theme proved to be a little difficult, though. He was indignant about the fact that you couldn’t get African food on African airlines, including our own remarkably African national carrier. “Why can’t I eat sadza [pap] on Air Zimbabwe?” he asked.

He didn’t stop to ask himself how one would keep that notoriously difficult- to-handle staple fresh, hot and tasty at 30E000 feet, or how those dainty air hostesses would manage to stir the mielie meal to the right consistency in those huge cannibal-sized iron pots within the confines of the tiny airborne cabooses that the foreign devils have bequeathed us. Airline food, it seems to me, is about minimalist practicality, rather than national identity. But I’m no expert.

Food was definitely on Mazwai’s mind, even when he expounded on environmental issues. “No edict from Pretoria will make people feel inclined to protect the African rhino when they are hungry,” he said, referring subtly to the inherent contradiction between true Africans and the various bunny-hugging liberals with whom they are forced to share the continent.

Then, mysteriously, he corrected his reference to the “African rhino” to “the black rhino”, to demonstrate his mastery of ecological themes. He did not pause to explain why true Africans preferred to eat the black rhino rather than the white rhino. It was one of many intriguing perceptions that were left unchallenged as the debate drifted onwards. We were fortunate that at least three notable professors were on hand to bring some focus into the debate.

Professor Lawrence Schlemmer reminded us that identifying what our true cultural reference points were was essential. The problem we face is that the political leaders who could guide us towards those references have generally withdrawn into a new kind of technocratic laager, where they become increasingly remote from the constituencies they should be representing.

Professor Herbert Vilakazi urged us to look at global models to identify our path. Africa, he said, had tottered into the early stages of an industrial revolution before meeting that essential pre- condition: an agricultural revolution.

And Professor Kwesi Prah gave a rousing intervention in which he pointed out that the key thing was language - not the simplistic idea that all African languages should be elevated to the same footing, but the more sophisticated idea that there is greater commonality than difference among many African languages, and that therefore unifying elements should be distilled to make up communication tools that could transcend our false colonial boundaries, mental and physical.

Liberating the capacity of ordinary Africans to express themselves and communicate with each other was the only way forward towards the desired revolution.

Between the confused bluster and the elevated eloquence, there was consensus that the “African renaissance” was not pie-in-the-sky (or sadza-in-the-sky, for that matter) but an inspiring and potentially liberating concept for Africa’s long-awaited upliftment—spiritual, technological, cultural, political and otherwise.

As Africans, we have a terrific talent for talking. Whether or not we have an equal talent for doing still remains to be seen.

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