Ben Okri missed the moment in Pretoria.
The hour-long address, titled “Summoning the African Renaissance: A vision for the individual” was, as expected, eloquent. The malaise lay elsewhere; such as in the widely interspersed references to European excellence, in the cursory mentions of Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa and in the romanticised images of Desmond Tutu dancing or African girls laughing on their way to school.
Okri’s talk, delivered with seasoned, oratorical genius, started off promisingly enough, with the writer telling us that a renaissance is the “long, secret willing” of [oneself] into a “higher germination” and that it is always prepared for by striving and pressing forth in unpromising times. “It is historically resonant that the Italian renaissance came after the Black Death,” the author said.
Of the African renaissance itself, Okri teased us, asking rhetorically whether it contains “more skyscrapers, more steel and glass towers, more men in suits and ties … with stock exchange motivations, more gravitation towards the Western model with an African tinge of cloth and dance to give it authenticity”.
And as the audience knew that it wasn’t so, it sighed and murmured its approval when he told it that “capitalism is flawed” as it turns a community into “battling individuals”.
But just when one thought it timely for the centres of African learning to enter the discourse, Okri implored us to remember that, as in the beginning of the talk, the real emphasis of his renaissance is the individual self.
So while he went on to say that the terms of African independence were flawed at birth and how one generation of stern practices could stamp out corruption, some agreed but started wondering where the references were to the great places of scholarship and precolonial societies (for example Timbuktu and Mapungubwe), places that became tropes, for instance, in Thabo Mbeki’s own attempts to precipitate an African renaissance.
Explorations into what scholar Ali Mazrui termed “romantic gloriana”, that is the African societies that stood in contrast to the hunter-gatherer framing and produced “complex civilisations of the kind Europeans regarded as valid and important”, were conspicuous by their absence. By the time that thought connected, Okri was already talking about the radiant paintings of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and the exquisite proportions of Michelangelo.
It’s a pity, too, because this is where Okri started hitting his stride, highlighting the importance of an education “that tells our students the truth about their history, one that awakens their genius rather than one that merely fills them with facts”.
This is where Okri made bold, powerful declarations about faith being equal to “knowing more than knowledge – embodying”.
But for every mention of the individual’s innate ability to transcend one’s zeitgeist, there was the attendant ode to European order. “Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, England made a concerted effort to create a vibrant police force and clear out the slums of London. It was a task that took nearly a hundred years. At the same time the slums that you read about in [Victor] Hugo and [Emile] Zola were being torn down in Paris. They conceived the city how they wanted it and they built it. They had a vision and through time, with law after law and deed after deed, they created those glories of modern cities that delight us today.”
That Shaka’s military excellence and Kenya’s mobile-money revolution were Okri’s only concrete allusions to African genius would be forgivable if, for example, he did not harp on about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel invoking “a whisper in our souls that reminds us that we are divine” or carrying “the charge of that sublime force that is our forgotten heritage”. For many Africans, the Sistine Chapel ultimately represents the unfortunate concretisation of the idea of a white God.
The storm surrounding Okri’s recent criticism of black and African writers’ works “being doomed with monotony” due to their “mesmerism with subject” has blown over. In a Guardian response, however, Sofia Samatar makes the relevant point that Okri seems to have forgotten about “the diversity of black writing” and instead focused on the “inflated role of the white reading public”.
To situate this within his talk, Okri probably misread the South African public, or if he did not, merely failed, in the initial reading, to convince us otherwise.
I did not hear Okri defend his words from the scrutiny that followed but one would hope at some point he understood the significance of the moment in which his talk was given.
It is a moment, where perhaps unwittingly, he was singing the praises of an impending South African renaissance, one that once again puts the youth at the forefront of social and intellectual change.
It is a moment that South African activist Sisonke Msimang has called, in a recent column, “The end of the rainbow nation myth”. (This is but one reason that the image of a dancing Tutu is offensive.)
Colonial symbols, now embarrassingly defended by a government that was caught on the back foot, are being toppled not by triumphant soldiers but by students who will take this same determination into their lecture halls. Here, they will demand what Okri himself calls an education that tells “our students the truth about their history and about the world”.
One that Okri recognises should be “free until the highest levels if possible”.
If we can call this moment perhaps a glimpse of a renaissance, it is one all the more fitting on the author’s terms, as it comes not without its attendant “Black Death”: the recent xenophobic attacks on an unprecedented scale.