Hassan is a friend who originally comes from Somalia. He is a cobbler and told me captivating stories about his journey through Africa. He was once a pedagogue in his native country but had to leave to search for better opportunities, first in Ghana, then in Kenya and, finally, in South Africa.
I was concerned when he disappeared for two weeks in April at the height of the Afrophobic attacks in Johannesburg. But he resurfaced in May. He had been hiding in Yeoville, Johannesburg while waiting for the dust to settle.
But Hassan was low-spirited and pessimistic: “The African dream you always tell me about is just that – a dream. Our big African society is just eating itself gradually.”
I have ruminated on his words. Many ills are decimating Africa, including war, despotism, suspicion, hatred, Afrophobia, poverty and illiteracy. If Africa wishes to face up to globalisation, we need to build strength in these and other areas.
Some critics have averred, though, that Africans continue to emphasise the mundane in the face of the destruction of the values that sustained the continent before Western or colonial views were introduced.
Africans fight over ownership of values that are foreign to the land. They continue to be ravaged by war, and even democratic elections are sometimes anything but democratic. Many complain that governments are failing their people while turning a blind eye as countless Africans perish, still romanticising the past.
Indeed, Africa was once a great continent: so pristine and pure, so wild and yet so enthralling. With the advent of colonisation, she lost much of what made her what she was.
Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney writes about how power politics, domination and economic exploitation lead to a dilapidated state of political and economic development. Africa may never again rise, some have said, but others argue that it is the Africans themselves who will determine that.
There is sometimes a disconnect between what our leaders aspire to and what our people would like to achieve. Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere sought to achieve a society based on ujaama, a socialist system of village co-operatives in which citizens would be able to live off their land, bolstered by familyhood and communalism. The system sought to instil a sense of self-reliance among Tanzanians to work their land and thereby move towards prosperity.
Yet Westernisation made people move away from the land and invade cities for better opportunities. Ujaama floundered as people pushed their children to succeed in formal education and move away from tilling the land. This shows that people need to understand the philosophies that have the potential to uplift their lives. Even the best philosophies will fail in the absence of true understanding and ownership.
We are now at a time when some of us need to go back to the land. Africa can only rise when Africans begin realising the wealth in their soil. But we also need conscientious intellectuals to lead the renaissance. Africans need to understand and believe in this revival, and reclaim the renaissance we aspire to. Yet the battle for land ownership continues.
The rebirth of Africa should also translate into an extended philosophy of ujaama among African states, where leaders strive to attain similar goals through collaboration.
Corruption will always be inimical to good governance and an enhanced African renaissance. In South Africa we have seen how corruption, perceived and real, makes people doubt where they are being led, seeking light in a seemingly doomed environment.
Many African governments have not entrenched the need for a rebirth after their countries were freed from colonial governments. Frequently, a laager has been created by intellectuals that excludes the masses.
We should believe in the notion of trying to find African solutions for African challenges. I refuse to believe in Hassan’s pessimistic view that the Africans will devour one another. Arguably, there is still hope, as professed by great Africans who walked before us: Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Sobukwe and a hundred others. But we need to work hard to build our institutions to reflect the African essence.
Universities and government departments are among the institutions that should uphold African ways. Of course, they should always do this in conjunction with the communities: grass-roots “organic” intellectuals still carry the ways of being African. Africa needs to be reborn, time is running out and we cannot blame colonialism for eternity.
Over the years, Africans have tended to forget about traditional culture. There have been two extremes. On the one hand are those who do not care, and do not even look back at where Africa was in precolonial times. On the other are those who believe we need to go back to the Africa of yore as we make sense of the present.
The great Africanist and academic Es’kia Mphahlele has shown his disdain for the romanticisation of Africa. He wrote: “I do not accept … the way in which too much of the poetry inspired by negritude romanticises Africa – as a symbol of innocence, purity and artless primitiveness. I feel insulted when some people imply that Africa is not also a violent continent. I am a violent person, and proud of it because it is often a healthy state of mind.”
Yet we cannot disavow that Africa was a continent of beauty, of hope, of darkness, of light, of joy and sadness. It was, like all continents, a normal continent.
Chinua Achebe in his classic novel Things Fall Apart writes about a precolonial Africa that had strengths and weaknesses. He shows the gap found by the colonialists, a gap they used to annihilate the African mind and the land.
When intellectuals in Africa reflect on Africa, they need to remember our weaknesses as well. It is true, though, that colonialism did destroy some of the values that the African was known for. Fear was introduced with the capture of slaves, for example. Yet Africans should drag themselves out of slavery by discarding the shackles of the mind that Steve Biko talked about so loudly.
It is when the Africans reinvent themselves that they will find the new Africa. Rebirth is the strongest way to the future. Rebirth is the answer to the challenges of globalisation. We need to begin with our cultures, our languages and our identities.
Africans need to reclaim the new dawn as an empowered people.
Professor Vuyisile Msila is the head of Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies. He writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed here are his own