​The world delelas Africa at its own peril

On Monday morning before leaving for work, I picked up my phone only to see unsolicited activity on it from Google Maps, telling me that traffic to Rosebank is unusually heavy this morning. How did this thing know I’m going to work? I wondered, feeling stalked.

The week before, I had been in Lausanne, a slice of heaven in Switzerland, where on typing the words “weather in la’’ into Google, the search engine finished the sentence, sensing I was in Lausanne.

“‘Google is a robot. This is the future,’” said one of the people I was on the trip with. I was part of a group that had been invited to see Swiss design institutions in Zurich and Lausanne and we would all be giving talks on design culture and economy in our countries at the Triennale in Milan at the end of the trip.

The group consisted of two Russian artists and architects, an Egyptian architect, an Indian fashion designer, a Chinese journalist and trend analyst, our Swiss hosts and me.

Culturally speaking, design is to the Swiss what sport is to South Africans. From the architecture and the ubiquitous use of the Swiss-born Helvetica font on all kinds of public signage to the meticulously designed (and by designed I mean stylistically deliberated) chairs, restaurant crockery, bathrooms and door handles on every door I walked through, the look of the country is a Bree Street Capetonian hipster’s true north.

And in addition to having the glow of white people who have not colonised you, the Swiss were generally very impressive in their hospitality and advanced proclivities. In isiXhosa, I would say baphucukile shem.

The six days I spent with these members of the Global North was a window into what is happening in the rest of the world. But halfway through the trip, I wondered why my ancestors had sent me there after noticing that my country and Africa in general are never a consideration in conversation about the world.

It was in the way Europe kept coming up as the centre of the world in terms of art, history and design. In the way the libraries at the top schools we visited mostly had reference sections that excluded an African perspective.

How conversations largely focused on technology, industrialisation, structural development, economic growth and robotics. And how India, China and Russia kept emerging as the next frontier markets.

But Europe is dead and it knows it. There is no more room for it to grow but outwards. Dubai airport is a giant Montecasino of a twilight zone, dreadfully dripping in European fashion houses, which are all chasing desert money these days, thirsty for the good ideas that once made them more than money-chasing Americanised luxury brands.

It became clear to me that the word “development’’ in the Global North is still largely focused on perfecting the making of things.

Robots are a reality in some parts of the world and will probably be running things in 100 years’ time. Malls are dying in China because more than 80% of the population shops online. India has a billion people and a local economy that doesn’t have to look outwards but inwards for growth.

Where does that leave Africa, I wondered? Are we going to be left chasing the rest of the world for the next 100 years, trying to be the perfect deposit bucket for the Global North’s capitalist wanking? The Swiss may have perfectly designed chairs, but are the people sitting on them happy and fulfilled human beings?

This is where I asked myself: What can Africa learn from the rest of the world and what can the rest of the world learn from Africa?

I didn’t hear about any developmental ideas from a feminist perspective. There was no talk of designing machines to help us deal with racism or homophobia. Nobody mentioned spirituality and the future. Nothing about mental illness.

I did not see a future, as viewed from a Global North perspective, that exists outside the capitalist paradigm’s devouring of human lives.

I used to think that Steve Biko had miscalculated and underestimated the abilities of black people’s contribution to the world when he wrote that “black people can offer the world a more human face’’. But he was emphatically right.

Because the all-encompassing nature of European colonisation has made activists for social justice out of the native peoples in countries that have fought back and continue to do so, we in less economically privileged societies, by virtue of continuing our struggles for freedom, are developing blueprints for how global humans will inhabit a fuller humanity in the future.

My boyfriend calls me an Ancestors’ Witness, one step removed from a Jehovah’s Witness, as I’m always evangelising about ancestors. So in an effort to share a different ideological perspective with my hosts, I told them about ancestry reverence down here and how integral a part of existence it is to many.

It was revelatory to most of them and flicked a switch that got me an invitation to return to share more ideas along these lines. At that point, I didn’t feel like an African who needed to catch up with the rest of the world, but a conveyer of things that the world needs to catch up on. And from them I learned that we mzabalazists (activists) could learn a lot about being organised from the Global North, especially from the Swiss.

Iimbali is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Achmat Dangor: On writing and change

Celebrated author and political activist Achmat Dangor died on Sunday at the age of  71. Here, in a 1990 interview published in Staffrider, he speaks to Andries Walter Oliphant about his work and aspects of South African literature and culture

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday