Diversity is the strength of Africa, not a weakness
This week, the life of Steve Bantu Biko, the intellectual giant largely responsible for the formation of the Black Consciousness Movement, is being remembered – 40 years after he was murdered by apartheid police.
While there are numerous reflections on Biko’s philosophy, political role in the country and life, few recognise the powerful Pan-African message his life encapsulates.
Biko’s often overlooked message for the world is abundantly clear: Africa is the cradle of human civilisation and symbolic of the Creator’s design in making people who they are: African and human.
In Biko’s philosophy, being African is not an aberration as we are brainwashed into believing by media hype and indoctrination by a colonialising history. This has resulted in perverted constructions of African humanity.
Biko emphasised that African cultures always viewed the universe as beautiful and community as foundational, so humans enjoyed being with each other, and considered notions of hell and judgement terrifying and unnatural.
Christianity frightened Africa into adopting a false sense of fear and morality, based on a Manichaean dualism of good and evil, unlike the African view of humans as essentially good and spiritual, Biko asserted.
While Biko was a brilliant political analyst and intellectual, he was also a theological genius, dipping into the wellspring of Pan-African tradition and history to formulate black theologies of liberation for the African context.
Today, South Africa and the rest of the continent continue to struggle with positive associations of being African. Africa has been ideologically distanced from South Africa to the amusing point that South Africans travelling to other parts of Africa describe their visits as “going to Africa”.
How do we overcome these entrenched self-deprecating images and notions of Africa and Africanity in a world that celebrates globalisation generally couched in Western cultural and socioeconomic terms? How do we deal with this internalisation of African negativity that has resulted in academically propagated terms such as Afropessimism?
The rebuff we often hear is: “What is fundamentally wrong with us?” and “Why is Africa crazy and unable to get its act together?” We need to respond in the vein of Biko’s philosophy: Mother Africa is neither absurd nor innately deficient; the problem is that Africans have attempted to move away from her in world view and cultural orientation, and to persist in becoming something out of sync with Africa’s evolution and beauty.
In a real sense, then, we need to return to Africa in our hearts and souls, as Amílcar Cabral proposed and Biko implied. We need to restore our self-confidence in the power Africa wields: a continent of more than
1.1 billion human beings with tens of millions in the African diaspora in Europe and the Americas, and possessing valuable resources: fertile forests, extensive waterways, diverse ecological systems, and most of the world’s mineral and energy resources.
The lack of Pan-African confidence has produced the ironic anomaly that, while Africa is the wealthiest continent on Earth, she is the most impoverished. Africa’s wealth and potential do not benefit the continent because of the ugly scar of colonisation and the existence of neocolonialist capitalism that Biko sacrificed his life resisting – what he referred to as a dog-eat-dog system.
I recently spent a month at Africa University, a leading Pan-African university outside Mutare, Zimbabwe, where students from 28 countries are studying a range of subjects in the humanities and in agricultural, health and social sciences. Biko would have celebrated the role of such an institution because he loved the integration of the continent and aspired to build a society where race and culture do not divide. He wanted a society where all can live together, free of barriers of colour and class. Diversity is the strength of Africa, not her weakness.
Within this vision that Biko’s life conveys, then, is the practical concern that African countries need to feel for each other because an injury to one is an injury to all.
The nation of Zimbabwe – once the breadbasket of Africa, and now at its economic and financial ebb because of Western sanctions and internal political contradictions and class exploitation – requires constructive assistance for rebuilding. This needs to come from sensible African continental quarters: intellectuals, trade unions, women’s organisations, our youngsters, churches and religious communities, rural grassroots
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South Africa, in turn, needs to be open to self-correction of its own economic and political dysfunction, so the monopolistic ownership of the country’s economy by a handful of mostly white and some black billionaires, which has resulted in the impoverishment of most of the nation, is aggressively arrested. No longer can the prosperity of a group in one African country be used to stare with disdain at the deprivation and impoverishment of people in another. Biko’s philosophy calls us to do our best to address the situation in a holistic and collective manner in the train of African histories and cultures – doing anything less is continuing to be part of the problem.
May Biko’s spirit live on in the struggle for a decolonised, restored and re-spiritualised Africa.
Kunnie is a professor, academic and researcher. His latest book is The Cost of Globalisation: Dangers to the Earth and its People