​Debating the meaning of Africa

What is the meaning of Africa? Who qualifies to be called an African, and who doesn’t? What is decolonisation in Africa?

What is the meaning of Africa? Who qualifies to be called an African, and who doesn’t? What is decolonisation in Africa? How many universities in South Africa teach pan Africanism? And, to put it bluntly, who cares about pan Africanism, anyway?

These were some of the questions that academics, researchers and policy-makers grappled with during the Decolonising Knowledge Though Leadership dialogue last month that debated the topic The Meaning of Africa: Theoretical Perspectives, at the University of Johannesburg’s Resolution Centre.

The idea behind the University of Johannesburg Decolonising Knowledge Thought Leadership series is to explore the theoretical readings on the highly contested notions of Pan Africanisation, Post Africanisation and the decolonisation of knowledge. Some of the inferences of these constructs are that African is no longer premised on colour or geography but rather on the process of creolisation. To be African implies, accordingly, associations with the diverse cultures that display common African histories, positions the African identity debate in a global context and asserts that to be African is a cultural construct that is not fixed but influenced by the process of creolisation and in a constant state of flux.

Among the speakers were activist scholar Liepollo Pheko, Dr Godwin Murunga, author Brenda Wambui, novelist Panashe Chigumadzi, human rights lawyer Siphosami Malunga, Professor Simphiwe Sesanti and Professor Nyasha Mboti. Professor Chris Landsberg moderated the dialogue series, while Professor Hillary Beckles, vice-chancellor at the University of the West Indies, delivered a keynote address on the historic relations between Africa and the diaspora, including making a call for reparatory justice for African enslavement and native genocide.

Examining Africa

What is the meaning of Africa? In fact, there is more than one meaning of Africa, for the reason that there is more than one Africa. There is the staple Africa of stereotypes, which is the subject of popular fictions, mostly in the media, but also in agnotological scholarship. This is in fact the commonest meaning of Africa that one tends to hear about on a loop: wars, disease, poverty, and so on,” said Professor Mboti.

“The problem with this Africa is that it is a convenient fiction, based on how elites invent and imagine the continent – a point so well articulated by VY Mudimbe in The Invention of Africa. This invented Africa is constantly contradicted by the other Africa; however, what I’ll call ordinary Africa: the lived Africa of nine-tenths of African people, which is constantly being made and re-made by ordinary people you do not get to hear about in the media except when they do something that affirms the vile stereotypes. The meaning of Africa is thus either elitist (often racist and/or ignorant and formed from vested interests) or ordinary. Ordinary Africa is perhaps where one needs to be to be in touch with the other Africa: in the townships and the rural areas where most of our people live, love, fight, laugh, create, dance, survive, and die. These are not poor people. Rather, they are simply ‘povertised’ – people deliberately made poor by corporations and governments.”

Pheko, a senior research fellow at research and policy advocacy think tank The Trade Collective, said ‘Afrika’ was not only a geographical locale but “an idea, a constellation of imaginations, multi-vocal and multi-dimensional and trans-locational”.

“Insufficient work has been done to analyse the dichotomy between Afrika as a geographic construct and as trans-locational, global force, carried by people of Afrikan descent through language, music, words, philosophies, fashion, politics , religion, spirituality and so forth, across the world,” said Pheko.

“The unevenness and incompletion of decolonisation can be understood by considering the various roles that colonisers, anticolonial nationalists, and Cold War superpowers played in decolonisation: too often, postcolonial Independence did not bring national liberation and our institutions of higher learning. However, the idea of Afrikanisation is highly contested and may evoke a false or at least a superficial sense of ‘belonging,’ further marginalisation, or it may emphasise relevance. This paper discusses the possibility of Afrikanisation in education and knowledge as an extension of the liberation project. It unpacks the idea of Afrikanisation within higher education in general, examining the rationale behind the calls for Afrikanisation, followed by a discussion on the implications of Afrikanisation for theological education.”

In other words, added Pheko, the goal of Afrikanisation, was to become contextually and globally relevant whilst also becoming more innovative in order to solve the problems that face the world.

“Contrary to what has become popular amongst contemporary Afrikans called scholars and intellectuals, Afrikanisation does not imply simply replacing a Western approach by an Afrikan paradigm,” said Pheko.

“Intellectual decolonisation necessitates a re-evaluation of Western epistemological foundations – philosophies and processes for creating and transferring knowledge – in former colonies such as Afrikan. Going beyond basic elements of legal and political decolonisation, it includes a serious challenge to the invisible “colonial grammar”, the everyday taken-for-grantedness of limitations which frames the dominant society’s horizon of knowledge and understanding.”

Professor Sesanti said decolonisation means that Africans must “re-humanise themselves after they were dehumanised by colonialism and colonisation.

“As Guinea-Bissau scholar and revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral stated we are not Africanising but we are re-Africanising by reclaiming education that is ours. History is a testament that the ancient Egypt was the centre of international education where Plato and the Greek philosophers learnt from Africa including Pythagoras, who learnt mathematics in Egypt,” said Professor Sesanti.

“Africa is an indivisible force from Cape Town to Cairo. African philosophy and philosophers should help African to rediscover their true culture and history. It is only when we have rediscovered our culture and history that our self-esteem will be attained.”

Professor Joseph Minga of the Monash University in Johannesburg said African Rennaissance will not be complete without the involvement of the African intelligentsia. He quoted Professor Mahmood Mamdani, who said in the past that “political decolonisation cannot be complete without an intellectual paradigm shift, which is what I mean by intellectual decolonisation. In other words, by “intellectual decolonisation” what I have in mind is thinking the present in the context of a past. Unlike radical political economy, though, the past needs to be thought through deeper than simply the colonial period.”

Political analyst and Congolese writer, Hubert Babu Katulondi, however, was critical of the debate on the meaning of Africa and the decolonisation of higher education. He added it appeared that the panelists were grappling with the syndrome of post-decolonisation.

“They are going through the intellectual turmoil inherent in societal contradictions that other Africans wrestled with during the 1970s and 1980s,” said Katulondi.

“And in most of these countries, scholars and intellectuals did not come up with novel, game-changing developmental solutions. Most of them only enjoyed reciting myths of Africa’s glorious past achievements in Egypt. That is why, most Africans from other parts of the continent expected South African intellectuals (latecomers in dealing with such contradictions, as Prof Chris Landsberg asserted), to tackle the thematic of decolonisation with an innovative conceptualisation.”

Katulondi said it was worth indicating that in most African countries that gained independence more than half a century ago, the problem of decolonisation was no longer predominantly framed in terms of decolonisation from western imperialism-alienation.

“It is rather conceptualised in terms of the second liberation from “internal colonisation” by national (and regional) regressive pseudo-elites. These regressive and predatory elites display a dramatic lack of transformational astuteness. And so they hinder the necessary changes needed in our colleges and universities,” said Katulondi.

“Flawed policies, corruption and abuse of financial resources account much more for the inability of such institutions to develop our societies, than the so-called imperialistic content of some programs. If we are going to really decolonise ourselves mentally and intellectually, it is not with another European epistemic arsenal. Decolonising Africa deserves to be a process of an epistemic self-exorcism that also includes liberation from “Marxist-Leninist intellectual fetishisation.”


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