Imagine Africa: What Are The Chances For Democracy?

I am sure you do not expect me to present you with a definition of 'democracy': there are several, sometimes contradictory. Many struggles are fought to advance or consolidate the structures of governance we normally understand under that concept; many atrocities are committed in the name of "spreading democracy." Nor will I be able to give you a breakdown of the extent to which democracy exists in various African countries  - you should be able to access updated information and analysis fairly easily through a number of publications and websites.

 

Before continuing, and in order to bring Africa into focus for the purposes of this discussion, it is necessary to situate it within a larger context and particularly in the North-South relationship. For it would be foolish to imagine that the dissolution we observe on the so-called 'dark' continent is unique, or that it could be abstracted from larger tendencies and manifestations in the world.

 

Let me take a step back and give you a sense of how my personal interpretations developed, based on my own beliefs and deceptions  - stark and gloomy to be sure, and painted here with a very broad brush.

 

The notions of  'democracy' with which I grew up in South Africa, with the appurtenances of a democratic state  - elections, parliament, separation of powers  -  translated as paternalistic property, prerogative and privilege, their applications meaning different things depending on the ethnic group you were ascribed to. At the time, we were still hampered by the narrow vision, European values, outdated convictions and iron taboos of the governing white minority. As I became conscious of the implications and started fretting at the narrow-mindedness of 'my people', I came to subscribe to the liberation ideology of freedom movements so prevalent in colonized countries at the time. Ethnic or religious nationalism for instance, was deemed by correct-thinking progressive people to be an impediment to the  emancipation of the downtrodden, and reactionary to boot. A large part of our collective thinking was then informed by historical and materialist determinism. History could be traced in advancing steps with each phase, we just knew, heralding a growing consciousness opening onto the development of shared improvements in the state of man. The struggle for freedom was guided by the scientific and ineluctable phenomenon of progress. We were going to supercede national boundaries and the redundant demarcations of religiosity. Human life was ever improving with the advent of more and more industrialization, easier communication, more generalized transportation, antibiotics and plastic... The quintessentially Western concept of 'New Man', probably going back to the very early Christian imperative of 'conversion'  - and thus the possibility to be 'reborn' and to strive toward 'perfecting' existence  - became the bedrock of our utopia. Liberty was on the march. Besides, we knew who the enemy was. We would tear down the structures of iniquity and ill-gotten gain to make way for progress and true democracy; we would wage war for true (if centralized) democracy and peace!

 

Except that I, as so many others, was shortsighted and naïeve. In due time and through many experiences of having my nose bloodied and my heart made blue, it became clear to me

 

(I thought) that there were probably only minimal changes in man's behavior or consciousness over all the ages as far back as our memories or investigations could reach, whatever the struggles for betterment, and that these small variations could be ascribed to specific circumstances, as if to shallow hollows in time. Even so, they were variations on the themes of self-delusion and barbarism. More: that every 'advance' in our shared condition set off a dialectical process whereby we lost as much as we gained, if not more.

 

For example: by the 1990s, the imposition of capital punishment had regressed in most parts of the world (with the notable exceptions of countries like the USA, China, Iran and Cuba), and yet we now have more officially whitewashed 'targeted killings' and random elimination of opponents than ever before. It had been internationally agreed to ban torture (again, with the abstention of the USA  - we see the results in the Guantanamo penal colony and in Abu Ghraib), and probably never before have as many people been tormented for the ostensible purpose of 'extracting information'. We believed that the United Nations was an adequate international compromise for federating hope and mediating conflict, and then it was emasculated by the planet's lone superpower because it considered its own  interests as paramount, and the other nations fell to squabbling and squawking about morsels of power. We were told that Muslims are bound by their religion to be God-fearing and human-loving, and yet the stoning to death of women for supposedly infringing religious rules is now not uncommon. Soon nearly everybody had a car or dreamed of having one, preferably a gas-guzzling SUV  - so that suddenly there were a million spurious reasons for clogging roads and streets and even bicycle cities like Beijing and Hanoi became grid-locked and blue with poisonous gases. We all obtained cell-phones, and now we are flocks of endlessly chattering individuals with nothing to say and isolated from one another like deaf birds. We all took to television like fishes to murky water, and now we have hackneyed imaginations infected by continual exposure to lies and to the teasing of desires that can never be satisfied. There were soon no taboos about what we could see in the movies  - in the name of our freedom of expression!  - and now we are impervious to rape, pedophilia and the pornography of senseless killing. We all acquired computers, and soon we will have no more capacity for storing and translating memory. We get our news on the Net  - and we are inundated by urban myths, gossip, paranoia and the excesses of unbridled narcissism. We mastered the skies, and now we can inflict impersonal death over long distances. There's a chicken on nearly every plate, at least in the 'developed world', and now we're stuffed with hormones and antibiotics. In fact, we abused so much of the miracle cures to combat infectious diseases that our bodies have become all but immune to medication. European farmers are subsidized not to produce crops, and millions of people are starving to death. They grow rich and fat on breeding thousands of pigs, and now they cannot drink the water from the earth because of accumulated nitrates. We  - even the poor  - are incited to buy and consume to our hearts' delight, and we are being smothered by detritus and waste. We trash the earth in an orgy of pollution to satisfy our immediate greed. In rich countries even the poor have access to hamburgers and fries and fat and sugar and fizzy chemicals, and so all are becoming obese. We stimulated our economies by producing and selling arms, and now 13-year old drugged killers with dirty wedding dresses and rouged faces and wigs and Kalashnikovs each cheaper than a bag of rice have no other way of being initiated into manhood except by running amuck. Through it all glittered the golden thread of 'globalization', the parlor name for crude world capitalist exploitation: we were conditioned to buy and buy and buy, and the poor became poorer.

 

True, we thought that we had collectively progressed to new concepts supposedly embodying international concern, such as that ethnic cleansing, genocide and ethnocide should be banned for ever. Was that not the lesson we learned from the Second World War and successive imperialist and colonial conflicts?  And then we had Cambodia and Bosnia and Kosovo and Rwanda and Chechnya and Darfur. The West committed itself to exporting democracy, but it turned out to be the kind of democracy that sees evangelical faith and unreason trumping reason and facts-based governance  - and we look away from cities flattened to rubble and thousands of civilian deaths. Iraqi resistance fighters bog down the American occupiers, thus probably provisionally saving Iran and Syria from invasion  - and then we see them using knives to saw off the heads of innocent hostages in the name of Allah. The Jews were nearly exterminated during the Holocaust, and we have the Israeli state condoned with effective impunity as one of the most ruthless killing and thieving machines of state terrorism. The Palestinians were scattered and driven into exile, and then we witnessed their historical leader, Arafat, as one of the biggest crooks in modern times. (But in the name of solidarity we kept quiet.) Afghanistan was freed of the Taliban, and it is now once again providing 80% of the world's heroin. Fidel Castro personified revolutionary fervor and rectitude and stood up to the gringo, and now we know that some of those attempting to flee the socialist paradise will be shot as terrorists and the dissident poets clapped in prison, and his brother will be a godfather to Colombia's drug lords. The Soviet Communist Party is destroyed for all practical purposes when the regime is brought low, and now we have a KGB officer ruling with an iron fist.

 

What about Africa in all of this? The United States, having become a rogue entity, is interested in Africa only for security considerations and to have untrammelled access to its natural resources. Nor is Europe, now as tight as a clay-oxe's arse (I'm using an Afrikaans expression), any more serious; it even neglects to service the consequences of its own earlier bargains, then made in the name of the colonial pact and ill-considered structural adjustments. The European Union, with the establishment of an exclusionist fortress as its only shared foreign policy  - so that we witness heart-breaking scenes of thousands of young black men tearing themselves to ribbons on barbed wire fences to try and get in via imperial outposts, or drown in skiffs of fortune as they attempt to reach the shores of Spain and Italy  - recommends to Africa a neo-liberal economy which in practice means the perpetuation of authoritarian regimes, condemning the continent to further military turmoil and civil wars. The logical outcome will be more decay of the social and political fabric, the continuing decline of conditions of life, the African mind driven mad by misery, our freedoms whittled away in the arbitrary acts of abject governments or by the unfettered greed of the elite rulers and their wives and sons and the exactions of the military plundering the people, and in some places no freedom can even hope to exist because there are no economic and political means to construct it  - leading to desperate attempts of ever more people to get into Europe at all costs  - and Fortress Europe's only response will be police repression.

 

What are we to make of the resurgence of cannibalism, of children being given guns to go and kill? How did we, collectively, come to the point where we accept the notion of 'failed states', of 'black holes'  - at least to the point where we seem to be able to live with it? When did we lose the intimate knowledge that what is done or allowed to be done to the defenseless, concerns all of us, that the bells toll for us all? And that implicitly condoning the unacceptable is rotting the fiber of our ethical concerns so that we all become more brutalized  - indeed, less civilized?

 

An image haunts me, having plummetted from heaven like some Icarus. Perhaps it only gestures indirectly at issues looming large in the contemporary world we inhabit  - barbarism, terrorism, imperialism, impoverishment, plagues, the absence of ethical codes and any hierarchy of values, mad materialism, intellectual and artistic narcissism... Yet, such an occurrence illustrates to me the raw faultline where 'private' and 'public' meet.

 

A severed human leg falls on the roof of Pam Hearne who lives about 9 kilometers from JFK Airport in New York. When it lands, further limbs and crushed body parts will be found in the landing gear space of a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg with stop-over in Dakar. No name-tags and no identity papers. Pam Hearne says she at first thought the noise was caused by a neighbor loading his truck nearby. "I'm glad I live where I live so that I didn't have to run for my life as that man apparently did," she declares. And the authorities announce: "At no stage was there any danger for the passengers on board."

 

(And since writing the above paragraph, I saw on the Arte television channel a report about one Solomon from the Cameroun who similarly fell from heaven in a maize field in Germany near the Swiss border. It would appear that he did succeed once before, stowing away in the landing carriage of a flight from Douala to Paris. He was fifteen years old, it left him with a perforated eardrum, some fingertips were frozen white and withered and had to be amputated. After a few months he is repatriated to his homeland. Two weeks later, he tries again  - but this time his iced black body is found among the stalks of a withered maize patch. As the wheels were let down for landing he must have been ejected. Maybe he was already dead then. A jacket and a half-eaten banana is found in his hiding place. In his wallet there's

 

a letter in which he announces his own imminent death as "a fallen angel;" also two photos of Diana and one of Madonna with naked tits. At home the family weeps. He had been buried in the small German cemetery according to Catholic rites. A friend of the family, a Camerounian woman who often travels abroad, is despatched to bring back some soil from this grave. She does so, first pleading with the spirit of Solomon not to harm her for thus fetching him to his own. In the home village, the small container of dark German soil is ceremoniously buried in the red earth, strewn over a bed of banana leaves. And now the mother can at last break down and beat her breasts. Bodies move violently in anguish.)

 

Indeed, what about Africa? (For that is where my heart rots.) Independence was granted or won, and now nearly all African countries depend on international handouts in order to survive while their leaders-for-life plunder and loot the populations. (But in the name of solidarity and because we understand the need for historical Wiedergutmachung we keep quiet. We have no shame left.) President Wade of Senegal donates I.5 million dollars to an American association for training space-age scientists while thousands of infant so-called 'Talibes' are walking the streets of Dakar with empty begging tins. Algeria fights a heroic struggle to free itself from French colonialism, and then descends into a hell of corruption and fundamentalist violence where thousands are slaughtered like sheep. The majority comes to power in South Africa, and now not all the fat cats are white anymore and some whites join the ranks of the poor blacks who have become poorer and thus ever more driven to criminality. Angola finally brings its vicious civil war to an end, and its president is probably the richest kleptocrat alive. Who stuffs his pockets with bribes? Who incites the 'legal authorities' to hang the dissenters? Who dictates that aid will only be given if you free up your markets? Who knows what is happening in the interior? Who cares? Eritrea becomes emblematical of self-sufficiency and a homegrown honesty and unpretentiousness, and then the power-sick president wastes thousands of lives in an obscene war with the Ethiopian cousins over a few square miles of arid rocks.

 

What are the realities impacting on the ways public life is organized and administered in Africa? One marker, as I just now suggested, is the fact that we seem to have come to the end of the viability of the nation state, which was a construct bequeathed from colonialism. Nation states are becoming obsolete except as frameworks for sucking in foreign aid, and the field is left to drug-crazed 'rebel' groups and religious 'revolutionaries' associated with charismatic movements of an obscurantist nature. Several 'nations' have already imploded or simply disappeared  - Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone are examples; others are effectively breaking up or being torn apart  - Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, the DRC; some are 'states' in name only, in fact ungovernable because of regional discrepancies or the huge internal differences in standards and ways of life (mostly due to massive graft and corruption), or because of recurrent and unresolved conflict  - Angola, Guinea-Bissau; some are recovering from civil wars without having found binding solutions to the underlying causes  - Mali, Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria; some, again, are on the edge of going down in a welter of misery induced by poverty and inequality and mismanagement and the armed conflict that will follow  - Zimbabwe, Togo, Guinea Conakry, Nigeria, perhaps Malawi and Zambia.    

 

How does one try and promote a culture of peace and a strategy of survival when countries are governed by belly politics, graft, corruption and incompetence? How does one deal with the pandemics of AIDS and malaria when national medical systems have been dismantled in the name of financial soundness? What are we going to do with the thousans upon thousands of desocialized orphans growing up to become feral scavengers? How are we to repare the broken chains of food production when the farmers (in reality, the women) are dying prematurely, and with them the knowledge of tilling and sowing? How is Africa now to be fed? What is to be done about the crisis in education  - the true reason for the upsurge of child soldiers and of Qur'anic schools, by now a major obstacle to the economic modernization of the continent, relegating the very ideas of 'good governance' and the rule of law to the realms of fantasy? How does one counteract the rejection of modernity and the resurgence of obscurantism  - even though the trinkets of globalization have been integrated effortlessly? What are the chances for democracy taking root when the only entities of authority and stability are the armed forces, and when these survive by plundering the people? Why, on a continent so steeped in the humanist values of solidarity, is there nearly no sense of the 'common good', of shared responsibilities for and trust in public institutions, of being citizen subjects of the same state? How and when did the communal 'spaces of imagination', which inspired generations of people to strive for justice and dignity, disappear? Can ventures like NEPAD pull the continent together? Were they ever intended to? Should we put our faith in regional integration? (For the time being, the only 'integration' is among roving bands of half-trained but armed militias for hire.) Dare we still dream that structures, economies, the movement of peoples can be harmonized? What about imperial ower plays and the vampire presence of multinationals? What happened to Pan-Africanism? Or to African Renaissance?

 

(It is not just me asking these questions; if you are interested in learning the facts you may wish to consult African Affairs published by the Royal African Society in London.)

 

Of course, the ills I allude to do not afflict Africa alone. In some ways the whole world is in turmoil. Powerful forces are redesigning the frontiers of morality or simply erasing them in the name of 'security', 'faith' and 'civilization'. We  are, all of us, creaking and cracking under the pressure of globalized greed and a homicidal lust for power draped in the pious pretensions and the moth-eaten purple cloak of 'One-God' religion or 'democracy'. Democracy may well be killing us; at the very least we are choking as it is stuffed down our ungrateful throats. A gorged goose will eventually gag on the good garbage presented as the substance of the right to happiness. Is this manipulation by the greedy? Or are we to assume that the cataclysms I talk about, like templates pressing against one another, are but blind forces of history fortuitously accompanied by cliché-spouting generals and "dry drunk" presidents who, like flies on the coach, brag and smirk about the dust they're raising in the Iraqi desert?

 

What are the values of the world? In a recent interview, James Wolfensohn, previous President of the World Bank, pointed out that $900 billion of annual global spending by world governments goes for defense, $300 billion for supporting or rather subsidizing the world's richest farmers, and only $56 billion for development assistance to the poor. It is a question of investment. The poor, obviously, are not as profitable as arms. Similarly, the media reported that President Bush's "space shield" will cost an estimated 58 billion dollars, whereas it is also calculated that the announced millenium development goals (reducing poverty significantly by 2015, etc.) can only be reached in the year 2147. This arrogance should be seen against the backdrop of some comparative figures: In 2003 there were 704 million people living in Africa, 307 million in the Euro zone; life expectancy in Africa was 45,6 years on an average, 78,9 years in Europe; HIV-Aids affected 7,2% of Africans, in Europe it was 0,3%; 457 kilo-watts of electricity were used per person in Africa, in Europe it was 5,912 kilo-watts; the average yearly income in Africa was $500, in Europe $22,810; 13% of the roads in Africa were passable, in Europe it was 95%; during that year there were 348,000 airline flights over Africa, in Europe it was 3,5 million. Between 1981 and 2003 the number of people in Africa living on less than a dollar a day rose from 40% to 50%, in China over the same period it fell from 60% to 20%. NEPAD (the New Economic Partnership for African Development) budgeted $64 billion annually for the development of Africa's degraded and often inappropriate infrastructure, but over the past four years just one percent has been committed to infrastructure projects.

 

Indeed, Africa is now poorer than it's ever been. Extreme poverty has multiplied four-fold over the last two decades. More than a third of the continent's inhabitants eke out an existence on less than half a dollar a day. More 'development money' has gone into Africa than the Marshall Plan brought to a war-destroyed Europe (although much 'African' money returns to the pockets of the donor agencies)  - and where are our industries, universities, public institutions, hospitals, roads? Our civil wars  - such as those in the two most populous states, Sudan and the Congo  - have gone on for so long that they seem to be endemic, permanent and insoluble. An average Nigerian, despite the oil bonanza, is now poorer than in 1970; the country is racked by ethnic and religious disputes and is one of the most corrupt places on earth; the justice system has all but collapsed; civil disorder and capital flight are the norm and the once proud universities have imploded.

 

Yes, Africa is part of the world  - as subject, not as actor. Africa is defined (out) by its weaknesses. The bane of our public life is the twisted relationship between power and appearance: the less real power of thought or of influence we have, the more important the appearances and appurtenances of power become through posturing and protocol. With the need to prance (really a camouflaged expression of impotence) come hyperbole, grand-standing, demagoguery, the manipulation of myth and prejudice, graft and corruption and nepotism. Our presidents try to rinse the blood from their tunics and promote themselves from warlords to living effigies of the idols, as if they could thereby incarnate the masks of the ancestors.

 

The exuses for the parlous state are ready-made and cynical: historical processes, injustice and inequality in the world, and especially racism. (Note: I'm not saying these factors do not exist; I'm just refusing to accept them as faits accomplis, as intractable matter that cannot be molded.) And naturally, as we know and see every day, the corruptors abroad are only too keen to continue exploiting the situation. The rich nations of the world spend a gross 900 billion dollars a year on fabricating and selling defence equipment: a lot of the so-called 'small' arms will turn up in Africa's equatorial forests and deserts to be used for killing the hungry. Thereafter the rich nations will collect contributions to reform the child soldiers, for demining, and to provide artificial limbs.

 

At the dark heart of global insecurity we will find poverty, endemic and grinding and growing worse. Or greed. The greed of the insatiable. I am talking, as well, of the greed of the predators  - the arms manufacturers and the oil guzzlers and the smugglers of people. At the heart of our barbaric new age, however much dolled up by the gadgets of modernism, we find fundamentalists exterminating one another (and thousands of innocent people as 'collateral damage', or as terrorist arguments for fighting asymmetrical wars), from despair or for what they believe to be a religious cause in the name of their cruel and jealous God. At the heart of countries claiming to be liberated and democratic the cynical rule unrestrained in their lust for power and profit. At the white-washed heart of our so-called enlightened world we still find the same obdurate and institutionalized discrimination against women. At the heart of this deep forest of cruelty we still lack any true compassion for the children.

 

Yes, we still live by profound humanist traditions; and yes, on no other continent do people kill people as easily and from as young an age. Yes,  many of the horrors can be laid at the door of vampire-like leaders, the predators who reduced their populations to bankruptcy and ruin and starvation  - Idi Amin, Bokassa, Mobutu, Eyadema, Charles Taylor, Arap moi, Robert Mugabe, Dos Santos... But yes as well, we must ask, what did those who were not personally greedy, the "Christian gentlemen" like Kaunda and Nyerere bequeath other than crazy and ruinous economic policies? The late Claude Aké once said: "It is not so much that development has failed as that it was never on the agenda in the first place."

 

But surely, we cannot possibly accept that our sense of ourselves as a continent can be only that of being side-lined, mired in under-development, caught in the madness of wars and armed uprisings as the only way out  - exploited, humiliated and getting poorer! And, as surely, our way to ourselves cannot be defined by imitating the materialism of the West!

 

I want to underline in passing that I do not consider Africa's poverty simply to be the fate of a globally unjust system. Part of the cause for our backwardness is certainly systemic  - what else can we expect in a world capitalist set-up?  - but whether we continue to wallow in our poverty, in our self-pitying attitude of being the victims of history, depends entirely on ourselves. Africa is not poor. And even though the corrupters may be doing so from London and Paris and Washington, the accomplices and often the beneficiaries are those in Africa who fatten themselves on the misery of the poor. Nobody will or even can save and redress Africa but the Africans themselves. This is the imperative of wanting to help ourselves, of stopping to hide behind the excuses of 'custom' and 'culture', of developing a shared sense of the common good, of no longer living for today's spoils or the meager strive for survival only.

 

Martin Luther King said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

 

We know of man's never-ending propensity and predilection for making war, it may be clear and reasonable to argue that over the last decade or two we have seen an increase in collective killing and a growing numbness to its implications, and it may be senseless to attempt understanding why this "way of life" appears to be so  fatal and inevitable (if killing one's neighbor could be described as a way of life)  - but even so, we should continue daring to assess the viability of age-old counter movements toward pacification. And whereas it is fair to say that there has been a deterioration in the international environment, both physically and morally, it must also be remembered that all along there existed the bright thread of human awareness of the deleterious implications for groups of the human family when differences are settled through conflict, and concomitantly there seems always to have been a valorization of and a search for peace  - for attenuating tensions, for moderation and compromise, for codifying justice so that conflicting interests could be settled in accepted ways to obviate the futility of bloodletting. In short, for building democracy. True, 'peace' may be but the temporary suspension of violence  - nevertheless, these precious, rare moments along our trajectory ought to be remembered and commemorated, taken down to be dusted off and prayed to, analyzed, understood and expanded upon.

 

It is true in an absolute sense that we know no more than we knew before. In that there has been no progress. Every generation lives in the fullness of its own comprehension. Nor do we learn from the mistakes of the past  - perhaps because we equate survival with progress, with the need to forge ahead, and perhaps because we make ourselves believe we are doing so. Maybe we are doomed to make the same errors. And it is true, as well, that we have to transcend our limitations, that we have to cling to the notion of an utopia as a justification and motivation for keeping on moving and making a noise. But our minds are as ever still bordered by darkness, except that we now live in an infinitely more dangerous world.

 

Except that it is not enough to sing the darkness. (The 'darkness' I refer to could be seen as a fatalistic given, the obscured world which instills fear and awe, but also the source of magic and exorcism. We all celebrate life in order to allay death; in many parts of our dark world we also honor death so as to make life bearable.) We have to liberate the mind and keep it free if we want to stay it from reverting to despair and self-interest only. To survive we must assume the responsibility of imagining the world differently. What horizon do we have to offer to that

 

13-year old boy in Monrovia who now thinks his only passage to adulthood can be through acquiring an AK-47, drugging himself, making up his face with cheap lipstick, donning a wig and some sad imitation wedding dress and then going out to kill? What is it that we propose to the children? What can they live for? Not everybody can be an Icarus.

 

We need to re-think Africa. Such thinking (the movement, the space) will be a creative process of imagination. It will revitalize memory as the instrument for revalorizing old or 'local'  solutions to the problems of arbitrary power abuses and the stultification of prejudices. It will be movement: Africa has always been movement. ("The masks were made to be seen in movement;") It will foreground and enhance the reality of the inherent multiplicity and pluralism of identity  - private and communal  - as release for active and creative tolerance and acceptance, and thus for growth. It will be a space of excellence  - no special pleading, no wallowing in being victims, no "blame me on history" syndrome. It will promote modernity (I'm talking of common-sense, decent values and systems and structures  - secular, if you like, but 'popular' and motivated and rooted, and sacred in its tranquil aspirations). It will recognize the enrichment of hybridism.

 

Movement precedes thinking, is a tenet of Tibetan wisdom. It is, in my limited experience, a physical imperative to move if you want to think. We have to be in motion for the thinking to take shape and not the other way around. Static thinking (plotting, cogitating) before implementing the ideas normally denotes another process  - rather, a different hierarchy of intentions. When thinking precedes movement, it is usually accompanied by control, by the intended search for given solutions  - and this can lead to the establishment of dogma. Down this road may beckon the manipulation of perceived identity within larger contexts for purposes of power politics. The obverse may be that when movement initiates and opens thinking we are not only courting the possible advent of the unknown (that, after all, may be upsetting and inhibiting)  - but that we are also putting ourselves in a humble or learning relationship to the knowledge and experiences of others. We bring, we test, we transmit, but we also change and allow ourselves to be changed.

 

It is in the movement of thinking (and sometimes of thoughts) and in the thinking awareness of physical and/or cultural displacement, or at least of its potential, that creativity is born. Creativity is the movement of perceptions, of bringing about new combinations of past and present, of realizing how new the old can be (and sometimes how prematurely old and static the supposedly new is), of projecting the future shapes  - and thus perhaps helping to shape the future. This is done through interactions with other cultural and political expressions or the expressions of other cultures, by reciprocal imitation, by undergoing influences, by conceptualizing a different way to go about politics. It is true that these travels, sometimes to the end of the night, are undertaken by those who are often feared and even detested by society, because "they control fire, wood or words."

 

Can one say then that, if there are still dreams of shaping Africa differently, these would have to be aimed at unearthing the ancestors who sit waiting as living memory of that continent which purportedly existed before it was sullied by plunder and the alienating gaze of the North? All the more reason to continue the combat, however precarious the premises, however tenuous the outcome. Our humanity may have become estranged in the colonial condition, but from that ‘naked declivity’ (Homi Bhabha’s expression in his The Location Of Culture) it emerged as an enigmatic questioning. The language of revolutionary awareness will take note of the fact that, as Walter Benjamin suggested, “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”  It is also, always, a state of emergence... To continue with Bhabha: “Already our existence is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival on the borderlines of the ‘present’. This ‘beyond’ is neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past; we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. For there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the ‘beyond’: an exploratory, restless movement...” Central to our re-invention of Africa, to the multi-colored bird rising from the ashes of spent dreams, will have to be a renewed awareness and understanding and definition of internationalism. But to think new we need to break the mold of consensus, rich in decayed matter, that dead weight called ‘unity’ which has always been the refuge of Africa’s weaknesses. The demography of the new internationalism will be the history of post-colonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary will become the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond... We are to inhabit an intervening space from where new commitments could arise; we will have to return to the present to describe our cultural contemporaneity and to re-inscribe our human historic commonality, to touch the future on its hither side. So that the intervening space ‘beyond’ could be a space of intervention in the here and now. For the borderline work of political culture demands an encounter with ‘newness’ that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It will have to create a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. The creative ‘past-present’ dichotomy will have to become part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living... In short, what we need to dream of is a rekindling of the belief that things can be changed, that we can take responsibility for our past and our future in this present now, that this is eminently a cultural concern in its broadest and deepest implications and applications, that we should be fearless in our commitment to projections and realizations which will not be simplifications...  And now, is African Renaissance the kindling I’m referring to above, or is it meant to fob us off in being the dead wood that covers our shame by aggrieved posturing?

 

The questions I tried bringing into focus do not have fixed outlines; rather, their positioning and possible elucidation are subject to accelerations provoked by events and new or modified insights  - Africa is always changing  - or sometimes they gather in eddying pools of reflection, if not stagnation: another reason for moving, if only to shatter the surface image and to rid oneself of the stench of self-serving bullshit in the nostrils. Tchekhov wrote in his Notebooks that the dead do not know shame, but that they stink terribly. To be alive is to keep moving, even as a carrier of shame.

 

We should be acutely aware of the existence of different spaces in Africa, and that by their very being they induce movement. For ideally, a space is not a refuge or a sanctuary, but a place of metamorphosis. And as keenly we should recognize the progressive dialectical movement that will come from the development of spaces of creativity, however critical they may be, and their interaction with the common good of shared national values. This much-needed acceptance of diversity is not only good for progress, it is also the guarantor of a shared identity.

 

I deliberately cast the net of my remarks wide. There is an interconnectedness and Africa is part of the equation, even if that is not where the frontline between West and East is burning. And Africa has always been conceived of both from abroad as much as from within, mostly as an exercise in escapism. I bring no answers to the questions of how political, economic and cultural relations between the North and the South ought to be conducted or even whether they need to be formulated at all. However, I believe movement forward lies in the way we put the questions; truth lies in the road (maybe in ambush), for how can we prejudge the contours of the destination that will be shaped by our getting there? Traveling creates its own momentum, and that goes for the traveling of ideas as well.

 

The reassuring thing about being on the road is that one does always end up with a destination. Naturally, on the way out, as maverick mortal, I'd be inclined to say" we must," "we ought to"; I'd even be inclined to stitch my own speculative 'truths' as patchwork lining inside the dark and suffocating coat of Certainty, if only to use as secret maps.

 

Breyten Breytenbach

October 27, 2005