On Africa day, I found myself wondering what it means to be African – what the day was even about.
I wondered, am I proudly African? What does it even mean being proudly African? I don’t think it was the first time I saw the day being commemorated in the way that it was. For some reason this year felt different.
It felt like the continent is all of a sudden more contained, with restrained movement and travel, but also like it’s an opportunity to think more about ourselves with limited interjection from the outside. On this year’s Africa day, I finally felt the weight of the period spanning March 2020 to date; and that felt like a long stretched out winter evening, although not so romantic. It felt like we have had the past year and some to sit and reflect on a very long day, which is finally coming to an end. So I wondered, how, this year, is Africa reflecting on the past few decades, in these last few moments of day time?
Many of us have heard about the speech by Thabo Mbeki, I am an African.
We have read bits and pieces extracted from it, about how he, as an African owes his “being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the sunshine, the flowers, the seas and the ever changing seasons that define our native land.”
This is likely the most pleasant part of the whole speech, because the rest of the speech is, in my opinion very confrontational and very controversial. It is perhaps for this reason, that we leave it out when we are searching for a caption for the photo of us in leteitshe, or chale, at one traditional event or other. In fact, I would argue that it is the rest of the speech, that actually gives framing to the idea of Africanness.
The question I find myself repeatedly needing an answer to, ‘what is Africanness?’ Whenever I hear that something is unAfrican, I know that the reason has to be that it is too controversial. Each time, I find myself circling the words adaptable and dynamic in my mind, considering the history of our continent.
The San and Khoi are our progenitors. These are the people who died defending the continent from invasion. The European intrusion onto the continent, bringing with it different forms of governance, completely transforming laws and social norms, dictating a new morality is another piece of African history we silence our minds about, especially when it’s time to pray…perhaps because we think if God sees that we know how He was introduced to our continent as a religion, that he might be a bit upset about it.
It is hard to fathom an Africa unaccommodating of the predecessors of the Malay slaves from the East. We cannot speak of Africa without the battles her people have fought – fighting against each other, against external forces, and fighting for each other. Africa’s economies and trades, reliant on natural resources, are lifeless without the global north and the strong currencies they yield.
An African history is scorched racism and tribalism and genocide and xenophobia. For long, the continent has denied some their most basic needs, to clean water; has marginalized those who question homogeneity and especially those who so out loud and with their own lives. African history includes the migrations of all of her people, within the continent and some outside. It includes health pandemics like HIV
All of these histories have contributed to the culmination of the Africa we see and experience today! All of it! The oppression, the self-destructive chaos, the dysfunction – it is all African. I share Mbeki’s sentiments. Our history as a continent was every bit as broken as our present day reality – it was impacted in various seasons. I suppose those who lived through it may even have been feeling that the continent may not survive this, that or the other!
But Africa is also the continent where the earliest signs of human existence are found – we are the life source of humanity. I am completely unable to think of an Africa without bo Matsieng and the dwellers of Tsodilo – ancestor of our land.
Our history tells us of fierce and fearless heroines and heroes who led their people into successful battles. History tells us that we are a people of creation and creativity. It also tells us that we are a people who, in protecting ourselves, we know we are protecting each other. We are a people who have always known that although the night must fall on every day - whether it is a good one or a bad one - that the next day is an opportunity to start again from scratch. Our history speaks loudly about how we have continuously fought the racism and tribalism and genocide and xenophobia because we are an inclusive people whose identity will not continue to be defined by measures which render us unequal. Our history is one which whispers hope in every dull season.
All of the moments in our histories make us what we are today, and it is because of them that we are who we are on this day. Non of them is so epic that it alone completely defines us.
We are defined by all of it. What we don’t realise is that means Africanness, and true proud Africanness, is not stagnant. Africanness is an opportunity to evolve and devolve; it is an opportunity to paint ourselves into a history which recognises that we are living the future’s past. It is important that we take great care of today, because good or bad, we shall be remembered for it.
We will be judged on how well we faced adversity, each of us standing on the same evened out ground, capacitated to play in it. History will judge us for how well we wove diversity into our realities, accepting that all that is in Africa is African, and that it can therefore be reformed and transformed by Africa.
Yes, it has been a long day of a year. I really think though that all the solutions for our continent sit in us, Africans, the people in Africa. And perhaps it is finally time to rise to our reality. Tomorrow, whenever it comes, should bring with it a continent over which we can all proudly declare, “this is our darling continent in whom we are well pleased.” It takes a consciousness of our humanity, and a desire to just be better. I am still not sure what Africa day is. But if I were to give it a shot, this would be it, an invitation to re-consider ourselves.