Imagine Africa

“At the dark heart of global insecurity we will find poverty, endemic and grinding and growing worse […] At the heart of our barbaric new age, however much dollied up by the gadgets of modernism, we find fundamentalists exterminating one another […] At the whitewashed heart of our so-called enlightened world we still find the same obdurate and institutionalized discrimination against women.” Breyten Breytenbach on global inequality and the predicament of Africa.

In this month of July, 2005, two images haunt me. They are not related and perhaps they only gesture indirectly towards issues looming large in the contemporary world we inhabit –barbarism, terrorism, imperialism, impoverishment, plagues, the absence of ethical codes and a hierarchy of values, mad materialism, intellectual and artistic narcissism… Yet, both of these images illustrate to me the raw fault line where “private” and “public” meet.

The first is that of the so-called “Piano Man”. On the stormy night of April 7, a young white male is found wandering the streets along the beach of Sheerness in Kent. His elegant dark suit is soaked, all nametags have been carefully removed, he has no papers. Apparently he has also lost his memory and, with that, his identity. If you forget how others saw you, you no longer exist. The man is taken to the Medway Maritime Hospital. The National Centre for Disappeared Persons is alerted. Nobody comes forward to claim him. Over the next weeks there will be thousands of reactions, speculations, theories, and false identifications aired over the Internet, all to no avail (the web is a vast echo chamber for the deluded and the conspiratorial), and then interest will subside. The man is traumatized by fear: when someone enters the room where he is kept he cowers in a corner. After a few days he draws a concert piano on a sheet of paper. He is taken to a grand piano, sits down and starts playing exquisitely for hours on end. Only while playing does he relax. The blonde young alien with the melancholic and fearful eyes responds to no question, seems not to know any language, draws or writes nothing else, but composes music; he is obviously an accomplished concert pianist and has to be torn away from the instrument. He clutches the folder with his compositions to his chest.

The second image arises or rather tumbles from the sky like some Icarus. A severed human leg falls on the roof of Pam Hearne’s house, about 9 kilometres 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 stopover in Dakar. Again, no nametags and no identity papers. Pam Hearne says at first she thought the noise was caused by a neighbour 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”.

It is fair to say there has been a deterioration in the international environment, both physically and morally. All along the bright thread of human consciousness, there exists an 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. But “peace” is only the temporary suspension of violence. Without going into man’s never-ending propensity and predilection for making war, and thus without any pretence at understanding why this “way of life” appears to be fatal and inevitable (if killing one’s neighbour could be described as a way of life), and thus also without daring to assess the viability of age-old counter movements toward pacification – I think it is 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.

We now fatalistically accept – sometimes we even seem to condone – what would have been too horrible to contemplate not so long ago. The world was revolted by Nazi attempts to eliminate Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals in the raging insanity of a “final solution” – even if some of the resistance came late and was perhaps self-interested. And yet, by and large the world seems to be assisting passively while the state of Israel commits repeated acts of state terrorism against the Palestinians – assassinating their leaders, destroying their structures, brutalizing their children, humiliating their women, stealing their land, and in effect depriving them of a future. Why? Is this indifference? Fatigue? Cynicism? Acquiescence?

The world – significant sectors of it at least – objected to black people in South Africa being killed and oppressed just because they were black, and we supported the struggle for justice. Could we say there was as much outrage when a genocide took place in Rwanda ten years ago? Are we similarly concerned about what happened in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Somalia, about what is being done today to people in Darfur and in Zimbabwe and in the Congo, or the threatened mass killings in C�te d’Ivoire – and are we as engaged in trying to prevent these conflicts? Why not? Because these are far-away places with little impact on the equilibrium of forces in the world and have scant market value? Or is it too complicated? Are we just tired of trying to understand? Have we removed our moral nametags and the memory of who we were as we play existential tunes on the piano?

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

We are stalked by an upsurge in fundamentalisms on all sides, a rebirth of religiosity, by the imposition of world capitalism (benignly called “globalization”) as moral imperative, a deepening of poverty and inequality and the return of racism, the rotting away of common sense and ethics by political correctness… The United States has become a rogue entity, Europe has gotten as tight as a clay-ox’s arse (I’m using an Afrikaans expression) and in Africa the mind is driven mad by misery – our freedoms whittled away in the arbitrary acts of abject rulers or by the unfettered greed of the elites and the exactions of the military plundering the people, and in some places no freedom exists because there are no economic and political means to construct it. Is it then not understandable that desperate individuals will try and escape in frail, overcrowded boats, or stow away in the landing sections of aircraft where they have no chance of survival – because they will either freeze to death or be crunched to a pulp?

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 defenceless, concerns all of us, that the bells toll for us all? And that implicitly condoning the unacceptable is rotting the fibre of our ethical concerns so that we all become more brutalized – indeed, less civilized?

True, much of our internationalist concern may have been built on fragile agreements, hypocritical and informed by national or market interests – but, at least, they constituted certain benchmarks and embodied given attitudes defining our conduct in this world. The fact that the superpower is now intervening unilaterally wherever it may deem fit, and so clearly and brutally for its own interests, in the process demeaning the value of human life and the respect for non-Western cultures, has precipitated the destruction of our frail international agreements and attempts at living together in a modicum of peace. Should we then be surprised at the bombs going off in Madrid and London?

What are the values of the world? In a recent interview, James Wolfensohn, previous President of the World Bank, pointed out that US$ 900 billion of annual global spending by world governments goes for defence, US$ 300 billion for supporting or rather subsidizing the world’s richest farmers, and only US$ 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 US$ 58 billion, whereas it is also calculated that the announced millennium development goals (reducing poverty significantly by 2015, and so on) 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 per cent of Africans, in Europe it was 0.3 per cent; 457 kilowatts of electricity were used per person in Africa, in Europe it was 5912 kilowatts; the average income in Africa was US$ 500, in Europe US$ 22 810; 13 per cent of the roads in Africa were passable, in Europe it was 95 per cent; over the year there were 348 000 airline flights in 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 per cent to 50 per cent, in China over the same period it fell from 60 per cent to 20 per cent. Nepad (the New Economic Partnership for African Development) budgeted US$ 64 billion annually for the development of Africa ‘s degraded and often inappropriate infrastructure, but over the past four years just one per cent has been committed to infrastructure projects.

Indeed, Africa is now poorer than it has 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 most of that 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, 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 Ak� once said: “It is not so much that development has failed as that it was never on the agenda in the first place.”

For 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 meagre means to survival only.

But enough already! What do these figures tell us about our world?

That 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. That, at the heart of our barbaric new age, however much dollied 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. That at the heart of countries claiming to be liberated and democratic the cynical rule unrestrained in their lust for power and profit. That at the whitewashed heart of our so-called enlightened world we still find the same obdurate and institutionalized discrimination against women. That at the heart of this deep forest of cruelty we still lack any true compassion for the children.

How can the mind be kept free? Because we have to liberate the mind and keep it free if we want to stay it from reverting to darkness. It is not enough to sing the darkness. To survive we must assume the responsibility of imagining the world differently – for what horizon do we have to offer to a 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 a Piano Man.

I have 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 and within, mostly as an exercise in escapism. It is happening even now: on the one hand we have a drumming up of support for the continent through rock concerts and G8 meetings and the establishment of Commissions and of Goals; on the other we hear the equally self-serving mantras of “sovereignty”, of the world owing Africa a decent existence, to be based on the reinforcement of all the falsehoods we have come to know in terms of statecraft and political dispensations, from colonialism to post-independence.

The North-South relationship is defined by historical processes, by perceptions, and by power equations. Two components that interest me are ethics and power – more precisely, how non-power (or imagination) can be used as transformative agent.

Underlying the history of attitudes pertaining to Africa – an up-and-down history with more down than up, a give-and-take story with a lot more taking than there ever was giving – underlying it, there are real cultural differences. Among these “differences” one could point to, I think, a shading in approaches to the event and the meaning of death, to notions of continuity from generation to generation and even to the telling of time, differences in ways sentient life feeds into the unknown, in the uses and the sense of body, differences in traditions of bringing the power of darkness to light through rhythm and incantation. The “darkness” I refer to could be seen as a fatalistic given, the obscured world which instils 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 honour death so as to make life bearable.

These reflections were inspired by an exhibition of African art I recently saw in Paris . It was called “Africa ReMix” – a terrible name, by the way, as it suggests that one could take some old expressions and shake them up in a new mix!

One would be struck in that show by a vitality of expressions often direct and bold, by an awareness of the texture of materials and surfaces, and by the uses of derision. There was a noticeable mixing of what could be considered “traditional” in the African context – soil, cloth, body art, the appeals to magic – with Western forms and expressions such as installations and video art. The installations often gestured at a narrative intention; the video art (as nearly all over the world) was mostly banal and ugly and empty. These forms of presentation find their justification only in the museum environment of so-called globalized materialism and demeaned aesthetics – as opposed to the more humanist interaction one would find in customary settings. In other words: this was art made for the Western museum visitor. To be sure, some present-day African “specificity” was bestowed by working with the reject leftovers of consumer societies – tin, old firearms, plastic containers, recycled images – making the wry point that Africa both lives from the discarded scraps of the developed world and that anything, however humble, can be transformed into art.

But beyond this hybridity – most of the African artists represented actually live and work in Europe – uncomfortable questions are posed. Why were these artists grouped? What do artists from North Africa and, say, the Congo have in common? What is it that Africa shares that makes it collectively different from the rest of the world? (I would suggest that one subject of any future collaboration between institutions of the North and the South ought to be a study of the similarities and the differences among artists on the African continent, and between them and the rest of the world.) And why would there seem to be a need, from “outside”, to see Africa as a whole? Can it be to confirm stereotypes, the updated manifestations of exoticism now coming under the heading of “showing respect for the foreign?” – when the implication is that it is reassuring to keep the continent adrift and exotic but separate in its “foreignness?”

Wouldn’t it be more pertinent to propose that what is now really “foreign” or “strange” is the way Europe has evolved? Take quintessentially do-good and feel-good countries like Holland and Denmark: surely it is justified to observe that the majority of Dutch and Danes are in revolt against the policies of tolerance and permissiveness and international solidarity that defined their countries over the last 30 years, and that we now see profiled an angry, xenophobic and even racist national face.

How did this come about?

Apart from the obvious problems, mostly economic, of not being able to absorb large numbers of immigrants, there must surely also be cultural contradictions: excessive tolerance of diversity coupled with boundless permissiveness misjudged the need for a sense of national cohesiveness and vocation, even of identity; mixing does not necessarily bring about a greater acceptance of diversity – it was mistakenly assumed that those you accept in their difference would reciprocate by respecting your “otherness” and that thus you’d find shared non-religious grounds on which to build together; an overbearing moralistic approach internationally – and a sort of fundamentalist attempt to have the poor world adopt what you thought was good for them (like “democracy”!) – did not take account of history, of your own hypocrisies, and it resulted, as backlash, in the revival of an extreme right at home; leaning over backward to be politically correct and, in fact, to be multi-culturally prescriptive, made it impossible for you to use common sense and to apply basic commitments to human rights. Shouldn’t a human right – such as the inalienable right of a woman not to be a serf under whatever religious yoke – always outweigh whatever self-serving and escapist respect there may be for the “cultural specificity” of the other?

Nothing of the above can blur the questions we ought to ask ourselves within Africa in order to release a creative and transformative imagination. I know we think that to admit to our horrors – of our making, our responsibility – is traitorous since it may well reinforce racist typecasting. It will betray the struggle, it is often averred. Also, self-assessment will deprive us of the comfort of being victims of history, of colonialism, of racism, of capitalism, of socialism, of our own innocence and inherent goodness…

We need to start from the terrible and bitter recriminations which recognize that we have by now descended from the euphoria of liberation to the heart of darkness. We need to admit that the nation-state concept as existing in Africa at present, accommodating rapacious local elites and corrupt and cynical foreign companies only, is not viable. The democracy which has spread over us, even when sweetened by the poison of elections, is killing us. We need to admit that foreign development aid is not helping us. We know that Africa has to be re-founded on radical new premises, informed by genuine autonomy and independence – and this is neither the task nor the responsibility of the world out there. We know we need a revolution in ethics, in commitment to the needs of the continent, in paring back our inflated rhetoric and our demagogic posturing.

What if our artists and intellectuals satisfy themselves with ironic comments, as in “Africa ReMix”? What if they are only saving their own skins, wallowing in a cult of victimization, shifting the blame, going into ever-denser labyrinths of pursuing the alienated ego? Then who would speak up and cry? Who would practice the rigours of the free mind?

As I walked out of the “Africa ReMix” show I saw an elderly white man, modishly dressed in a dark suit over a black t-shirt emblazoned with red letters saying: “Africa is burning.” And I wondered whether we are to be reduced to a fashionable t-shirt slogan.

Because no, I don’t despair. You could say: Freedom is guilt, because it brings with it the knowledge of unfreedom. You could also say: Freedom is awareness and thus responsibility.

I believe it is possible to have interaction between South and North where there will be conscious efforts made to strengthen one another – informed by full frankness but also based on absolute equality. What Europe does for Africa, Africa must be able to respond to in kind. I believe such interaction should favour and promote movement, that it should deliberately set out to bring about spaces of creativity, contestation, and transformation (in both directions) and thus be privileging the strengthening of individuals. I believe we should practice non-power (in both directions) by refusing to shore up the credibility and the supposed sovereignty of corrupt regimes living off theft and repression and protocol and appearance, and by equally refusing to accept the globalization of free-market systems that are killing the weak.

The imagination I’m talking about must be shaped. From where I’m speaking, within an institution like the Gor�e Institute, this means that we work in partnership with others – NGOs, international bodies, donors – so that, through building the necessary research background and strengthening the means to understand the causes of conflict and the levers of development, and through establishing networks, we may mobilize expertise. It means that we are continuously looking for ways of forging tools that can be used by others as well, for creating models that may be exemplary, and that we will be guided by a rigorous assessment of the impact of what we do. As a small institution – condemned to the pursuit of excellence, nourished by the equilibrium between reflection and action – we will always want to be innovative, to “think out of the box”.

To put it in a broader context: We know that essential contributions to peace building, to development, to the re-shaping of Africa – will be made by organizations of women and of the youth, by those active in cultural creativeness, by engaging the roving armed bands on questions of formation for citizenship, by motivating our interventions on thorough and exact knowledge and on an ongoing search for understanding the reasons for communal tensions and the ways out, by revalorizing the role played by traditional structures and indigenous methods in matters of conflict mediation and survival – and all of the above premised on understanding and exploring the links between imagination and creation.

For I believe that it is possible to strengthen and season the freedom of the mind, and that this freedom constitutes the necessary lever for bringing about further changes.

This text is published as a Eurozine contribution to documenta 12 magazines, a worldwide collaboration of over 70 magazines, online-magazines, and other media (

Published 10 July 2006
Original in English
First published by Poets Against the War

© Breyten Breytenbach/Einstein Forum Eurozine


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