There’s a generally held perception that Africa people have largely been more spectators and less of participants in the literary documentation of their experiences. In fact, the perception is so strong that some people think that the idea of literature on the continent is a post-colonial phenomenon. So when I got email informing me of the wRite Associates’ African Century Literary Art and Orature Public Lecture and Dialogue Series, I immediately signed up to attend the inaugural event which was held at the National Library in Tshwane. The initiative comes against the backdrop of the governing ANC’s centenary celebrations but the intention of the wRite Associates’ is to focus on how the literary art became an effective instrument of liberation. The Lecture Series, according to the wRites Associates’ managing director Morakabe Raks Sekhoa, is scheduled to visit various institutions of higher learning as the year unfolds and has named Dr. Wangui wa Goro;Dr. Hugh Masikela; National Poet Laureate Keorapetsi Kgositsile; Prof Chinua Achebe and Nobel Literature Laureate Dr. Nadine Gordimer, who was present on the night, as its distinguished patrons.
Amongst the public figures who also attended the well organized gathering were South Africa’s Lady of Song, Sibongile Khumalo; writer Sipho Mahala and former PAC President Dr Motsoko Pheku along with literary critics; academics and enthusiasts of the written word. The invaluable address given by the encyclopaedic Prof Mbulelo Mzamane warranted more ears than those who filled the plush auditorium but that didn’t at all dampen the mood of the evening. Prof Mzamane themed his address by quoting another renowned member of the literati, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, wherein that: “A revolution, it is a blind progeny that acts without indebtedness to the past.” Mzamane went further to ask “what is South African about South African education?” He said if the same question asked to a Japanese or Jewish child, they would easily be in a position to respond accordingly and that’s because within their education systems are histories of their predecessors experiences and the impact they’ve had in the shaping of the present. Could the South African child, especially of African descent, be expected to conclusively do the same as their Japanese counter? But how is the South African child, as a product of the current education system, supposed to know any better when the governing party, in its centenary celebrations advertisements, continues to drum home a historical embellishment to the effect that “the liberation struggle began in 1912”? When there’s mentioning of the important role the African Diaspora played in the liberation of South Africa then people will think that our history is limited to our borders. It was at Booker T Washington’s Tuskegee that the ANC’s first president, Langalibalele J Dube, got the inspiration to establish his own Ohlange Institute in his Natal. This is also true of how the Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes, its music and fashion inspired the legendary Sophiatown days as documented by the likes of Can Themba; Nat Nakasa; Es’kia Mphahlele. Was it not Reverend Trevor Huddleston who gave Masikela a trumpet from the jazz icon, Louis Armstrong? It really shouldn’t shock us when young people become indifferent and begin to act like “a blind progeny that acts without indebtedness to the past” simply because they wouldn’t have been informed of the greater story of the history.
When the then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, at the adoption of the final Constitution on May 8 1996, declared in his famous speech that “I am an African”, he wasn’t the first to do so. In fact, 90 year earlier a certain Pixley ka Isaka Seme also declared, at a graduation day at Colombia University, that: “I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against hostile public opinion.” Seme’s speech was titled “The Regeneration of Africa” and he went further to state that “Yes, the regeneration of Africa belongs to this powerful period. By this term regeneration I wish to be understood to mean the entrance into a new life, embracing the diverse phases of a higher, complex existence. The African is not a proletarian in the world of science and art.” Another testimony of the relationship between Diaspora and how it assisted Africans is the story of one Charlotte Maxeke, who in 1905 became the first black woman in South Africa to obtain a Bachelor of Science when she graduated from Wilberforce University in the US. As fate would have it Ka Seme would be a convener of what would later result in the formation of South African National Native Congress 1912.
Mzamane asserted that great figures of the African Diaspora such as West Indian lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams who, while living in England at the end of 19th century, convened the first Pan African congress in 1900. Don’t forget people like George Padmore; Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois, they must be as recognizable in our history books as former President Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo. Mphahlele wrote in Es’kia Continued:”Credit must go to WEB Du Bois (1868-1963) the famous African-American sociologist, for giving reality to the long-standing dream of Pan Africanism, which is based on the belief in a bond between the black people of Africa and the external areas to which the slaves were sent. Between 1919 and 1945, Du Bois was mainly responsible for the five international (Pan African) congresses. For more than 30 years, he nurtured the growing Pan African congress with a passionate sense of mission.”
The shared history and reciprocal initiatives that went on between continental and global Africans ae critical in us trying to understand South Africa’s struggle for democratic governance and they must be reflected in the education of system of the Republic if we are to answer firmly and confidently the question, “what is South African about South African education?” The wit, charm and intellectual vigour with which Prof Mzamane delivered the inaugural lecture has certainly set the tone for what is a necessary conversation which will culminate with a conference from the 7th – 10th of November in Mangaung.