University of Johannesburg Vice-Chancellor Tshilidzi Marwala says that “Africa must start doing science and not fixate on fictional stories.”
He was speaking at the university’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) which held a public dialogue on “Black Panther and Contemporary Pan-Africanism”, on Monday 26 August.
The dialogue, between Marwala, Dilip Menon, director for the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits University, and Adekeye Adebajo, director of IPATC, came just days after it was announced the sequel to the $1.23-billion grossing blockbuster film was to be released in May 2022.
Although the vice-chancellor hailed the film, which featured a predominantly black cast and production team, he said it should not distract from the work that needs to be done in Africa.
While it was an important work in the creative arts, he believes “it is fundamentally superstitious” as it presents the story of an all-powerful mineral called vibranium that can solve a country’s problems.
Marwala was recently appointed deputy chair of the Presidential Commission into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He has been tasked by President Cyril Ramaphosa to advise his office on the future of work during a time of increasing automation.
Marwala said that the “Black Panther as messiah” narrative perpetuates the dangerous thinking that someone from elsewhere will save Africa. This distracts us from finding solutions to our own problems.
He said the continent faced issues such as monopoly capital, land distribution, education and economic growth that cannot be easily solved by a single technology such as vibranium in Wakanda.
“Any nation that depends on a single technology for survival is in trouble and shall perish.”
He argued that Africa needed to consider things that will make the continent producers of technology rather than consumers, which starts with the ability “to document and diffuse knowledge”.
“I found the movie Black Panther a feel-good movie. It gave us the notion that we are technologically advanced, whereas we are not,” said Marwala.
Menon said that different writers of the Black Panther comic book, from Don McGregor who wrote for Marvel Comics when it was first published in the US in 1969 to Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2016, all place the fictional country of Wakanda in different places in Africa.
He argued that because this fictional country has no set geographical position it becomes whatever the US writers want it to become.
He said Black Panther was written to be a character that was more “palatable” to an American audience in the 1960s and had now been written to appeal to African-Americans in 2016.
“Black Panther is central in the African-American dilemma in America where a black man cannot walk freely in the street and no one is held accountable for his death,” said Menon.
T’Challa, the hero of the movie and king of Wakanda, is different from other US superheroes because he is presented as a “moral leader” who does not kill, resembling Gandhi more than Superman.
For Menon, this characterisation of the lead hero was an attempt to stay away from the “angry black man” stereotype in the US.
“Black Panther is not about Africa, it is about the African-American dilemma.”
For Adebajo, Black Panther is “black therapy” used by Africans for “escapism” in the age of US President Donald Trump, “therapy for people who have only faced humiliation”.
Wakanda was presented as a place where “ancestor worship is glorified and the link between the living and dead is beautifully displayed,” said Adebajo.
However, “a successfully industrialised African country that does not accept aid or trade, but where everything is chaos” inevitably “falls into the stereotypes it is trying to escape”.
For Marwala, citizens of Africa cannot be happy when xenophobia, tribalism and failing schools are part of our society.
“We need to work hard so that we bring education, not certification into our neighbourhoods.”
Adebajo said Wakanda represents a country that is ahistoric from colonisation and slavery, but is also not concerned about the ongoing wars and hunger in neighbouring countries.
Furthermore, the supervillain, Erik Killmonger – played in the film by Michael B Jordan – represents “the archetypal angry black man” although he had an MIT education.
“It is a shocking evaluation of angry black men,” said Adebajo. DM