Opinionista Mlilo Mpondo 3 April 2014

Sight and understanding: My African political dream

For as long as Africa’s political imagination remains underdeveloped, the continent will remain stunted and its people will continue to suffer indignity and oppression.

Society is a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born. It is a constant reflection of both legend and fact (mostly legend). The reverence to the legend about ourselves is displayed in how we construct our present. But society is also determined by our imagination, and like all others, imagination is informed by past experiences. An imagination not limited to what we know of ourselves, but one more concerned with what we as a people have the potential to become. It is based on the imagination of our capacity, the foresight of potential. And once the political imagination of a people is narrow, the individual imagination of the person too becomes stifled, and this is a sign of a people’s impending downfall.

Pre-1994, South Africa’s political imagination was the acquisition of freedom, freedom versed and understood in discourses of equal rights. Equal rights to education, health, housing, and so forth. Our conception of freedom was more reactionary than visionary, the agenda was the Apartheid government and not, at a substantial level, the people.

In retrospect the rhetoric of our freedom was not self-determination; it was not a construction of identities sovereign of organisations or a concept independent of institutions. Our freedom, and not just institutional freedom, to “self determine”, was and is attached to entities: political organisations, unions, private enterprises, etc. It was and is not of our own to own, but is instead presented as the efforts of another to whom we are bound to in blind gratitude. The saviours, our messiahs.

The independence of African states is a singular source of pride and ideological reflection for the African legend. It is representative of its people’s fortitude and triumph. A resilience and feat attached to the Messiahs that fought for this freedom. And so the political imagination of the African has always been preoccupied and invested in the concept of the Messiah, our Black Jesus that is both our salvation and redemption. On an emotional rationale, our attachment to black leadership is romantically justifiable; yet on a substantive level our political imagination was never vast enough to comprehend that freedom is not necessarily black-on-black domination. Africans have lacked the insight to understand that the importance is not in having a black person as head of state, but that the importance is to realise how our leaders think, how our people think, and what the models being used for development and so forth would be. The emphasis was political freedom, and not too much attention was paid to the neoliberalism that would represent our freedom.

Our political imagination concerned itself primarily with the statesman and not the man. And so what has been created is a people of servitude through their gratitude. We have not been able to, or given the opportunity to, imagine ourselves beyond the prescripts of the organisation that afforded us our freedom. They have become our freedom.

Also, our leaders are yet to graduate from the limitation of political independence, their ideologies are those of past decades, their rhetoric subjects its citizenship to discourses that have no place in present realities, but they sustain these narratives to solidify and perpetuate alliances of bondage. The ANC will summon to our contemporary the magnitude of Rolihlahla but speak nothing of its own vision. They hold on for dear life to narratives which are an ode to the past but speak nothing of a future.

Pre-independence, the African agenda was freedom from minority rule, yet post-independence there seems to be no real agenda. What we have is a continent that acts out of fear, a continent whose yardstick is foreign to Africa, whose ideology is distant to our reality and is thus compromising to its own people. The intrinsic problem here is that our agenda was freedom from domination, it was reactionary to systems of exploitation and power and not informed by vision for Africa. We are as yet, as a country and a continent, to form an imagination that is not preoccupied with the white man and fear of his domination, one which is not premised on rhetoric of the past, one which does not merely pay homage to memory or sentiment, but one which is concerned with the uncompromising building of the African state, not in fear or reaction but which is natural to our leadership. Until this is realised and begins to inform our African imagination, our sovereignty remains questionable.

Lending from the paradigm of the Dogon people from Mali, a paradigm concerned with a concept of clear vision or analysis called So Dayi, these people constructed a model upon which levels of analysis could be judged or determined. The first of these levels is referred to as Giri So. This is the most simplistic level of knowing; it is what they refer to as sight without understanding, sight without interpretation. Marimaba Ani understands it as the most superficial level, without depth.

The second and higher level is Benne So, where perspective is invited and is used as a tool for analysis. At this level what is developed is a viewpoint, a position. Seeing beyond what is displayed. Benne So allows us to then interpret things from our own point of view, our own context.

Superior to these levels is Bolo So, a penetration to the essence of something, understanding its meaning. Gaining insight into how something works, gaining insight into its meaning. Ani emphasises the importance of meaning and not only the preoccupation with facts, because fact is meaningless without context, for a fact to have meaning it has to be placed within a context.

And finally there is at the highest of this paradigm So Dayi. So Dayi is sight with complete understanding; it is the ability to see beyond the physical to then gain vision, and for there to be an imagination there must be vision. It is an understanding not only of present context but an ability to understand the essence of a present context and to then devise methods is pursuit of an envisioned context, in this case the pursuit if African sovereignty.

However, this is problematic for Africa because its leaders did not thoroughly investigate the concept of freedom. It is a context which was pursued, but in the pursuit of which the necessary groundwork of analysis was neglected. Freedom and its parallel, equality, was presented as a right and not a privilege; moreover, it was a right that the messianic leader promised to bestow upon its people and not a privilege for which they would have to work.

In the face of the Black Messiah, the people’s sole preoccupation is the prevention of white domination, therefore the imperialism of Nkandla or colonialism of unconstitutional policies are all right for so long as blacks are not reverted to slavery. However, my question is, how different are our governments to slave masters? How different is exploitative leadership, corruption, their incessant theft of livelihood from those whose gratitude it demands, and the institutionalising of their legitimacy without consent?

It would seem that the political imagination of our government is the very imagination of the systems against which it fought. Our ‘leaders’ did not consider freedom beyond domination, the very men that had for years prepared for civil war are those who now govern. They have no vision for the substantive victory of our people, they lack this imagination and can therefore not form a position and are thus unable to organise. We cannot in memory or reflection summon reverence for the Rivonia 16 in words, but call upon them in the work that we do. This is how our legend is kept from the grave. However, our ‘leaders’ are not in a position to teach and are thus unable to take their people to where they need to go.

Their concept of freedom remains at the level of Giri So: “sight without understanding”, an inability to interpret the fundamentals of freedom. And they remain here because they are without vision and thus without political imagination. But perhaps our own imagination is narrow because we are yet to demand or to confront them for what their vision is; we too are too preoccupied with the mundane, the tangible and have not graduated to the vision, the imagination. They, as do we, require the courage to construct our own reality.

The contract of society between the dead, the living and those not yet born is only possible with a political imagination beyond the narrative of war – even when war is what we come from. DM


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