In his ethno-philosophical work Bantu Philosophy, The Belgian missionary Father Placide Tempels presents the following argument, which undergirds the world view that informed the colonial pursuit:
“Let us not expect the first black-in-the-street to give us a systematic account of his ontological system. Nevertheless, this ontology exists; it penetrates and informs all the primitive’s thinking and dominates his behaviour. Using the methods of analysis and synthesis of our own intellectual disciplines, we can and therefore must do the primitive the service of looking for, classifying and systematising the elements of his ontological system.”
This outlook as expressed by Tempels represents the prevalent, Eurocentric “conquistador” mindset wherein the African is always perceived and portrayed as an uncivilised being, one who is incapable of self-reflection and hence self-definition, a subservient being in need of the Westerner to “free him” from this primitive state like author Daniel Defoe’s character Friday, in the novel Robinson Crusoe.
It is this dehumanising, debasing, dismissive, contemptuous view of the African that has created a need for the struggle for Africa’s liberation, with the African looking to counter this false narrative and assert himself as a being with dignity, self-worth and a collective history that has contributed immensely to human progress, not just as a sub-human, but as a significant equal in the global family of human beings.
African luminaries such as presidents Thabo Mbeki, Leopold Senghor, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere among many others have played a critical role in advancing this struggle for African liberation through their intellectual work and writings, forming a sound basis for the African Renaissance that the likes of President Mbeki, President Benjamin Mkapa, President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Abdoulaye Wade have been pioneering and advancing in contemporary times.
This is a lifelong pursuit that has characterised the life, times and political career of President Thabo Mbeki, and it has informed all of his political work and the initiatives that he has undertaken and driven throughout his distinguished career, such as the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development with its African Peer Review Mechanism, the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute as well as the newly launched Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library.
President Mbeki’s entire life and career can be located within this noblest of pursuits, the African’s struggle to reclaim his dignity and his rightful place in the history of humanity. The African’s struggle to change the narrative and assert his right to frame and shape the knowledge production process from his own perspective for his own ends, that is, towards an Afrocentric epistemology with a specific teleological emphasis.
Our hope is that the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library will make its own contribution to this ever-evolving struggle of the African people. That it will contribute towards us Africans reclaiming our dignity as beings capable of reflection, intellection and contributions which can contribute meaningfully and significantly to the quest for human progress.
Not only that, but we hope that it will also contribute to reframing our history in order to showcase the immense contribution that Africa and Africans have already made to civilisation and human progress, contrary to the popular, Eurocentric narrative. It must help us to move towards a plurality of centres as Ngugi wa Thiong’o hypothesises.
In the words of the brilliant African philosopher, Paulin J Hountondji, we want to see a “re-appropriation of Africa’s own endogenous knowledge and beyond, a critical appropriation of the very process of knowledge production and capitalisation”. This will create a proper counter-narrative to current development outlooks on Africa, which are underpinned by the hegemonic, Eurocentric forms of knowledge production which often marginalise, undermine, dismiss and exclude African traditions.
In the furtherance of the spirit of democracy within the continent, a theme that has also defined so much of President Mbeki’s political career, this library ought also to contribute towards the democratisation of the knowledge production process, from an elite pursuit towards local communities participating meaningfully in the generation of knowledge that is concerned with their development in line with the sentiments expressed by the character Sicinius, in Act 3 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:
“What is the city but the people?”
Through initiatives such as this presidential library, we want to see a move towards an autonomous, self-reliant tradition of research and knowledge aimed specifically at resolving African problems, but also able to make an overall contribution to human progress; to changing from extraverted research intended for Western audiences to an Afrocentric focus with discourse on Africa coming from Africa, as opposed to outside.
A library of such magnitude is a befitting ode to President Mbeki’s great legacy, his gigantic intellectual contribution and lifelong love for knowledge, evidenced by the fact that even in his younger days, working at the family store in rural Eastern Cape, he was already interacting with weighty texts from eminent authors such as the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (anyone who has ever read any Dostoevsky novel will attest to the immense complexity of his plots and characters, definitely not bedtime reading).
May we, as the generations that follow him, imbibe this hunger and thirst for knowledge to contribute towards the betterment of people’s lives as we’ve seen from him and may the words of the poet William Wordsworth ring true, as we seek to follow his example, “what we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how; instruct them how the mind of man becomes a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which he dwells.”
Siyabulela Zizi, Jama ka Sjadu. DM
This is an edited version of Lebogang Maile’s speech at the launch of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in celebration of former President Mbeki’s 77th birthday at the Wanderers Country Club, Johannesburg, on 18 June 2019.