Defend Truth

Opinionista

US protests: An opportunity for Africans to reclaim our history and our future

mm

Dr Daphine Kabagambe Agaba (PhD, UWC) is a post-doctoral researcher at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs (TM-School) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). The views expressed here are those of the writer and not of any institution to which the writer belongs.

As black Americans and people of colour fight for their identity and self-worth, we Africans must realise that this fight directly concerns us. This includes revisiting our history of colonial atrocities and teaching a full, unbiased account of those atrocities at the centre of our history curriculum.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd was arrested by Minneapolis police after a convenience store employee called 911, accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. In a series of mind-boggling events that led to Floyd falling on the ground, one of the white officers, Derek Chauvin, placed his knee on Floyd’s neck. He left the knee on his neck for a staggering 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite witness accounts that Floyd had already been handcuffed and was not resisting arrest.  

Floyd’s repeated cries that he could not breathe got no response from the officer who had his knee on his neck and the three other officers who assisted in restraining him while preventing bystanders from intervening. Eventually, Floyd went motionless and still, Chauvin did not take his knee off his head until medics, who had arrived on the scene, told him to remove it. A motionless Floyd was then taken by an ambulance to Hennepin County medical centre where he was pronounced dead.

The next day, videos of the encounter taken by witnesses as well as videos from the security camera became public, triggering demonstrations in all the 50 states of America which have spilled over to other parts of the world like Britain, Australia, France, Belgium and many other places.

Floyd’s encounter was one among several interactions of police with black people and people of colour in the US, most of which are not documented, where the police have been accused of using unwarranted force that often leaves the latter dead or enduring years of incarceration. The recording of Floyd’s death depicted a painful, but a stark reminder of police brutality, issues of deeply embedded systemic racism and injustices against black people and people of colour that have plagued America for centuries.

These protests are also happening against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has taken the lives of over 100,000 Americans, a sizeable number of whom are black Americans. According to the CDC, nearly 23% of reported Covid-19 deaths in the US are African Americans even though they make up about 13% of the US population.  

As the protests have progressed, they’ve taken on a whole new dimension. The protesters around different parts of the US and other parts of the world have started taking down or destroying statues of historical figures that are said to have perpetrated the killing, enslavement, or colonisation of Africans. This action is reminiscent of the 2015 “Rhodes Must Fall” protest in South Africa that started off demanding the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town and subsequently led to a larger movement demanding the decolonisation of education.

While the action of taking down a statue might seem like a small step, there’s a fundamental significance behind it. The history of oppression against black people that is celebrated by white political regimes, through erecting statues of colonial and slave masters, is something that can be oppressing to Africans, black Americans and African immigrants.

The taking down of statues all over the world has brought the conversation of history and historical preservations to the surface once more. In Bristol, England, for instance, a statue of Edward Colston was toppled, defaced and pushed into Bristol Harbour on 7 June 2020, by a multi-racial group of “Black Lives Matter” protesters. 

On the one hand, Colston’s statue was erected due to his philanthropic work as he used his massive wealth to financially support hospitals, churches and schools throughout England. Conversely, it is reported that much of this wealth was made through the slave trade. He sat on the board of the Royal African Company between 1680 to 1692, a period in which 84,000 slaves were transported from West Africa to the Americas. It is estimated that 18,000 died en route. This story encapsulates the idea of being a hero to one group of people and a villain to another.

This process of erasing and skewing history has gotten in the way of Africa finding real solutions to Africa’s challenges. Most Africans, including the elite, never connect how their current political and economic challenges are directly connected to their historical orientation.

Another one of the statues taken down after being repeatedly vandalised by Black Lives Matter protesters is the one of Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold founded the idea of “Congo Free State” and declared himself its owner. At the Berlin Conference, colonial Europe authorised his claim over the Congo Free State which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

During his reign, he authorised what has been referred to as a genocide against the Congolese people with the number of deaths estimated to be in millions. Leopold used the mercenary force known as force publique for his self-enrichment by implementing a standard of rubber that was to be collected. Failure to meet this standard led to mutilation, followed by the cutting off of hands as proof that the defaulters had been shot and killed. He subsequently used the fortune amassed from the exploitation of Congo, from the rubber and ivory to construct private and public infrastructure in Belgium, and upon his death, he dedicated them to the State of Belgium. 

One wonders why this history is not a fundamental part of history lessons throughout Africa. Furthermore, people who analyse DRC’s current political situation do so without referring to such an integral part of the story. Doing so is essentially telling only one part of the story. The same applies to other parts of Africa that were under colonial rule.

Across Africa, curricula have been erased of detailed accounts of slavery and colonialism. There have also been reports of major colonial powers, like Britain, destroying documents of their most shameful acts for fear of them being discovered by post-independence governments. This process of erasing and skewing history has gotten in the way of Africa finding real solutions to Africa’s challenges. Most Africans, including the elite, never connect how their current political and economic challenges are directly connected to their historical orientation.

When faced with the idea of prioritising home-grown expertise over the foreign intellectual models, African leaders present the tired excuse of the need to compete internationally.

This inability to connect the dots also affects the devising of comprehensive solutions to the challenges that Africa faces. The ongoing protests in the US and other parts of the world are fundamental as they challenge Africa and Africans to reclaim their history, and reimagine a new future.  

One vital action point is the reformulation of the African curriculum. The issue of reimagining African curricula is one that has been under discussion for some time. Scholars and researchers have been calling for the decolonisation of the African curriculum for it to comprehensively reflect the history, present, and envisioned future by Africans and for Africans.

Mahmood Mamdani mourns African universities that are like “potted plants in greenhouses” to the extent that they have little relevance to surrounding communities. Francis Nyamnjoh also notes that calls to rethink African education have not translated into meaningful action. 

When faced with the idea of prioritising home-grown expertise over the foreign intellectual models, African leaders present the tired excuse of the need to compete internationally. The practice since independence has been to set up education institutions that are caricatures of past colonial systems or the US and Canada. That explains why the rating of African academic universities is often based on international models and academics are pushed to produce in international journals with very little effort put into promoting journals of the continent.

Nyamhjoh further asserts that African education, for the most part, remains an externally motivated journey that serves to devalue and annihilate Africans’ creativity, values, and agency. This internalised feeling of inadequacy, self-hatred, and a deep sense of inferiority forces them to metaphorically and physically “lighten their darkness” for the satisfaction of their colonial and post-colonial bosses.

After being avid consumers of this skewed education system for years, the elites then strive to imitate and reproduce these Western systems and practices in their African universities in such a way that they ensure their continued survival. Some universities are under the false assumption that by Africanising the individuals, these universities are Africanising their curricular or pedagogy. It is obtusely naïve to presume that just because one is or appears to be African, they will critique the deeply embedded colonial traditions and rituals in their academic work, and offer a pedagogy that is cognisant of local experiences and epistemologies that are endogenous.

For the most part, the continent has operated as a blind person, trying to solve problems for which they’ve not correctly or fully identified the origin or cause.

Sabelo Ndlhovu-Gatsheni buttresses these points by cautioning Africans and African academics, in particular, to be authentic to themselves by admitting that they are products of very problematic “Western” universities and thus have to be open to unlearning and then learn as a tool for epistemic disobedience towards the deeply embedded Eurocentric thinking and ideology. Ndhlovu-Gatsheni quotes Ngugi wa Thiong’o who stated: “African academics cannot afford to be intellectual outsiders in our land. We must reconnect with the buried alluvium of African memory – that must become the base for planting African memory anew in the continent and the world.”

Beyond the academic aspect, it is forwarded that the redrafting of the curriculum, as well as policies to fit the African context, will directly contribute to addressing challenges that Africa currently grapples with, which include post-colonial African regimes that operate the same way the colonial masters did, and a deeply embedded inferiority complex that doesn’t believe that home-grown initiatives are valid. This same complex constantly looks to and refers to the West for solutions to our problems.

For the most part, the continent has operated as a blind person, trying to solve problems for which they’ve not correctly or fully identified the origin or cause.

Therefore, identifying the genesis of these challenges is vital in making necessary connections and thus authentically moving forward. The failure to do so has led to a situation where we adopt policies and programmes that stump the current situation. It has also led to a form of blindness to how the Western world has taken a more powerful, seemingly invisible role over Africa’s advancement. This role is not helpful for Africans as it serves to keep the West in a dominant and exploitative position over Africa.

African leadership, has also for the most part not been keen on prioritising the reclaiming of the African narrative through adopting curricula and informed policies that are contextualised, and directly respond to Africa’s challenges, for several reasons, among them self-indulgent priorities and an inability to critically analyse the African context.

In order to move forward effectively and devise comprehensive strategies to advance Africa, Africans should go back in time and have a comprehensive understanding of how they got to this point. This includes a full, unbiased account of Africa’s historical orientation, inclusive of atrocities such as those mentioned above at the centre of our history curriculum. Comprehensively telling the African story, will enable us to fully understand the challenges that Africa faces to date. As James Baldwin poignantly wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”.

As black Americans and people of colour fight for their identity and self-worth, Africans should realise that this fight also directly concerns them. Dismantling colonial, corrosive capitalist, racist, patriarchal systems is not limited to geographical locations. The ongoing protests are an opportunity for Africans to start thinking about ways of ideologically reclaiming themselves and their continent by rewriting their past, present and ultimately their future: An opportunity for reimagining a continent that is fully in charge of its destiny. DM

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted