In her song Not Yet Uhuru, South African songstress Letta Mbulu troubles my mind. Reflecting on the song, I find myself questioning the exact meaning of what the term uhuru — freedom in kiSwahili — really means materially.
Pushing the event-based thinking school of thought, the experience of freedom is often reduced to the artefacts of celebration, a public holiday in some cases, and even a gathering to commemorate. Yes, freedom really should remind us of how the sacrifices of others have led us to enjoy our present liberties.
The challenge is that we often negate the processual experience of freedom, a daily experience and call to freedom. The efforts of others to make us enjoy what we call freedom is not just an event but should be our lived day-to-day experience. This calls us to reflect more deeply on what we mean by freedom. A move away from the tired, myopic weak societal conjectures of freedom-chasing validated in events, to embracing an experience of freedom as a continued state of being, a daily liberating reality of being free.
So when Letta Mbulu sings Not Yet Uhuru — even amid freedom — we may still not have the experience of being free. This could be the summary of the African continent from the Cape to Cairo. On 25 May 1963, inspired by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, 32 African governments became signatories to the Organisation of African Unity. The rallying call for this was the elusive chase for African freedom. Nkrumah would express it poignantly: “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the continent.”
Yes, names have since changed from the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union, yet the mandate remains portentous. The majority of African countries have gained political freedom since 1963 yet continue in the present to be enslaved — political freedom that has no social and economic freedom. The African continent remains, using Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, with stark contrasts of irony from the Cape to Cairo.
We cannot be free as Africans when our social and economic development capabilities remain so disparate. We are countries on the same continent that remain worlds apart. This becomes apparent and often nauseating for me as I travel the continent as an academic.
For starters, the lack of technological capabilities that could easily allow the movement of people and goods presents some issues of concern. You can leave one African country and enter another, welcomed by seamless border management services allowing for timeous clearance. Yet you can enter another country, and you are greeted by paper-based systems and with the processing of travellers taking hours on end. Surprisingly, the two countries belong to the same African regional block tasked with advancing social and economic development ideals.
With such processing challenges, one wonders how The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement would be realised to the full benefit with bottlenecks limiting trade among African countries. We, therefore, cannot talk of freedom among African countries when in some cases, it is more expensive to do business with other African countries than non-African ones. Surprisingly in some instances, it is cheaper for products to enter European and South American countries than on the African continent.
We cannot talk of freedom on the continent when some countries prioritise the purchase of weapons and heavy artillery at a time when there is no war or immediate threat to sovereignty. The same guns and artillery are then used to thwart the voices of dissent in the country. Yet there is scant commitment to investing in infrastructure, rather preferring to be on standby to fight off imaginary threats of danger, especially in disputed border regions on the continent. The continued wars that seem endless stemming from inherited generational conflicts delay the building of schools, clinics, and the provision of social amenities.
We cannot talk of African freedom when daily the lives of African youths are robbed of their future on the same continent they call home. The fallacious promises of corrupt African leaders are a far cry from their actions toward a better end. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its report Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe, reveals the depths young Africans are willing to go to to escape the challenges on the continent. Sadly many of them fail to make it to Europe, drowning in the Mediterranean. Their bodies are crying in the sea for the life that could have been theirs.
We cannot talk of one Africa when even our higher education systems merely confirm the existence of disparities affecting development. At the cusp here are funding issues and a lack of infrastructure development that supports knowledge production on the continent. Further, in a World Bank Report, a dire situation was painted in the absence of a clear focus on the continent concerning developing capabilities for the future. One example to note here is the cost of data. The cost of this has been framed generally as astronomical across many African countries.
We cannot talk of the realisation of African freedoms when despotic leaders continue to cling to power, marginalising young people. Yet Africa is noted to be having a young population, a cohort weighted with the responsibility of setting the agenda for the renewal of Africa. Young people on the continent are often described as “leaders of tomorrow”, yet residing in an opaque present. These sidelined African youths then become susceptible to abuse and varying forms of chicanery at the hands of the political elite — young, unemployed, and being used as an instrument of violence against the community.
Indeed, “Not Yet Uhuru” — let’s address those demons stopping us from experiencing freedom as a daily continued state of being. Kwame Nkrumah would have wished for this. DM