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Those who remember our past are condemned to repeat it

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The second essay written by the 2017 Tutu Fellows we are publishing is a brilliantly written piece by Rori Tshabalala. Rori posits that in spite of a checkered and painful past, Africa still preserves its history not as a past to be learnt from but as a persistent present to be tolerated, reinforced, normalized and passed on to future generations. He suggests that rather than repeating and emotionalising the past we need to summon the courage to learn the painful history but equip the people with the skills and knowledge to capture the promise and potential of the future so they may never suffer the humiliation that their forebears suffered.

 

Those who remember our past are condemned to repeat it

George Santayana must have surely not been a well-travelled or well-informed man - how else would he have arrived at the conclusion that, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, with such sense of empirical certainty if he had knowledge of Africa and its leaders who remember its history and yet fight one another to have the opportunity to repeat it, generation after generation?

The irony is that if there were ever a history that were painful enough to be forgotten then it would certainly be the history of Africa. This is a history that begins with a verse or two of an illustrious pre-colonial era stretching over centuries where Africa was the cradle of humankind, the home of great civilisations, inventing written language in the caves of Southern Africa, building pyramids in Egypt, amassing untold riches in Mali, pioneering masonry and steelworks in Mapungubwe and establishing Timbuktu as a global centre of learning. This glorious history is then disturbed and subsequently dominated by many more verses and choruses – again over centuries – of colonization by all but the least ambitious of foreign principalities and European powers including the Arabs, the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, the French, the Belgians, the Germans and even the Italians. In this period, the Atlantic Slave Trade is established, dispersing millions of Africans across the world, sold like livestock and transported along trade routes to the East and the West.  Out of this extended period of colonial oppression where Africa is violated and traded with as though it were the village harlot is birthed the bastard child that is early post-colonial Africa; a mongrel if there was ever one, born of many colonial parents and yet claimed by none; an Africa at war with the world and at war within itself, seeking to write a new history of independence yet so scarred by the eons of colonial oppression that it could never define itself outside of its colonization – how could it when its memory of its best era had been so long buried; desecrated and destroyed? In later years of its post-colonial history, Africa’s political independence becomes largely uncontested, yet its economic independence remains a dream; peace becomes more widespread though fragile; corruption remains endemic; poverty remains the norm; dictatorship becomes a fad; and self-determination  remains an attractive yet distant prospect, with more than half of African nations having ratios of aid to government expenditure exceeding 50% - most of this the result of history being repeated, layered and sedimented over layers of repeated history.

In spite of this checkered past, Africa still remembers; not only remembers but also preserves its history not as a past to be learnt from but as a persistent present to be tolerated, reinforced, normalized and passed on to future generations. It is a past that finds expression in the words and deeds of African leaders who, sadly lacking role models that they can quote and emulate from amongst their contemporaries, rely  on the examples and over-used expressions of historical figures whose legacies, though positive, were rooted in the colonial past. It is a past that finds expression in not only the languages that we use but in how we use them to refer to one another as fellow Africans. It is a past that finds expression in the colonial infrastructure that still forms the bedrock of what should be our modern economies. Our people live in much the same ways that they used to live when they were ruled by the French, the buildings we use are the same ones built by the British, with little improvement or enhancement. Our societies are still structured like the aristocratic societies of old where, we, the African leaders are content to occupy, justify and defend our place as members of the elite bourgeoisie being waited upon by an ever-present and unchanging class of African peasants just as our colonisers were.

Even at its best, Africa’s present is deeply rooted in the past. The richest person in North America is in the Information & Communications Technology industry, the richest person in Europe is in retail; the richest person in Asia is in real estate; the richest person in Latin America is in telecommunications; the richest person in Africa is in commodities industries – the last time someone in the commodities industries was the richest person in the world that person was John D. Rockefeller who died in 1937; of the top 10 wealthiest business-people in the world none of them are in commodities industries because on all continents but our own, commodities are industries of the past. All across Africa, to borrow the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau, rich or poor, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they”.

If Africa remembers its past in this way then why does it persist in repeating it? The answer might lie not so much in Africa’s memory of the past but in how Africa remembers the past and relates to it, not as a poisoned chalice to be buried but rather as a lost jewel to be reclaimed. Indeed, even though we might want to reclaim our history as Africans, it is not an illustrious one for Africans. It is a history in which Africans made key discoveries and developed new technologies only to, justly or unjustly, lose control of them. It is a history in which Africa fell behind the technological curve and as a result was conquered, defeated and subdued. It is a history of having our cultures and traditions desecrated and our people scattered around the world to work cotton fields in the American South to brothels in the East with no sense of connection to and understanding of being African. It is a past of being forced into the depths of Africa’s sweltering belly to disembowel her of her well of riches that would never be for her people. It a past of dispossession.  It is a past of killing and maiming one another; capturing and selling one another to the highest bidder; stealing from and oppressing one another, defending despots and providing safe-havens to killers of children when the world sought to exact justice. In spite this reality, it is a past that we often look to through rose-tinted glasses, exaggerating or justifying our role in it and glorifying it rather than being humiliated by it.

If the memory of our past was to cause us to not repeat it, it would have to be a memory experienced with such a grave sense of humiliation that we would want to distance ourselves from it and all its manifestations; except in museums and monuments as a sad reminder and caution to not allow it to be repeated.

It is in humiliation that China began the journey of reversing its humiliating decline as a global power and to draw a line that clearly separated the past and the present, forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjiing and settle for a “humiliating peace” following the Opium War that cost it its sovereignty and saddled it with debt. Chinese thinker Wei Yuan argued in that period that the once haughty China that saw none as its equal had to use that period to feel, deeply and acutely, a sense of humiliation over its fallen status, because : “Humiliation stimulates effort; when the country is humiliated, its spirit will be aroused”. Yuan’s words were so meaningful to the Chinese that they inspired the inscription that remains to this day in the museum at the Temple of Tranquil Seas : “To feel shame is to approach courage”. Unofficially from 1915 to 1926 and officially from 1927 to 1940 China observed National Humiliation Day and in 2001 revived the tradition in remembrance of how “at the hands of foreign invaders and corrupt Chinese regimes, sovereignty was lost, territory dismembered and the Chinese people thus humiliated.”

Modern Africans on the other hand, though a vanquished people, are not a humiliated people though they may live in humiliating circumstances. We celebrate our independence days as though they were of our doing, we shoot cannons and fire rounds into the air as though that is how we truly gained our independence, the irony lost on us that those cannons and guns are actually how we lost our independence.  The truth is that we did not gain our independence through the barrel of a gun so much as gain our independence through a “humiliating peace” as China did; instinctively we seem to know this which might explain why we tend to treat our peace with such contempt. It is a peace born not out of unequivocal defeat of our oppressors but rather born out of negotiation and settlement, withdrawal by our colonisers on their terms rather than retreat and surrender based on our terms. Yet the cannons and the rounds fired into the air seem to want narrate a different and somewhat distorted tale of military victory as opposed to political humiliation and because of that we glorify war and revolution when we should perhaps memorialize our humiliation and remember what led to it so that we can be diligent in building and acquiring the resources and capabilities that would prevent it from happening again.

It is understandable though why we would want to fast-forward past the humiliation and leap immediately to self-determination. To feel shame or humiliation is also to admit vulnerability and for a nation that has had its vulnerability taken advantage of for so long, we can scarcely afford to show it now. We have been oppressed and subdued for far too long, we have waited generations for this moment where we could claim and own and assert our freedom and identity. We have grown tired of being and playing victim, we are a generation that has proven its competence and intellect in global universities and we are restless to assert ourselves on the global stage and redeem the legacy of our forefathers. Leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah necessarily and rightly emboldened us to reject oppression and to claim our independence and identity however imperfect, exhorting that, “It is far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else”; civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X instructed that “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it”, thinkers such as Frantz Fanon opined that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it” and so inspired by these and other giants, we have rushed to take our freedom; govern or misgovern it and fulfill our generational mission leaving little or no space to feel humiliation in the time between not having and having.

Having denied ourselves of the opportunity to feel that deep sense of humiliation that brings about sobriety and allows us to clearly separate that which belongs to the past and should over time be buried and that which should be retained in the present and thus protected and enhanced, we have simply moved the furniture around yet kept with the program of a people that feel no shame about their past and its pride of place in their present. We would never invite guests into our homes without tidying up, yet we are quite content to welcome the world into our backyards – whisked through airport VIP and driven in tinted motorcades – pretending that it is their identities that we would want to mask when, actually, it is to prevent them from seeing out into the world, our world, the one we neglect and absolve ourselves of, the one in which we are known by our clan names, the one in which the past and the present seem so similar; where the buildings that their forefathers built remain the better buildings in our cities, where the ivory towers that we live and work in are built on the doorstep of our neighbours’ miseries.

Yet shame is part of the formulation that makes us human and sets us apart from beasts that kill and defecate and mate out in the open. Research Professor, Dr. Brene Brown whose seminal body of work focuses on shame and vulnerability says that shame is “universal, we all have it, the only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy and connection”. What then of our generation of African leaders that see and feel no shame in having our heinous past so enmeshed with the present; what then of us who while feeling a sense of pity, feel no sense of shame about our privilege in relation to the fate of our fellow Africans? Is it not this lack of shame and humiliation that has so disconnected us from our people to the extent that it allows us exploit them just as the colonisers did, if not turn a blind eye to it, without a hint of human empathy?  

Humility and humiliation derive from the same Middle English root of “bring low” which derives from the Latin “humus”, meaning: ground. That which we fail to learn voluntarily through our own humility we often have to learn either way through the pain of humiliation. Through humiliation we are brought to ground to face up to the reality of who we are and only once we have paid our dues can we rise again and reconstitute our identities as people fundamentally changed by our humiliation, determined to never allow it to be repeated again.

In modern statecraft our strength as a nation rests in what we know that cannot be easily known and in what we have that cannot be easily had. Part of our humiliation in this regard is that we are unable to define who we are by what we have because all we have is no longer our own and what we know is but what we have been permitted to know by others. If we are to define a better future we have to reflect on the portfolio of what we have and what we know and ask ourselves how much of it is rooted in the past and how much of it is rooted in the future. There is little that is rooted in past forms of wealth and power that others have not already laid claim to such that if we were to stake our claim on it we would not be at their mercies. There is little, too, that is rooted in past forms of wealth and power that others have not already known that would allow us to establish a viable comparative advantage.

Instead, if we are to rise from the humiliation of our past we have to cast our eyes not on where the world is or has been economically, socially or politically but rather on where the world is going because there we might discover blue ocean. While we focus all of our energies on fighting to nationalize mines so we can extract what little remains of our mineral wealth, the world has moved on to colonizing and mining our very own data only to repackage it and sell it back to us at exorbitant margins just as was done with our gold and our copper. We have to define our identities of who we are as leaders not on past models of what leadership is but on future models of what leadership needs to be. While we venerate democratic dictatorships and centralized government, the world is moving towards a future of distributed ledgers where central authority is rendered redundant and technology intermediates between people based on sets of rules that they individually determine rather than elected or imposed leaders.

Not all is lost though – among the very few things that we know that cannot be easily known are the grave social, political and economic challenges that confront us that can only be known by those who have lived them and known their humiliation – we not only know these problems, we also know how to overcome them in our own rudimentary ways, within the constraints of our limited resources. These problems are the raw material out of which our continent’s future exports can be developed. Resting in the challenge that nearly half of all people that use dirty water live in sub-Saharan Africa are the opportunities for us to develop cheap and efficient water purification technologies for our own people and for the billions others around the world who are or will in the near future be affected by water shortages. Resting in the midst of the education backlog that we are confronted with, are opportunities to develop teaching and learning technologies that radically bring the costs of education down while increasing its scale. All across the spectrum of challenges that confront our continent are opportunities to develop low-cost solutions to problems that the world has today or will have tomorrow and require affordable solutions for.

Achieving this requires that we summon the courage to begin teaching our children the unadulterated and even shameful history of our continent and how it came about while equipping them with the skills and knowledge to capture the promise and potential of the future so they may never suffer the humiliation that their forebears suffered. Regardless of how hard we strive and of how determined we might be to reclaim our history, the truth is that the past by and large belongs to those who colonized and oppressed us; it can never be redeemed and what little we can salvage can never restore us to parity or dominion on the global stage. Our redemption lies not in our past but in our future : it lies in taking advantage of the little that our colonisers left on our continent to be known by us and us alone – our problems and the humiliation that they have caused.

Cover image to illustrate this essay: from the Pulitzer Center.

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

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