African Futures “The fate of our planet will be decided in Africa”

African Futures Festival
Photo: Goethe-Institut/Lerato Maduna

“We do not know the future of Africa. But we do know the future will be African.” With these words, Ntone Edjabe, the co-curator of African Futures, voiced what many felt at the closing of the festival. Edjabe appeared via live video. The big conference hall of the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg was again full to bursting on the last day. The mood was thoughtful, optimistic and combative.

“The fate of our planet will be decided, in this and future centuries, in Africa. Much of what is yet to come in the world is already being attempted on the continent. More than ever, Africa is a laboratory of the future,” says Achille Mbembe. The political scientist from Cameroon is one of the pioneers of post-colonialism. His fiery speech was one of the highlights of the festival.
Mbembe describes a continent in transition that wants to break away from Western structures and ways of thinking. He tells of protest movements and alternative social orders, of a new generation that puts everything to the test, from traditional family structures to the colonial layouts of its cities and the capitalist economic order. “The existing power structures must be overthrown. There is no other way. The question is how. We need new models, new lifestyles, new forms of political leadership, economic relations and solidarity. Artists and cultural workers play an important role by developing visions and reviving the forces of imagination.”

Modern technology gives young Africans their own voice

In fact, many artists on the continent and in the diaspora are currently grappling with future issues, visions and utopias in science fiction films and literature, in futuristic music, in Afro-galactic performances, in comics and painting and in virtual realities. 360-degree films, for example, catapult the audience into the action – into protest marches, refugee camps or dream sequences. Africa and modern technologies are no longer a paradox.
On the contrary, they are important tools for a better future, says Tegan Bristow, lecturer for digital art at Johannesburg’s Wits University. “In a way, mobile and social media reinforce African cultures. Social cohesion, communication and sharing knowledge are traditionally very important. Social media can intensify and make this tradition more public. For the first time, they give young Africans their own voice. Their parents had no way to determine the discourse themselves and to share their views with the world.”

For too long, the history of Africa has been decided and told by outsiders. This was also the consensus at the festival, underlined Lien Heidenreich-Seleme from the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg. “This really can be said quite clearly: that African intellectuals and artists say the Western view of Africa exists, but gets us no where. We want to develop and realize our own vision of the future.”
The first step in implementing this, according to Achille Mbembe, begins in the mind. Many Africans have internalized the Western view. They perceive themselves as part of the global periphery. The migration movement to Europe can therefore be seen as an escape to the centre of the world. “We can also change the existing structures by making Africa open itself not only to the world but to itself. Africa needs to realize its strength and perceive itself as the centre; both in its own, and in the interests of all mankind.”

Storytellers on loan

But it need not always be great social movements that lead Africa in a better and more independent future. Even local initiatives can develop great power. One example is the multiplier project in which several cultural activists in South Africa have joined forces to pursue innovative ideas. For example, a library where instead of books you borrow people who tell stories. The heart of the concept is “radical sharing” explains artist Thenjiwe Nkosi Niki.
“My idea is based on a variety of influences,” says Nkosi, “the knowledge that my parents taught me, African traditions and survival strategies. The concept of sharing is ancient and futuristic at the same time. It is a matter of how we deal with each other in future, not only to survive, but to grow and thrive. Previously, my work was more about confrontation, for example with racism. Today I concentrate on how I imagine the world and what we could contribute to that here.”
Visions like these are not limited to Africa. Artists increasingly see their continents in a global context. Not as victims, but as sources of ideas. This impression remains of the four-day African Futures Festival. Africa not only has a future, it will significantly shape it. In the words of Ntone Edjabe: the future is African.
Courtesy of Deutschlandradio Kultur. This report was played by the station on 1 November 2015 and was written by Leonie March.