African Futures A Continent Trying to Break Free

African Futures Lagos
African Futures Lagos © Emmanuel Sanni

On its way towards the future, Africa has already taken more steps than the Western world usually perceives. A cultural festival in Johannesburg is just as good a proof as the number of student protests that occurred last October in South Africa.

Simbongile Ndlangis was fed up. A few months ago she was an ordinary student at Witwatersrand-University (WITS) in Johannesburg. But then the unjust educational system turned her into a keen activist. The 20-year-old did not have to worry about money really – it was no problem for her mother to provide the annual tuition fee of 45.000 Rand (about 3000 Swiss Francs). But it would have been a problem for many other black families in South Africa. In spite of that, the government had announced in October to raise tuition fees once more. An announcement that would have to face its consequences.

New Dynamics

Simbongile does not quite remember the moment her own political consciousness emerged. All she remembers is that she resolved not to look away any longer. She was right there when life at the WITS was brought to a standstill for two weeks. She was among the students occupying the administrative building. And she was one of some 15.000 protestors who sieged the government buildings in Pretoria following up to their common march which is believed to be the biggest student protest since the rebellion that shook Soweto in 1976.

These protests have brought a new set of dynamics to the country. The student movement Fees Must Fall has succeeded in questioning the old power structures of the ANC and challenged its traditional ways of thinking. Students of all universities were able to make a considerable part of the country’s inhabitants politically aware within a couple of weeks. Right now we are witnessing a general debate on race which is no longer only focused on university fees. It is also about the fact that the majority of university staff is still white, about one-dimensional curricula ignoring ethnical diversity and the fact that many black students are not fully prepared for university and often have no other choice than leaving it heavily indebted.

And it is exactly because of all these facts that Simbongile is among those students negotiating new acceptable terms with university management in November. She is sitting at a table in the main building, her body tapping in time to the songs of prayer sung on stage writing twitter messages about the current events. The group of elderly people moving and singing in the middle of the hall consists of workers that have teamed up with the students. “The protest is not just about us“, Simbongile screams over the heavy sound of the drums. And that’s exactly what’s new about it all: Students with different backgrounds, black and white, have not just been unified in rebellion against an unjust educational system, but they have also called for improved working conditions for gardeners, bus drivers and cleaning staff. Perhaps this is just the will for democracy many people have been hoping for since the end of apartheid.

There are a couple of other visitors to be seen among all those students crammed over stairs and galleries on several floors. One is assembling a tripod, another is taking photographs from a distance. A woman is starring at the masses in fascination. Nobody is taking notice of them, although they are internationally renowned artists. Jonathan Dotse, self-appointed African Cyberpunk from Ghana, is calmly filming the scene for his website, while Kodwo Eshun, a member of the artist collective The Otolith is taking pictures of the crowd. People do not even notice the fashionable outfit of designer Selly Raby Kane from Senegal. This is not the place for glamour, this is where deals about the future are being made.

Urbanity and Improvement

This is just what these illustrious guests have been doing before mixing with the crowd at university. Dotse, Eshun und Kane have travelled to Johannesburg together with other artists and intellectuals from the continent and its diaspora. They spend most of their time in the posh suburb of Parkview discussing topics that are currently talked about on the streets too: the future of the country and the continent. African Futures is the title of the festival which seems to feature exclamation marks and question marks at the same time. Of course the German cultural organization is well aware of the fact that from a Western point of view Africa is not usually perceived as a place with a future – at least not a very promising one.

Perhaps this is why a group exhibition curated by Raimi Gbadamosi on the theme of technology is situated right by the entrance. It’s entitled They Came From Outer Space, a reference to the assumption that those works on superheroes and futuristic visions of daily life cannot possibly have been created by Africans. From a Western point of view, technological achievements and Africa are two things that just don’t belong together. And this is exactly what this festival is about. It’s about reimagining Eurocentric perspectives that still hold notions of Africa as a continent with an analog, undemocratic past. The Goethe-Institut wants to expand the prevailing habit of reducing Africas 54 countries to corrupt elites, civil wars and raw materials. Panel discussions, futuristic stage shows and virtual reality screenings are a means of revealing another face of Africa, a face that is characterized by open-mindedness, urbanity and progress.

The impromptu film center placed in the side wing of the building seems the perfect setting for this project. People wearing trendy computer glasses are spinning in circles on white swivel chairs, fully immersed in the 360° aesthetics of street life in Ghana or concerts in Ethiopia. And some of the more contemplative scenes almost feel just a tiny bit too beautiful. There doesn’t seem to be room for all those deficiencies usually attached to the image of Africa. “We’re not trying to present any sort of escapism”, Jonathan Dotse assures. The objective he pursues with his films and his website Afrocyberpunk is of a different nature. “I’m looking at things from a perspective of speculative fiction, the 27-year-old artist explains. “My images are a vision of how things could be. This is my way of providing new narratives for Africa.” He believes that these are necessary for quite pragmatic reasons and gives an example: “We have to present a positive model to young people in Ghana to save them from a number of alluring possibilities offered by cyber crime.”

Bonaventure Ndikung sounds a bit more sober when he talks about social opportunities in his home country of Cameroon. “When I was young, our president said to children of my age: You are the future”. However, the 38-year-old curator has long ago stopped waiting for the necessary political base to be designed. Instead, he presents a complex line of works situated between arts and performance as a means of exchange between Africa and the rest of the world. He is one of many artists and intellectuals who are not only travelling between continents, but also between a multitude of cultural experiences that have shaped their identities. Their view on Africa is a complex one, radically challenging stereotypes. “I established my gallery Savvy Contemporary as a place for unprejudiced discourse which is open to non-western perspectives without immediately contrasting them to western ideas“, Ndikung explains.

Projects like these are changing our notion of Africa because they are carried out by people who are able to explain the situation to the Western world. Faustin Linyekula, a choreographer from Kongo, is moving between Europe and his home Kisangani. The highly acclaimed artist who has already been invited by famous theaters of the West never tires of telling his audience where he comes from. Standing on a platform he speaks enthusiastically about a new project, a cleansing system for drinkable water. “From next year on we will be able to store a water supply in our performance space”, he announces. This will probably attract new audiences that will be exposed to contemporary art for the very first time. An ambassador of mutual understanding, gay healer and performer Albert Ibokwe Khoza is also provoking both white and black audiences in Soweto with his mixture of nakedness, Sangoma rituals and conceptual performance while confronting Europeans with a crumbling image of Africa that will take them some time to get used to.

For Nigeria-born writer Nnedi Okorafor who is now based in the US, it has never been a problem to unite what seems incompatible. In her novel Who Fears Death? set in post-apocalyptic Sudan she easily combines the Igbo culture of her Nigerian relatives with current examples of ethnical discrimination.

In a gentle voice the writer talks about common rituals within her family only to quote the TV series The Wire in the next sentence. She criticizes the mutilation rites of the Igbo while claiming that culture is still an important part of her peoples’ identity. “Everything is constantly changing”, she says, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s getting less important”.

But what does this mean for the future of Africa? In the same sense that the student movement has not been able to achieve major changes, it seems difficult for the participants of African Futures to share a common vision. However, there is one thing both Institut and university agree upon: The future of Africa seems more open than ever. This may not sound great at first, but perhaps it is. The sheer mobility evident in many societies on the continent is already heralding better times to come. “Besides, it is time to prove to a global North and to ourselves that Africa does not always have to be ‘that other continent’”, says renowned philosopher and political scientist Achille Mbembe. “It is neither a fail nor an unfinished version of a better model, but an independent and extremely multi-faceted part of our international community.”

Decolonizing Knowledge

It’s only a short while ago that Simbongile has heard aboaut Mbembes for the first time. “Just via Twitter”, she says, as social networks are the only way for her to access the thoughts of black intellectuals. “I discuss the ideas of Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka with my friends on the net. The majority of writers featured in book lists provided by university are white,” she explains. Simbongiles friends are waiting for her by the entrance hall of the university’s main building. Some of them are humming songs with lycrics by Steve Biko. Postcolonial icons like him have reclaimed popularity these days. The young people on the campus seem to be aware of what their protest has triggered off and the traditions it has emerged from. They know the tasks they still have to fulfill, and the stakes are high: Their aim is to challenge common discourse and debate and thus achieve a decolonization of knowledge.

Like Occupy Nigeria or movements based in Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia before, their protest shows that a young generation believes in its future and is willing to fight for it. The enthusiasm about protesting has even hit the Goethe-Institut: Renowned South African writer Lauren Beukes has even been inspired to re-write her book Zoo City. Today, she would not let her juvenile heroine die in a giant monster’s throat any longer, she says. When she wrote the book five years ago, that monster was a symbol of the corrupt societies of her country. “What happens now, however, is that young people have resolved to destroy the monster themselves.”