News & Events
Self-determination and identity are deeply emotive issues, and the choices people make in this regard, however controversial, require respect
It was already over two years since the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay had converted to Islam and started calling himself Muhammad Ali, but the white press and some establishment blacks persisted in using his old name, to his annoyance. One of the detractors, the boxer Ernie Terrell, a black man himself, was to learn the hard way when he met Ali in the ring in Houston, Texas, on February 6, 1967.
As soon as the fight began, Ali showed he was a superior boxer to Terrell – but restrained himself from knocking him out. He had a plan. As Kevin Mitchell recounts in his book How to Think Like Muhammad Ali: “In the eighth round (Ali) unleashed his ultimate spear: ‘What’s my name?’ he inquired of Terrell. ‘What’s my name?’ Over and over again, he demanded that he pay homage. ‘What’s my name?’ You could hear it on the TV broadcast.”
Winning the fight after 15 gruelling rounds, Ali was roundly condemned for his cruelty and barbarism. After watching the fight myself, a part of me agrees with the criticism. But at a deeply emotional level, I can identify with Ali. His own anger, and determination to “make an example” of Terrell, came from a rational premise. Having converted to Islam, which also saw him discard what he called his slave name, and speaking openly against racism in America, he expected his black brethren, especially those in prominent places like Terrell and others, to join him in his ideological fight. At the very least, they could express this support by using the name he had chosen – but they generally laughed in his face.
His decision to embrace a new identity was a calculated move, the beginning of his long fight with the establishment. To the day he died, he never regretted the fact that he’d refused to go and fight in Vietnam, an act that got him branded as unpatriotic. To the surprise of many – especially in progressive circles – he also refused to participate in the civil rights movement: “They want me to carry signs. They want me to picket. They tell me it would be a wonderful thing if I married a white woman because this would be good for brotherhood… I just want to be happy with my own kind.”
Ali had drawn the line: no integration for me. To further stress the point, in yet another interview, he said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” This was a refrain that would later be adopted and popularised by the author James Baldwin, when he said, “I am not your Negro.”
I am invoking Ali’s narrative because it speaks directly to the deep emotions that bubble to the surface whenever we talk about identity. How we identify ourselves, and how we want to be perceived by others – in other words self-determination – is crucial. When people decide they do not want to be referred to as “he” or “she” any longer, we should respect that. When a person previously called African chooses another identity, we should also respect that.
Some years ago my buddy Mondli Makhanya and I subjected ourselves to a dinner date with Steve Hofmeyr, the musician. As the drinks flowed, we inevitably started talking politics, a dangerous subject if your interlocutor is Hofmeyr. He expects you to look at things from his perspective, and he always wants to win. At any rate, he wanted to know: what do you guys define yourselves as?
I said I was a black South African. Mondli said he was a South African. But no, that was not enough for Herr Hofmeyr. “But you guys both have Zulu surnames; why are you ashamed of such a heritage?” He went on to say that we three were all in the same boat, because Zulus and Afrikaners had for a long time been marginalised and made a laughing stock by the “wily Xhosas and their English brethren”.
Now tempers were rising. “Yes, Zulu is my language and I am proud of that, but you’re not going to tell me how to define myself,” I responded angrily.
Mondli stuck to his original position: “I am a South African and that’s where it ends.”
The night ended on an unnecessarily acrimonious note, with Hofmeyr claiming the last word: “You guys are in denial of who you are”. Driving home, I was still smarting over what many might have dismissed as a non-event. My angry rumination found me clawing back to a 2005 essay by Taiye Selasi, which I sought out the following day, and reread.
In it, she wrote in part: “… the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least three dimensions: national, racial, cultural – with subtle tensions in between. While our parents can claim one country as home, we must define our relationship to the places we live; how British or American we are (or act) is in part a matter of affect. Often unconsciously, and over time, we choose which bits of a national identity (from passport to pronunciation) we internalise as central to our personalities. So, too, the way we see our race – whether black or biracial or none of the above – is a question of politics, rather than pigment; not all of us claim to be black.”
When Selasi declared herself an Afropolitan many dismissed her choice of identity as a nonsensical, self-congratulatory label. An African who by accident found herself in the United States, they expected her to choose if she was black or not. Generally, Afropolitans are those people of African parentage who are born overseas; they might go to university in the US or the UK, and then find themselves working in Canada. One would call them citizens of the world, except that is rather insipid, and less specific.
Indeed, identity is contested terrain. Many of us have long been in these trenches of identity warfare. In our early encounters with our conquerors – because they couldn’t pronounce our names or were wary of the obvious pride that we derived from those names – they decided to strip us of these “heathen” identities, and anoint us with “proper, civilised Christian names”. Almost overnight, we found ourselves groaning under the yoke of Jim, Frederick, Margaret, Nelson and many of the foreign names that didn’t mean anything to us.
Language and some traditions and customs were the only part of one’s identity that the conqueror couldn’t wrench away from us. So we held on to that. And celebrated it. But when the apartheid regime tried to latch onto the tribal identity, to justify their policy of separate tribal homelands, we danced around the ring like Ali and punched them in the face with the collective fist of black power. We proclaimed: “We are not Zulu; we are not Tswana; we are not Pedi. We are black!”
When one got sucked into the exhilarating maelstrom of black consciousness, the world was suddenly filled with so many possibilities at how one defined oneself. You would have noticed that this evolution is always necessitated by the environment that one finds oneself in, the stimulus. Whiteness never existed until white people got out of Europe and encountered those who were different from them. Then, voila, they were white! Whiteness was used as a tool to firstly alienate then subjugate “the other”.
Sisonke Msimang, author of the popular Always Another Country, has weighed in on Afropolitanism. In an essay on the blog Africa is a Country, she wrote in part: “…group identities are constructed. However, some group identities run away with us. Some become harmful, or even work against the purpose they were created to defeat…[T]he ‘Afropolitan’ is just such a group identity. It is exclusive, elitist and self-aggrandising.”
Elitist it might be, but my sense is that it is meant to inspire. It’s not an end in itself. In its early days, black consciousness as espoused by Steve Biko and his comrades was also seen as elitist. In fact, it took some time for locals to warm up to it, because it couldn’t even articulate itself in many of South Africa’s indigenous languages. That hurdle is long behind us, and BC texts are now available in various local languages.
Therefore, I have no problem with the notion that Afropolitanism is exclusivist. Trailblazers in any society have always, on first blush, been perceived as elitists. Given time, Afropolitanism will begin to resonate with even those African immigrants who might not necessarily be educated – but can trace their ancestry to Africa, and are plying their trade across the four points of the compass.
We require the services of an enthusiastic multitasker to drive its digital expansion programme.
This position requires multimedia production skills, to implement video and multimedia production, including strategy, conception, project planning, production and execution of creative concepts. Key focus areas of this role include shooting and editing videos, the production of podcasts as well as some graphic design.
JOB TITLE: MULTIMEDIA ALL-ROUNDER THE IDEAL CANDIDATE
- Five years minimum of video producing/production and digital media/web experience non-negotiable
- Proficiency in graphic design
- Proficient in Adobe Creative Cloud
- Proficient in the use of Content-Management Systems
- A background in news/media producing multimedia content.
- RESPONSIBILITIES INCLUDE:
- Filming GGA events/interviews for our website, including conceptualisation, oversight and pre-and post-production;
- Podcast production, including conceptualisation, oversight and pre-and post- production;
- Creating content for social media;
- Loading content to the GGA website;
- Creation of graphical material for marketing and editorial purposes.
- Adobe Creative Cloud Certification
- Proficient in WordPress
- Proficient in Adobe Creative Cloud, particularly Audacity, Premiere Pro and Photoshop, InDesign as well as Microsoft Word, Excel etc.
- Knowledge of videography, editing, pre- and post-production techniques and equipment
- Bachelor’s degree or diploma in Video Production, Broadcast Journalism, Film, Communications, or related field.
- Five years minimum of video producing/production and digital media experience, particularly social media, web master and proven storytelling and brand journalism skills
- COMMENCEMENT, LOCATION AND PACKAGE:
- Commencement is January 2019;
- Based in Rosebank, Johannesburg
- Successful applicants must have a valid South African work permit and necessaryresidency or citizenship requirements;
- Only short-listed candidates will be contacted;
- Salary packages will be negotiated with suitable candidates.Applicants are kindly requested to submit the following documentation by 14 November 2018 to email@example.com:
- A covering letter;
- Curriculum Vitae with 3 referees and evidence of work/portfolio;
- Proof of identity – valid ID document or passport;
- Copy of qualifications.
As with football, Africa risks losing its best and brightest to more advanced and monied nations
Football and politics have always enjoyed a fascinating relationship. During this year’s World Cup the political subtext was especially elevated, given the geo-political significance of the event being hosted in Russia. But beyond the obvious diplomatic undercurrent, the tournament brought a number of complex political issues to the fore. Polarising debates around talent, migration, identity and patriotism surfaced as a result of specific incidents that occurred during the course of the tournament. These incidents, although microcosmic in nature, were magnified on a global stage and reflected contemporary political realities.
Indeed, two specific episodes stand out. The first occurred in the aftermath of Germany’s acrimonious exit. The retirement of Turkish-born German star Mezut Ozil in controversial circumstances appeared to be a result of vicious scapegoating from German media, which reverberated across sporting and political spheres. “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil said. His parting message touched a raw nerve in a context of growing right-wing nationalism, heightened protectionism, and a backlash against immigrants in the West.
Paris Saint Germain and French national team players Alphonse Areola, Kylian Mbappe and Presnel Kimpembe present the World Cup prior to the French league 1 soccer match between PSG and Caen at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris, France, 12 August 2018. EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT
Somewhat paradoxically, France’s victory showed the other side of this same coin. The country’s second World Cup win was hailed as a glorious victory for multiculturalism, open borders and integration. Following les Bleus’ triumph, South African comedian Trevor Noah congratulated Africa on its first World Cup victory – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the demographic composition of the French team, over 70% of who are of African and Muslim descent. The quip drew a strong rebuke from French authorities, who argued it was disrespectful to the players’ French identity and undermined the players in question.
Taken together, these two episodes brought to light many complex and important debates about identity, colonialism and migration. In so doing, they highlighted a number of societal parallels around the pressing challenges the African continent faces if it is to ever be globally competitive – not just in sport but also in terms of global affairs. In particular, it raised three questions that merit greater scrutiny, namely; why France’s victory was celebrated by Africa; the question of African identity; and how can Africa retain its best and brightest talent?
First, it is important to ask: why exactly do Africans feel such an affinity with the French team? There are a number of reasons. For starters, the enthusiasm needs to be seen in the context of a poor showing by the continent’s five teams, none of which managed to progress beyond the group stage. Next, sporting success offers hope and a reprieve from the harsh realities of daily life for many Africans. Seeing people who look, act and speak like them, not only competing, but excelling on a global stage provided a gratifying sense of affirmation and pride, along with the belief that nothing is impossible.
From this perspective, France’s showing was a picture of “black excellence”. This notion has assumed even more significance in an era of deep identity politics and Islamophobia. Indeed, with Africa so often marginalised or dismissed as a basket case in global affairs, the continent’s people embraced France’s victory so profoundly because it represented the everyday struggle and adversity that many of the continent’s citizens need to overcome to make it in a global setting.
On top of that, there was another sub-text – France’s colonial history. As Karen Attiah, global opinions editor of the Washington Post observed: “There is a certain glee that comes with knowing that racists, nativists and anti-immigrant politicians in France have to contend with the fact that the World Cup hopes of les Bleus rest on the shoulders of black African men.” And as commentator Malia Bouattia remarked in an opinion piece for The New Arab: “Given the West’s attempts to erase indigenous African culture and knowledge, the whitewashing of history in order to maintain superiority, and the wholesale theft of resources from the continent, claiming the win as African is a personal – if symbolic – act of resistance. The players succeeded in the World Cup against a backdrop of racism, fascism and xenophobia from the very country they were representing.”
Mesut Ozil, Germany
Linked to this was the concept of a “good immigrant”. This point was illustrated not only by France’s footballers, but also by the daring of the Parisian “Spiderman”, Mamoudou Gassama. An undocumented Malian immigrant, Gassama rescued a child who was hanging from a fourth-storey balcony of a Parisian block of flats; he was immediately conferred with French citizenship for the heroic act. Yet for many this was a prime example of the double standards that have characterised France’s treatment of immigrants – who face the burden of having to be “exceptional” to prove their worth in western countries, while sanitising their Africanness to assimilate into society. It was in keeping with this that Trevor Noah rejected the narrow either/or definition of “Frenchness”, and posed the question “why can’t they be both?”. He was pointing out that to be French immigrants have to erase everything that is African in them.
French paternalism is still deeply engrained across Africa. The French treasury effectively controls monetary policy in most of its former colonies, while French multinationals and banks dominate their natural resource sectors. The triumph of a predominantly black and Muslim team – 17 of the 23 players in the squad were immigrants or the children of immigrants – was loaded with historical significance. It offered a psychological opportunity break from colonial power dynamics. In so doing, it stoked a polarising debate around the questions of what it means to be “French” and “African”, which extended beyond the confines of a passport.
Third, linked to the issue of migrations is the dilemma of how Africa can keep its talents and provide them with the necessary opportunities for them to excel. The case of Kylian Mbappé, the tournament’s breakthrough superstar, born to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother, is an example of how Africa loses its best and brightest talent to other nations. In July, a Nigerian news outlet, dailyfamily.ng, reported that Mbappé’s father had tweeted that he wanted his son to represent his native Cameroon – but switched to France when he was asked to pay a “facilitation fee” by the Cameroonian football authority to play for the national team; the French, meanwhile, “didn’t charge me anything”.
The story is symptomatic of the institutionalised corruption, lack of adequate infrastructure, small financial incentives and poor coaching that plague many footballing federations in Africa and forces talent to seek better opportunities elsewhere. This sporting equivalent of the “brain drain” is argued as one reason why African football simply does not compete on an international level, despite the continent’s abundance of talent.
This combination of push and pull factors – amplified by significant gaps in resources, poor management, and a lack of opportunities, along with unanticipated difficulties – mirrors similar issues with regard to Africa’s economic management and development challenges. For similar reasons, the continent is failing to attract investment and retain economic and management talent. Currently, with wealthy northern clubs adopting match data-tracking and performance-tracking technology, this problem is likely to get worse.
The football metaphor paints a worrying picture of the challenges ahead for the continent. Just as is the case with football, Africa risks losing its best and brightest to more advanced, sophisticated and monied nations. Most countries on the continent are ill-prepared for a changing world that is modernising quickly through the fourth industrial revolution.
Unless something changes drastically, the continent will continue to be a global bystander. There are no quick fixes. Arresting this decline will require political will, long-term planning and significant investment. To create and retain our Kylian Mbappés in other sectors will require remedying the conditions that push our best talents to seek alternative paths to success. Today, Africa’s talents, like its natural resources, leave as raw products to become finished articles elsewhere – to their benefit, of course, and also to the advantage of their host countries, but seldom to Africa’s.
The past 20 years have seen a complete transformation of the political and legal landscape for Africa’s indigenous people
The term “indigenous people”, and the identification of particular groups in these terms, evokes strong emotions, outright hostility even, among many Africans, or at least in their governments. They point out that all African peoples are indigenous to Africa, and proceed to argue that the term has, at best, no utility or relevance to Africa, or is, at worst, divisive and will only serve to stoke the ever-present embers of ethnic conflict.
Recognising indigenous rights for some groups in a multi-ethnic African country, so the argument goes, is to give special rights to some and not others, threatens the hard-won unity of African states and imperils the territorial integrity and sovereignty of these states themselves.
Since the 1990s, however, advocates of Africa’s indigenous people have become increasingly visible, vocal and organised in southern Africa and across the continent. They have made significant progress in challenging these interpretations of indigenous rights, and in developing a socio-political and jurisprudential conceptualisation of indigeneity within the African context.
If there is one moment that signifies the beginning of the struggle for the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, it is August 3, 1989, when a Maasai activist and former member of the Tanzanian parliament, Moringe ole Parkipuny became the first self-identified African indigenous person to address the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP). In his speech Parkipuny laid down the foundations for much of what has become – through the work of the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights – an African framework for addressing the plight of Africa’s indigenous peoples.
Speaking primarily about East Africa, Parkipuny noted that two main categories of peoples were affected: hunters and gatherers and pastoralists. He went on to note that, “(t)hese minorities suffer from the common problems which characterise the plight of indigenous peoples throughout the world. The most fundamental rights to maintain our specific cultural identity and the land that constitutes the foundation of our existence as a people are not respected by the state and fellow citizens who belong to the mainstream population. In our societies, the land and natural resources are the means of livelihood, the media of cultural and spiritual integrity for the entire community.”
This landmark speech remains the basis of much of what indigenous activists and organisations – whose numbers have exponentially increased in the intervening 20 years – have come to understand as the challenges facing Africa’s indigenous peoples. Just as importantly, an increasing number of African institutions and governments are at last coming to better understand their situation.
A few months after Parkipuny’s speech another seminal event occurred, marking a turning point in the lives of Africa’s most iconic indigenous people, the San. On March 21, 1990 the sparsely populated semi-desert country of Namibia gained its independence from apartheid South Africa. This followed a brutal and protracted war of liberation, which had raged for more than two decades and ravaged not only Namibia, but all the so-called frontline states. However, under a UN-brokered peace deal, the war ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
The war had been a disaster for Namibia’s hunter-gatherers – known collectively as the San, or Bushmen – and the peace proved to be the beginning of a new form of hell for those who survived. During Angola’s war for independence from colonialism the San had been press-ganged into fighting on behalf of the Portuguese and, upon the victory of the MPLA, faced brutal reprisals from the victorious ruling party and its army. Those who could, fled across the border to (then) South West Africa, where the South African army, by now facing fierce resistance from the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which was backed by the Cuban army, lost no time in conscripting them to their own cause.
Renowned both as exceptional trackers, and with a reputation for fearlessness and formidable fighting skills, they came to be respected by both sides to the hostilities as an extremely effective fighting force. With memory of their post-independence ordeal in Angola, which included brutal massacres, rape and torture, fresh in their memories, many of these San soldiers and their families took up an offer by the departing South Africans to accompany them to South Africa, where they were promised housing and military pensions.
Namibia’s independence, however, appeared to offer fresh hope and impetus to a nascent southern African indigenous people’s movement. In the early years following Namibian independence the country enjoyed a honeymoon period, having achieved a peaceful transition and adjudged to have undergone a credible and fair election, and attracting a number of international donors.
Namibia’s ties with Scandinavian countries were particularly close; these had been forged in the solidarity shown to SWAPO by the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish anti-apartheid movements in particular. The Danish-based International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) played a prominent role in hosting conferences themed around Africa’s indigenous peoples. In 1992, the first regional conference on development programmes for Africa’s San populations was held in Windhoek, Namibia, funded by the Swedes and the Norwegians. Conferences in Botswana soon followed. Soon after, delegates to these conferences demanded a regional NGO that could represent their interests.
In that same year, the Namibian government convened its first major land conference, intended to guide Namibia’s land-reform programme. At the conference, San delegates, aided by researchers, pulled out maps laying out in great detail the extent of their traditional territories. Perhaps feeling that it had disturbed a hornet’s nest, the Namibian government quickly announced that land reform in Namibia would explicitly exclude claims for ancestral or aboriginal title. This has been government policy ever since – although this is being challenged in court as I write, but more on that in a moment.
This reaction by the Namibian government was an early indication that any gestures claiming to ensure the rights of the country’s most marginalised citizens would not include anything so radical as returning their land to them.
In 1996, the San established the Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) as a regional NGO with the mandate to represent the interests of their communities in Namibia, Angola, Botswana and South Africa. The same year also saw the establishment of the South African San Institute. The following year, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) was established to represent and advocate for the rights of all of Africa’s indigenous communities. It demanded that African states – and continental organs such as the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights – pay attention to their plight and take active steps to recognise and protect their rights.
Moreover, they demanded this recognition not just as individuals or minorities but collectively as communities that continued to suffer disproportionally from extreme poverty, land dispossession, domination, cultural erosion and multiple human rights violations. These included, in some cases, being driven virtually to extinction as peoples.
IPACC now represents 135 indigenous peoples’ organisations in 21 countries. It is the largest African indigenous peoples’ organisation, with observer status in all the major UN and African multinational institutions.
Following Parkipuny’s speech, indigenous peoples’ organisations also proliferated in East Africa. By the late 1990s, they were at the forefront of African indigenous activism and in using the African court system and continental institutions such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) to advance the cause of Africa’s indigenous communities. It was largely due to their efforts that the ACHPR accepted a demand from African indigenous activists to examine the human-rights situation of communities in Africa whose lifestyles and modes of production were distinct from those of the dominant cultures or ethnic groups and who were marginalised and whose cultures and ways of life faced grave threats and even extinction.
The turn of the 21st century saw what remains the most important development in the advancement of the concept of what it means to be indigenous within the African context when, in 2000, in response to demands from local and international activists, the ACHPR established the Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities (ACWGIP) to “consider all aspects of the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa and to promote consideration of the matter by African states”.
The resulting report, Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities, is a comprehensive analysis of the concept of indigeneity as it applies in the African context. It exposed the socio-economic and human rights situation of Africa’s indigenous communities, and showed that they faced conditions of extreme economic and cultural marginalisation – often resulting from the differences in their social structures, modes of production and consumption, as well as their exclusion from the mainstream of the dominant societies. The report also provided an analysis of the African jurisprudence, and in particular the African Charter, relating to these matters.
The ACHPR challenged the view that the concepts of “aboriginality” or “first arrival” were not “appropriate” in the African context. Limiting the term “indigenous peoples” to cover those local peoples that had been subject to political domination by the descendants of colonial settlers made it difficult to meaningfully employ the concept in Africa, it said. Moreover, domination and colonisation had not been practised exclusively by white settlers. In Africa, since independence, dominant groups had also repressed marginalised groups. “It is this sort of present-day internal repression within African states that the contemporary African indigenous movement seeks to address,” it concluded.
An addendum to the report issued by the ACHPR that described the characteristics of Africa’s indigenous peoples concluded that “[t]his discrimination, domination and marginalisation violates their human rights as peoples/communities, threatens the continuation of their cultures and ways of life and prevents them from being able to genuinely participate in decisions regarding their own future and forms of development.”
The working group highlighted the following characteristics of indigenous populations:
• Their cultures and ways of life differ significantly from the dominant society;
• Their cultures are under threat, in some cases in risk of extinction;
• Survival of their particular way of life is dependent on rights to their traditional land and natural resources;
• They suffer forms of discrimination resulting from the view that they are less developed and less advanced than dominant members of society;
• They often live in geographically isolated and inaccessible regions, and suffer from various forms of marginalisation;
• And, they are subject to domination and exploitation within national political and economic structures.
While this has not necessarily ended the discussion, the ACHPR has played a pivotal role in guiding the African response to the human rights of indigenous peoples. This was most evident when some African states, led by Namibia, raised a number of objections to several clauses of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP), delaying its adoption by a year. During that year, indigenous peoples’ organisations – notably IWGIA and IPACC – lobbied these governments extensively. Their efforts paid off when Namibia, South Africa and Botswana voted in favour of the adoption of the UNDRIP.
Indigenous activists continue to insist that their communities face disproportionate discrimination because of practising age-old ways of life, hunting and gathering and pastoralism, which are regarded by the dominant ethnic groups as “backward” and unsuited to the development paradigms of newly independent African states. These communities face eviction from their lands and forests to make way for “more productive” activities such as mining, cattle farming or conservation areas and national parks. In many instances, their languages are actively suppressed, or are dying due to historical oppression, combined with the rapid erosion of the land base, which forms the basis of their existence as communities.
But a number of court cases brought by indigenous communities across Africa have begun to lay the foundations for an African jurisprudence on the rights of indigenous peoples. The Khomani San in South Africa successfully settled a land claim in the Richtersveld in 1999, while the Enderois, a community in Kenya, won their rights to land in and around Lake Bogoria in 2010, after a protracted court battle. More recently, the Hai//om people of Namibia, a San group, have launched an aboriginal title claim to the Etosha game park, one of the world’s iconic conservation areas. The case is due to be heard in October 2018.
The past 20 years have seen a complete transformation of the political and legal landscape for indigenous people in Africa. The continent’s indigenous peoples have won this victory in the face of continued brutality and deprivation – and despite ongoing denial and hostility from their respective governments. How we, as Africans, respond to their calls for full recognition and respect for their human dignity will determine what the next 20 years will bring for our most marginalised, yet resilient, citizens.
Perceptions that ethnic African cultures are primitive as measured against a western way of life are not supported by modern anthropology
Recently in Kenya, in a remote village deep in the western part of this East African nation, a young man aged 23 was discovered to have secretly married his teenage cousin.
In the Luhya community, where cousin is synonymous with sister, alarm bells went off immediately and the “couple” was subjected to a bizarre cleansing ritual that involved, among other things, stripping naked in public, sitting in a sheep’s punctured intestines and having a tortoise walk on their backs as they mocked a sexual act. The event received a lot of media attention; the ritual was the community’s cultural way of punishing and cleansing incestuous members.
According to Gregory Shaku, a village elder and custodian of culture among the Kabras people, a sub-clan of the larger Luhya tribe, incest – or sex between close relatives – is taboo. “If they are not cleansed through the tortoise ritual,” he said in a phone interview, “they will carry a generational curse and their lineage will not survive it. Their children will be dying or will turn out abnormal.”
The ritual, according to traditionalists, is part of this community’s norms and values, and would generally be referred to as a characteristic of African culture. But different communities across the continent have their own ways of dealing with incest and other vices.
Opinion is divided over whether indeed there is an African culture. As some argue, Africa is a collection of hundreds, if not thousands, of communities with their own unique cultures. So a more politically correct phrase, “cultures of Africa”, has emerged.
The diverse African cultures vary from one country to another, and also within countries. For instance, you could say that there is a Kenyan or a Nigerian culture or a South African culture. But within the various communities/tribes in each of these countries, you have the Maasai (Kenya), the Ibo (Nigeria) and the Zulu (South Africa), each living according to their culture. The culture of each ethnic group centres on its social setting and is depicted through a number of identities such as food, marriage, dress, art, music and oral literature.
Talk about African culture needs qualification, says Tom Odhiambo, a literature lecturer at the University of Nairobi. Basically, this means you have to specify the “Africanism” in it. “It’s pretty much the same way you would talk about the Kenyan culture to mean the Kenyan way of doing things. Yet Kenya has 42 tribes and 85 speech communities, each with their respective unique cultures,” Odhiambo told Africa in Fact. “African culture”, in his view, is a generic term representing the various landscapes of African experience.
Throughout Africa, people speak a variety of languages, practise numerous religions, dress differently, have unique cuisine and live in various types of dwellings. The unique customs of African ethnic groups are woven into their cultures in a tapestry that’s every bit as colourful and diverse as the people themselves. It is this conglomeration that many call African culture.
Africa is inhabited by various ethnic nationalities with different languages, modes of dressing, eating, dancing and even greeting habits, agrees Gabriel E. Idang of the department of philosophy at the University of Uyo in Nigeria. “But in spite of their various cultures, Africans do share some dominant traits in their belief systems and have similar values that mark them out from other peoples of the world,” he wrote in a 2015 paper on African cultures, African Culture and Values. “A Nigerian culture, for instance, would be closer to, say, a Ghanaian culture on certain cultural parameters than it would be to the oriental culture of the eastern world, or the western culture of Europe.”
These dominant traits could be said to form a continental culture, or as Odhiambo says, an “Africanist” culture. Anthropologists also say the different cultures found among people living on the continent have some Africanness about them that qualifies them together and separately as African culture. The trick is turning this diversity into a strength, says Godfrey Kipsisei, an authoritative voice on Kenyan culture, who teaches at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Anthropology and African studies.
He points out that perceptions that ethnic African cultures are primitive as measured against a western way of life are not supported by modern anthropology. But Africa’s rich tapestry of cultures is being eroded by the influence of the West, which kills local languages and destroys political systems. This annihilation is based on the belief perpetuated by western powers that African cultures are primitive and thus need civilisation.
“Primitive on which basis? Africans have been served by their cultures effectively for centuries.” In Uganda, for instance, Kipsisei says, traditional doctors were performing surgeries way before so-called modern European medicine arrived there through Egypt.
But scholars and traditionalists can also agree that change is as inevitable as it is in the natural world. As Idang also wrote in African Culture and Values: “Many cultures around the continent are now taking on a more western feel. Indeed, culture needs to change; (that) which wants to remain static and resistant to change would not be a living culture.” All cultures, he says, are carried by people, and people do change their social patterns and institutions, beliefs and values and even skills and tools of work. “A culture cannot but be an adaptive system,” he concludes.
Globalisation and the rise of Internet technology and mobile communication are forcing African cultures to adopt new lifestyles, even when it hasn’t been easy to do. “The flag follows the cross,” says Kipsisei. “Cultures with stronger political and economic muscle have obviously heavily influenced African cultures since colonial times, while Africa has influenced them in a very small way.”
Over the centuries, African cultural systems have encountered different cultures from around the world. Arabs crossed into North Africa from the Middle East during the 7th century AD, bringing with them the religion of Islam. Europeans began settling in the southern portion of the continent in the mid-17th century. So did South Asians at a somewhat later date; they settled mainly in the areas of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.
Nevertheless, despite these arrivals – or incursions, depending on how you see them – African cultures and traditional African customs remain mostly intact around the continent. In Africa, cultures have been closely tied to their languages, but even this is changing. “The Suba in western Kenya speak Dholuo language after being assimilated by the Luos, but they still identify themselves as Suba,” says Kipsisei. “Even Africans who speak only foreign languages will retain their ancestral identities.”
Modernity is seen to be more influential in Africa’s urban centres, while people in rural areas still hold on to their cultures, though with some losses and gains. In outline, the pattern here is that they adopt certain values and norms from other societies while dropping parts of their own cultures that have outlived their usefulness. Female circumcision as practised by a number of tribes in Kenya has “dropped off naturally”, for instance, Kipsisei says. Other aspects of culture that are being abandoned include child marriage, nomadism and the inheritance of a wife from a dead male relative.
The persistence of Africa’s many local or ethnic cultures can contribute both to their internal cohesion and to their capacity to integrate with the wider world. “These different cultures tend to create a balance in social, economic and even political spheres,” says Kipsisei. The existence of a range of ethnic groups in African countries “encourages negotiation and building of coalitions or alliances,” he argues. “Countries with fewer tribes always have issues. In Rwanda, where there are two dominant groups – Hutu and Tutsi – the divide was so huge that it led to the genocide. The Somali speak more or less the same language, yet they have been fighting for years.”
All said, the positive dimensions of Africa’s cultures – from unity and nature conservation to arts, dance and activities that inspire happiness – show that they can be innovative and instrumentally beneficial by stimulating development in society.
- Without diluting the focus on national integration, new directions should be sought for the NYSC to prepare corps members for entrepreneurship and future leadership. Better alignment of skills and learning under the scheme to national priorities is germane.
- NYSC should work more deliberately to encourage entrepreneurship and job creation through the scheme. Entrepreneurial training should be mainstreamed into all NYSC activities in partnership with the private sector and relevant state agencies such as the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the National Planning Commission (NPC), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Nigeria Tourism Development Cooperation (NTDC).
- In collaboration with the NYSC, host organisations, agencies and communities should also be compelled to develop work plans which clearly spell out the goals for corps members to ensure that learning potentials are maximized.
- Government, private institutions and other relevant stakeholders must closely engage to define optimal criteria and strategies for deployment of corps members into various sectors of national life. A key priority should be the insulation of deployment from rigging and influence.
Nigeria is among the one hundred and six or so countries with no enforced conscription into its military. However, it has a mandatory civilian service for its fresh graduates who are less than 30 years of age as at the time of graduation and have not served or are actively serving in any state run security organisation. Several countries have the variants of the mandatory national service, with the objectives depending on the national context and needs. Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana are prominent African countries with established national youth service schemes. Several other western nations also have the compulsory civilian service.
Typically, the mandatory civilian schemes focus on improving internal security, nation-building and disaster response as in the case of Kenya. Newly qualified graduates in Ghana and Nigeria are given the opportunity to have practical exposure on the job, both in the public and private sectors, as part of their civic responsibility to the state. This provides host organisations the opportunity to satisfy their manpower needs. Likewise, it affords communities that would otherwise have difficulty in accessing mainstream development initiatives a chance to access improved social services through youth service to the community.
The Nigeria experience
The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was established in Nigeria as a child of necessity after the Nigerian civil war. The purpose is to inculcate in Nigerian youths the spirit of selfless service to community, and to emphasize the oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians, irrespective of cultural or social background.
Following Nigeria’s civil war (1967-1970), the country faced numerous problems including poverty, mass-illiteracy, inadequate socio-economic infrastructures, bad roads, poor healthcare services and an ineffective communication system. With a view to mitigate these challenges, particularly to foster national unity and integration and build a strong, self-reliant nation with a dynamic economy, the military government of Gen. Yakubu Gowon established the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) by the Decree No. 24 of 22nd May 1973.
The NYSC mission was mandated to produce future leaders with positive national ethos – leadership that is vibrant, proud and committed to the unity and balanced development of the Nigerian state. In 1993, the NYSC Decree No. 51 of 16th June set fifteen specific objectives for the scheme, summed up as the drive for national unity, even development and integration. With this commendable vision, the scheme has helped in shaping the nation and building more responsible and responsive citizens.
It was estimated that from its humble beginning of about 2,000 corps members in 1973, it grew to an annual figure of 85,000 corps members in 1999. In 2016, it accommodated 260,000 corps members owing to the economic recession. In 2017, it mobilised 297,293 corps members nationwide paying out N67.3billion in allowances. This was apart from the N2.5billion spent on providing kits for the 297,293 corps members and N3.3 billion spent on meals for the 21 days orientation camp for the corps members and about 74,000 camp officials.
Reflecting the importance attached to this scheme, the NYSC act stipulates that a Nigerian graduate who is not officially exempted from being part of the scheme, and does not undertake the mandatory service, is not employable and cannot seek political office in the country. Recently, Nigeria’s former minister of finance had to resign from her position because of her alleged forgery of the NYSC exemption certificate.
Interestingly, the episode made clear that many citizen are not sufficiently informed about the NYSC scheme, including that citizens graduating before reaching 35 years of age cannot be exempted. This is regardless of where they might have undertaken their studies. It further underscores the need for the scheme to do more in ensuring that relevant information about its activities and stipulations are properly disseminated to the public.
Current situation and downsides
According to news report in 2018, the NYSC increased the number of corps members mobilized by 53,000 graduates. This brought the total number for the 2018 cycle to about 350,000. About N83.2 billion was earmarked as allowances for corps members. Each corps member received the sum of N3,200 during the three-week orientation camp and N19,800 in monthly allowance for the service year. About N11.7 billion will be spent on kits, transport allowances and feeding for the corps members.
With the amount of resources invested in the NYSC, it is important that it delivers maximum benefits to the country. However, the NYSC like many public institutions in Nigeria has not been insulated from the ills of society. It has degenerated in terms of management, though its core values of community service, friendship, cultural and language absorption, and national unity remains. Some even argue that the scheme is a conduit for massive corruption, while others see it as government providing cheap labour for the economy.
The issues undermining the 45 years old NYSC scheme almost eclipse its achievements. Viewed through this prism, it seems in its present form to have outlived its relevance. The scheme grapples with the untoward rigging of posting for primary assignment. Many participants induce NYSC officials with money to secure posting to major cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. This to a large extent erodes one of the major objective of the scheme, which is to allow corps members to have experience of Nigerian languages and cultures outside their own areas of origin. This is partly a fallout of the poor remuneration provided to corps members and the consequent desperation for “juicy” postings.
There is also the growing concern over the security of corps members especially in volatile regions. Some youth involved in the program have been caught up in religious, ethnic or political violence in the regions where they were sent. Lastly, there is widespread lack of transparency, which deprives the public of the necessary awareness of NYSC activities.
Retooling for purpose
Whilst perhaps extreme to call for the scrapping of the NYSC scheme, a thorough reassessment has become necessary with a view to reposition and make it more relevant to Nigeria’s prevailing circumstances. Perhaps too much emphasis is being placed on national integration, an objective that has seen limited success. The new direction is to prepare corps members for future leadership and align their orientation and skills to national priorities. In other countries with similar schemes, there is strong collaboration with the host organisations and benefitting communities which Nigeria should emulate.
There should be comprehensive engagement to ensure that the organisations and communities, especially those in rural areas, derive maximum benefits from the expertise of young professionals who are deployed annually by the scheme.
In the face of prevailing challenges including the insecurity of life, properties and food shortage in parts of the country, perhaps it might even be optimal to have a two-year national service. One of those years could be devoted to para-military training. This would ensure that the nation has a pool of trained reservists to supplement existing capacities for emergency response. The military would have to be reorganized to oversee this.
The second year would focus on mainstreaming the corps members into specialized skills in science, technology, education, health, communications and leadership etc. During this period some could be matched to job vacancies whilst others could be encouraged to start-up businesses as individuals or in groups.
The scheme should be restructured to offer a seamless transition from the world of organized learning to the world of work. It should become the major conveyor belt through which all educated young Nigerians are given the opportunity to first encounter and appreciate formal work while offering them an opportunity for national service. It should offer scheme participants clearer guidance to enable them reflect intelligently on their career options.
To this end, the scheme needs urgently to augment its talent pool by bringing in more youth, including young artisans who have acquired vocational skills in the technical, agriculture, fashion, hospitality and entertainment fields. This will help mobilize a greater pool of skills that can be effectively deployed across the country for balanced development.
In reflection of national challenges, the NYSC should move closer to a problem-solving orientation by mobilising the youth to tackle practical challenges head-on. These include the need to reduce youth unemployment and expand the functional public infrastructure stock. The NYSC can do this by engaging relevant organs of state, private institutions and civil society in devising joint strategies to optimise the NYSC scheme and enhance its contribution to national development beyond its present focal sectors.
This will aid better cross-sectorial synergy for development and job creation to benefit the youths. State agencies that can support in this joint revamping of the NYSC scheme include the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the National Planning Commission (NPC), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Nigeria Tourism Development Cooperation (NTDC). The governing board of the NYSC may also need to be altered to reflect a more entrepreneurial emphasis.
Furthermore, emphasising leadership and entrepreneurial skills through the scheme will directly contribute to the upscaling of existing capacities for grassroots development. NYSC members can and should become more directly involved in the maintenance and construction of public infrastructure especially in the rural areas.
When incentives are provided for corps members to enter into new entrepreneurial fields such as solar power installations and maintenance, this will significantly expand access to power and help kick-start processing and value-addition in the grassroots economy. More joined-up thinking among stakeholders will also help to ensure smoother deployment of NYSC personnel into the vital sectors such as agriculture, food security, health, education, physical planning, civil engineering, water, sanitation and other areas relevant for Nigeria’s socio-economic transformation.
Executive Director & Editor: Dr. Ola Bello
- Government should guarantee the right to vote by providing for it under Chapter IV of the constitution while also making it a civic duty for citizen to vote.
- Nigeria’s political and social stakeholders must work together more concertedly to enable the judiciary’s independence, better to actualise enhanced voting right in a revised constitution.
- Nigeria’s in-coming parliament must expedite legislation to enhance the use of technology in the electoral process, which should facilitate the process for voter registration, the collation of a comprehensive voters register, and make voting more transparent and less onerous.
- Government must explore creative avenues such as partnering with telecommunication companies in order to leverage the information of registered customers, which can be supplemented with the data of citizens without mobile phone access.
The conduct of regular elections and the guarantee of the fundamental rights of citizens lie at the fulcrum of democracy. One of the major problems with Nigeria’s democracy is the absence of a cast-iron protection of the right to vote. The right to vote, though an inextricable part of democracy, is not enshrined in chapter IV of the Nigerian 1999 constitution, alongside the other fundamental rights. In practical terms, this makes the legal enforcement of citizens’ voting right cumbersome.
From the beginning of Nigeria’s 4th republic in 1999, different election cycles have witnessed serious obstacles in the way of the citizens’ right to choose at the polls.
A functioning democratic system of governance must provide an avenue for the larger part of society to take part in choosing political leaders. Arguably, one of the most important role of government is to establish a transparent, well-functioning and participatory electoral system that ensures the universal involvement of citizens of voting age in the electoral process.
The right to vote has its roots embedded in the social contract theory, and it can be argued that this is probably the most important right of all. This is because government is legitimately formed only after citizens have gone to the ballot to choose. The social contract theory prescribes that once members of a society agree to give up some of their rights and freedom to an authority duly chosen by citizens, such chosen authority must in turn protect the rights and freedom of citizens from encroachment.
The right to vote is the foundation upon which this participatory right rests. To be truly part of a given society, members must have an inalienable right to participate in the good governance of that society. Chapter IV of the Nigerian constitution guarantees a list of fundamental rights which are enforceable in the courts. Where a provision of chapter IV is contravened or a fundamental right is trampled upon, section 46 of that chapter allows for citizens to approach the high court for enforcement proceedings.
However, the omission of the right to vote under chapter IV renders this right unenforceable in a strict legal sense. Such an important right that allows citizens to participate in the periodic change of their leaders should be in chapter IV alongside the fundamental rights of all Nigerian citizens.
Although some provisions in law such as section 7(2) of the constitution and section 12 of the Electoral Act may be deemed to have touched on voting, these sections in no way provide a fundamental protection or guarantee of the voting right.
The absence of a guarantee for the right to vote allows for the abuse of this right by the state. Fundamental rights under chapter IV of the constitution enjoy guarantees that protect them from interference by the state and other citizens. Having no form of protection in the constitution for the right to vote therefore leaves room for the government to remain lackadaisical in its duty at actualizing the citizens’ right to vote.
These governmental duties in respect of effective actualisation of citizens’ votes include the efficient registration of voters; providing adequate logistics for voting; instilling the sense of duty to vote in citizens; and such other measures that can make voting possible, meaningful and reflective of the popular will.
Safeguarding the vote
One of the attributes of rights under chapter IV of the Nigerian constitution is that they are open to legal redress, allowing individuals whose fundamental rights have been encroached upon to seek their legal enforcement. With no provisions for the right to vote under the chapter IV of the constitution, there exist no form of legal redress for citizens. Successive administrations since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 have done little to address this.
Also, there has been no concrete plan to solve the recurring problems encountered during the registration of eligible voters and collection of voters’ cards. The time usually allocated for the registration exercise is wholly inadequate and the process is cumbersome.
Moreover, electoral malpractices and willful disregard for the provisions of the electoral act have become notable features of the political climate in Nigeria. These are among the most serious obstacles to the efficient conduct of elections.
Election season in Nigeria are often marred by acts of disorder and lawlessness, which act as barriers to citizens’ participation. Most citizens generally view election days as public holidays and stay in the safety of their homes away from voting centres. With the myriad electoral malpractices including voter intimidation, ballot box snatching and vote buying, the feeling among many citizens is that their vote is inconsequential. This widens the gap between the majority of citizens and the governance process.
As a result, turnout during elections is on the decrease. About 43% of registered voters participated in the 2015 general election compared to 57% in the 2007 elections. This constitutional reality of voting as less than a fundamental right contributes to government’s ineptitude, manifested for example in the inadequate logistical provisions for voter registration. In Lagos state alone, the electoral commission reports that about 1.38million permanent voters’ cards are yet to be collected by prospective voters. As a consequence, millions of eligible voters continue to be disenfranchised.
Without any clear avenue for redress, citizens have no way to hold the government accountable for failing to perform its duty with regards to enabling citizens to vote. Assimilating the right to vote into chapter IV of the constitution would open up the avenue to seek legal redress as necessary and also encourage more citizens to see voting as a civic duty that is both incumbent and relatively easy to perform.
The challenge of youth participation
With the youth making up more than half of the Nigeria’s 182 million population, they play a vital role in the electoral process. Before the 2015 election, the youths comprised about 63% of the eligible voting population. However, the influence of the youth in governance before, during and after elections remains marginal. This exclusion of youth from governance, coupled with the high unemployment rate in the country, has resulted in high levels of frustration which may inevitably turn young people to civil disobedience and violence.
With youth unemployment standing at 33.10% as at 2017, most Nigerian youths are caught up in the daily struggle for survival and view political participation as secondary. The system operated by most political parties in Nigeria fails to provide much needed opportunity for youth participation in politics. Although the passing of the “Not too Young to Run” act reduced the age for contesting for various political offices, most political parties are yet to willingly concede their platforms to young people.
Moreover, one of the ways that political parties continue to stifle youth participation is through the high cost of nomination forms for political office. Issues such as this require urgent redress to enhance popular participation in the governance process.
As the 2019 general elections approaches, the general tendency for government is to focus on winning at the polls. However, one duty that remains sacrosanct is for the government to ensure successful conduct of the polls in a free and fair manner. In the bid to achieve this, the right of every citizen of voting age to vote should be protected and guaranteed by the state, preferably in the chapter IV of the constitution alongside the other fundamental rights. Effective participation by citizens during elections, and their involvement in decision-making even beyond the elections, remain fundamental to foster good governance.
The right to vote is recognized under Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right (UDHR). Article 21(3) which states that: “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. This will be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”.
Taking steps to enshrine the right to vote in the chapter IV of Nigeria’s constitution will open up avenues for citizens to mount effective pressure for the actualization of voting right and the establishment of a more transparent and accountable system of government.
GGA needs a designer for the Publications, Programmes and Development departments and is looking for a suitably qualified resource to provide design services.
We are looking for:
- Modern and edgy interpretation of our content (print and digital)
- Attention to detail
- Creativity and expression
- Ability to work to strict deadlines and fast turn-around times where necessary
- General knowledge of the African landscape – politically, economically and socially
- General knowledge of repro and print processes
- Interpersonal skills, working closely with several departments
Through this Request for Proposal we wish to locate a resource that will provide the best overall value to GGA. While price and creativity are a significant factor, other criteria will form the basis of our award decision.
Click AIF RFP Designer Oct2018 for the RFP document.
For further information please contact Michelle Venter at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 011 268 0479 for a copy of the RFP pack (style guideline and copies of publications).
African Dialogue: The programme discusses current issues pertaining to South Africa and the continent as a whole. The talk show hosts various experts on interesting and important issues affecting Africa and the globe.
Nigeria gained its Independence from the British on 1 October 1960. Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, yesterday, assured that Nigeria will be great again and that the season for Nigeria’s promotion and progress has come. Osibanjo was quoted as saying that the 58th year of Nigeria’s independence will mark a great new beginning of peace, prosperity and abundance.
To help us unpack the discussion for the day, we are joined by:
- His Excellency Godwin Adama: Consul General Nigeria
- Dr Ola Bello: Executive Director at Good Governance Africa (GGA) in Lagos, Nigeria
Click here to listen
Many aspects of African culture can be used to support development, but others have delayed progress
Africa is a vast continent with a diversity of cultures. Rather than see this as an impediment to development, the continent should take advantage of this rich cultural diversity in its quest for economic development. It should change the attitudes of its people towards work, interpersonal trust, time, youth and women.
There are probably as many different definitions of culture as there are different cultures. According to a 2017 article by Kim-Ann Zimmermann, “culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habitats, music and arts”. In 2016, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a broad definition stating that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by (a human) as a member of society.”
Film crew at a Nollywood film shoot, Akwa, Nigeria. Photo: Bestvillage
Some scholars maintain that culture is closely entwined with economic development, while others fervently disagree, arguing that the effects of geography and climate are the most significant factors in shaping global economic development. Jared Diamond supports this theory in his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, where he argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.
This implies that the striking differences between the long-term histories of different people on different continents are due not to innate differences between the people themselves but to differences between their environments. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the exceptions to Diamond’s rule are too numerous for us to accept geography and natural resources as the only explanation for differences in history and culture. Take, for example, Russia, which occupies the same latitude as highly prosperous northern Europe and Canada. Look at Singapore, which lies almost on the equator and is most definitely in the tropics, along with many of the world’s poorest nations. Consider Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, which sits on some of the world’s largest diamond deposits.
In consequence, it is difficult to arrive at a single, uniform definition of culture, in particular insofar as it relates to development, because the concept is so fluid and dynamic. This constraint notwithstanding, several examples exist of best cultural practices in development. An interesting case study of the role played by cultural values in development is provided by Japan and its history of economic success.
In Japan, a combination of cultural values and practical business transformed a relatively backward economy into one of the most prosperous nations in the world in less than a century, with the majority of the gains achieved during the past 50 years, largely on the back of an aggressive export trade policy. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan’s emphasis on trade stemmed from the country’s lack of the natural resources needed to support its industrial economy, notably fossil fuels and most minerals. In addition, the limited amount of arable land forced the country to import much of its food needs.
The values central to Japan’s spectacular achievements and rapid elevation to the world’s third-largest economic power include, but are not limited to, its strong work ethic; an entrenched sense of group responsibility; company loyalty; interpersonal trust; implicit contracts that bind individual conduct; and commitment to education and investment in young people.
Can we, as development planners, take lessons from the example of Japan? One thing is clear; we cannot take a set of cultural values from one country and hope to implant them in another society. Japan was successful because it built its economy on its own home-grown values. Looking specifically at the development trajectory of Africa, we are forced to conclude that while there are many aspects of African culture that can be used positively for the development of the continent, some aspects of African culture have delayed progress.
Successful organisations believe in competition and rely on the hard work, commitment and loyalty of their employees. Interestingly, many African employees of major multinationals have given exemplary service, which has helped to make these companies profitable. Among these are mining companies in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia.
Foreign mining companies in South Africa, such as De Beers, were traditionally keen to recruit Basotho workers and nationals of other neighbouring countries to work in their mines because they saw them as dependable and hard-working. Yet when these Basotho miners and those of other nationalities returned home in 1994, many of them failed to find work because they had no experience in areas outside the mining industry. As former miners, they were unable to adjust easily and take on other, unrelated but available jobs without having to upgrade their skills.
Africa has many cultural values and beliefs. By and large, there are marked differences between the working attitudes and values of those Africans who have worked for foreign companies and those who have always worked for themselves. Specifically, Africans who worked for foreign employers learned discipline and commitment to the companies for which they worked, and this helped them to manage their own businesses as individuals. Moreover, certain African communities are reputed to have great business acumen or entrepreneurial skills, with their members showing versatility in various sectors of their economies. Examples include the Chaga in Tanzania; the Serahule in the Gambia; the Fula in Guinea, Mali, the Niger and other nearby countries; the Ibos and Hausas in Nigeria, and the Kikuyu in Kenya.
In his book Africa at the Crossroads: Philosophical Approach to Education (1974), Festus Okafor noted that in the rural areas of Africa, in days gone by, when a job had to be done the whole community would turn out with supplies and music and proceed to sing and dance through to the successful conclusion of each particular chore. In those days this generous solidarity brought the community together. This sense of solidarity, however, has declined over the past few decades.
According to the Japanese, interpersonal trust is an important cultural strength, especially in large corporations; if a person loses this trust he or she brings shame to the entire family. There have even been occasions where people have felt obliged to commit suicide. In Africa, as a consequence of colonisation, most traditional cultural values have been eroded or weakened, in particular, the concept of trust. In many African countries people do not trust their governments because they feel that they are not doing much to reduce unemployment and poverty or to combat corruption. In Japan, if a senior government official is accused of corruption, the official will face the law and have to resign. In Africa, nobody resigns; if anything, they fight back, claiming that their detractors are on a witch hunt.
In Africa, at the business level, the concept of trust is selective. For example, in fields such as law and medicine, some professionals will share facilities but maintain separate and distinct accounts. In family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises, it often happens that family members find it difficult to get along together once the head of the family dies. In some cases, siblings and children start fighting, resulting in protracted legal suits. In general, there is much suspicion and mistrust in many African societies, particularly in the area of business, leading business people to keep everything within the family rather than seek productive and forward-looking partnerships, as is the successful model in developed countries.
Developing societies cannot afford the luxury of a social-welfare system. As Okafor pointed out in his 1974 treatise, in African society everyone is accommodated through the extended family system. Consequently, if a family has one relatively successful member that fortunate person is expected to provide school fees, medical care, clothing, housing, and even pocket money for many others. While this system has merits – it encourages a charitable disposition and fosters cohesive family loyalties – in some instances it is exploited and abused by members of the family.
The extended family system can create dependency instead of encouraging siblings to stand on their own two feet. Moreover, these siblings are rarely appreciative and they may even gang up on their beneficiary. This is a narrative sometimes employed in Nigerian films of the “Nollywood” genre: when the “big man” dies, his kinsmen try to take his assets from his wife and children. Moreover, the demands of the extended family may prevent a successful family leader from investing in a way that could permanently improve the living standards of the entire family. When poorer relatives become envious and want a share of the successful family member’s properties and assets, the successful family member becomes isolated, which can discourage him or her from further helping the extended family.
It is often remarked, anecdotally, that the concept of time in Africa is somewhat flexible by comparison with that of developed countries. There seems to be some substance to this popular cliché. Several African scholars argue that Africans as a rule are not good at keeping time – despite the importance of timekeeping in some traditional customs. In their traditional milieu Africans were often compelled by certain routines to strictly respect time. For instance, there were particular times when certain rituals had to take place, such as a sacrifice. That said, many things have changed in post-colonial Africa, including attitudes to timekeeping. Those working in the private sector who must reach work on time are placed under particular pressure by this rather common post-colonial lackadaisical attitude.
Noticeably, those working for the public sector do not always observe the same constraints. Thus, if a good turnout is needed for planned meetings, constant reminders must be sent and follow up is essential in all areas of interaction. In some African countries, participants in workshops or seminars have to be given incentives – not only to attend but simply to be on time. Meanwhile, in most developed countries people expect that activities are begun and completed in a timely fashion. Consequently, many African business people find it difficult to compete on the global market, with some losing contracts because they have not met their deadlines.
Until recently, there were some jobs that Africans would not take. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s many Africans in major towns and cities had a tendency to avoid particular jobs because of cultural or sexual stereotypes. Men were reluctant to work as cleaners, cooks, janitors or waiters in hotels, for instance. When they did so, they would say that they were merely doing a temporary job while they looked for a permanent one. Mostly, they hoped to be clerks, soldiers, policemen and drivers. Given our weak economies, featuring high unemployment and poverty, all available vacancies or jobs should be highly competitive and should be filled by willing recruits without discrimination as to gender or cultural considerations.
On the positive side, there are some areas where the African people display their cultural talents and are making very good progress, namely in music and cinema. To do this they have had to embrace western norms of cooperation and partnership, as well as of creativity and innovation. For example, during the fight against apartheid in South Africa freedom fighters sought unity in their songs in the battle against their oppressors. Most of the former political prisoners on Robben Island, such as former president Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, acknowledged that liberation songs were morale boosters that helped to unite them in the fight for freedom. Southern Africa abounds with talented musicians and dancers, and this asset has been harnessed in scaling up the country’s creative economy. Moreover, it is a cultural tradition among Africans that whenever a community assignment needs to be performed, community members will come forward with their musical instruments, including drums, and play and sing to their kinfolk working on the task and encourage them to get the job done.
Another example of the valuable cultural capital inherent in African societies may be seen in the DRC, which continues to produce talented and gifted musicians, among them M’bilia Bel, Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba. With the support of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko they were able to engage in cooperation and partnerships among various Congolese music groups to spread their music all over Africa and into Europe and North America. As part of this cultural revolution, their music became a source of pride and patriotism in their country, which had suffered brutal civil wars since independence in 1961.
According to the SXSW Schedule (2012), over the past few decades the African music industry, both traditional and modern, has grown exponentially, with a direct impact on African economies. Small-scale vendors have established local studios to produce music for the commercial market. Despite the low market prices, music has the potential to create jobs, which in turn will reduce poverty.
In this connection, African governments should take advantage of this huge asset and support African music, both traditional and modern, as part of their cultural reforms. If Africa is to reap the considerable potential benefits of this great asset, however, it will need not only to strengthen its copyright laws to prevent piracy, but also to enhance its partnership and cooperation with the private sector to scale up this sector.
Another cultural manifestation that merits closer consideration is African cinema. According to former UNESCO Director-General Kōichirō Matsuura “films and video production are shining examples of how cultural industries, as vehicles of identity, values and meanings, can open the door to dialogue and understanding between peoples, but also to economic growth and development” (2009). African cinema is an expression of the continent’s cultural identity, and demonstrates its endeavour to overcome foreign influences and develop its own voice. Moreover, African films have enabled many people to gain insights into Africa’s creativity, innovation and talents.
Certainly, the film industry in Africa faces constraints – including financial constraints, piracy, problems in distributing films to the market, and the lack of a proper regulatory framework. As a 2013 article by Rebecca Moudio shows, African film is not only an entertainment industry; it is an important money-maker. This is certainly the case with the Nigerian film industry, which currently employs more than one-million people, making it the country’s largest employer after agriculture, she writes. In addition, the output of the Nigerian film industry – known as “Nollywood” – has a massive following in Africa and among the African diaspora around the world. The former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan was a great supporter of Nollywood and proclaimed it as the country’s shining light, and he insisted that every effort be made to ensure this light continued to shine.
The film industry has continued to grow in other African countries such as South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Angola. South Africa has seen a steady rise in both the quality and reputation of its films. A South African film – Tsotsi – won the 2006 Academy award for the best foreign-language film. Because of its favourable weather, South Africa has provided locations for a number of major blockbusters, such as Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo Di Caprio), and Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, as well as numerous television series.
These are all positive signs that the African film industry is breaking its traditional cultural boundaries. What the industry needs now are cultural ambassadors and strong political support and will, as well as financial support from the continent’s private sector and its development partners. The support extended by Goodluck Jonathan to Nollywood is particularly instructive in this regard. There can be no doubt that if African leaders encourage and promote African films the benefits will be immeasurable. Across its many countries, the continent represents an enormous market of over one-billion people. This offers an unprecedented opportunity for Africa, which it should not neglect. It offers prospects for reducing unemployment, in particular among young graduates. This, in turn, will reduce poverty and raise living standards in the countries concerned. With small budgets, the African film industry has been able to embrace some of its cultural talents such as teamwork, creativity, and innovation.
Culture is indeed a vital factor to be taken into consideration when discussing or contemplating action in development. Africa is a vast continent with a huge diversity of cultural norms and practices. There are great variations among its regions, countries and ethnic groups and this needs to be recognised.
Successes in Botswana, Mauritius and other countries prove that Africans can be punctual, innovative, entrepreneurial and forward-looking. In addition, much greater use should be made of the creative talents available on the continent, of its drama, films and music as effective tools for raising awareness among African people of the need for education and for a change in their negative attitudes and values to boost their economic development.
At the same time, we must accept that the attributes, which underpinned the rapid success of countries like Japan and other developed countries will take time to take root in Africa. To improve its economies, the culture of good governance cannot be seen as a distant luxury to be aspired to but avoided in practice. To boost economic development, all-important cultural values must be in place, which must be governed according to the values of transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and empowerment. Like Japan, each individual African country should build its own economy based on its home-grown cultural values. The successes of African films and African music are instructive.