Africanisation - what does it mean?

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Africanisation – what does it mean? (2006)

By Nithaya Chetty, School of Physics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermartizburg, Private Bag X01 Scottsville, 3209, South Africa

More than a decade into our democracy, our attention is turning more to discussions on Africanisation and the African Renaissance. What is African and who is an African? What does it mean to be an African? What is an Africanist?

Does African refer to race, or nationality, i.e. belonging to a geographical region, or culture or a way of thinking? Can one have a rational debate on this matter based on cogent arguments or is this simply a political issue?

The University of KwaZulu-Natal wishes to be a premier university of African scholarship. Does being a premier university of scholarship in Africa mean something different?

To Africanise implies that somehow we are not African enough. Is this true? What is the ideal amount of Africanness that we should strive for before we may consider ourselves to be Africanised?

Given our own unique history and set of circumstances, does placing the word ‘South’ in front of each reference to Africa above fundamentally change the questions that are being asked? That is, bearing in mind the diverse nature of Africa, should we instead be talking about South Africanisation?

Does focusing more on ourselves necessarily mean that we disregard lessons to be learnt from the past and from other societies and other countries? Why is there a need for these discussions at all which are at times introspective and philosophical?

We could all be up late at night arguing about these matters with no absolutely conclusive answers to many of them. Still, by engaging in these discussions, there is a lot that we can learn about ourselves and who we are as a South African nation, and where we would like to be in the future.

Years of colonialism and apartheid has left behind a legacy of grave economic disparity between different population groups in our country. Worse still, it has left us with a deep-rooted inferiority complex of who we are as Africans. I remember a news clip on television soon after the un-banning of the ANC where a young Black girl was asked what her hope was for the future – her answer was to be White. This is the deeper tragedy of our painful past, and if we are going to go forward as a single nation, then we need to recognize and understand this.

There is no superior race on Earth. Neither does a model democracy exist that we should all strive to mimic, as the Americans sometimes would want us to believe. We should not be blindly trying to copy other countries. Learn from them – yes by all means possible – but we should constantly be finding ways of championing that which is uniquely ours. This, in a nutshell, is my understanding of Africanisation. We need to do this because, to a large extent, our unique attributes have largely been neglected over the past. To not do this would be to continue to deny ourselves the opportunity to live fuller lives in our country.

Obviously, we cannot promote that which is uniquely ours at the expense of what is not – we would be foolish not to adopt international best practice wherever we can. We cannot afford to re-invent the wheel. We are really now a part of a global village made all that smaller because of the information age. Using proven methods in solving local problems is being African – recognizing and appreciating that we have a lot to contribute by devising our own solutions to our own problems is simply being smart.

The Africanisation debate is often couched in terms of arts and culture where the impact is perhaps more immediate. Having an appreciation of African art does not mean that we should now shun the great French impressionists. I have grown up listening to the Beetles and Ravi Shankar. I don’t have to enjoy Kwaito music to be an African. I prefer the Soweto String Quartet with its unique blend of African rhythms and so too with Ladysmith Black Mambaso and the Drakensberg Boys Choir who have a world-wide following.

If the University of KwaZulu-Natal does not promote the development of the Zulu language, who will? Having said this, however, we should be realistic about what we can accomplish and what we cannot. For example, developing a fully-fledged scientific vocabulary when little currently exists is not only insurmountable but also unnecessary, and could potentially set students back.

South African history did not begin in 1652. Anyway, a lot of our history was invented, and a lot more ignored. There is scope for modern-day historians to create a more balanced view of our past, and if this is not happening at a fast enough pace, then the essential debate on Africanisation should be seen as an attempt to encourage this. On a similar note, the sensible re-naming of some of our streets has gone a way toward addressing precisely this imbalance.

I respect the custom of initiating young men amongst some clans in the Eastern Cape, but botched circumcisions under unhygienic circumstances is not acceptable and a modern medical procedure should be adopted. There is nothing wrong with making modern science work for us even in a traditional context.

Appreciating our indigenous knowledge systems and using our environment sustainably is being African. Recognising that traditional medicine and modern medicine could reside side by side is also giving worth to our African heritage. The result of such a merger could open new frontiers of medicine which could indeed be called African. Does this mean that we should remain silent when the president of our land presents his own hypothesis about HIV and AIDS? The answer is no!

These are just flashes that come to my mind when I think about Africanisation. Clearly the arguments are not all clear-cut nor cast in black and white. There is no absolute right or wrong. So, discussion and debate is necessary, and this is why the topic of Africanisation is essential. Rather than being on the outside, I believe that we need to get on board to participate in these discussions to help forge our common destiny. We need to make this discussion much more part of our collective mainstream.

Africanisation is a state of mind. I believe that the true test can only come from within – do you feel proud to be an African? Are you secure enough in your belief of your Africaness that you are able to pick and choose freely and without prejudice from the smorgasbord of opportunities in our land? Are you using your knowledge and experience to solve problems endemic to our country? When all is done, will you be able to look back on your life and say that you left this place in a better state than the one you found it in?

Being more African does not mean that we must become more isolationist in our mentality. Neither does it mean that we should adopt inferior standards. We can be internationally competitive and uniquely African at the same time. We can promote our own uniqueness whilst at the same time embrace, learn from and respect other cultures and ways of life. We should not be clones of some other place. We need to be us. We must join the community of nations on our own terms, bringing to the table our own strengths and pride. It is only then that we would truly have been Africanised.

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