The "African Renaissance"

What is it all about?

The African Renaissance, as articulated by Thabo, is a call to Africans to bring about the continent’s ‘rise from the ashes’ and claims the 21st century as the African century. It is a call for African ownership of the idea of democracy and its institutionalisation. It affirms pride in Africa’s common history (notably its claim to be the birthplace of humanity), and advances a sometime Panglossian view of its future. It is a constellation of goals and values promising the regeneration of a continent and wide-ranging reforms in political and economic governance that will make this regeneration possible (and appease its Western backers). It rejects Africa’s ‘begging bowl’ image; calls on developed nations to relieve debt, provide capital and agree to a fairer trade regime; and it pursues international relations in which Africa plays a less marginal role.

Calling the African Renaissance a ‘workable dream’, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) identified five areas of engagement for the Renaissance:

  • The encouragement of cultural exchange.
  • The emancipation of African women from patriarchy.
  • The mobilisation of the youth.
  • The broadening, deepening and sustenance of democracy, and
  • The initiation of sustainable economic development.

The African Renaissance as idea encapsulates all attempts to refurbish Africa and move it forward. It rebels against the continent’s psychosis of marginalisation. The ‘rebirth’ it envisions would follow two ‘lost development decades’ in the 1980s and 1990s, during which Africa was popularly portrayed as a locus of ‘anarchy’ (notably by Robert Kaplan in his widely cited April 1994 Atlantic Monthly article) and a ‘hopeless continent’ (Economist cover ,1999). African countries were hovering , argued the Africanist Claude Ake, between a ‘discredited past’ and a ‘future which refuses to arrive.’

These ‘framings’ of Africa were not simply motivated by the ‘Eurocentric, colonial and racist’ historiography Thabo Mbeki once bemoaned. They reflected very real economic stagnation and decline, as well as widespread conflict. Thabo himself acknowledged in 1998 that ‘the children of Africa… continue to be consumed by death… It is because of these pitiful souls that Africa needs her renaissance.’

Earlier, he was more sanguine. In his first articulation of the ‘African Renaissance’ during a speech to United States business leaders in Chantilly, Virginia, in April 1997, the president prematurely lauded the progress made in peace talks in the DRC, and spoke of a ‘new miracle [that] slouches towards its birth’:

‘The African Renaissance is upon us. As we peer through the looking glass darkly, this may not be obvious. But it is upon us. What we have been talking about is the establishment of genuine and stable democracies in Africa, in which the systems of governance will flourish because they derive their authority and legitimacy from the will of the people… The new political order owes its existence to the African experience of many decades which teaches us, as Africans, that what we tried did not work, that the one-party states and the military governments will not work. The way forward must be informed by what is, after all, common to all African traditions – that the people must govern!’

Some of these themes become leitmotifs of Thabo’s idea. He rejects portrayals of Africa that ignore progress already made, but also admits to failed experiments with military and one-party rule after independence (Nepad is equally self-critical.). In a series of speeches on the Renaissance delivered as deputy president and president after 1999, Thabo frames democracy as an African phenomenon by clothing it in the language of liberation struggles (‘the people must govern!’) and claiming that it is ‘common to all African traditions’. This confuses attempts by opponents of democracy in Africa to frame democracy as a Western imposition.

Thabo ‘sold’ his rebirth agenda as something indigenous, and would often stress its urgency and the need for collective action by lapsing into bellicose rhetoric. He called for a rebellion against tyrants, dictators and corrupt elites, and implored Africa’s enraged people to join in a mass crusade for Africa’s renewal: ‘To be a true African is to be a rebel in the cause of the African Renaissance, whose success in the new century and millennium is one of the great historic challenges of our time.’

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