The "African Renaissance"

Antecedents of Mbeki’s Renaissance

Some Pan-Africanist roots manifest clearly in Thabo’s assertion of African pride; others play a less perceptible role. In the journal The African Abroad (1906) African scholar Pixley ka Isaka Seme wrote on the ‘regeneration of Africa’, and a year earlier opened a speech at a Columbia University orator contest with words Thabo himself would later borrow: ‘I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over and against a hostile public opinion…’ Pixley spoke of a ‘new order of things’, the ‘elevation of the African race’ and a rebirth driven by re-awakened ‘race-consciousness’. He declared that ‘the African is not a proletarian in the world of science and art… he has precious creations of his own.’ And he pointed to an African Diaspora that sends it children to schools in Edinburgh, Cambridge and Germany, before returning to their countries ‘like arrows, to drive darkness from the land.’

Almost a century later, the ‘brain drain’ of African expertise is still taking its toll. On expatriate websites, at conferences in London, New York and Paris, from podia in parliaments across the continent, African graduates abroad are called upon to return home and contribute to Africa’s ‘Renaissance.’

The issue of race (or the ‘question of the colour line’, which Dr. W.E.B. du Bois said was the problem of the 20th century) would, however, be less central to this modern manifestation of Pan-Africanism. In a 1998 paper on South Africa and the African Renaissance, Sipho Maseko and Peter Vale cite leading South African intellectual Njabulo Ndebele’s claim that ‘the return to mythical roots [as in Pan-Africanism] ceases to be a compelling factor of mobilisation in the face of the sheer weight of existing socio-cultural realities that demand to be addressed in their own terms… the call for black roots has less effect than the provision of water and sanitation, electricity, telephones, houses, clinics, transport, schools and jobs.’

Thematic continuity between middle 20th-century versions of Pan-Africanism and today’s Renaissance-speak is illustrated colourfully in the promise, that Africa would ‘rise and take its position as an equal partner in world affairs’ (writes Maloka). In the 1960s this call for recognition was a call for independence and political self-determination. Today, Africa’s ‘dependence’ on the West is more economic than political.

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