Tomorrow (Sat) is Africa Day. South Africa will join the rest of the continent and the world at large to celebrate the 56th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union (AU). The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the University of the Free State Head of the History Department Dr Chitja Twala about the origins and significance of the day. Makoni, also asked Twala, who doubles as the Vice Dean for the Humanities Faculty if the continent still upholds the founding principles of the organisation and what needs to be done to improve relations in Africa. Excerpts:
What is Africa Day and how important is it to people on the continent?
Africa Day is a product of a meeting held in 1963, on the 25th of May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In that meeting, most of the African leaders converged under the leadership of the then Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie. The aim was to come up with the whole question of African Unity. You will recall that this was after the period that we could term in Africa’s the period of decolonisation, whereby most of the African countries had received and fought for decolonisation and the whole question of the partition of Africa. These leaders realised that it was important that they should meet and discuss issues that were of African importance.
What would you say was at the heart of the discussions held at that meeting?
At the heart of the discussions was the issue of the unity of Africa from Cape to Cairo. To be honest, my analysis of that was the whole question… was more of an ideological way forward rather than a practical one. You would recall that most of the African countries had received independence, therefore the call for unity was important but at the same time, they wanted each African country to exercise its own rights in terms of independence after the colonial yoke. Therefore, that meeting went ahead and agreed that Africa should be united and also do away with these imaginary borders which divided Africa. That is how Africa Day started.
Africa Day is an annual event observed across the continent, how much significance do you think it has among the African people?
It is very important. Although it is not a public holiday, we celebrate that Africanness. Africanness will also embrace more things such as Ubuntuism, which is broader in the context of Africa. We also celebrate the freedom of Africa which is called Inkululeko. This means more than freedom as we understand it in English. I would therefore say, it is very important for us to commemorate Africa Day but I will go further and qualify it saying, each day should be Africa Day. We don’t need to wait for the 25th of May to say now we are celebrating Africa Day and dress like Africans on that day only and say now we want to revert back to our African names.
What would you say are the key points we should observe when celebrating Africa Day?
It’s a day we should be reminding ourselves about who we are and about our identity. You know, if you lose your identity, you lose your road map. Today we have lost the whole question of land because of the whole idea of a mixed identity. So, with the celebration and commemoration of the day, from a historical point of view, we are saying we are reminding ourselves that no matter the English that we speak, no matter the English that we write, no matter our names are anglicised, that doesn’t change us from being Africans. I travelled to Addis Ababa, to the UNESCO headquarters two years ago. There is an institution for capacity building in Africa. In that institute, they have that hall where that 1963 meeting was held. I was fortunate to be in that hall. And I also visited the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. So, that’s why we say with Africa Day, we are reminded about the history of Africa. We are reminded what Africa is all about as well as our relations with other Africans. We are reminded about our African culture. We are also reminded about our African languages. It is pathetic that when you meet a little girl and ask her what her name is and she says Din-Yo and when you say spell it for me, she writes, Dineo. We need to think about that and reflect in order to map the way forward. In this case, the little girl is more anglicised than she is Africanised. That is a problem. If we continue going that route, we will end up not having Africans.
And what could be the reason for young people not being proud to be Africans?
I think it is gradually changing. The whole question of consciousness is very important that we pride ourselves as being Africans. It is not a mistake that we are Africans, and blacks for that matter. It is also not by choice that we are Africans and blacks. The whole question of assimilation into other people’s cultures, I think that is the biggest problem. The whole question of thinking that if you speak English using your nostrils, you are educated, is wrong. I know of many people who speak English with their nostrils but without any argument coming out of their mouths. And I know people who are proud of speaking isizulu, isiswati and isindebele but the thinking is very high. Therefore, on this day we are saying let us go back to what other people call Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
So, how best can we integrate what is being taught in schools and at university level with what is of Africa?
When teaching Mathematics, for example, why not what we call in Sesotho, Diketlho, you know that way of making a hole in the ground and putting some stones and throwing one stone at a time? You know, it teaches the youngsters hand-eye coordination. You don’t only learn hand-eye coordination by taking and racquet and going to the tennis court with a tennis ball. That is not African. Our African people were also taught hand-eye coordination by playing our own indigenous games. So, why can’t we go back to that? Our African people did not grow up playing chess, but they would play Morabaraba, which in essence, would inculcate the way of thinking that a move in Morabaraba is a move either for the better or for the worse. That is African. I would want to see a person using African games in teaching. I would want us, when teaching history, to concentrate on the African continent itself. I don’t mean we should only zoom on the African continent, because we are part of the global world, but it is unwise to know more about the history of (Adolf) Hitler and Donald Trump without knowing the history of where you come from and not being proud of your own history.
How do you view stereotypes that Africa is a dark continent, how much could that be influencing young people not to like identifying with fellow Africans?
I think we need to challenge such stereotypes. Africa is a dark continent in whose eyes? That’s the fundamental question we should be asking. We also need to challenge the stereotypes that if I come to work wearing my Zulu regalia, why should I be viewed as if I am backward or barbaric? As Africans, we should be actually saying this person embraces what he/she is. And that’s very important in order to drive this concept of Africanness. When Afrikaans was developed as a language, they made sure they also had the terminology to be used when teaching different subjects using the language. So, why can’t we develop our own languages in order for those languages to become scientific languages like any other language? In Zulu we call a cell phone imakhalekukwini. In Zulu we call a freeway uthelawayeke because it’s a free way you are driving on. We call a television umabonakuthe. So, why can’t we come and say, what is chlorophyll in Zulu? What is photosynthesis in Zulu? We can’t afford to be saying we don’t have the terminology for science that can be used as an academic language from an African perspective because all other languages managed to do so.