THE COUNTER RENAISSANCE

A publication by and for African Youth

Issue 3: May 2001

Exposing the Façade of the AFRICAN Renaissance 

I used to believe that our (Africa’s) fate depended on the goodwill of those in power. For a long time, I looked forward to the day when a few honest and incorruptible leaders would ensure ‘parity’ for us all. I was also convinced then, that our people would be better off adopting Western models of Development since this was the ‘surest’ way to achieving ‘prosperity’ for all.  But then I engaged in dialogues with a few friends, through which I learnt how phenomena at a worldwide level interrelated and seriously impacted our lives. I discovered that any meaningful change depended on the restoration of autonomy (social, cultural, economic, spiritual, intellectual, etc.) within communities. I also became aware of the extent to which my faith in Development and its institutions had made a mental slave of me.

During one of the dialogue-meetings I attended in November 1999, I came to learn about two things: one, the futility and limitations of advocating for reformist approaches, without understanding the root causes of the current crises before us, and secondly, how we unconsciously perpetuate these crises. After that meeting, I decided to learn more about the existing social-political-economic order and how factors grounded in historical contexts have played a pivotal role in creating and furthering the status-quo.

The turmoil brought about by Development is manifested daily in front of our eyes: physical and ecological devastation; accentuation of differences between communities and nations leading to wars and civil crises; escalation of greed, hate and violence; high rates of unemployment; destruction of social-cultural fabrics; further colonization of young people through re-incarnated projects of the European Renaissance such as Globalization and the African Renaissance. In an effort to try to understand the root causes to Africa’s problems and engage with our capacities for regeneration, I have delved into the European Renaissance and attempted to co-relate its core suppositions with those of the African Renaissance. By doing this, I hope we may gain greater insights into the historical contexts of our problems and simultaneously engage in processes of creating spaces for meaningful dialogue(s). I address the following questions:

§ What was the European Renaissance? What were its philosophical foundations and actualizations?

§ How does the African Renaissance advance the foundations and actions of the European Renaissance ?

§ How do these contradict certain African cultural concepts?

§ How can we counter the African Renaissance?

The Foundations of the European Renaissance

During the 16th to 18th centuries, there was a tremendous blossoming of creativity in the fields of art, literature, science and philosophy in Europe. Within the cultural context of its birth, the European Renaissance proved extremely rewarding. Its rise — along with that of capitalism — ushered in an era of self-expression and liberties. More portentous, however, for non-European peoples was that this flowering of art, etc., was accompanied by slavery, plunder, and colonization, as Europeans strove to assert their dominance worldwide.  Their ‘conquest’ relied, in part, on a few distinct philosophies: Objectivity, Rationality, Universality and Progress.

§ Rationality/reason was considered to be the highest form of thinking, since it was untainted by biases like emotions, intuition, and personal experience. Functional Rationality is the “organization of production through the ordering of things including men, as things. [it] implies a greater specialization of function [and] increasing separation of the individual from control over the enterprises of which he is part. The individual is regulated by the norms of efficiency, specialization, and becomes an appendage to the clattering process of bureaucratic machinery.” (Bell 1996).

§ Objectivity is the separation of the human being from their social, cultural, spiritual, political and economic contexts (Norgaard 1994). When combined with rationality, objectivity results in the radical separation of Mind from the Self and the World. It suggests that human beings can only make meaning by examining parts of the world as objects, from a ‘unbiased’, ‘unemotional’, and ‘reasonable’ distance.

§ Universalism “is the belief that parts of systems are the same everywhere and at all times” (Norgaard 1994). It implies that human beings, regardless of time, contexts and experiences, are driven by the same desires, make meaning in the same ways, and hanker after the same ideals.

§ Progress “is a grand meta-narrative around which modern culture is organized” (Bell 1996). During the European Renaissance, through the age of Enlightenment and till date, Progress has meant that Western Science steadily advances, constantly produces better and better technologies and ways of organizing and hence future generations will continually be better off than are current generations.

 

The African Renaissance: Advancing the European Renaissance

The African Renaissance conference, in its plenary session on ‘Identity, Culture and Education’, questioned how “the West has shaped our thoughts and [now] controls our minds” (Ntulli 1999).  It reflected on “how [traditional African education] was collective, inculcated cultural ethos and was oriented towards problem posing and problem solving at the individual and communal levels” (Mugo 1999).  Further, it called for the need to restore “Africa’s communal solidarity” (Mbeki 1999) and reaffirmed “Africa’s pride, heritage, language and culture” (Engen 1999).

But underneath these noble expressions, the African Renaissance is still predicated on the philosophical foundations of the European Renaissance. Like the latter, the African Renaissance states that the “conquest” of Western science and technology is “the best way to master our social and natural environment”.  It “helps to spread some values whose assimilation is essential for our peoples in order to engage in a sustainable process of renewal: a spirit of rigor, organization and method; a culture of rationality, effectiveness, efficiency, and objectivity […] which are conditions for continuous improvement of actions”(Gueye 1999). Not surprisingly, the Africa Renaissance relies on “an Africa-focussed intelligentsia” to drive it forward in its quest for rationality, objectivity, etc. That this ultimately ‘elitisizes’ the process of an African rebirth, as it denies the social majorities of Africa a part in constructing their own histories and futures, is apparent.  As with the European Renaissance, such elitism can easily lead to manipulation by the few who will dictate the concept, content, character, and goals of the process.

The African Renaissance’s preoccupation with universalism can be made out in its inability to fully embrace context throughout its discourse.  It assumes that Africans want what the Western world has, and is therefore pushing the continent towards commodification and exploitation of Nature, towards an increased profusion of Western technologies into our communities, and towards competition in the global market economy.  As one author states, “South Korea presents an admirable picture of a people truly committed to their chosen vision; against such notable achievements, one can begin to understand clearly the magnitude of the challenge facing Africa” (Magau 1998).  That South Korea has a totally different context and history, and that its ‘development’ has come at a heavy human cost, seems to have been missed by the esteemed architects of the African Renaissance.

  

The Renaissance Contradicts African Cultural Concepts

Moreover, European notions of Objectivity, Rationality, and Progress sharply contrast with the two key concepts around which life in African communities revolved and which served to provide Africans with a sense of consciousness as to “who they are in relation to other communities and to the universe” (Ngugi 1999).  First, objectivity — which defines itself as cutting off the individual’s spiritual, social-cultural, economic and political ties with systems and processes in order to facilitate ‘impartiality’ — repudiates what many African communities understand by societal structures.  As articulated via Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa (family-hood) concept, many Africans view communities and the world around them as being “a direct extension of themselves,” with no disconnection whatsoever made between the two.

Similarly, rationality contradicts most African societies’ meaning making systems, since it is the very antithesis of the African approach of  “situation-experiencing.” The Westerner’s tendency to adopt “a problem-solving approach using a trenchant analysis” is diametrically opposed to African cultural customs of living through situations (Biko 1996). Dr. Kaunda illustrates this point. “The Westerner has an aggressive mentality… He draws a sharp line between the natural and supernatural, the rational and non-rational, and dismisses the non-rational as superstition… Africans do not recognize any conceptual cleavage between the natural and supernatural. They experience a situation rather than face a problem.  By this I mean, they allow the rational and the non-rational to make an impact upon them and any action they may take could be described more as a response of the total personality to the situation than the result of some mental exercise” (in Biko 1996).

Modern institutions of Development, which rely on functional (instrumental) rationality, have also been disintegrative rather than unifying to African societies, leading ultimately to community breakdown in many places.  Mbah and Igariwey (1997) state that, “the communal spirit was supplanted by the concept of the isolated self and greed, materialism and an unbridled desire for domination. Consequently Africa has become a continent of atomistic, antagonistic and competitive groups strongly committed to tribal loyalties and dominated by ethnocentric views.”

 

Countering the European Renaissance

To counter the African Renaissance, we will need to consciously resist the enslaving and dehumanizing theories of the European Renaissance, as part of our dialogue processes.  I now know that to be as ‘successful’ as the European Renaissance, the African Renaissance will have to be as oppressive and profit-thirsty. But I wonder who will have to bear the brunt of this: will African people and their resources, who have already been exploited to build a ‘developed’ Europe, and are still being abused to sustain Development, now be sucked completely dry in order to ‘actualize’ the African Renaissance?

You are reading The Counter Renaissance, a publication that is committed to raising questions, encouraging dialogues and creating shared perspectives about Development and notions of Enlightenment, Progress, Rationality, Objectivity and Universalism. I am convinced that a major reason Africa finds itself trapped in a vortex of seemingly intractable problems is because of its absolute surrender — especially psychologically — to colonizing, controlling and greedy agencies. The restoration of spiritual, social-cultural, economic, political and intellectual autonomy in communities is vital in the de-colonization process. Through this publication and along with a community of contributors and readers with shared ideals and experiences, I hope to gain an understanding of how I can further de-colonize myself and affect this process in my society. It is through such small collective groups that we can creatively come up with shared visions, understandings and conceptions relevant to our experiences and societies.

- Isaac Ochien’g, Editor

References

Bell, D. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Biko, S. I Write What I Like. Randburg: Raven Press, 1996 ed.

Makgoba, M., ed. African Renaissance. Capetown: Mafube Publishing, 1999.

Mbah, S. and I. Igariwey. African Anarchism. Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1997.

Norgaard, R. Development Betrayed. London: Routledge, 1994.

 

“However on the whole, the process by which captives were obtained on African soil was not trade at all. It was through warfare, trickery, banditry and kidnapping. When one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is very essential to realize that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any sense of the word... In the 13th Century feudal rule is overthrown in Europe ushering in new freedoms and liberties, while 100 million Africans are uprooted from their homes and stuffed on board ships en route Europe... Between 1650 and 1900, Europe’s population increases by over 400% in an era of unprecedented productivity and resourcefulness. Africa’s population during the same period increases by a mere 20%. It can be surmised that in this period 300 million Africans either lost their lives or were permanently dispossessed, displaced and dislocated in strange lands.”

— Walter Rodney,

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1989

 

On the President’s De-Kamemenization Order

Is He Protecting us from a Greater Evil?

The President’s recent order to de-license Kameme FM (on the grounds that it was broadcasting in Gikuyu, thus promoting tribalism) raises two critical issues.  One, what is this country’s official Education Policy in as far as cultural identity is concerned?  Culturally, what does it mean to be a Kenyan?  Secondly, what has been the role of the media in redefining, evolving and articulating culture?  Has the goal of the Kenyan media been to simply sell products and strengthen the consumer culture?  In David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World (1995), it is argued that “our minds are being addressed by addictive media serving corporate sponsors whose purpose is to rearrange reality so that viewers forget the world around them.”  Who  are  the ‘agenda setters’ of cultural and entertainment issues on radio and TV?  Who determines what people should think and consume? What do they want to achieve?

One of the ends of this country’s education system since the colonial period has been the production of a westernized elite whose only connection to this country should be the color of their skin and the exploitation of the country’s resources. Their task has been to work as intermediaries between this world’s real rulers (mega-corporations) and those who do the actual production of wealth, the so-called masses. Since their primary function is to take care of western interests, the education of this class of elite must invariably involve the westernization of the mind. They must learn to view the world through their master’s perspective. This process is achieved by inculcating western culture at the altars of the formal factory-schooling system. For this process to succeed it must involve the degradation and rejection of anything perceived as ‘traditional’ or ‘backward’ through western lenses. This includes language, dressing, religion, social rites and anything distinctly not ‘modern’ in the western sense. The result is a negation of the so-called Indigenous Cultures.

The argument is made that promoting anything based on our indigenous cultural heritage will defeat the noble aim of ‘national unity’ as these cultures promote ethnic animosity because of their diversity. On the other hand, destroying our cultures and replacing it with one standard culture — formally Euro-centric but nowadays increasingly being defined by American corporations — will ensure national unity. It is worthy to note that this system has also acted as an agent of stifling creativity and thus frustrating efforts to redefine, regenerate and evolve these cultures. By lumping people in age groups, putting them in the same class, controlling them by the ringing of a bell and the calendar, teaching them the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, uniformity is encouraged at the expense of the individual and group creativity. The product is a homogenous community where the ‘educated’ all tend to think and act alike.

Of critical importance, however, is the fact that traditional values might come in the way of the western consumer culture, either by opposing it or by providing alternatives to it. Therefore, in order to produce truly universal tastes, the media acts as a strong complimentary tool to the skewed education system. Television has arguably become the most important institution of cultural reproduction and in the Third World, where television is out of reach for the majority, radio fills this space. Critics, like Jerry Mander (1991) have argued that “by its ability to implant identical images into the minds of millions of people, TV can homogenize perspectives, knowledge, tastes, and desires, to make them resemble the tastes and interests of the people who transmit the imagery.” Corporate interests have wholly colonized the media, with the exception of a few state owned-media houses. While corporate executives’ dream of a global market made of people with homogenized tastes and needs, it is only natural that the strongest medium of achieving this is bought and employed for the task. These corporate executives also set the agenda of what should be ‘acceptable’ for consumption and draw the laws within which all are to operate.

One way in which television and radio extend the cultural war described is by promoting passivity. Noam Chomsky (1992) describes this process:

“A properly functioning system of indoctrination has a variety of tasks. Its primary targets are the ‘stupid and ignorant masses’. They must be kept that way; marginalized and isolated. Ideally each person should be in front of a TV screen, watching sports, soap operas or comedies, deprived of organizational structures that permit individuals lacking resources to discover what they think and believe in interaction with others, to formulate their own concerns and programs, and to act to realize them. This hapless multitude are the proper target of the mass media and a public education system geared to obedience and training in needed skills, including the skill of repeating patriotic slogans on timely occasions.”

A casual glance at television programming leaves one in no doubt that the media must ensure that the majority resigns itself to the consumption of fantasy. As noted media critic Eduardo Galeano (1973) illustrates, “illusions of wealth are sold to the poor, illusions of freedom to the oppressed, dreams of victory to the defeated and of power to the weak… the masses must learn to accept their position as mere observers, not participants.”  The subjugation of culture to the Lords of Profit marches on.

The President’s recent order that ‘ethnic’ radio stations should not be licensed confirms that it is today illegal for individuals (and organizations) to operate outside the set boundaries, outside the accepted norms of what defines official culture. If officialdom recognizes that English and Swahili are the official languages, then trying to reach the public via other languages (except maybe French, Spanish or Portuguese) becomes criminal. Those who attempt to propagate other forms of cultural expressions, if not criminalized, are marginalized, and not given any formal recognition. This process need not be violent or even explicit. While in the days of open tyranny, force was used to frustrate such efforts, in these so-called days of democracy, bureaucracy and high costs are better weapons. One needs to be a millionaire to get licensing.

The thought of the rising of alternative media that can potentially provide the “organizational structure” that would aid people in participating and interacting with others, using their own languages, must have sent chills within the ranks of the ‘official’ establishment. There seems to be a strong fear that once the ‘multitudes’ are allowed to interact in their own languages, new spaces for cultural awakenings might spring up. This might then translate into a societal discourse that can be a preamble for launching a social and moral challenge to the hegemony of the merchants of corporate capitalism. It was this fear that prevented the government from licensing radio and TV stations in the past. But now that they will all offer the same cultural menu (American R & B Hip Hop music and The Bold and the Beautiful), a menu that poses absolutely no threat to the local and global order — well, then, let them have whatever license they want… as long as they don’t step out of the defined boundary.

- Charles Otieno-Hongo

References:

Chomsky, N. Deterring Democracy. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.

Galeano, E. Open Veins of Latin America. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.

Korten, D. When Corporations Rule the World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1995.

Mander, J. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

 

The ultimate result of Africa’s incorporation into the world capitalist economy was the destruction of the traditional pre-colonial, communal mode of production.  As the capitalist mode developed, it confronted the non-capitalist mode, violently transforming various communities, turning their lands, resources, and products into commodities.  Countless thousands of able-bodied young men were uprooted from their homes to work in capitalist enterprises, and the remaining population was compelled to grow only those crops that possessed exchange value — cash crops.

The critical point here is that the destruction of the traditional economic system did not give rise to a fully capitalist economy; the end product was, rather, a distorted, unbalanced capitalist structure.  This occurred because Africa’s incorporation into the global system was peripheral.  Complementarity and reciprocity between the various sectors of the economy were absent.  Mis-articulation was further characterized by a lack of vital linkages within the production process.  That is, capitalist development in Africa was characterized by a lack of integration.  Under colonialism, businesses operated to serve external markets, and usually had little connection with each other; and businesses that would have served internal needs were often systematically discouraged in order to ensure markets for goods produced in the imperial countries.  Africa is still suffering the effects of that distorted development pattern.

So, capitalist penetration and subsequent integration of African societies into the global system has generated a culture of dependence — a dependence of the periphery (Africa) on the center (the advanced capitalist countries).  Profits and surplus value are constantly being transferred from the periphery to the center.  Conversely, economic and social crises in the global capitalist chain are readily transmitted to its weakest links — the highly susceptible periphery.  As for the “development” of Africa by the West, Leonard Goncharov notes: “Capital is being exported from the highly developed capitalist countries to the developing countries, not actually with the aim of providing aid to the latter, but with the expressed purpose of deriving the highest possible profit.

— S. Mbah and I. Igariwey, African Anarchism, 1997

 

 

Springwater flowing to the desert, where you flow there is no regeneration. The desert takes. The desert knows no giving. To the giving water of your flowing, it is not in the nature of the desert to return anything but destruction. Springwater flowing to the desert, your future is extinction...

Say it is the nature of the spring to give; it is the nature of the desert’s sand to take. Say it is the nature of your given water to flow; it is the nature of the desert to absorb.

It is your nature also, spring, to receive. Giving, receiving, receiving, giving, continuing, living. It is not the nature of the desert to give. Taking, taking, taking, the desert blasts with destruction whatever touches it. Whatever gives of itself to the desert parts from regeneration...

No spring changes the desert.  The desert remains; the spring runs dry. Not one spring, not thirty, not a thousand springs will change the desert.  For that change, floods, the waters of the universe in unison, flowing not to coax the desert but to overwhelm it, ending its regime of death, that, not a single perishable spring, is the necessity...

Remember this: against all that destruction some yet remained among us unforgetful of origins, dreaming secret dreams, seeing secret visions, hearing secret voices of our purpose.

— Ayi Kwei Armah, “prologue”, Two Thousand Seasons