Gareth Setati
Gareth Setati

The decline and fall of the African Renaissance

The Roman achievement was colossal. The Romans knew it themselves hence their belief in Roma Aeterna, the eternal city. But as everybody knows, Rome was not eternal and “the best-known fact” about Rome, remarked Arthur Ferrill, is that “it declined and fell”.

Edward Gibbon was summing up not just the reign of Emperor Antoninus, or Rome, but of all mankind when he lamented: “The reign of Antoninus is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”

Gibbon is perhaps responsible for the best-known work of modern history. His magnum opus, titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, captures with unparalleled erudition the slippery slopes that led to the eventual, if not inevitable, collapse of that once mighty empire. Of particular note are the indictments a historian of his stature makes against the whole of mankind. If history teaches us that until now, human history is characterised by “crime, folly and misfortune” then what sort of questions ought we to ask of our current African circumstances? To what extent can we say this foolhardiness reflects on our leaders? And what has been our complicity in it?

Furthermore, Gibbon’s observations raise deeper questions about how this seemingly “inescapable” state of historical affairs is currently impacting on our attempts at an African Renaissance. Is it plausible that due to these follies we shall be waiting for an absolution in an African Renaissance that would never come? Worse yet, assuming that we finally achieve an African renewal of sorts, can we have the peace of mind that Africa will not eventually collapse in the same historical fashion of Rome and the others? How, then, can we conceive of a renewed Africa that is capable of sidestepping Gibbon’s warnings?

Thomas Sankara was no closer to the truth when he said: “I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organisation we deserve victory … you cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen … we must dare to invent the future.”

From this vantage point, the answers to the questions raised in this short inquiry must surely be the province of youth, to whom the future remains to shape. Youth must begin to craft a sustainable future for an African renewal that will last. It becomes a question of values. Not so much the values of our leaders but our very own values, for our values will reflect themselves in the leaders we choose to lead us.

Hitherto, the leadership we have sought salvation from has proven impotent with the mandate we have given them. Admittedly, some things were done well under the circumstances, but it has not been enough. As history shows, theirs has been characterised by vainglorious endeavours of crime and cronyism, epic fumbles and ass-kissing of the status-quo.

Let there be no doubt about whether calls for radical change are necessary or not. They are. In the conclusion to his book titled The Black Man’s Burden, historian Basil Davidson, noted: “The pessimists, on this general view of matters may be said to have overstated their pessimism and to have forgotten that peoples can never for long be confined to the cages of any neat scenario. What has remained common cause to optimists and pessimists alike is that the systems in place have failed, whether neo-colonial capitalist in Africa or Stalinist in Europe, and that the prime badge for their failure, as Ikem said, has lain in the brutal divorce between the rulers and ruled.”

On the issue of change, let it be clear, we speak not of farcical change of the sort of political swaps that characterises modern day African power struggles. This sort of change is typically folly, borders on criminality, and has led to misfortunes. No! Instead what is required is real, meaningful change for the betterment of all who live on this continent and otherwise.

Say, to all youth, you must remain obstinate, steadfast, indefatigable, independent and unapologetic about your demands for social justice. In this you should expect that your mandate will expand to other critical areas such as policy. While on the item of crime and other such nuisances, you must press on for radical policy shifts on this front too. You must not be derailed by counter-forces that will try to persuade you that conditions can only change at current pace.

There are better ideas to resolving these issues. Others suggest a complete rethink of how, as a nation, we conceive of public office vis-à-vis amassable wealth by individuals elected to such an office. Public office is an honour and these values of honour must be upheld in the actions of our leaders. The scope for policy reform must not end with limiting the coercion only of those in leadership; it must also make determinations on remedying the coercive aspects of existing socio-economic policies. This must certainly include re-opening discussions around redress policies. Here others have suggested that the time for the shunning of policy suggestions towards legally enforceable redress mechanisms is long over!

It must be noted that this was not meant to be a treatise on policy per se but more a consciousness-raiser on the veritable mandate handed down to us by history. Whatever the direction our rejuvenated positive values steers us towards, one thing must be clear: we must be blunt and relentless! So come all, stand up and be counted. The time is now.

  • Gareth Setati

    @Guiness Holic, placing the cart before the horse isn’t a typically African thing but a human thing one would think. On the Indabas and Lekgotlas, as in every forum around the world, there are challenges to making them work, especially in the early stages. Your harsh and brazen criticism of these forums is simply premature because change is a process, not an event. At any rate, it seems you are looking for a renaissance of the exact sort that Italy saw from the 14th – 17th century. Surely this cannot be a reasonable nor a logical expectation. Perhaps you should not read too much in to the word “renaissance” if you struggle to escape the connection to the renaissance of Florence.

    You need to understand that when civilisations go through a period of change, it is usually filled with pitfalls along the way. It could very well be that the issues you raise are part of the learning experience towards an ultimately better place. In your intonation, if it is taken to its logical conclusion, africa will never rise from her ashes and she will never throw off the ravages of its tragic history. Fine to have an opinion, but yours is unhelpful to the cause of the disenfranchised peoples of this continent.

    Perhaps your pre-emption of “race-cryptologists” being “all over of you” is based on the responses you have received on your fairly one sided, doom and gloom view of Africa.

    To be frank, we do not care what the detractors say, we believe in victory, it is simply a matter…

  • Gareth Setati

    To be frank, we do not care what the detractors say, we believe in victory, it is simply a matter a matter of when.

    No reasonable person can expect that after 300 years of colonialism africans can turn it around in 50 years of quasi-independence. Besides, as said, the european renaissance spanned some 4 to 500 years – so why is there is such a dim of view of africa’s prospects after just 50 years – 50 years of which was stifled by neo-colonialism.

    The chief reason we plan a renewal/renaissance in precisely because without a vision of what must come, then the proverbial failure to plan becomes a plan to fail. There are many indications of an africa which is doing better as the years go by – check these indications too instead of being stuck in quagmire of endless pessimism. There are those like you with a seemingly a myopic, ahistorical view of matters. I mean how should we see your snide contribution to this discussion any helpful? Indeed it is matter of innate leadership to swiftly graduate from problem-orientation to solution-orientation. This is my challenge to you and those like you whose opinions serve to kill our spirits.

  • Mr. Direct


    You state in your post: “To be frank, we do not care what the detractors say, we believe in victory, it is simply a matter of when…”

    Now I do not understand the heading of your piece:“The decline and fall of the African Renaissance”. Sounds a little negative to me, at least not very optimistic anyway.

  • Gareth Setati

    @Mr Direct

    The title is not a doomsday prophecy. It is a clarion call to focus attention on the challenges lying ahead of us as we begin the painstaking work of rebuilding. Isn’t it a tad disingenuous to single out the heading and discard the central message that we are trying to bring across?

    We are calling on the african people from all walks of life, especially youth, to note that there will be pitfalls along the way. And that once we have achieved victory, that victory will only be sustained for posterity if we began our journey on a solid footing in the first place. Part of this solid footing must be rooted in our political values and principled discourse throughout. That is, we must seek to avoid the regular pitfalls that history already is the great teacher of – hence the heading.

    To that effect, we note that there will be detractors whose contribution will serve to demotivate and inform us that Africa is a dead end that will see no better days. As a son of the soil, along with others who share these views, we reject this notion of a dead end from all fronts. We will pick ourselves up from the pitfalls the detractors point out, we will dust ourselves off, and start all over again. We will do this iterative process until we get it right.

    So yes, we indeed do not care whatever obstacles lie ahead; it is for us to rise above them. And certainly only the march of time will prove that the human spirit can conquer in the face of seemingly insurmountable…

  • Gareth Setati

    And certainly only the march of time will prove that the human spirit can conquer in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity!

  • Mr. Direct


    I had to mention the heading. If I saw a poem titled: “Death to all romantics”, and then the poem talked about love, I would consider the title or the content to be sarcastic or ironic.

    Here is my problem:

    I think that the youth are motivated to succeed. They are far too young to give up. Motivation is not the trouble. I think the youth need a direction to focus their enthusiasm. In fact, they need a leader that understands them, and points them in the right direction. One could argue that an ANCYL or DAYL would be the type of organisation for this, but, all I see in their statements is talk about struggle, battle, revolution, etc. and I wonder whether or not these words are used to not only fuel motivation, but to fuel rage.

    What is there to “struggle” over, who is there to “battle”, and what should they “revolt” against? These words are not associated with peace, and what we need for this country is to band together, not to divide, and certainly not to rage against the system, but to work with it. If the system is wrong, then change it, do not kill it…

    Similarly, in your piece, you mention words like “demand”, “unappologetic”, “radical”, and I just think these are creating sensationalism that is not to anyone’s benefit, because as I say, motivation is not the problem…

  • Gareth Setati

    @Mr Direct.

    Thank you for continued engagement. Your point is regarding the use of revolutionary talk and whether it helps matters or not. I personally grew up in a township and I know first hand the daily life there. It isn’t pretty at all and ultimately I would have rather grown up in Middle Ages africa within a coherent society than to grow up in a shack behind some dark alley surrounded by images of starvation all over.

    I wish to argue, based on lessons from history, that our African society still needs to go through another major transformation, call it revolution or call it what have you. The prerogative of this change had better come from the well to-do now before it comes from the angry and disenfranchised – either way, we should expect that change not to be small by any stretch of the imagination.

    But it remains clear that for many people in this country change won’t come in their lifetime, nor the lifetime of their descendants, nor their descendants even after. Advising youth to demand significant change isn’t sensationalist any more than it probably is some people’s fears as to what will be left of them when this radical change happens. We are talking about the precious lives of other people here @Mr Direct.

    Anyway this is an understood phenomen in that those who are well to-do always approach matters of change with skepticism and outright fear while those who aren’t well to-do want change there and then if only they could find expression to do…