Today I found myself nostalgic for a man I had little appreciation for while he was still the president of our country. I found myself missing former president Thabo Mbeki. I was sitting at a table in Dime Todo lo que Sientes in Mexico City with a group of young idealists who, like me, have a fondness for discussing politics over dinner. In the group were a Mexican film-maker, Eduardo, a young Argentine activist, Luciana, and an Egyptian journalist, Heba. We are all special guests to the International Human Rights Festival taking place over the next four days.
The discussion was about the Latin American revolution. We were contrasting the Latin America of old with the Latin America of today to ascertain whether there has been a significant gain for peasants and the working class as the motive force of that revolution. Our Argentine friend regaled us with stories about life in the rural districts of her country. The Mexican film-maker, who specialises in the documentation of untold underground stories, took us through his experiences in Cuba, his personal relationship with Fidel Castro and his views on life in a socialist country, where he spent a great deal of time over a decade ago. Heba, a human-rights activist, detailed the events leading to and following the Arab Spring uprisings in the Arab north, with a particular focus on Egypt. Because she has spent the last two and a half years since the start of the uprisings reporting on the political situation in her country, she had a lot to tell us.
Heba, whose stories filled all of us with a sense of rage at the brutality with which mother Africa is being violated by these uprisings that are claiming the lives and innocence of young people and women in particular, ended her narrative with an impassioned plea (I suspect she was silently praying to Allah at this point) for Africa to unite. She spoke briefly about the importance of unity among Africans as a weapon to fight against socio-political instability and economic inequality. At this point I found myself choking with nostalgia, remembering Mbeki who, like Heba, believes passionately in the importance of championing an African Renaissance, which must necessarily be preceded by the unity of Africans not only at a social level, but also at the level of economic trade. Throughout his presidency, Mbeki spoke of the importance of intra-continental trade as a means of ensuring auto-centric development and stability. And yet it was not until I listened to Heba speaking of the need for a demilitarised Egypt that I had an epiphany, which inspired this article.
I was only seven years old in 1999 when Mbeki was inaugurated as the second democratically elected president of our country. Too young to have a full understanding of his politics but in 2006, when I was in grade nine, I began to religiously follow his articles on ANC Today. I did not understand many of them, he was discussing concepts that were foreign to me. But I did understand when he wrote about the African Renaissance agenda, it was a topic I thoroughly enjoyed. I understood the African Renaissance to mean the rebirth of Africa, the returning of our continent to its former pre-colonial glory. Our continent has lost so much in so many ways, but above all, we have lost our belief as a people that we are capable.
We have been defined by colonial constructs for so many centuries that we have not only become fragmented and weakened militarily, we have also lost our sense of purpose and vision for our continent. Since the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 — a formation born of the revolutionary ideas of former leaders like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana — Africa has gone from being a continent with a progressive leadership of visionaries who championed unity, to being a continent at war with itself. A continent with leaders at war with each other and in many ways at war with the people. And so I could identify with this idea that Mbeki was re-introducing into public discourse. I knew even then that this was a necessary discussion to engage and ultimately, to architect into a coherent objective that would be worked towards.
Mbeki did not just speak of the African Renaissance theoretically. In practice, he built towards its attainment. His mediation in Zimbabwe, controversial though it was, has proven, in retrospect, to have been the most effective method of conflict resolution. The successes in Somalia and in Sudan are evidence of African Renaissance at work. They are an expression of an Africa whose problems are solved using an African solution. But equally expressive of his philosophical outlook is his efforts in the preservation of African history, both physically and at a more abstract level of thought leadership. The establishment of institutions such as the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, which serves “as an intellectual home of the African Renaissance Movement” and the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, a faculty of Unisa, which contributes “to the rebuilding of African institutions in the areas of politics, commerce, trade, culture” etc, are evident of the former president’s seriousness about this renaissance.
I told my comrades that the unity of Africa is inevitable, especially with the establishment of the Mbeki institutions, and many others geared towards an African developmental agenda. Today, we find ourselves led by people with no appreciation for championing unity, people who have an “it’s my turn to eat” mentality. But for as long as we have young people in South Africa who are militant enough to demand economic freedom and young people in Egypt who dare to bring down regressive regimes, Africa has a fighting chance, for in the words of Mbeki: “It is this generation whose sense of rage guarantees Africa’s advance towards its renaissance.”