Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Afropessimism or bust?

Submitted by Tristan Görgens

Our Afropessimism has an indignant tone.

South Africa has long been the home of exceptionalism. We did white, minority rule differently, we fought for liberation differently, we avoided civil war with a negotiated settlement, we taught the world about truth and reconciliation, we were the champions and purveyors of Nepad and the African renaissance.

Reading comments on South African blogs (including Thought Leader), I have found that while the growing list of crises facing South Africa has resulted in the expected chorus of voices that remind us it is the manifest destiny of Africa to fail, many of these voices have an element of shock or disillusionment. We were going to be different, until we weren’t, and then suddenly we are the same as every other (failed) African country. This chorus chimes “it could have all been different if …” with recipes that range from a hundred years’ more colonialism to the abolishment of BEE.

The problem, as far as I can see, is that this form of pessimism has seriously narrowed the terms of the debate (if, indeed, we want to call this a debate at all). People who do not share this sense of pessimism are either rejecting these claims outright (“You are a white, middle-class person, what do you know about these things?”) or battle to walk the tightrope between recognising that there are problems and serious limitations in government, while trying to reintroduce a sense of balance to the debate. This usually results in seriously convoluted arguments between the opposing camps of the “pessimists” and “apologists” that end in personal attacks on one another.

As a young African committed to bringing about change on the continent, I feel constantly compelled to choose between these camps, which is an untenable position. These issues require careful consideration and that is impossible with the persistence of the extreme polarisation of these debates. What’s more, I am looking to my elders for inspiration and guidance on how we can tackle the profound challenges our society faces and I feel as though this is in extremely short supply. I am looking for those voices that have the strength and the clarity to reject the easy nihilism of Afropessimism and can provide us with brave, challenging options for Africa’s future.

In the rather lengthy quotation below, taken from his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Albert Camus shows us how we can recognise the bad, without being consumed, and that above all else we need to be daring enough to imagine a “new art of living” beyond our current either/or options (and hopefully puts to lay to any exceptionalism we may still have about the difficulties facing our current society):

“For more than 20 years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour because this activity was a commitment — and a commitment not only to write. Specifically, in view of my powers and my state of being, it was a commitment to bear, together with all those who were living through the same history, the misery and the hope we shared.

“These men, who were born at the beginning of the First World War, who were 20 when Hitler came to power and the first revolutionary trials were beginning, who were then confronted as a completion of their education with the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the world of concentration camps, a Europe of torture and prisons — these men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, I think, can ask them to be optimists.

“And I even think that we should understand — without ceasing to fight it — the error of those who in an excess of despair have asserted their right to dishonour and have rushed into the nihilism of the era. But the fact remains that most of us, in my country and in Europe, have refused this nihilism and have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.

“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.

“In a world threatened by disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors run the risk of establishing forever the kingdom of death, it knows that it should, in an insane race against the clock, restore among the nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labour and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant.

“It is not certain that this generation will ever be able to accomplish this immense task, but already it is rising everywhere in the world to the double challenge of truth and liberty and, if necessary, knows how to die for it without hate. Wherever it is found, it deserves to be saluted and encouraged, particularly where it is sacrificing itself.”

As someone who has discovered in themselves a natural inclination towards transgression and a need to live in a happy, egalitarian society, Tristan Görgens has tried to make a career out of being a positive “thorn in the side”. His interests and passion have been expressed through involvement in a number of student-run projects focusing on youth development, social justice and diversity issues. He is completing his master’s in development studies at UCT this year