Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Why Africans cannot tell their own stories

African writing and publishing has been systematised to be an extension of Western or European thinking and imagination about the continent and its people. An African writer is not encouraged to come up with a new variation or interpretation of what happens in Africa.

Over-simplistic as it may seem, I will tell you what kind of so-called writing is encouraged, approved and promoted by mainstream publishing houses that represents foreign interests in this country.

Firstly, your perspective must uphold and promote the West as this great centre of democracy.

Secondly, this writing must feed the stereotypes and prejudices people in this great democracy hold about Africa.

Thirdly, African writing must be filled with self-hate where the chief characters are people who serve the interests of the West. Thus the storyline and characterisation and plot must see the characters saying: it is very good to be puppets of the West.

Thus, to a great extent, the so-called African writing and literature that we are fed tells the African story through a colonial perspective.

The readers of this kind of literature end up believing and resigning themselves to the nation that Africa is a doomed continent. The way we look at ourselves as Africans is through the colonial prism and perspective.

I want to believe that the books I have written over the last three decades did not fit well with the cultural expectations of white people who are more European than African in their world outlook and ideological orientation.

Ever since I was a young writer, I have tried to produce literature that is directed at African people in the townships and rural areas. But for this to be approved for publication, it had to go through so-called all-knowing readers — mostly white people and their surrogates — who are the gatekeepers and mind controllers of what will be published and what will not be.

Now, if white people want to maintain and preserve the economic control of this country and its people, they must control what people read and experience as culture. There can be no economic control without cultural domination.

In fact, an increasing number of African intellectuals will tell you that Africans are a minority when it comes to cultural production and practise in this country. And this includes so-called African writing.

Many of the publishing houses that have been set up in this country — just like the record companies — are not here to promote and uphold African freedom and self-determination. What they produce are products that address the expectations of the so-called “market” that has been designed and aligned to Western expectations. It is to keep us ignorant and loyal to the capitals that control everything that happens everywhere.

As a result, there have been no cultural winds of change blowing through this continent for a very long time. This is happening in a country where Africans are in the majority and have got their own unique way of looking at the world based on their experiences determined by their culture and ideological orientation.

But we do not have African so-called readers who are independent enough to promote African interests and perspectives.

Seen against this background, the rejection of my work is more a rejection of work that does not fit well into the European way of looking at the world.

We have to question the underlying assumption on African writing and publishing. It is a political decision to use culture to maintain and preserve white supremacy. The question is what is to be done for us to come with African writing, literature and publishing that our own people can identify with and relate to?

I wish to make it clear that African writers need to be emphatic in challenging and questioning the way the system works on the continent.

Firstly, we must reject the use of so-called readers who have no understanding or appreciation for the authentic African experience and perspective. We must demand that readers have a proven record of putting the interests of indigenous writers as a top priority. The promotion of African voices in their diversity must be the centre.

Secondly, the criteria and other standards that are to be used must be considered in their relevance to the African majority who come from an illiterate and, increasingly, depoliticised background. Thus the standards must aim at improving self-understanding and encouraging and supporting the creative efforts.

We are aware that these non-African writers are part of the diversity of our culture and have contributed to the redefining of our identity. But everything and everybody must be oriented towards upholding and promoting African creativity, in its imperfection.

Finally, African writers must own their own work. It can be argued on different grounds that work that largely passes as African is, in essence, the expression and articulation of Africa through the colonial prism. Therefore it is important that Africans themselves write with themselves in mind.

I have re-read the letters of rejection over the decades. It is my belief that the work could have been improved, of course. But it was largely rejected because it did not fit into the European or colonial model and expectations. Africans are here for themselves and should not continue to succumb to the mind control of people who come outside their lived experience.

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