Pan-African imagination and the role of South Africa

31 May 2021 | Opinion Christopher Ouma. Photo Annette Kurylo / Wikimedia Commons. Read time 6 min.
During apartheid, many South Africans went into exile in various other African countries and made significant contributions to what became known as the decade of decolonisation (the 1960s).
During apartheid, many South Africans went into exile in various other African countries and made significant contributions to what became known as the decade of decolonisation (the 1960s).

South Africans who went into exile during apartheid made important contributions to what became known as the decade of decolonisation, writes Associate Professor Christopher Ouma, jointly appointed in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) English Literary Studies and African Studies departments.

One of the things that has become abundantly clear in the past few years is South Africa’s connection to 20th-century Pan-African imagination.

Because of the promulgation of apartheid in 1948, there arose an intense focus on South Africa within the global imaginary and specifically within a continent caught up in the throes of anti-colonial resistance. This was followed by the 1950s, which brought the empire to a rapid decline and inaugurated the period of decolonisation.

These decades saw many South Africans go into exile as the apartheid government banned political organisations and set up a series of legislations to curtail political and social freedoms for black South Africans. These exiles settled in various African countries and made significant contributions to what became known as the decade of decolonisation (the 1960s).

They contributed to local cultural and political life and made more visible anti-apartheid imagination and its interface, with the broader project of Pan-Africanism within the continent.

A major part of decolonisation

In other words, the period of decolonisation in Africa was very much linked to anti-apartheid activism, struggle and the imagination that came out of it. To be more specific, black South African intellectuals, writers and artists form a major part of the history of decolonisation on the continent.

Recently, Bhekizizwe Peterson and Ramadan Suleman produced a documentary, titled By all Means Necessary, which connects the armed resistance of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1960s with that of anti-colonial resistance in countries such as Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau.

The documentary represents these within the background of the Algerian war of independence from France in the mid-1950s.

Connections such as these made in the film speak to broader political and cultural processes that linked South African exiles to political and cultural organisations in various parts of the continent. One of the essential platforms, within which anti-apartheid imagination found transnational visibility within the continent, was small magazines.

Three important ones embody this period of decolonisation and became platforms from which South Africans in exile contributed to making visible the struggle against apartheid. Black Orpheus in Nigeria, Transition in Uganda and Lotus in Egypt were key publications that gave visibility to South Africans in exile. This visibility was made possible by an important figure, Es’kia Mphahlele.

Mphahlele’s exilic itineraries led him to Nigeria, where he was one of the Mbari Writers and Artists Clubs founders, which produced such literary heavyweights as Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others, as well the magazine Black Orpheus. He also taught at the University of Ibadan during this time.

Mphahlele ended up in Paris and then Nairobi, Kenya, where he founded a vital organisation, called Chemchemi. His influence was quite crucial in bringing all the prominent African writers to the first conference of African writers in 1962 at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Before Mphahlele left South Africa, he was part of Drum magazine.

This critical publication brought global attention to some of the most oppressive conditions of farmworkers through the investigative reporting of Henry Nxumalo, who was popularly known as “Mr Drum”.

Drum convened a generation of writers and artists that included Lewis Nkosi, Dolly Rathebe, Nat Nakasa, Bessie Head, Ernest Cole, Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikiza, among many others, also known as the "Drum generation". Through Mphahlele’s role in the Mbari Clubs and his setting up of Chemchemi in Kenya, many of the Drum writers found visibility in Black Orpheus, Transition and Lotus.

Freedom from apartheid

In this way, anti-apartheid imagination filtered through many parts of the continent as it connected with various projects of decolonisation in East, West and North Africa. Through Chemchemi, for instance, Mphahlele ran outreach projects with high schools in Kenya in towns such as Kisumu, Nakuru and Bungoma.

Through these efforts, South Africa abided in continental imagination as a “dream deferred”. These magazines ran short stories and poetry from South Africans in exile and bulletins, reports, letters, and political commentary about apartheid and South Africa that helped to mobilise a Pan-African response to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Archives of this period continue to yield a vast network of South Africans across rural and urban parts of the continent, who were involved in local forms of cultural production, contributing to newspaper columns, and involving themselves in theatre performances, among other things.

These activities helped to consolidate the aims and goals of decolonisation in these countries, while keeping in sight the realisation of freedom from apartheid for these exiles.

The work of Mphahlele in Nigeria and Kenya, for instance, can be credited as the building blocks for what we understand today as modern African literature.

Christopher Ouma is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the departments of English Literary Studies and African Studies. He is the author of ‘Childhood in Contemporary African Literature: Memories and Futures Past’, has co-edited Spoken Word Project: Stories Travelling through Africa and he is the editor of Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies. He is currently working on a monograph titled “Small Magazines and Pan-African Imagination”. Find him on twitter @chrisewouma.

This article first appeared on News24.

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