African Futures in Culture: The Role of Criticism

8 Jun 2017 - 17:00
Thokozani Mhlambi. Image: Jo-Anne Duggan

Thokozani Mhlambi

We as Africans are now living in an age of great potency and proliferation in the area of culture.

Many authors from the continent, even those young in age, are receiving global attention in terms of readership and appeal. One can mention names such as Chimamanda Ngozo Adichie (Nigeria), Panache Chigumadzi (Zimbabwe), as examples. One can also include  the ongoing output of poetry from the Jozi House of Poetry collective, which includes the likes of Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, Myesha Jenkins, Makhosazana Xaba, to mention a few who have stood as a force to be reckoned in the mobilization of the poetic form as a response to the difficult problems of identity, sexuality and placehood that are faced by our people.

Equally important to recall would be the performance and film traditions that are emerging on the continent, which seek to bring a different logic to the narratives that are raised elsewhere in the world.

Yet notwithstanding all this output, a question remains. Where are we going exactly? It all seems hip-and-happening, but fundamental questions remain unaddressed:

1. What is the role of culture? What is culture for?

2. Who should be making culture and for who (its audience)?

3. What is the role of tradition, and its dialogue with a modernizing word?

These questions for me, seem to be calling out for the role of cultural criticism--a skill that seems to be missing at present. Such a role cannot be instrumentalized in rigid institutional forms.

Albert Luthuli learnt this very well in the 1940s, after a collective known as the Zulu Cultural Society was co-opted by the Native Affairs Department (a division of the oppressive government of the day). Reflecting on the co-option of the Society, Luthuli (1962) wrote:

“I believed then, as I do now, that an authentic, comprehensive South African culture will grow in its own way. This will not be determined by cultural societies, but they may influence it,”

Yet there is no denying that there is a role for governments on the continent to play in promoting a culturally vibrant environment, and building the infrastructures that enable easy connection across different regions. Thabo Mbeki (2012) hints to this when he emphasizes a fine balance between African governments' focusing on their local nation specific goals and the aspirations of a broader Pan-African community.

However, Mbeki's suggestions are already a watered-down version of the radical aspirations Kwame Nkrumah advocated during his time. For Nkrumah, nation-state centeredness was only a temporary resolution, in what he saw as the gradual development of a single unified African state, that would become a spiritual home for all those in the world who have never believed the lie of European superiority.

South Africa is well poised to be at the cutting-edge of the elaboration of this global community, and to expand on the definition of 'home.'

Cultural practitioners in various parts of the continent are already advanced in this effort, but without the consolidating work of cultural criticism the fruits of this activity will always remain embryonic--always about to be something, never quite achieving an end.