A few weeks back, someone defaced the Cecil Rhodes statue on campus. “Fuck you and your dreams of empire,” read the message scrawled sloppily in black paint on the granite base. Day after day, the words remained. Students barely spared it a glance on the way to class. The administration ignored it. Even the cleaning staff seemed to have better things to do. It was two full weeks before someone found the time to remove, with little ceremony, the graffiti.
At one time, the lack of interest would have surprised me. After all, it’s Africa. People here have more cause to care about empire than just about anyone else. But it didn’t. Among students at the University of Cape Town, a distinct apathy, on the surface at least, exists toward the colonial past. As I discovered at the beginning of the semester, most classes in the history department are filled with exchange students. The locals at Africa’s premier university take classes in accounting, management or biology. In a tight job market, it is wiser to acquire practical money-making skills for the future than to spend time contemplating a past that cannot be changed.
The contrast to attitudes in the United States is marked. At home, Africa is empire. Or rather, Africa as it exists in our minds is wholly the result of empire. It does not matter whether you are talking about literature or politics; eventually the discussion returns to the two ‘– isms’: colonialism and imperialism. Bad governance, poor health, stagnating economies — all are attributed to the disruptive and devastating impact of European oppression. It has been half a century since Africans gained independence and yet we in the West still haven’t found a way to think about an Africa that doesn’t revolve around colonialism.
There is a very good reason for this. Colonialism’s effects on Africa are numerous, diverse and far-reaching. Centuries of exploitation have consequences. To try to understand Africa without understanding empire is to court failure. Yet, I can’t help but wonder at the implications of giving colonialism such omnipotence. This view of Africa ignores the millennia of peoples and cultures that populated Africa before the first European arrived. It ignores the contributions, both good and bad, that Africans have made themselves, the role that they have played in shaping their own presence. By blaming only the oppressors, we wrong the oppressed, because we don’t see them at all. They are flattened, real only in their role as victim. When we construct Africa only in relation to colonialism and its legacy, complexity is lost and limitations are imposed.
The one-dimensional, empire-centric way we understand Africa has always bothered me, but it wasn’t until the 30th anniversary of apartheid activist Steve Biko’s murder that I finally understood why. That day, I had met a friend downtown on Long Street for lunch and a movie. After catching the matinee showing of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” we ran into an acquaintance who invited us to a sit-in in Biko’s honor. There was to be food, drink and much merriment, not to mention the launch of the Pan-African Space Station, a “30-day music intervention” meant to “engage Capetonians with the rich and complex web of creative expression which binds Africans across the globe.”
With such a description and no class the next day, I went. Although I expected to have an interesting night, I did not expect the lesson on colonialism that followed. Gathered on the balcony above the Pan-African market, where the sit-in was under way, were Cape Town’s fledging painters, aspiring writers and unemployed musicians. They were eager to talk about their work. As I listened, I began to notice a common thread. Writer and musician alike told me about the importance of being African. Unlike many others I met, these artists were concerned with colonialism and empire — one might even say obsessed. They saw it as their artistic responsibility to reject the West’s cultural influence as that of colonial oppression and reclaim a specifically African identity. They had different approaches to doing so. One writer refused to write in English. She told me she preferred to use the native Xhosa.
Part of me admired them for this. There is a need for African art. Too often, a visit to a National Gallery here means looking at the work of some third-rate European artist. African art rarely makes it into these official halls. They are dismissed as crafts, too outside the traditional Western framework to qualify as high art.
Yet a bigger part of me was saddened. It seemed to me that even as these young artists tried to combat the colonial past, they were letting it win. They were letting it dictate the limitations of what they could do. While a European artist can feel free to borrow from other cultural traditions, the African artist is limited by the weight of the past to his or her own. What used to be a physical and political cage has turned into one infinitely harder to fight, a mental one. The externally enforced boundaries of the past have become the internally imposed ones of the present.