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Let’s Live as Africans

Let’s Live as Africans

Alexandria Township in Johannesburg. In full sight of a community of people, three men wielding knives and other weapons round on an unarmed man and then bring a knife to puncture his body several times. A photojournalist begs the crowd to help him get the man into a car to rush him to hospital so he can be treated. One man reluctantly steps up and helps. The others don’t move. The hospital seems uninterested to help. Somebody’s grandson, son, brother, husband, father, friend dies. The only apparent reason… the man is Mozambican.

During the last three weeks we have observed people attacked and some killed, people driven from their homes into refugee camps, people vilified on the streets and children in their schools, homes and shops looted and all with the purported purpose of driving non-South African nationals out of our country. And why did they come here in the first place? Because they saw our beautiful land as a place of hope and work – the land of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation, a place that protects human rights and strives for social justice.

There is justifiable outrage across the world but especially among our fellow Africans – from Mozambique to Mauritania and from Namibia to Sudan. The outrage is with South Africa because these killings are taking place in our name and unless we scream out to the world that we will not allow this to happen ever again in our name, we must bear the outrage.

This is usually Colin Thakur’s column. So I must tie in all of this to his technology theme. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist, in his 1970 Nobel Prize Lecture made the point that: While the mind is especially at peace concerning that exotic part of the world about which we know virtually nothing, from which we do not even receive news of events, but only the trivial, out-of-date guesses of a few correspondents … yet we cannot reproach human vision for this duality, for this dumbfounded incomprehension of another man’s distant grief, man is just made that way.
Well, the writer of the simply magnificent “The First Circle” didn’t quite understand just how technology would add simultaneously telescopic and wide-angle lenses to our vision, to our experiences and to our understandings. The impact of this on the human psyche – well, we don’t know yet.
We are human. We are African. We are South African. We are one of these and all of these simultaneously. It is not enough to carry these labels. We must earn them. We must learn about what it means when we say we are African. For me, being African is about feeling African.

So I use the web (internet), whenever I can, to listen to the music of the late, legendary Ali Farka Toure of Mali who was born in the near-mythical Timbuktu, the ancient city of higher learning dating back to the 14th century. His music occupies a space of intersection between traditional Malian music and the Blues of the southern USA. And I love listening to the music of Salif Keita, the Malian prince musician who decided to be a griot and was excommunicated by his family. His CD, Moffou, was listed as one of the top ten albums in the world in the “noughties” (2000 – 2009). Then there is the Senegalese music of Youssou N’Dour, Ismaël Lô and others. The great proponents of the music of the Democratic Republic of Congo are stars like Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide and the great Tabu Ley Pascal Rochereau.

As a teenager, I hung on to every book published by the African Writers Series that I could find – Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” whose author once and for all appropriated English as an African language, Ousmane Sembène’s “God’s Bits of Wood” – a story without heroes except the communities involved about a labour strike on the Dakar-Niger railway line – “Petals of Blood” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and hundreds of others. Many of these novels are now available for downloading. They are classics that should be compulsory reading. How else would we know what it means to be African?

And let’s be sure to understand the economic growth that is Africa’s story in the first part of the 21st century. While our economy is growing at 2 percent per annum, the continent’s economy is growing at 4.5 percent. The metropolis of Addis Ababa is unrecognisable today from what it was 10 years ago. Not without its own problems, it has changed dramatically for the better. According to the African Economic Outlook ( the economy of Côte d’Ivoire grew by 8.8 percent in 2013. One of the fastest rates in the world! If one uses Google to search for articles on the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, which resulted in the massacre of 800,000 people, it comes up with 650,000 records in 0.22 seconds – an example of machine learning. The victims of the genocide were mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. These are two language-based ethnic groups. They lived as neighbours for more than 400 years. All Africans should learn about the history of the Rwandan genocide so that we can prevent this from ever happening again.

Forty six percent of South Africans now have some sort of access to the internet. This presents us with the opportunity to learn about the world and to be connected – like Solzhenitsyn could not be – to data, images, videos and soundtracks of the world. We must move rapidly to be a learning nation. Last week, a Kenyan academic here in South Africa said she is asked by many of our compatriots whether she spoke Kenyan. There is no such language. I hope you will agree with me this is quite embarrassing.

So we live at a historic juncture. We are quickly evolving into a nation of social media junkies, the World Wide Web and the internet are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, open access resources (e-books, documents, video clips) are increasingly available and free or cheap online courses can be taken. We have a responsibility to understand how best to become an educated nation. And let’s be innovative. Can we, for example, imagine the possibility of connecting towns with towns across national boundaries by connecting people together so that conversations may take place? We owe it to our children and their children that these xenophobic attacks end and we prepare ourselves as a society to ensure they never return to our shores. With all of its limitations, we must return to the notion of a caring society, one that welcomes people to our shores and cherishes the diversity they bring with them and introduce in to our lives. We owe this to our children and their children.

– Professor Ahmed Bawa

*Professor Ahmed Bawa is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the Durban University of Technology. He is a theoretical physicist and is convinced of the importance of knowledge and technology in giving effect to positive change.

*This edited article was published in the Dolphin Coast Mail.

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