Africa: Reclaiming the Past, Defining the Future

South Africa in The Making - photographic exhibition at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban
20 November 2023
guest column

Nairobi — This month, I visited the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa. It's a stunning arena that was built ahead of FIFA World Cup 2010 and named after an anti-apartheid activist, trade unionist and politician who played a key role in shaping the destiny of South Africa.

While touring the stadium I came across an eye-opening exhibit: 'South Africa in the Making'. This series of powerful images chronicles the making of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu termed the 'Rainbow Nation', celebrating the strength the country could derive from its many ethnicities. The exhibit features narration by Mac Maharaj, a freedom fighter and close comrade of Nelson Mandela; they both spent soul-crushing years imprisoned on Robben Island.

The first image struck me deeply. It was a 1916 photo of an Afrikaans officer leaning over and grasping the neck of an immobile Namibian chief. [Forces of the white South African government occupied Namibia – then called South West Africa – in various capacities during World War I and until a hard-won Namibian independence in 1990.] This image was publicized with a caption indicating that the officer was giving the chief medical treatment. The reality is that the officer was decapitating the chief, and the image was originally titled Trophy Photo. Only years later was the story debunked and depicted in an artistic piece by renowned Namibian artist John Muafungeyo.

Africa's journeys of independence are a stark reminder that information is a potent weapon of war, control and domination. Realities are often warped. As a result, lines between right and wrong become blurred.

In Africa, we know what it is to be stripped of our heritage and dignity.

In Africa, we know what it is to be colonised - robbed of our land, stripped of our heritage and dignity. Demeaned, displaced, gagged, tortured, exiled, killed – all in the name of civilisation. The oppressed were often cast as 'savages'.

Today, Africa's narrative is still contorted. Even now, we only know an iota of our true history. Interesting how, within a short span of time, Mandela turned from a 'treasonous rebel' to a hero, statesman and global elder. Perspectives shifted, but did the world learn and evolve? Did we ask, what kind of civilisation dehumanises fellow humans?

In 1994, as the world celebrated a new era for South Africa, the UN was busy dithering over the definition of the word genocide – and from April 1994, for 100 days, the rivers of Rwanda ran red with the blood of one million men, women, children and babies. Once again, the world failed humanity.

From the "South Africa in the Making" exhibition at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban

Today, the world is failing humanity in Sudan, where fierce fighting has forced millions from their homes. United Nations agencies say hundreds of babies are dying and over 20 million people face starvation.

And as the world watches the bombs rain down upon Gaza, we all must ask - how many times will we say 'never again'? When will we learn to do better? In these difficult times, we have a moral imperative to take a stand for innocent people who are dying.

Africa's history prepares it to champion the equal value of every life and to cherish the possibility of hope

On 7th October 2023, Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat demanded that the two parties return to the negotiating table, to implement the principle of two States, safeguarding the interests of both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. He called on the international community, and the major world powers in particular, to assume their responsibilities to impose peace and guarantee the rights of the two peoples. Instead, global powers are playing an active role in enabling this war.

On 26th October at the United Nations vote on an "immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce", African nations voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution, and for protection of civilians and upholding of legal and humanitarian obligations. South Africa has recalled diplomats from Tel Aviv, citing genocide, and has called for a United Nations force to protect civilians in Gaza.

Africa's experience has positioned the continent as a crucial voice. The spirit of Ubuntu – 'I am because you are' – reinforces the principle of humanity and reminds all of us that EVERY life matters – no life is worth more than another. This is the critical lesson the world so desperately needs to learn today.

There is still hope. Time and time again humanity has shown the fortitude, courage and grace to rise and build from the most difficult of circumstances. Africa exemplifies that.

There is an African proverb that tells us – peace is costly but is worth the price. Efforts must now be centered on ending the blasts of war and making the intense efforts necessary to build understanding, forgiveness and harmony that will safeguard communities for generations to come. It is possible, and we must fervently hold on to that hope and spirit. Ubuntu!

Julie Gichuru is a multiple-award-winning journalist and broadcaster, a Tutu Fellow and a Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. The views expressed are her own.

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