President Jacob Zuma is a man the world struggles to take seriously. He sometimes fails to read out numbers in Parliament and is best known for singing and dancing, not his Pan-African values but in 2010, he shocked us. He proved he is a “woke” African on occasion of his state visit to the United Kingdom when he boldly said, “When the British came to our country, they said everything we are doing was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in whatever way. Bear in mind that I'm a freedom fighter and I fought to free myself, also for my culture to be respected. And I don't know why they are continuing thinking that their culture is more superior than others, those who might have said so. I am very clear on these issues, I've not looked down upon any culture of anyone, and no one has been given an authority to judge others. The British have done that before, as they colonised us, and they continue to do this, and it's an unfortunate thing.”
It was a packed statement which probably caught Britain unaware and years later, it is still the truth. The West still assumes superior virtue and vilifies African culture branding it as savage and barbaric. Nothing has changed: the colonial narrative is still the reigning narrative and it is disgusting. The ANC Youth League figured that out and also issued a statement saying, “They believe that the only acceptable values and principles in the world are British values of whiteness and subjugation of Africans.”
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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called it a “single story of catastrophe”. This is the characterisation of Africa as the dark continent which is diseased and ladden with “civilisational issues”. It was the panic that spread across the West during the Ebola outbreak and the dehumanisation of Africans killed in terrorist attacks. It is not even new but a part of the greater colonial machinery. Joseph Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness released in 1899 proves how old the institution of African denigration has stood.
A paper by Aziz Fatima aptly summarises the takeaways from Conrad’s work in this manner, “Conrad has presented Africa as heart of darkness. Conrad has presented African natives as cannibals. Africa is described as pre-historic limbo. The men in the novel are represented as blacks and frenzied people. Marlow, the narrator of the story describes African natives…as diseased shadows of death and misery. He does not call them inhuman, He calls them human but he still calls them barbaric, instinctive and savages.”
For the West to assert its civilisational superiority, it needs to undermine Africa’s. Michael Pickering says of this, “Western societies classifying themselves as modern and civilized rely heavily on the contrast between their own sense of advancement and the idea of racially backward and inferior societies.”
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It is from this narrative that the Dead Man’s Creek Syndrome arises. Former South African leader, Thabo Mbeki once spoke of residents of Dead Man’s Creek who laughed at the prospect of African success because they had only been exposed to negative images of the continent. There is nothing respectful about persistently negative imagery of Africa. The continent cannot be used to feed the West’s gigantic ego.
Even though the world pretends African countries are now independent and all is well, former colonisers are stubbornly holding on to dangerous narratives of Africa and African culture using a foreign benchmark. With Europe as the standard, they go on to evaluate Africa and find it a lesser continent with lesser people of lesser values and thus a need for Europe to save them. When Zuma reacted to the UK, the country had been critical of his polygamous life which is normal in his culture. Why did the UK feel it had the right to police a whole President’s morality?
“Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity” – Patrice Lumumba.
Young Africans are being subtly trained to hate themselves. Young Europeans are being taught a fallacious superiority with no place in the 21st century. There is nothing inherently so special about Western culture that Europeans can stand on pedestals and give lectures on how to live right. The colonial narrative of African inferiority in all spheres of life is not only racist and untrue but also anachronistic. It is high time this disrespect comes to an end!