OPINION | Christopher Ouma: Pan-African imagination and the role of South Africa

31 May 2021

Associate Professor Christopher Ouma

31 May 2021

One of the things that has become abundantly clear in the past few years has been South Africa’s connections to twentieth century pan-African imagination. Because of the promulgation of apartheid in 1948 there arose an intense focus on South Africa within the global imaginary and specifically within a continent that was caught up in the throes of anti-colonial resistance, which was followed by a decade (the 50s) that brought empire to a rapid decline and inaugurated the period of decolonisation.

These decades saw a huge number of South Africans go into exile as the apartheid government banned political organisation and set up a series of legislations that curtailed political and social freedoms for Black South Africans. These exiles settled in various African countries and made significant contributions to what became known as the decade of decolonisation (the 60s). They contributed to not only local cultural and political life, but also made more visible anti-apartheid imagination and its interface with the broader project of pan-Africanism within the continent. In other words, the period of decolonisation in Africa was very much linked to anti-apartheid activism, struggle and the imagination that came out of it. To be more specific therefore Black South African intellectuals, writers and artists form a major part of the history of decolonisation on the continent.

Recently Bhekizizwe Peterson and Ramadan Suleman produced a documentary titled By all Means Necessary, which connects the armed resistance of anti-apartheid struggle in the 1960s with that of anti-colonial resistance in countries such as Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. The documentary represents these within the background of the Algerian war of independence from France in the mid 1950s. Connections such as these made in the film speak to broader political and cultural processes that linked South African exiles to political and cultural organisations in various parts of the continent. One of the most important platforms within which anti-apartheid imagination found transnational visibility within the continent was small magazines. There are three important ones which embody this period of decolonisation, as well as becoming platforms from which South Africans in exile contributed to making visible the struggle against apartheid. Black Orpheus in Nigeria, Transition in Uganda and Lotus in Egypt were key publications that gave visibility to South Africans in exile. This visibility was made possible by an important figure, Es’kia Mphahlele.

Mphahlele’s exilic itineraries led him to Nigeria where he was one of the founders of the Mbari Writers and Artists Clubs which produced such literary heavyweights as Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others, as well the magazine Black Orpheus. He also taught at the University of Ibadan during this time. Mphahlele ended up in Paris and then Nairobi, Kenya where he founded an important organisation called Chemchemi. Mphahlele’s influence was quite important in bringing all the major African writers to the first conference of African writers in 1962 at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Before Mphahlele left South Africa, he was part of Drum magazine, an important publication that brought global attention to some of the most oppressive conditions of farm workers through the investigative reporting of Henry Nxumalo who was popularly known as ‘Mr Drum’. Drum convened a generation of writers and artists that included Lewis Nkosi, Dolly Rathebe, Nat Nakasa, Bessie Head, Ernest Cole, Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikiza amongst many others also known as the ‘Drum generation’. Through Mphahlele’s role in the Mbari clubs and his setting up of Chemchemi in Kenya, many of the Drum writers found visibility in Black Orpheus, Transition and Lotus. In this way anti-apartheid imagination filtered through many parts of the continent as it connected with various projects of decolonisation in East, West and North Africa. Through Chemchemi for instance, Mphahlele ran outreach projects with high schools in Kenya in such towns as Kisumu, Nakuru and Bungoma. Through these efforts South Africa abided in continental imagination as a ‘dream deferred’. These magazines ran not only short stories and poetry from South Africans in exile, but also bulletins, reports, letters and political commentary about apartheid and South Africa that helped to mobilize a pan-African response to anti-apartheid struggle.

Archives of this period continue to yield a huge network of South Africans across rural and urban parts of the continent who were involved in local forms of cultural production, contributing to newspaper columns, involving themselves in theatre performances amongst other things.  These activities helped to consolidate the aims and goals of decolonisation in these countries, while keeping in sight the realisation of freedom from apartheid for these exiles. The work of Mphahlele in Nigeria and Kenya for instance can be credited as the building blocks for what we understand today as modern African literature.

This article was firts published here: https://www.news24.com/news24/columnists/guestcolumn/opinion-christopher-ouma-pan-african-imagination-and-the-role-of-south-africa-20210529

Byline info: Christopher Ouma is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the departments of English Literary Studies and African Studies. He is the author of Childhood in Contemporary African Literature: Memories and Futures Past, has co-edited Spoken Word Project: Stories Travelling through Africa and his the editor of Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies. He is currently working on a monograph titled “Small Magazines and Pan-African Imagination”. Find him on twitter @chrisewouma