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  • on 23.09.2012
  • at 04:56 PM
  • by Staff

Biko: Great struggles, great spirits 0

Thirty-five years after his death, marked on 12 September, Steve Biko’s legacy remains. In this lecture, celebrated novelist Ben Okri reflects on the meaning of Biko’s life and writings for Africa. He concludes that there are three Africas: the one that we see every day; the one that they write about and the real magical Africa that we don’t see unfolding through all the difficulties of our time. The full transcript is available here and a podcast of the lecture can be listened to here.

All across the world in the late fifties and sixties could be heard what Byron once called the ‘First Dance of Freedom’. Not long afterwards came the cry of failure as civil wars, tribalism, coups and corruption descended on the recent freedom dances. Then came the long decades of animi, that was such a feast of gloating and salivation for western observers. People emerged from the African world into a European-shaped reality in two or three generations and no one wonders that there would be some confusion. People entered an arena in which others have been shaping themselves as nation states over hundreds of year and no one wonders that they would at first seem inadequate. The fact is we might have lost control of our self-perception. We might have lost control of how we see ourselves in the modern world. We see ourselves and measure ourselves with outwardly determined standards. We don’t play our game.

We don’t choose our values; but more seriously, emerging from African reality into modern reality has had one major effect: time has gotten speeded up for us. We are having to accomplish in 10 years what it took European nations 2000 years to accomplish. Africa is having to compress in a short time her own equivalent of the Roman Conquest, the Viking marauders, the Black Death, feudalism, Civil War, the Industrial Revolution with its dark satanic mills, capitalism, the poverty act, the union of the four warring nations and the unholy spoils of colonialism – all into a few solitary decades.

There is however another way to read history. It could be said that African nations have emerged from the long reality of their selfhood into a different time and are engaged in a complex historical adjustment. We need to define history more accurately, and the history of African people, the Bantu, the Zulu, and the Yoruba’s, to give a tiny example, is long, unique and needs to be written and studied. History is not the story of the impact of the western world on the African world; that is a small part of our history.

History is not objective. The meaning of history keeps on revealing itself through time. Like a text of infinite interpretability, history yields new meanings in relation to the eyes that behold it and the pressures of the times. History may be memory, history may be vengeance, history may be redemption – but whatever history is, it is too soon to extrapolate the meaning of our recent histories. Those who write about history in haste and fall into quick judgements, find that the long unfolding of events change the meaning of the facts upon which they base their judgements. Time is a great ironist. The historian who makes a quick judgement against the United States of America right in the middle of her apocalyptic Civil War, would be made fooling by the unfolding destiny of that nation.

History may be fact, history may be a dream, history may be revelation. It is not how things are that count, it’s what you do with them, what vision you have and with what strength you march towards that vision. We need a new consciousness. History is always responsive to a new consciousness.

Do you want me to keep going? I’m just trying to make sure I’m not talking to myself. They say the greater the mistakes the greater the lessons that can be learned. Africa has surely made enough mistakes for us to learn about. Among other things we are rich in mistakes. Some nations in the world make their mistakes over thousands of years, we made ours over decades. We have made enough mistakes to become nations of genius if we had that inclination. Maybe that is why there is the beginnings of a new consciousness, a new stirring of national success slowly creeping across the continent.

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