Ah, the African Renaissance. Can you feel those winds of change?
(photo by Chris Nevins)
Feels more like a boat becalmed in the middle of the Sargasso Sea with no breeze in sight. Statues that charmingly invoke North Korean aesthetics? Check. The absurdity of the dictatorial rulers of Equatorial Guinea sponsoring a UNESCO award intended to celebrate inquiry in the life sciences? Check. Why stop there? How about the Robert Mugabe Prize for Investigative Journalism? The Charles Taylor Prize for Peace, if the investigators ever manage to find his hidden money? It’s been a while since we had an African head of state coronate himself an emperor, so maybe we’re about due for that too.
At a deeper level, the statue in Senegal is a fairly good symbol for the key concepts behind the African Renaissance as described by Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Yoweri Museveni. All their talk of the need for African solutions to African problems, and the accompanying concession that African problems are significantly due to African actors, hasn’t led to any lessening of the veneration of the state as the single vector for delivering whatever reforms might be needed. Inasmuch as Mbeki and his peers have ever addressed civil society, social movements, individual rights, or cultural habitus, they’ve tended to assume that the goal of the African Renaissance is to subsume society within the state, that reform is marked by the more perfect unification of government and people. The idea that society is fundamentally different from the state, or that reform might involve the constraint or limiting of state power, doesn’t enter the picture.
It’s a pretty short and entirely coherent step from there to the ugly monumentality of the African Renaissance Monument.
To be honest, though, if I leave aside those deeper arguments about the nature of state power and the intractability of the nationalist imagination in postcolonial Africa, the other feeling I can’t help but have when I read about the monument or about the Obiang Prize or other similar issues is just that so much of the official action of African governmental representatives that appears on the global stage grates because it appears so amateurish, marked by what Achille Mbembe has tried to describe as “the banality of power and the aesthetics of vulgarity” (though Mbembe has bigger theoretical fish to fry than I do in this more humble reaction). I’ve previously been struck by the same feeling about some of the fumbling managerialism that’s swept through South African universities recently. I hate this kind of managerialism everywhere, but it feels even worse when it’s got that derivative, hack-job aura about it.
The problem is that I’m only too aware that this is a perspective which is prompted by how and when African government action receives coverage in the international press. Smart, effective, technocratically assured government, or responsible engagement of local communities by national representatives, doesn’t get any ink. And there are plenty of examples of stories that could be covered that would fit that description without any need for being a nationalist cheerleader.
Moreover, while I know I try hard for a personal consistency, it’s also true that African actions that get mocked or criticized are often precisely the same activities that occasion little comment or objection when you find them in the history or contemporary affairs of Western societies. Prizes created by corrupt, wealthy individuals that seem to bear little resemblance to their actual ethics during their lifetime? If you’re going to freak out about the Obiang Prize, I suppose you ought to freak out about the Rhodes Scholarship or the Nobel Prize. Or if you feel, as I guess I do, that once some plutocrat or dictator lets his gold slip from his grip, it’s free to do good things in the world, maybe that puts the Obiang Prize in some perspective. (Though there’s a meaningful difference in governance between an independent foundation that gives awards from an endowment and a UNESCO committee.) If you think an ugly statue that invokes the worst of socialist realism in a country that has better or more urgent uses for funding is a problem, then there’s a lot of monumental work across the world that ought to offend. Shit, the United States carved up a fucking mountain with the heads of its presidents: why doesn’t that strike us as ridiculous as all those Lenin statues that ended up in junkyard or Mr. Hero-of-the-African-Renaissance with his adoring wife a half-step behind him?
Maybe it’s enough to say: because Lincoln et al were actually good leaders. Or that Cecil Rhodes wasn’t as odious as Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, although that strikes me as quibbling about which circle of hell we’re peering at. More, I think, it comes down to the luxury of history: that those things that the West has venerated with monumentality or glossed with pleasantries don’t seem as provocatively vulgar or amateurish just because there’s a patina of time lending them a respectable sheen. Postcolonial African governments act in the intense but careless scrutiny of the now, and are punished, always, for somehow failing to leapfrog into a future most of us ardently envision. Even when you know all the reasons why you shouldn’t have double standards, and should either slather scorn around with abandon, or look tolerantly upon all follies aware that this too shall pass, it’s hard to live up to that knowledge. I can’t even be certain that I should try to.