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To Define a Continent By Its Icons Diminishes Its Politics and Its People

Many people turn to stereotypes and exceptional examples to define a country, its politics and people. This tendency has had a pernicious durability when it comes to the continent of Africa. Indeed, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes, but there are other stories that are not about its challenges and it is just as important, to talk about them.



Life is complicated.That is why too many people turn to stereotypes and exceptional examples to define a country, its politics and people.Though this tendency is universal, it has had a pernicious durability when it comes to the continent of  Africa.

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie distilled this phenomenon in her 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, which considered the perils and mis- conceptions that result when, for instance, the continent of Africa signifies only poverty, disease and political dysfunction, crowd- ing out countless individual and pertinent stories. Adichie does not spare herself and openly refers to the occasions when such assumptions have led her down an incorrect, incomplete narrative path.

Ironically, Adichie herself has become an icon: “the African author in the spotlight” – the light that at other times has shone on Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, for example. That spotlight is fickle, and has room for only one at a time. It is a pattern that holds across categories, be it music (Fela), acting (Lupita Nyong’o) or – most importantly – politics, where much is at stake, from trade to aid to global policy.

By making anyone bigger than the truth – and impervious to it – the story of progress and setbacks is simplified, and rendered useless. During my trip to South Africa in early 2017, the late icon Nelson Mandela was still at the centre of so much contemplation. He was the leader against whom all others were (and are) judged, to some extent. Does that larger-than-life iconic status – well deserved, to be sure – serve to keep frozen some aspects of life as it is lived across the continent?


Another danger of putting faith in one iconic figure is the temptation to look for – to wait for – that saviour to appear almost miraculously, ready, willing and able to solve any problem and make every life more meaningful. Of course, true progress comes with cooperation and often does not need a leader.

Nelson Mandela as Africa

You cannot escape the outsized influence of Nelson Mandela – not only in the story of South Africa, but in any story of the continent. When I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, his visage and wise quotes could be spotted at the entrance and throughout the building: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Mandela’s influence extends to the world. When white supremacists and neo- Nazis led a violence-fuelled march in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, former U.S. President Barack Obama – himself a true African American whose father was born in Kenya – turned to Mandela’s words for the much-loved tweet: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his back- ground or his religion…”  It went on: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…”

File: Jailed South African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela in the early 1960s. The picture was copied from South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) late 1989 prior to Mandela’s release from prison on 11 Feb 1990. Photo: ANP

“…For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” The Apartheid Museum does not ignore the stories of other heroes of the movement, including Desmond Tutu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Joe Slovo. But the fact that Mandela’s story is told in complex detail only strengthens the man’s iconic, almost supernatural, status. How could one accomplish so much, suffer through so much, live through so much and come out on the other side a statesman and a leader?

Yes, his longevity is one part of it. In his case, we see the arc of a life and a cause come to fruition. So many, like Steve Biko, were killed before they could fulfil their own promise and that of their country. Others, like Hector Pieterson and the many young people who were killed, jailed or disappeared during apartheid, never even had a chance at life.


By making anyone bigger than the truth – and impervious to it – the story of progress and setbacks is simplified, and rendered useless.

But ask those outside of Africa to name an icon and Mandela comes to mind first. The world saw Mandela emerge from his Robben Island prison, touched by age and grey, with a constant smile and universally relatable visage. He was unthreatening, too – which is how many prefer those they honour. He was father and grandfather, the man who talked to his jailers with compassion. The rough edges that had been smoothed out made him even more interesting. He suffered pain and hurt, the death of family members, including a son from AIDS, giving him a chance to break new ground by talking about it, thus cementing his legacy.

But treating him as an untouchable icon diminishes the potentially valuable lesson that anyone – any man, woman or child – can play an outsized role in a family, community or society. If the point is that no one can match the accomplishments of such an icon, or that any human being is perfect, the effect is stifling.

Africa is More Than One Country

Africa is more than one country. That seems a silly statement to have to make, but this one word often evokes an image that ignores the diversity of peoples, landscapes, political systems, music styles, etc. that gives each country on the continent its distinctive individuality. Each country also has a history. But many people, especially those looking on from afar, do not have the time or rigour to investigate it. It is also a problem when these histories have been written by colonisers, the victors who can shape a narrative to their advantage.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Photo: Sophie van Leeuwen/RNW

When people are looking for Africa’s “next Mandela”, the truth is hard to see. From the historic presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia to the complicated legacy of Paul Kagame in Rwanda to the recent disputed elections in Kenya, the story is not about “Africa”; it is about individual countries and their relations with each other and within the global community.

Some in the West did put Sirleaf on that pedestal. One may suspect that this was as much for her Harvard connection as for her recognition of the challenges facing her country’s health systems, even more so in the wake of the Ebola crisis.


In the Diaspora, the Problem Persists

This tendency to frame a people in the shape of an icon is not just an African phenomenon. It provides a sort of shorthand for any place that is unfamiliar. But it has a particular edge when referring to people of colour, as though a leader is needed to identify groups it would take too much effort to distinguish as individuals.

In the United States, African Americans know this well. So many who do not know or understand our long history use the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as a touchstone. If only there were another King, they muse (or scold), African Americans would be organised, satisfied and peaceful, and would behave in an acceptable way even when demanding civil rights and an equal place in America.

This nostalgic view ignores the fact that King was never universally popular. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” admonished his fellow pastors – white clergy – who opposed the civil rights struggle for pushing too much too fast. After he spoke against the Vietnam War, some of his supporters abandoned him.

Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther King 09 December 1964 in Oslo where the US clergyman and civil rights leader received the Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: ANP

In death, King became a martyr and, yes, an icon. But to the extent that the icon was moulded and shaped to serve the beliefs of others, his righteous demands for justice took a backseat to his words of reconciliation. Those who knew the man and appreciated his message knew that its complexity made it more powerful.

Why It Matters


Everyone and every place needs its heroes, to celebrate and to give hope. But aware- ness is also essential, to know that these important symbols can be both brilliant and flawed, and that they were supported by others whose names and contributions must not be lost.

The notion of a single person, a single icon, poses a danger, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her own, yes, “iconic” words:

Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes. There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo, and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5 000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.

The article is part of a series of articles by This is Africa in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa.