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Language in our African Future(s)

How language relates to time is a philosophical humdinger. In his remarkable essay, ‘Midnight,’ South African novelist Imraan Coovadia writes that ‘science has yet to create a satisfactory description of time, an account of why it exists and how it progresses…the physical time of the cosmos, expressed in the changes of subatomic particles and forces and billion sun galaxies, differs from historical time, with its emphasis on economic and cultural processes, and also from the psychological time of human beings.’

How then do we speak of time, and its radical disjunctions? How do we find the language for our imagination of the future? These questions and more are at the forefront of African Futures, a Goethe Institut programme currently taking place in various locations in Johannesburg. 50 practitioners from an array of disciplines, ranging from speculative literature and music to visual art, have been brought together to collectively engage in a transnational conversation about the future.

‘The Future of the African Diaspora’ will come under the microscope in a discussion which features writer Kodwo Eshun and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder of Berlin based SAVVY Contemporary, as the moderator. Elsewhere, political scientist Achille Mbembe, together with Ntone Edjabe, Keziah Jones, and Thenjiwe Nkosi, ponder what the future holds in the arena of knowledge production, in these times when the blasé language of social media can share a space with academia.

“At the heart of any discussion about language – and especially as it relates to knowledge production – is the issue of inclusion and exclusion,” says artist Thenjiwe Nkosi. “In South Africa, there is the problem of English, a colonial language, dominating learning institutions at all levels, as well as the traditional media, published literature, etc., and as a consequence it dominates the way we articulate ourselves to ourselves.”

Photo: Indiana University
Photo: Indiana University

An observation on how knowledge is produced in the age of limitless connectivity is inseparable from the waning grip of formal institutions who used to monopolise flows of communication. As exhibit A, the social media avalanche amid #FeesMustFall fuelled by people power made the ordinary voice take extraordinary leaps as the main purveyor of goings on as they happened, whilst mainstream media played catch up. This is in synergy to what Nkosi refers to as ‘radical sharing’. She expands: “radical sharing is about widening the scope of a thing, idea or space to a common benefit. Inclusivity is always one of its aims. Radical sharing privileges the power of human interaction, of creating community, of deep listening, of sharing ownership, of really seeing one another.”

Photo: Imraan Christian
Photo: Imraan Christian

As one Twitter post hashtagged with #FeesMustFall remarked “patriarchy misses so many opportunities”. The notion of a future language devoid of hang ups associated patriarchy and its unimaginative leanings is interesting. The fly, fresh and matriarchal alternative is evoked in Nkosi’s Multiplier project – also part of African Futures – involving Zanele Mashumi as curator. The project is a pop up exhibition taking place in Soweto and promotes the work of young artists who explore the perceptions of identity within the continent. “I wanted our voices to be many, and now they are. My project is pointedly called Multiplier, and it is made up of four independent projects run by women, whose inclusive projects have in turn shared the platform with other women and men”.

The question of whether Facebookers and academics can have a decent bar stool conversation about the African experience of the present and future, leaves much to be ironed out. The continent is the fastest mobile phone adopter and with this comes wave after wave of innovation and forms of storytelling that latch on to the times. Essentially, the ‘streets’ of Nairobi, Joburg, Accra and Lagos are first at the scene of what is the cutting edge.

Photo: Social Media Today
Photo: Social Media Today

On the other hand academics possess the vice of polyglots, whereby it becomes easy for them to appropriate the language emergent from the street for their own scholarly use. Observing this cross-pollination Nkosi says the idea of “knowledge production” is being problematized now more than ever. “As users of social media – which characterises our generation perhaps more than anything else – we are writing publicly more than any generation before” and in this new environment, who gets to say what “knowledge” is? This isn’t a new question, but these platforms are pushing it to the fore in very obvious ways.

Technology has opened up the playing field wide in radical ways and as seen in recent events, a collective voice is the stuff of epic revolutions. As much as language can be used to re-inscribe old, exclusive value systems that render people displaced, the screws can also be turned on power and make it buckle under the chants of the masses. It is with hope that African Futures creates a space where language is in favour of the African experience of today and tomorrow.

‘Knowledge Production: where do we grow from here?’ takes place on 31 October at Goethe Institut JHB. African Futures runs from 28 October – 1 November.

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