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African Icons and our single story narratives

Defining a continent – or any place – by its icons simplifies its politics and diminishes its people and such is the African narrative.



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 African continent. There are still present-day examples of folk who consider themselves well educated referring to the continent of Africa as “a country”.

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 misconceptions that result when, for instance, the continent of Africa means only poverty, disease and political dysfunction, crowding out countless, individual, pertinent stories. In her talk, Adichie does not spare herself – she 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” – a light that at one time shone brightly 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 despite the category, be it music (Fela), acting (Lupita Nyong’o) or – most importantly – politics, where much is at stake, from trade to aid to global policy.

Read: Mũkoma wa Ngũgi: On the (Un-) Making of Icons in Africa

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?

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

Nelson Mandela as Africa


You cannot escape the outsized influence of Nelson Mandela – not only on the story of South Africa but on any story of the continent of Africa. 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.”

That influence extends to the world. When white supremacists and Neo-Nazis descended on the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, for a violence-fueled march, former U.S. President Barack Obama, a true African-American whose father was born in Kenya, turned to Mandela for the much-loved Tweet: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion…”


It went on: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…”

“…For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

As you venture through the Apartheid Museum, the fact that Mandela’s story is told in detail and with complexity 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?

Of course the stories of other heroes of the movement are not ignored – of Desmond Tutu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Joe Slovo and others. But ask those outside of Africa to name an icon and Mandela comes to mind first. Yes, Mandela’s longevity is one part of it. In his case it was possible to see the arc of a life and a cause come to fruition. So many, like Steve Biko were killed before they could fulfill their own promise and that of their country. Others, like Hector Pieterson  and the many young students who had been killed, jailed or had disappeared in the Soweto uprising, never even had a chance at life.

The world saw Mandela emerge from his Robben Island prison, touched by age and gray, with a constant smile and universally relatable visage. He was father and grandfather, the man who talked to his jailers with compassion. He was nonthreatening, too – which is how many prefer those they honour.


The rough edges that had been smoothed out, however, 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 diminished 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 follow in the footsteps of an icon, or that any one human being is perfect, the effect is stifling.

More Than One Country

Africa is more than one country. That seems a silly statement to have to make, but in the eyes of many in the world, the one word evokes an image that applies to the diversity of people, landscapes, political systems, music style, etc., that give 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 history is written by the colonisers, not the colonised; by the victors who can shape a narrative to their advantage.

There are and have been elections in other countries on the continent, 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

It is not about “Africa”; it is about individual countries and their relations with each other and within the global community.

When people are looking for Africa’s next Mandela, the truth is hard to recognise.

Some did put Sirleaf on that pedestal, as much, one suspects, for her relatable-to-the-West Harvard connection as for recognising the challenges in her country’s health systems – even more so in the wake of the Ebola crisis.


Strife and Woe Need a Saviour

Another danger of putting faith in one iconic figure would be the temptation to look for – 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.

In the Diaspora, the Problem Persists

This tendency to frame a people in the shape of its icon as not just an African phenomenon. It happens as a sort of shorthand to describe any place that is unfamiliar. But it is particular when speaking of people of colour, as though a leader is needed to guide groups it would take too much effort to distinguish as individuals.

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


Read: Africa’s liberation struggle icons and a fading generational consciousness

Of course, 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.

In death, King became a martyr and, yes, an icon. His righteous demands for justice took a back seat to words of reconciliation. The real King was molded and shaped into an icon; a vessel to serve the beliefs of others, while those who knew the man and appreciated his message knew that its complexity made it more powerful.

Why It Matters

Yes, icons have their place. Everyone and every place needs its heroes, to celebrate and to give hope. But awareness is essential; the knowledge that these important symbols can be brilliant and flawed, and that they need the support of those whose names and contributions must not be lost.


The notion of the single person, the single icon, poses a “danger”. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her, 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.”


This is part of a series of articles in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa. The other articles can be found below:

Making up our own minds: Reframing Africa’s history and reclaiming our future


Stella Nyanzi: Social Justice and Social Media Icon

South Africa’s Mandela: Icon or aikona?

Africa’s liberation struggle icons and a fading generational consciousness

Making up our own minds: Reframing Africa’s history and reclaiming our future