It came as a surprise, early in the morning: Two young Zimbabweans, straight out of university, asked me the oddest of questions. Unexpectedly. “Who was Julius Nyerere?” And then: “Was he Zambian? Was he South African? What did he really do?”
At first, I was shocked. After all, I went through primary school singing all sorts of praises to African liberation heroes. Some of the songs were propagandist, to be honest, such as the lyrics of this one, which we used to love singing without really knowing what the names meant. The lyrics went something like this:
We shall ne’er forget you, beautiful Zimbabwe
Ling live Comrade Machel,
We shall never forget
Long live Comrade Machel
Long live Comrade Nyerere
We shall never forget you,
Long live Comrade Nyerere”
And then the stanza would start again. And yes, as teenagers we also used to sing lyrics that wished Robert Mugabe, Africa’s last standing liberation and post-independence era leader, a long life.
But back to my shock at being asked who Julius Nyerere was. My shock stemmed from the realisation that there were a lot of young Africans who would not be able to sing the songs we sang when we were growing up. Indeed, some may argue that it is a good thing that such songs are a thing of the past. Fact is, they were cultural products of our liberation struggle across the continent. But the past cannot be wished away, nor is it best practice to do so in societies that seek out a better democratic future.
In songs such as the one I cite above, we recognised, even as young teenagers, the icons that led the movements for our national and continental liberation. We would trek to the local library to read and discover more about Nyerere, Machel, Neto, Ben Bella, Nasser or Cabral. Or, after reading a decent amount of European history for what in the former British colonies we referred to as Advanced Level studies, we would take some pride in reading about the Zimbabwean liberation icon Nehanda Nyakasikana, or the Kenyan liberation icon Dedan Kimathi,or the legendary Queen Nzinga, from what we now know as Angola.
This was a song that was sung in many primary schools across post-independence Zimbabwe.
The liberatory and counter-hegemonic actions of these icons, however, has less generational resonance than it had in our own time as young Africans. The struggles against colonialism had been won and there was an assumption of the universality of human rights, à la the Global North, especially after the fall of the penultimate African liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa. (There is still the outstanding struggle for the liberation of the Saharawi people from the Kingdom of Morocco in the north-west of Africa).
The post-liberation phase of our African existence was to be accompanied by the end of a Cold War between the geopolitical Global West and Global East, which we had navigated with great dexterity to attain freedom. A uni-polar world saw new values and hegemonic influence via a globalised media (and Hollywood) that focused less on our own African history and accentuated narratives that would be and still are Western in orientation.
New icons began to emerge via satellite television, digital video and compact discs and, in contemporary times, via the Internet. These were to drown out the African icons that we learnt of through song and a visit to the library. The majority of these icons were to be musicians, athletes (football, anyone?) and activists from the Global North. It was the medium that did it.
Television, radio, the Internet and our lack of embracing contextual free expression led to a dearth in our recognition of African political icons – let alone a continual understanding of what the liberation struggle truly meant, or its residual effect, together with the vestiges of the colonial state, on our contemporary existence. This is especially true when we start asking questions about the reasons that a Pan-Africanist consciousness dissipates across generations…
This is the key question. At the turn of the century, most Africans would easily have recognised the liberation struggle icons, not only for their freedom-motivated activism and, in some cases, their martyrdom, whereas in contemporary times, the younger generation of Africans do not share the same fervour, let alone an understanding of how historically significant it was to have finally shaken off the shackles of the oppression that came with colonialism and even with post-colonial dictatorships.
The passage of time
The reasons for this are probably threefold, the most significant being that of the passage of time and the loss of struggle memory and consciousness.
Those who participated either directly or indirectly in the liberation struggle(s) would have a clearer memory of who the icons were and the reasons that they were to be admired or eulogised in song. They would also remember the post-independence leadership styles, achievements and subsequent failures of some of these icons, or why it became a good thing for some of them to leave political office while they were still in good standing with the people they led directly or with those elsewhere on the continent who looked up to them for inspiration.
It was all in the liberatory moment and its attendant celebratory culture. But the glorious icons were to fall victim to assuming that liberation and their role in it alone was enough to keep them above reproach. The vagaries of being leaders of post-independence governments and the demands of performance legitimacy posed the next challenge, sometimes resulting in the reason that their iconic status dissipated.
Younger generations of Africans, disillusioned by the lack of the fulfilment of the promises of liberation and by post-independence conflict, decided to start out on their own and create new heroes. Or, alternatively, they would eschew that path altogether, focusing more on their personal survival than on the broader questions of political, social and economic justice.
This emerging disconnect appears not to have been redressed as the gaps in consciousness increased between generations following those who fought for or experienced the liberation struggle. This was due to a great degree of censorship of opposing views and the repression of those who sought to redefine a more honest meaning of the liberation struggle and even reclaim a truer one from post-colonial African leaders.
The end result, leading us to the third significant reason that Africa’s political icons are increasingly being forgotten, was that young Africans sought new and less politicised/political icons elsewhere.
The role of new media in the creation of new icons
This rejection of new and younger views on the liberation struggle and its leaders, coupled with the expansion of global media and Internet-based new media platforms, created new nodes of consciousness for younger Africans.
Given the immediacy of these new media platforms, there is little or no time for a deeper understanding of who should be an icon in an organic sense.3 Icons and legends appear to be more ephemeral than they are borne out of organic context and true people’s struggles. Even then the emerging ones fit more into the lexicon of the celebrity culture that now dominates media spaces on the continent.
But this is not to say that the new icons are illegitimate or in any way less important. Instead they reflect a departure from the past and what one can safely argue is a new consciousness among young Africans of what, by way of contemporary priority, would be more politically important. The legacy of the various liberation struggles is easily defeated by bread and butter concerns such as the search for employment, better livelihoods, a globalised celebrity culture and, regrettably, a desire to travel to the proverbial (and colonially inspired) ‘promised land’ that is the Global North.
In this context, the primary challenge becomes less to do with a counter narrative to this reality than with ways in which to ensure that Africa’s liberation political icons and its history can survive in an increasingly globalised world and media environment; one in which scant attention and resources are given to preserving at least an historical consciousness that recalls that the liberation struggle and its iconic leaders were not just for political action but for value-based and people-driven projects intended to realise the true meaning of freedom.
The solutions to this challenge, however, lie in not denying the new expressions of consciousness by young Africans on who their contemporary and even past heroes or icons are. The more significant element is that African cultural organisations, mass-media production houses and movie companies begin to examine critically the sort of content and interpretations they can give not only to the liberation struggles as they occurred but also to its icons as they emerged.
This is not to say there have not been attempts to do so. The South African struggle against apartheid is well represented in this regard with a decent number of movies, documentaries, books and web-based content about its prominent leaders and activists. This is primarily a function of that country’s ability (to a greater extent) to allow free expression over and about the liberation struggle. The M-Net African Film Library has made noble efforts to present the lives of Africa icons in documentary format. It produced stellar work on icons such as Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Julius Nyerere and many others. However, I am not sure that this project still has wind in its sails.
Regrettably, and for various reasons, this kind of work has not been done in other African countries at the scale of M-Net’s African Film Library, leading to the erasure of the legacies of true struggle icons by way of censorship and political correctness.
That is why there are so few independently published biographies, let alone full feature films or documentaries about African liberation icons. This is not just true of those who are still in power – either as serving presidents or ruling parties. It includes even those smaller actors – the more local icons – in villages where liberation struggles were being waged.
Previous arguments against creating a more open and robust discussion on the icons of the liberation struggle held that such stories would be inimical to peace and security. I would argue that the opposite is true.
Discussing the icons of the liberation struggle in a less fawning manner and creating critical cultural content would help establish the necessary consciousness among young Africans to not only appreciate the liberation struggle’s importance as an occurrence but, more significantly, to appreciate the actual democratic and social-justice values that motivated the struggle against colonialism. This should be done even if it appears to be a less urgent matter than, say, development issues and climate change.
Our liberation icons remain important – warts and all. They do not need to fade from our continental consciousness of liberation struggle history, nor from the struggles that are continually faced in contemporary times. There must be a continuum of historical representation and imagination of their lives that will at least capture the increasingly ephemeral attention of young Africans.
This should be done not as a way of seeking to harness a Pan-Africanism of old but instead to create a consciousness necessary for a more robust understanding of the significance not only of individual African leaders of old, but of the values and principles that must guide those who would be future leaders.
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: