A quick Google search of “African heroes” generates innumerable lists compiled by various organisations over many decades. While these lists vary, they consistently feature ‘heroes’ and ‘icons’ from the period of decolonisation – the likes of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – political mavericks such as Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo and Robert Sobukwe; Pan-Africanist champions, notably Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere; stateswomen like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; musicians like Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba; activitists like Mariama Ba, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Steve Bantu Biko; sportsmen and sportswomen; clerics, diplomats and past and current heads of Africa states.

What is most notable about these lists of icons is the general lack of consensus on whether certain heads of states, present and past, should even be on them. This sentiment stems from the lack of any transformative act during their tenure. The second factor is their failure to embody the values of uBuntu. Simply put, these questionable leaders failed to display the virtues that bolster a selfless humanity and a sense of servitude, where the leader exists to serve the people.

Sadly, the African continent is plagued by despots who thrive on self-aggrandisement, corruption and the violation of human rights while they steer African states and enterprises into economic hardship. Given Africa’s vast tracts of fertile land, mineral wealth and current demographic of a vibrantly youthful population, there is significant potential for massive economic transformation.

Why has Africa always lagged in the march towards economic prosperity, behind other economies? Why has the supposedly annual Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership only been awarded four times since its establishment in 2006?  The answer is the infinitesimal number of transformative leaders on the continent.

However, with 60 percent of Africa’s population currently aged 24 and below, the sands on which the ‘icons’ of old were erected are shifting. The 2015 #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa are proof of this. What started with a student throwing faeces at a statue of colonial icon and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town gave rise to calls for the “decolonisation” of universities and free higher education in what is probably the most televised challenge to the existing campus culture that for many still embodies what Rhodes stood for, as described by one of the university’s academics, Zethu Matebeni. The students’ anger, however, was not only directed at Rhodes as a symbol of colonial oppression. It also called into question the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the country’s negotiated settlement based on national reconciliation and political transformation. This is a dynamic that Richard Poplak further unpacks in the context of a still deeply divided society in which anger is growing about stubbornly high income and wealth gaps along racial lines.

South Africa is not the only country where former struggle heroes have lost resonance. Takura Zhangazha notes the hegemonic influence of the Western mass media that has transferred the youth’s recognition of African political icons to new figureheads, mostly in music and sports. Away from the global gaze, contemporary African popular culture and politics obviously do continue to introduce and sustain a multitude of icons that Africans encounter in their everyday lives. Fatoumata Bintou Kandé highlights some of Senegal’s national mascots, but also the hidden stories of female icons who found themselves sidelined in the country’s public memory in favour of their male counterparts. In his essay on writer, poet, ethnologist, numerologist and spiritual leader Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Abdourahman A. Waberi portrays another outstanding African figure who remains relatively unknown despite his historical significance.

Mary C. Curtis argues that although the tendency to reduce countries to stereotypes and exceptional examples is global, this has been especially persistent when it comes to Africa. Many of those stereotypes are negative, and even the few positive ones are embodied by exceptional individuals. However, Mũkoma wa Ngũgi sees hope in new and horizontal social movements that may bring to the fore a new iconography that transcends the individual and depoliticised “saviour”. Despite the stagnant imagery that the Google search presents, hope lies in reality. Here, neither history nor culture is stagnant. As Ngũgi puts it: “We have to allow Africa to be many things; to claim old, new and growing cultural and political traditions as its own.”

This edition of Perspectives explores some of the icons mentioned above and the issues they emblematise or veil. In so doing, we invite the reader to take a fresh and more imaginative look at the continent.



Below is a series of articles in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa:

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

Stella Nyanzi: Social Justice and Social Media Icon

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

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

African Icons and our single story narratives