Mbeki was no white wannabe

2010-11-13 16:31

The article ‘White way’ not the ‘right way’ (City Press, October 31), in which Steven Friedman depicts the former president as a man desperate to show that blacks could do things “the white way”, caught my attention.

More than anything, the presidency of Thabo Mbeki was about enlightening South Africans – white and black – about two books by African scholar Cheikh Anta Diop – The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa.

In the former book, Diop makes a profound statement that brackets the colonial experience as simply a moment in the long history of Africa.

Being the scholar that he is, Mbeki knew that “the white way” of doing things was just a moment in the illustrious lifetime of Africa.

As a result, his presidency was concerned more with bringing to the attention of his countrymen and women what Africa and her civilisations had offered to the world before the white ways landed on the African continent.

The colonial and apartheid education system since the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 was mindful that this African knowledge production is hidden in transcripts that never became part of the curricula in our schools and institutions of higher education and training. Mbeki’s terms in office challenged this.

Immediately after he assumed office, the media, which is predominantly white, talked about how the advisers in the Mbeki presidency were African and mainly from the black consciousness movement, such as advocate Mojanku Gumbi, who was Mbeki’s legal adviser.

This could not be identified with any kind of desperation from a president who wanted to do things “the white way”.

When you read his speeches or heard him speak, you were immediately made aware that for him Africa’s place was at the centre.

It does not simply mean teaching students about Africa, its history, cultures, philosophy and values. His vocabulary means “placing Africa at the centre” historically, culturally, philosophically and morally.

His world view is not, as Friedman tells us, of “world-class standards”.

His view of the world encompasses the view that Africa is the cradle of humankind and the locus of the first great civilisations from which all others derive. Mbeki’s views teach that Africa is the birthplace of technology, metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, agricultural science and medicine, and that African values have priority over European values.

The Road to Democracy in South Africa, a project that documents the liberation struggle of South Africa from the perspectives of the activists of that struggle, is an Mbekian thought initiative. It is an archive that radicalises and makes the teaching of history centred on Africa.

The Eurocentric view of our history taught in the universities and schools will have to acknowledge and include these volumes.

The launch of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, in partnership with Unisa, was a welcome initiative because it means that this wealth of African knowledge production contained in the renaissance of Africa project will eventually become part of the curricula and pedagogy of the universities in South Africa.

All presidents have their failures and successes. The presidency of Mbeki is no exception

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