Address by Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the "Imagining Africa" Lecture and Colloquium at UNISA, Pretoria

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09 Apr 2015

Programme Director, Prof Rosemary Gray

Prof Molapo Qhobela, Vice Principal: Institutional Development

Prof Greg Cuthbertson, Executive Dean of the College of Graduate Studies

Prof Vuyisile Msila, Head of the Institute of African Renaissance Studies,

Mr Ben Okri, esteemed author

Distinguished academics and authors

Ladies and Gentlemen: 

We meet here this evening as part of the initial stages of a month-long programme focusing on Africa for the month of May. 

We are devoting the entire month of May to Africa Month as we celebrate and interrogate our African identity, arts and culture, music and cuisine; and in so doing we pay tributes to the founders of the OAU (Organization for African Unity) on 25th May 1963 in Addis Ababa.

Let me thank our UNISA hosts, for providing us with the opportunity to hold this important conversation.

Let us welcome Ben Okri back to South African soil and to this African continent. I would like Ben Okri to know therefore, that tonight is also a homecoming festival of ideas.

We have gathered here today some of the great literary minds of this continent to discuss what it truly means when we make bold as to say that: "We are Africa".

This takes place at a time when we are engaging with the matter of our colonial legacy and the statues of that era.

This is part of a national discourse and debate as we redefine our identity as a new nation.

There is a new story to be told. The imagining of Africa is a necessary project as we create a new Africa.

In the last two weeks, we have seen discontent from those demanding the removal of statues representing our painful past.  

We have witnessed also the disgruntlement of those who want the statues to remain where they are.  

We have entered a national debate on what is history and what is heritage. We have asked for calmness so that change can happen in a dignified manner.  

Ours is a society that embraces dialogue. How we conduct ourselves is guided by a Bill of Rights that includes freedom of expression and of creativity.  

We must forge this new path together. 

Together we need to engage in a national dialogue, and jointly participate in changing the spaces of our cities, our villages and our lives and how we shape the heritage of all those who have fought for freedom.  

We are here to share ideas and to listen as to what the present and the future holds for us and for all fellow African people. 

Ours is the path of transformation – a road to change, what the writers of previous ages referred to as a metamorphosis.

We have embarked upon a path of radical economic, political and cultural transformation and regeneration.  

This path is not an easy road. The transformation agenda remains the main agenda guiding our work and the nation will not be derailed. 

Our wider role also remains to "open the doors of learning and culture from Cape to Cairo" as the Freedom Charter of the People of South Africa urges us to do. 

In so doing, we also need writers and intellectuals to travel this collective path as they provide us with a different lens in which to view our world.  

Literature offers us the possibility to see into spaces we would not otherwise recognize.  

Yet these are the sites where we can breathe and truly be ourselves. 

These are the sites which frame an African identity and shape a way of being African in the world. 

As Frantz Fanon tells us in The Wretched of the Earth, "we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man". 

His words still resonate with us today.  

Africa is turning over a new leaf and starting a different chapter in its history.  

We are the new men and new women we have been waiting for. 

We embrace the very roots of our culture and view the entire world from African vantage points. 

As Fanon further tells us in his 1959 statement to the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers: 

"This consciousness of self is not the closing of a door to communication. Philosophic thought teaches us, on the contrary, that it is its guarantee. National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension."

We are here today therefore to understand the nuances of imagining and building this African nation, interrogating and giving content to the very construction that is the house that we inhabit and build. 

We congratulate our Nigerian counterparts for their successful national elections. 

Yet barely a few days later the continent and its people were reeling and trying to come to terms with the massacre that robbed 147 youths of their lives at Garissa University College in Kenya, a centre of learning.

The horror and callousness of such an act, the inhumanity demonstrated, is a setback for the continent as a whole.

Ben Okri reminds us that ours is a mental fight: 

"Our future is greater than our past." 

"New worlds wait to be created

By free minds that can dream unfettered…"

We shall remain inspired by our great intellectual forbears such as Pixley Ka Isaka Seme who in 1906 called for the Regeneration of Africa.

We share his wisdom in seeing life afresh through these words when he says that:

"Oh, for that historian who, with the open pen of truth, will bring to Africa`s claim the strength of written proof. He will tell of a race whose onward tide was often swelled with tears, but in whose heart bondage has not quenched the fire of former years. He will write that in these later days when Earth`s noble ones are named, she has a roll of honor too, of whom she is not ashamed.  

Today we stand on the shoulders of those literary giants, those philosophers, political thinkers and freedom fighters who unflinchingly prepared the ground for our freedom. 

We come from a long line of writers, leaders, thinkers who have emphasized Africa's spirit of regeneration from W.E.B Du Bois and Henry Sylvester Williams to Sol T Plaatje, to Charlotte Maxeke, to Marcus Garvey and the Ethiopianist Movement, all in the first two decades of the 20th Century, to name but a few. 

We would not have the self-knowledge and self-worth we do have today without the writings of Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Buchi Emecheta, Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Bessie Head and more recently Tsitsi Dangarembga, among others.

The African story is a story of multiple journeys, returns and renaissance.

It is a narrative with many characters, performance spaces and liberated zones. 

It is told in many languages, varied cultural expressions and in different forms. 

It is a literature that both describes and activates a new African.

This rich body of literature is in itself a monument, a testimony of our struggle and to our hard-won freedom and to the path that still lies ahead.

With these few remarks, we look forward to the lecture, the panel discussions and the deliberations that follow. 

WE ARE AFRICA. 

I thank you.