So the week in Zimbabwe started off with more than a whiff of trouble. But before the trouble snowballed into the arrest of one of our professional colleagues Hopewell Chin’ono amongst other burning, there was the fall of a ‘trouble’ man across the Atlantic. A soul brother. A descendant of slaves. A freedom rider. A civil rights giant fell on July 18. 80 was the number on his life lease having been born in 1940. Here on the continent, Andrew Mlangeni, the remaining member of the anti=apartheid fighters convicted with Nelson Mandela at South Africa’s notorious Rivonia trial died on the 21st of July at age 95.
Civil rights icon
Born on July 17, 1940 John Lewis was one of the famous “Big Six” leaders who organized the 1963 civil rights movement’s march on Washington which was the setting for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. He was just 23 whilst Martin Luther King Jnr was 34. Lewis said he had been inspired by King to enter into the civil rights struggle for people of colour in the United States.
The measure of a man
Andrew Mlangeni is a colossus of South African and African history. Apartheid needed a defiant generation to go toe to toe with it and pay the price for freedom. Andrew Mlangeni was one of the cadres Mandela chose to go and receive training in China. He later returned to be a member of the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe and disguised himself as priest whilst recruiting fighters for the anti-apartheid struggle before being unmasked and sentenced to life imprisonment and serving 26 years alongside Madiba. He was released in 1989 as the pressure mounted upon the apartheid regime to bow before the inexorable winds of change. I did not know much about John Lewis’ contributions to the freedom of African Americans till the news of his passing flooded the media networks. His death has been like the blaze of a comet across the charcoal night of yet another civil rights struggle resurgence of sorts in the United States. The death of one George Floyd at the hands of U.S. police was the trigger moment for the protests which swept across America. John Lewis would have…must have felt somewhat saddened but nonetheless undaunted by the need to go to the frontlines again. Alas, he was not to see the journey through. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which has coalesced around the rights of people of colour in America as a result of the systemic police brutality which continues to lead to the deaths of African Americans through excessive police force.
United and divided
Americans have been altogether united and divided by the movement. On one side are those who maintain that all lives matter and on another side is the side of those that believe that America’s racism is institutionalized and has been reaping a grim harvest in the mass incarceration and unlawful deaths of blacks. Blacks, especially male, fear police stops. A police stop, by some accounts is in actuality, a breath away from death. But of course, police in any society are necessary to keep the law and peace. The evidence clearly points to a need for the powers that society to introspect, confront and redress the inequities in treatment of people of colour.
Facing the facts
But there is intercenine violence within African American communities. The spectre and reality of Black on black violence requires serious soul searching, needs to be addressed over there as it must be addressed over here on the continent. Still, speaking of America, Howard University lecturer and journalist Shirely Carswell writes in a recent Washington Post article that the “what about black-on-black crime” rejoinder usually is meant to imply that African Americans are indifferent to the thousands of young black men — and increasingly, black children — who are slain every year in gun violence.” Clearly, the African and American socio-political contexts differ in terms of the power dynamics between the races. The African continent is manned by black leaders and that should count for something. African people are groaning even on the continent. What is the excuse ?
The mirage of freedom
Post-colonial governments in Africa have failed generally to deliver the life we believe we deserve and thousands of Africa’s children have perished on the Mediterranean seas in a bid to escape hunger and poverty on the continent. But how, for a land so well endowed with rich and fertile soils and spangled with all the most precious of stones ? What goes wrong? In the struggle of nations to survive, it is common cause that predation of the weak by the strong will arise. Thus, colonialism is understandable from that standpoint. But understanding why and how colonialism happened is not excusing it or the imperialism or neo colonialism which ensues. Further, is it also understandable how one race might want to subjugate another even if it’s on the basis of a faulty premise of racial superiority? What is not easy to grasp is how in the case for example of Zimbabwe, the very same men and women who led a freedom struggle such as the one that the likes of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the recently late John Lewis of the U.S. and South African’s Andrew Mlangeni, came to be the predators of their own people. And continue to. I am an ardent opponent of black victimhood. The British evolved a dominant culture and society despite the fact of Roman colonialism By this thesis, I intend that though our people have suffered much in terms of slavery and exploitation through colonialism, we have to accept the responsibility for those of our actions which precipitate our demise as a people here on the continent and in the Diaspora. We also can end through our actions, the Dark Continent narrative. There is a sense in which I am grateful for this time of a global shutdown. We have to face every devil down including the one within and amongst us.
So many questions
Should we have been as Africans to materialize Wakanda as depicted in the Hollywood blockbuster film, will the mother continent be a place of peace and justice such as to attract the proverbial Joseph sold into slavery? It is the inconvenient fact of our African history that in some cases African chiefs and kings were also complicit in the subjugation of African people as slave merchants and traders. Nay, this is not Afropessimism; it is merely a recall of history which the annals have recorded that the likes of Tippu Tip in Zanzibar and the Kings of Dahomey were some of the slave trade’s most fervent exponents. In the case of Dahomey, the last slave ship which sailed to the United States and landed in Mobile, Alabama had managed to buy slaves from the king of Dahomey (present day Benin)’s warehouse according to a story appearing in the newspaper The Tarboro Southerner on July 14,1860. The ship brought 110 slaves long after the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the then U.S. president Thomas Jefferson having signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law in 1808. This brazen act was made possible by one Timothy Meaher after a bet with his colleagues that he would be able to secure slaves from Africa despite the official ban of slave trade. The ship’s captain William Foster wrote in 1860 that the acquisition of slaves was facilitated by the king of Dahomey, (who judging from the period would be King Glele). Foster recounts selecting 110 slaves from amongst four thousand slaves. For balance, the same kingdom of Dahomey was a neighbor and rival to Abeokuta which was a place of refuge for Africans fleeing marauding slave hunters. We do indeed have heroic characters such as Samori Toure of the Mandingo in West Africa and Queen Nzinga of Angola who fought pitted battles against subjugation.
Speaking of the history that lives, a member of famous Black neo soul band The Roots ?uest love born Ahmir Khalib Thompson is a descendant of one of the slaves who were on board the last slave ship to dock on American soil called The Clotilda. His story was aired on Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots program which airs on PBS in the United States. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qz4gFJqZcP4 . The point I make with all these seeming digressions is that we have this difficult history which we must face with courage if we should truly move forward. Let us recognize that we have in our midst and within ourselves the potential to betray our loftiest dreams and aspirations. That those we call leaders in their majority on the continent have over time been the ogres of our worst nightmares despite the fact that we reposed trust in them to guide us to a glorious future. Perhaps the biggest lesson in all that we have been through and all we are yet to live through, is that our trust should never be merely in the good will or rhetoric of politicians and their political formations but rather in values which elevate us and systems that we deliberately design and erect to sustain those values. Nothing is handed to us….
Black solidarity and independence
John Lewis and Andrew Mlangeni finished their own races in one of the most torrid weeks of Zimbabwean and world history at large. The common thread of black humanity has always bound our people together when faced with a perceived enemy of another race. Yes black solidarity has not been wanting in that regard. But why does black solidarity tarry when we are confronted with the enemy of the people within and amongst Africa’s own people? The abuse of power through the suppression of dissenting voices is the path mediocrity and self-sabotage. Violence may cower for a season but it has the unintended effect of solidifying defiance. It has marginal utility and it is a cultural defect. Do our opponents thirst for our physical demise rather than they wish to counter propose a different path for our common existence? We are yet to normalize elevating superior logic over puny and parochial party lines. We can exchange ideas without otherising or seeking to annihilate our opponents. But political parties no matter how fierce they seem to be for a season (reader do remember Hitler’s Nazi PartyThousand Year Reich ambition)are ultimately puny though they arrogate to themselves the place of God Almighty on earth. They ultimately implode because they corrupt themselves with their total dependence on violence and coercion.
I wish to leave you with the words of the late John Lewis as points to ponder.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
– From John Lewis’s 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”
*State of the Culture is a syndicated column by Addy Kudita, a Zimbabwe based African international multimedia journalist, creative and analyst. He can be contacted via twitter: amkudita or email: [email protected]