Ngugi wa Thiong’o is considered one of the giants of African literature.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is considered one of the giants of African literature.

History laced with European theories - but also our own

By OPINION Time of article published Feb 26, 2017

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You might want to go into the archives to find out what black people actually wrote about democracy, citizenship and nation building, writes Xolela Mangcu.

Imagine you have been commissioned to write a book titled Citizenship, Democracy and Nation in South Africa. Your instinct might be to brush up on your knowledge of democratic theory – from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s civic republican conception of democracy to Joseph Schumpeter’s model of democracy as competition among leadership elites.

You might also want to pick up your copy of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, whose idea of democracy was exactly the opposite of Rousseau’s civic republican ideals. To the early Rawls, democracy was about procedures over substantive values, or what he memorably called the “priority of the right over the good”.

As all great thinkers have done, Rawls changed his position to accept that common substantive values matter. Noam Chomsky, linguists tell me, repudiated his entire life’s work because he thought he did not have it right the first time around.

As you develop the manuscript you might also want to look at more contemporary theorists such as Michael Sandel, who basically seeks to revive the Rousseauan model, with a dash of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Sandel describes the difference between Rosseau’s authoritarianism and Tocqueville’s sensibility as follows: “Unlike Rousseau’s unitary vision, the republican politics de Tocqueville describes is more clamorous than consensual. It does not despise differentiation. Instead of collapsing spaces between persons, it fills this space with public institutions that gather people together in various capacities, that both separate and relate them.”

These institutions include the townships, schools, religions and virtue-sustaining occupations that form the “habits of the heart a democratic republic requires”. You also tell yourself that you cannot possibly write such a book without engaging with Chantal Mouffe’s Return of the Political – my personal favourite.

In preparation for the section on citizenship you start with the founding text, Marshall’s on the evolution of citizenship from a set of liberal rights in the 18th century to political rights in the 19th and social rights in the 20th century.

Nothing in all of your Euro-American training would have made you, say, make a link between Benedict Anderson’s idea of “imagined communities” to what Tiyo Soga wrote back in 1865: “The deeds of a nation are bigger than its cattle, its money and its food.”

Did we not have nations? Where is this history? Where are its customs, both good and bad? Where are the views of past chiefs? Did we not have poets and who were they praising? Where is the history?

You might want to go into the archives to find out what black people actually wrote about democracy, citizenship and nation building.

The other day I was reading the proceedings of the Bhunga in the Transkei in the 1930s. Listen to the description of citizenship provided by Chief Moshesh in response to the removal of Africans from the common voters roll in the Cape in 1936: “Citizenship we understand to mean this, that whether you are white or black, you vote for a representative who goes to Parliament, and whether you are a European or a Native, if you are qualified you become a voter and because you are a common citizen of the country you gain all the privileges so that you can make progress.”

The master of irony was of course the greatest writer in the history of this country. Yes, I know that will knock you off your chair. After all, that place is already taken – by Nadine Gordimer or JM Coetzee, right? We find it easy to make that judgment because they wrote in a language we can understand – English.

But SEK Mqhayi made a political decision to write in isiXhosa. His novels Ityala Lama Wele and * -Don Jadu would be regarded as masterpieces if they had been written in English. And Mqhayi wrote the bulk of our national anthem, for crying out aloud. He took Enoch Sontonga’s idea, added several stanzas to it and published it in 1927 as Umhobe we Sizwe – the anthem of the nation. Those words have inspired Africans throughout the sub-continent.

It is because of Mqhayi’s two poems Imikhosi Ye Midaka (The Black Armies) and Ukuzika kuka Mendi (The Sinking of the Mendi) that we know about the Mendi tragedy that is being commemorated.

Fifteen years ago, I sent an e-mail to Ngugi wa Thiong’o to invite him to the third Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. I said we had just hosted Chinua Achebe.

The response was a one-liner: “If Achebe can do it, who am I to refuse?” Ngugi was being modest of course. No one has played a greater role in thinking about African literature.

His speech then was the best thing I have heard on Mqhayi. In these days of decolonisation we would do well to go back to the source.

I invite you then to come and learn at the feet of one of the greatest African writers alive, when he speaks at the Wits Great Hall on March 2 and at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, on March 3.

* Xolela Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town, and has authored or co-authored nine books.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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