2ND INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN WRITERS DAY LECTURE: : 07 NOV 2013
AT THE AFRICA CENTURY INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN WRITERS CONFERENCE
MUSEUM AFRICA, NEWTOWN CULTURAL PRECINCT
121 BREE STREET, NEWTOWN, JOHANNESBURG
GAUTENG PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA
07 NOV 2013
THE LAND QUESTION MUST BE RESLOVED
H.E. DR. MUSTAPHA S. KALOKO
COMMISSIONER FOR SOCIAL AFFAIRS
AFRICAN UNION COMMISSION
I am sincerely happy to be here with you to deliver the 2nd International African Writers’ Day Lecture during this most important occasion of the Africa Century International African Writers Conference at the auditorium of this prestigious Museum Africa in this great city of the rainbow nation of the Republic of South Africa.
I am more than grateful for the invitation from the wRite associates, especially its Managing Director, Mr. Morakabe Raks Seakhoa, to attend this remarkable occasion that has brought together the continent’s literary giants: the symbols of Africa’s conscience and enlightenment.
Allow me at this moment to convey to this conference the heartfelt apologies of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Madam Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who would have loved to be present here this evening, but could not do so because of weighty prior commitments. Nevertheless, she sends her best wishes and congratulations on the occasion marking the day of the African Writer. She acknowledges and appreciates the great and noble work of your organization in highlighting and discussing the complex, challenging and myriad issues of the African Continent.
I would also like to use this platform to pay tribute to one of Africa’s great and perceptive writers of our times, the author of Things Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe, who joined our ancestors in the great beyond on 21 March this year. His work and legacy will definitely remain as a guiding light to illuminate the path of both contemporary and future African writers. To the living, I am happy to acknowledge and congratulate in advance great minds and towering literary figures like the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer (who turns 90 on Wednesday, 20th of this month) and Mariam Tlali (who also turns 80 on 11th of this month). I wish you well and sincerely thank you so much for the great, moving and intellectual ability that have marked your work. They will forever be monuments of creativity and sources of inspiration.
The issues I am here to discuss are not new. In fact, some of you in the audience are more aware of such issues than I do, as your literary and political vocations have often led you to dissect the details of these issues more systematically and more effectively. You have often contended with them in seeking answers to the many questions surrounding land, and you know how touchy those issues are and how politically sensitive they could be in inducing emotions and inspiring convergence. You are more than conscious of their implications because of firsthand experience on what it means to be dispossessed and alienated from the grazing and farming lands of your ancestors, which some of you have vividly depicted in your writings.
One must, however, pause to ask: Why has land come to play a major role in our everyday lives and why was it at the heart of the debates in the past and why is it still at the center of our socio-economic and political discourse? Will it influence our future debates? If yes, How? The answers to these questions are certainly perceptible: Land is a source of power and wealth, and the one who has it enhances his socio economic and, most likely, his political status more than those who do not have. It however goes beyond that, as humanity’s attachment to land is so profound and at the same time sacred. Nowhere is this observation more apparent than in Africa where land comes to be seen as a divine gift to the ancestors. African literature is replete with emphasis on land and its sacredness. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in two of his novels: Weep Not Child and The River Between has picturesquely portrayed the issues of land and our attachment to it. So too has Achebe and other literary luminaries. For them, like the biblical history of the Hebrews, land is a divine gift to our ancestors, and not as personal property, but for the sustenance of life.
This assertion is supported by the work of Sobonfu Some (The Spirit of Intimacy) where she clearly depicts the significance of the land as, “…always been the land of the people. Still, people did not consider it their own. They saw it as a spirit, as something they were just borrowing” It does not stop there. They were to protect it, value it and preserve it in order to bequeath it to the sacred trust of the next generation. This means that our ancestors were only legatees or trustees tasked to pass on the land to us, which illustrates why our forebears fought forthrightly and valiantly to preserve and protect the land from invaders, colonisers and settler populations. They knew that allowing themselves to be dispossessed and alienated from the land that they held as trustees would mean not only failure on their part, but letting down the gods and the ancestors who had held the land so dear and had bequeathed it down to posterity. It meant losing their soul and heritage, it meant betraying the sacred trust and letting down posterity. Above all, it also meant an act of sacrilege to which they would serve as accomplices to the invaders.
Well, we all do know the consequences of land grabbing by colonial and settler populations. We know how dispossession from the colonial times have had severe consequences on the continent, and how the rippling effects have hindered and stifled the development and destiny of some of our societies, especially countries where the colonizer or settler population entrenched itself and had firm grip over the lives of the indigenous populations and the affairs of state. We know about the boundary disputes that followed independence and the ethnic tensions within and without state boundaries that have their origins from those days. The conflicts and disputes relating to land, from my estimation, seem to be a continuous search for our lost souls and the very essence of our being.
This is why I strongly believe that the land question must be resolved. It must be resolved because, like all other injustices we abhor and continue to fight against, it has the potential to tear society apart with serious consequences for the inhabitants of any society. In that regard, it should not be put aside, postponed or shelved under the carpet for political expediency. Because it has a magical power to emerge often and again to disturb the socio-economic and political waters that we sometimes fear to disrupt. And the longer it takes to be unresolved, the more the fermentation of problems and the eventual brew: intractable disputes and conflict.
However, much as we may wish to settle the land issue, we must also bear in mind that any quest to redistribute land or overhaul the current landowning system, must not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must avoid land redistribution or land reforms that take land from the few only to concentrate it in the hands of the new elites or a new social economic and political class. Instead, it must be based on fairness, equity and dialogue. Any measures short of that would be counterproductive and invariably leave the land issue unresolved.
Besides colonial and settler acquisitions and appropriation of land, we are now confronted by new threats from both the tangibles and intangibles. We are faced with new threats that hover over our future prosperity and security, and new threats that have the prospects to derail the current endeavors and progress made towards a better, a just and a more equitable society for our people. Those threats have the propensity to dispossess and alienate Africans from their ancestral land more than colonialism did.
Urbanisation and industrialization are already portending doom for agriculture, wildlife, flora and fauna, the river beds and the environment in general As urban centres expand, they swallow in their wake both farming and grazing lands. Huge forest reserves have been invaded to pave way for the construction of mega structures and housing estates. As a result, riverbeds, streams and brooklets that once sustained lives of human beings and animals are forced to dry up living the poor in more penury and destitution than before. As for the industrial houses, they do not only occupy large hectres of land they also pollute the environment with organo-chlorine and other pollutants.
There is also the new drive for ethanol and commercial farming mainly coming from abroad in the guise of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the agricultural sector. This new drive has sought to acquire huge swathes of land at minimal cost when compared to the commercial cost elsewhere. Africans must be cautious and more prudent in negotiating land deals with some of the multinational companies (that tend to be subtle but dubious in their intentions). These companies have the potential to lay hands on more land, bind it to themselves legalistically for a long period while depriving the real owners and their generations yet unborn from having access to it.
Then we have the mining companies, which create huge craters of soil, and thereby wantonly destroying the rich agricultural land, soil beds, the riverbeds and the environment with little or no corporate social obligation or compensation to the communities whose livelihoods are licentiously destroyed for the sake of economic development. The oil companies operating in the Niger Delta and elsewhere on the continent are certainly aware of the enormous ecological and environmental destruction they leave in their wake. However, because the profit is usually huge, they prefer to concentrate on the gains rather than the current and future welfare of those they so blatantly and recklessly dispossess and despise.
Climate change is another major contributing factor to the dispossession and alienation of people from the ancient and ancestral land. It is either the desertification of the land, which renders the soil infertile to support the growth of crops or sedentary life, or flooding of it to make it impossible to grow crops. Of course, draughts, famine and other climate change effects are commonplace occurrences that many of our people are now bitterly and reluctantly familiar with.
The above problems signify that we have a major task that requires strategic thinking and holistic policy direction. The land question, as I have stated before, warrants our immediate attention and solution. It is necessary that we resolve it to avoid further conflict situations. It should be part of our early warning, conflict prevention and peace building mechanisms at the national, regional and continental levels.
This brings me to another segment of today’s discourse: culture, the arts and education.
What we often refer to as African culture has never been static; it has been dynamic, resilient, diverse and vibrant. It has adopted, adapted and contributed to the birth of other cultures. While the African Culture has remained a synthesis of many cultures, at the same time it has retained its singularities- singularities that you have added to by your boundless imaginations through the written word. Our work at the Commission, especially the Culture Division of the Department of Social Affairs is to preserve our rich cultural heritage in order to pass it on to posterity.
Culture, the arts and education have a direct link to land or the environment in which man finds himself. No culture ever developed in isolation, but has done so in tandem with man’s relationship and interaction with his environment.
This is why the commission is working on various fronts to ensure the preservation of our cultural heritage. I presume you already know about the Centre for Linguistic and Historical Studies (CELHTO) in Niamey which has a mandate to undertake research and gather information on oral tradition and other aspects of African societies and cultures in their richness and diversity. There is also the Academy of Languages, another institution of the African Union entrusted with the task of developing and promoting the use of African languages, and to foster African Renaissance, integration and development.
The African Charter on Cultural Renaissance, adopted in Khartoum in January 2006, is an instrument which seeks to promote, on the wider global arena, African Renaissance as a pragmatic program of African integration and development. Recognizing the role that the arts, artists and cultural workers play in the service of society, especially against oppression, exploitation and injustice, the African Union has adopted a Plan of Action on Cultural and Creative Industries aimed at facilitating the safeguarding, organization, production, marketing distribution, exhibition and preservation of African cultural and creative industries and to position Africa where it can fully benefit from future development strategies, technologies and markets in the area of cultural and creative industries. We are also working with the Pan African Writers Association which is doing a remarkable work in promoting and honouring African Writers and encouraging/providing training to young generation of writers to build and extend the best literary achievements of African and other writers in the world
On the subject of education, which is also an aspect of culture, I have always had my reservations on the quality as well as the relevance of what we were taught and what our children now learn in school. The right education should allow us to be curious, ingenious and to prepare us adequately to be competitive in a more complex and challenging global environment. It should also liberate us from fear, inferiority complex and limitations that inhibit us from examining, questioning or opposing ideas, values, policies and belief systems that are not in our interest, but foisted upon us to serve the interest of others. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why is it that most of our countries are still poor when paradoxically we could buy the whole world with the abundant wealth already discovered, and still lies beneath the surface of the continent. Why do we continue to depend on others for our very sustenance when we could give in return double, triple or even quadruple given the right conditions? We should be able to come up with answers to our problems, to understand the deficiencies that have made Africa’s growth too slow, too difficult, and more painful. The right education will not only unlock the door to the answers, but would also help us find solutions to the continent’s many problems.
We have sought to answer these questions in the Commission. We have asked ourselves what we should do to take the continent in a new direction- a direction that we hope, would serve as a panacea to the continent’s problems. For example, though we value primary education and would like to see many of our children enrolled in schools as required by the MDG’S, we also believe that primary education is not enough to allow an individual to be competitive in the labor market. Primary and secondary education must be backed by a strong tertiary system that would give the individual the right education, the exposure and the composure to compete, to acquire a decent job, retain that job, and if necessary, change it at his own will and convenience.
This is why we have come up with agenda 2063; a vision document that speaks to the many African issues. It is our utmost conviction that the document, with the political will and the active participation of our citizenry, will help us free our continent from poverty, conflict and other problems that we are still struggling with.
Let me now turn my attention to you great writers of the continent to address you directly. Heretofore, my address has been of general nature; speaking to all Africans. And in speaking to you now, I prefer not to seek to judge you or criticize you. Instead, I would rather applaud you for the unbroken and admirable literary engagements, which began with your predecessors (who defended, defined and projected the African personality, identity and equally debunked the myths, ideologies and racial theories of the colonizer and oppressor) and have descended down to your generation (who too have examined contemporary issues in a more effective manner).
However, it seems to me that literary work on the continent is losing its steam. I sometimes wonder whether there will ever be great writers of the likes of those who came before you. Perhaps I am wrong or I am only expressing nostalgia for the familiar and the fantasies of my youth. Nevertheless, what I intend to tell you is that we have entered a new era in global politics. And in this new era of global politics, domination is no longer apparent and brutal as bygone days. Today’s racial supremacist thinking, colonial or Neo-colonial inclinations, exploitation and their attendant ills have assumed new nomenclatures under the guise of free trade and democracy, but their effects remain the same as before. But more than that, competition is keener and a lot of issues jostle to claim our attention. I have already discussed one of those burning issues – the land question. The others are; peace and security issues, health matters, youth and employment, good governance democracy, culture, trade ,migration, integration agriculture, climate change and many more.
The challenge in dealing with these issues is enormous and sometimes complex. However, I am of the strong opinion that active collaboration with those who wield the power of the written word would be of enormous boost to our efforts in solving Africa’s countless problems. Much as I would like to implore our literary luminaries and prospective writers to continue to use the power of the pen (or digital technology) to shape public opinion, influence policy decision and implementation, evoke emotions and sentiments inspire and conceive ideas, and even trigger positive revolutions, you must not forget that the temptation to also use the written word for nefarious and sinister purposes is always very strong.
Finally let me conclude by emphasizing that you have a role to play in moving Africa’s development agenda forward. You do not only have a role to play, but as African writers you have a special role in helping us tell our own stories rather than wait for others to do so as before . The success of our pan African project and the African Renaissance depends on your special role as wielders of the pen in helping us initiate and tell our own stories. . Why? Because it is imperative and one of your own, Professor M Ngal, in responding to the responsibility of the Africa writer in national politics has called you to do so:
The writer is the man who shapes the destiny of his people by revealing their real condition… During the colonial and post-colonial era…the African writer narrates the exact condition of our peoples. In literary work, he finds answers to their question…. He is the lucid conscience of our societies. If he were to disappear, it is the nation itself that would fall back into alienation, because it would have lost its conscience. It is for this reason, that a nation without literature is dead.
Need I say more?
I thank you for your attention