I want to conjure up an image of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe that is slightly out of focus in post-apartheid Southern Africa: we concentrate usually on the man who gave us the Pan Africanist Congress in 1959, was imprisoned in 1960 on Robben Island, a revolutionary whose vision, words, humaneness is known.
I want to talk about Sobukwe’s valuing of the imagination, the Sobukwe who took great pleasure in the nonobvious, who relished works of the imagination.
But he also understood the value of the imagination when unbounded, not limited to the pages of a novel or a performance on a stage.
That is what the iconic image of Sobukwe letting soil fall through his fingers is: recourse to the metaphoric, the poetic, the symbolic, when ordinary words were both unavailable and inadequate.
Although he lived in brutal times, he spoke in his inaugural speech in 1959 of “living in an era that is pregnant with untold possibilities for both good and evil” – a time of confusion, brutality, closing in, but a time that also offered possibilities for imagining new pathways to freedom.
For Sobukwe, violent and confusing times traumatise and debilitate people, but they also demand that we hold on to the possibility of creating alternatives that are freeing, joyful and affirming. I thought it important to start from a position of hope before I try to make sense of what it might mean to think about African unity in Sobukwe’s terms.
Boko Haram has captured global attention in recent weeks after the abduction of more than 200 girls in Chibok, Nigeria. They have slaughtered thousands of people in Nigeria over the past five years or so. They hit brutally and with regularity.
One thing is clear, though: the disjunctures in how we speak about Boko Haram’s reign of terror. We focus on their fundamentalist Muslim identity. We wonder about the illogically motivated kidnappings. We turn away from the kinds of slaughter Africans subject one another to. We deal with them one at a time, imagining we can bring our girls home without facing the reality of what Boko Haram is, of how and why it exists.
Calling them terrorists and crying that we are losing the war on terror is laziness. The “war on terror” is something very specific; I am pretty sure it is not a war that is meant to see Africans win anything. It was not coined with the African world in mind or at heart. In fact, it is an imperialist project that Africans pay for in blood and land.
What happens when we read Boko Haram as something distinct from but also similar to al-Shabab, whose bombings, shootings and abductions in Kenya reached global awareness during the Westgate Mall attack. In the week before the Westgate attack, I was struck by how strangely militarised Nairobi was. Kenyan friends and colleagues noted it had something to do with the American presence and how it dictated what safe cities looked like.
In this heavily militarised city, al-Shabab struck a mall frequented by the elite, expatriates, European tourists. This was the first time many people had heard of al-Shabab as we watched a series of mystifications, counteraccusations and conspiracy theories about what was happening.
It is easy to say Boko Haram targets poor girls and al-Shabab targets the wealthy and powerful; therefore they have nothing in common, they are not part of the same phenomenon. But what happens if we assume that reading them alongside and through each other can teach us something otherwise occluded?
Let me throw more examples into the mix – two pieces of legislation whose levels of violence contribute to what Boko Haram and al-Shabab are engaged in. They are the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014, signed by Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan in January this year, and the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014. The latter was in direct contravention of the Ugandan Constitution, unprocedurally passed with minimal parliamentary support, in sittings that were not quorate, and it was slated for the violence it authorised against those who live in Uganda.
In January, a statement by the Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex in Diaspora noted not only the dismay at the passing of the Same-Sex Prohibition Act but also that such legislation “gives official validation to the harassment of sexual minorities … [and] provide[s] a cover for unscrupulous individuals and state institutions including the police to hunt down, intimidate and harass citizens based on their actual or suspected sexual orientation”.
It is not hard to see how they get to this conclusion, given the law: 14-year jail sentences for same-sex marriage, 10 years for displays of affection between people of the same gender, a 10-year jail term for anyone who enables or associates with people in a same-sex marriage or relationship, as well as a 10-year sentence that would apply to LGBTI rights activists. This law not only terrorises and delegitimises desire and affection, it also turns ordinary citizens into agents of this terror regime. To avoid imprisonment for having queer family or friends, you have to turn them in, disown them or otherwise distance yourself from them.
In Nigeria, the Initiative for Equality spends enormous resources and time, at great risk, to debunk many of the fallacies at the heart of such laws: that gay and lesbian people are unAfrican, that nowhere before in African history have people fallen in love and/or desired each other across gender and sex lines, as well as showing the way in which such a law terrorises not only “sexual minorities” but also the large numbers of Nigerians who support same-sex marriages.
What these acts of brutality – whether by supposedly mysterious groupings or with state sanction – achieve is fairly similar. Jessica Horn notes that, although “the gender dynamics of the Chibok crisis signals a worrying trend across the African continent, as religious fundamentalist views take hold and find their place, not just in fringe extremists, but in capturing policies and actions of the state and, perhaps more worryingly, the popular imagination”.
Kopano Ratele’s scholarship shows us how easily conservative bodies within and outside African state bodies marshall fossilised “African culture”, “sharia law” or “the Bible” to close down avenues for African freedom, imagination and diversity. Islam gets its fair share of blame for fundamentalisms that are epistemically and physically violent, but, as Horn reminds us, “fundamentalist Christianity needs to remain in our analytical frame. Legislation controlling women’s dress under the Anti-Pornography Act in Uganda and the failed Indecent Dressing Bill in Nigeria were both developed in the name of highly conservative expressions of Christian morality, and alongside the much-critiqued legislation in both countries expanding anti-gay laws and the criminalisation of same-gender sexual acts and advocacy for equality”.
Where Horn says religion, we could substitute “culturalist arguments”. For her Anti-Pornography Act and Indecent Dressing Bill, we could transplant “Traditional Courts Bill”. We may have impeccable legislation in South Africa but it is not much consolation when dealing with lynched, decapitated gay men in the Northern Cape or the broken bodies of lesbians in the Western Cape.
It is not Muslim fundamentalists who are stripping young women in various Southern African countries for wearing short skirts or trousers or not fitting into tidy notions of appropriate sex and gender expression or identity. But the effects are remarkably similar: living with the constant awareness that you can be arrested, attacked or bombed (depending on which part of the continent you live in) for living truthfully. Pursuing freedom is living in a state of terror. It is constant communication that you do not matter. The danger is real, whether the state to which you pay taxes threatens to throw you in jail for being an activist, for falling in love, or for wanting to go to school as a girl.
The closing down of routes to full African human expression through militia, state and other fundamentalist expression on our continent is not part of Sobukwe’s united Africa. This is a violent expression of the “untold possibilities for evil”. Expanding the reign of terror over African people – through guns, legislation, and fear of broken bodies – is the kind of African unity we would do well without.
All of these expressions of violence – Boko Haram, al-Shabab, legislation that criminalises love, friendship, activism and imagination – create a realm of terror and of control. They narrow the range of what is possible. They say there is only one way to be African and all other forms will be obliterated. No amount of force and mystification is too much for this kind of genocide.
Sobukwe says: “We are what we are because the God of Africa made us so. We dare not compromise, nor dare we use moderate language in the course of our freedom.” Sobukwe spoke of being limited in where you can move (and he was speaking of passes, not fear of “corrective rape”, traditional courts, Boko Haram or al-Shabab, but he may as well have been), that this is like carrying again the badge of slavery.
I am sure if Sobukwe were alive today he would insist that we question what “African” is used to mean when it leads to the obliteration of African life, the trivialisation of African joy, the bombing of African affection.
Africa has to mean a present and a future home again for those who strive for a freedom linked to the freedom of others like and unlike us. It is darkest before dawn, Sobukwe says. But, he adds, only if we fight for the morning rising of the sun.
Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola is an associate professor in the department of African literature at Wits. This is an edited version of the eighth Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture, which she delivered at the Steve Biko Centre in King William’s Town.