Memory and Political Time: African and European Cultural Encounters

Gallous Atabongwoung, PhD |

Culture encompasses symbols, language, beliefs, values, and artefacts found in human societies. The components of culture could be categorised under “ideas and symbols” on the one hand and “artefacts” (material objects) on the other hand. Artefacts in the form of “statues,” for example, possess a strong cultural language that can represent the identity of a group of people. However, reflecting on the #RhodesMustFall campaign in South Africa, which was directed against a statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT), one would realise how artefacts can bring cultural entanglement to remembrance, and the consequences thereof.  For example, in the context of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, it was a revolt against culture, not artefacts. This is because culture can serve as an instrument of dominance. The #RhodesMustFall campaign was, therefore, a negative response to cultural entanglement. Notwithstanding, the problem with cultural entanglement is that cultures do not meet but people of different cultural backgrounds do.

Consequently, when we talk about cultural entanglement and the violent confrontation that often takes place, we are referring to the friction that takes place when people with different cultural identities negotiate about belonging within the same geographic spaces. The issue of “who is in and who is out” is relevant during the process because it is linked to “otherness” (the fact of being different) and other complexities that are involved when negotiating collective belonging. The #RhodesMustFall campaign in South Africa was, therefore, indicative of the memory of entanglement between Europeans and native Africans in South Africa. Geographic spaces belong to everyone because people arrive in different geographic spaces at different times.

No human being is supposed to be perceived as a foreigner anywhere in the world. Concerning African-European cultural entanglement in South Africa, it should be noted that Europeans who arrived in South Africa/Africa did not understand/learn African culture, languages, and spirituality. As a result, African languages and spiritualities were relegated to an inferior position below European languages and spirituality. Objectively speaking, the relegation of African languages below European languages, for example, was a result of the complex linguistic landscape of Africa. There are African countries with more than 200 native languages. This made interaction difficult. Hence, the use of European languages helps people of varied native languages to easily interact. We should, therefore, avoid the temptation to perceive the use of European languages in Africa as a mechanism of oppression. African societies pre- and post-colonisation did not have a single language. If that were the case, it would suffice to argue that the relegation of African languages was an act of oppression.

Therefore, as Africans in the present dispensation, we should refrain from perceiving European languages as “the languages of the oppressor.” We are obliged to be objective in our views. Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o advises us (Africans) “… to use European languages, but not to allow European languages to use us.” It is also our responsibility to create a language that can be used across the continent.
Certainly, human encounters do not exclude violent conflicts from occurring at the micro and macro levels. Sometimes it is a matter of time before a violent conflict takes place.

The memory of African and European cultural encounters is, however, not so much about truth, but about the experience. This is because truth in this context is a lived experience of peoples’ pain that must be acknowledged. Some early clashes between African and European encounters happened because of “difference – otherness”. If you are not like us, we must make you look like us – “culturalization.” This affected Africans the most, as envisaged in the dominance and dispossession of African societies by Europeans in South Africa. The traumatic memory of dispossession has been haunting native South Africans hitherto. It is, therefore, imperative to consider how African and European entanglement in South Africa can be reimagined. This issue is salient because there is a need to create a collective memory in South Africa that would work for Africans and Europeans equally. One way to do that is to leverage the South African cultural philosophical concept of Ubuntu (meaning I am, because you are). Ubuntu is important in South Africa in the present political time because of socio-economic agitations. Ubuntu would allow native South Africans and Europeans to look at the “land question” for the benefit of all.

However, if that is not possible, Africans and Europeans must learn to be tolerant and accommodating of each other to create a stable environment. This is what cultural encounters should do when perceived in a positive light. Africa and Europe are two allies with deep historical encounters. There is no need to propagate resentment and anti-European sentiments across South Africa/Africa. The negative effect of African and European encounters should, therefore, be noted by both parties. And the time to do that is now.