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Afropolitanism as ethico-political stance: Achille Mbembe

This essay is the second in a four-part series on Afropolitanism and literature. The term Afropolitanism is a combination of Africa and cosmopolitanism. People of African origin, who live here today and there tomorrow, coined this term to describe their mobile lifestyle and the resulting creativity and political attitudes. In their striving towards radical openness, Afropolitans produce diverse, creative visions in which people of African origin belong everywhere equally.

Alongside the writer Taiye Selasi, who was introduced in the first essay in this series, the political scientist Achille Mbembe is regarded as a key torchbearer of Afropolitanism. Mbembe was born in Cameroon, now lives in South Africa, and teaches at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He is considered a major postcolonial theorist, and has been awarded numerous international prizes for his work. His essay “Afropolitanism” seems rather unassuming alongside his other works: it came out two years after Selasi’s “Bye-bye Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)”, consists of just four pages, and was first published in a museum catalogue that accompanied the travelling exhibition “Africa Remix – Art of a Continent”.

In response to the “Africa Remix” exhibition curated by Simon Njami, Mbembe presents his idea of Afropolitanism as a thoroughly African way of being. This Afropolitanism includes a critical examination of Africa and the world. The following questions serve as fundamental to it: Which historical processes have shaped the African continent and its inhabitants? What are the existing frames of thought when it comes to Africa, and how do Africans position themselves today? What visions arise from this (new) positioning in the face of global historical entanglements?

African intellectuals have long sought answers to these very questions. Mbembe explains that this is how, for example, pan-Africanism, anti-colonial nationalism and African socialism were established. These three strategies question Africanness and have in common that they clearly distance themselves from European definitions. They thus serve as counter-movements to the European supremacy that began with colonialism and continues today through economic dependencies and so-called development programmes. The contestatory attitude towards Europe is an appealing approach in light of the fact that Europe once divided the continent against its will, and imposed its own values and norms on Africa’s inhabitants.

Mbembe criticises the fact that since the advent of colonialism, Africa has been described either by Europe or in contrast to Europe. As a result, all three movements – pan-Africanism, anti-colonial nationalism and African socialism – focused either on international anti-imperialist solidarity or on transnational solidarity between Black people. Mbembe believes that these strategies have been useful, but that this usefulness has now run its course. He is convinced that they no longer offer any creative potential for analysis, cultural criticism or current politics, precisely because of their fixation on colonialism and the resulting nativist reflex.

In contrast, Afropolitanism seems to provide a fresh impulse to think about Africa and Africans. Basically, solidarity should not be thought of in terms of the powerful inventions of race (being designated as Black or white), or the nation state. Afropolitanism does not provide clear, alternative definitions, but rather emphasizes certain characteristics. For example, Mbembe explains that Africa has been most significantly shaped by human mobility. People have always moved to the continent, away from it, or criss-crossed it. After all, it is the people who make and practice African culture that are African. Diasporic groups living on the African continent have long contributed to this culture: people from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Different people live in Africa and all their languages, habits in terms of clothing and food, their beliefs, etc. make up the continent. Their cohabitation automatically leads to different ways of being in the world getting mixed together.

Afropolitanism also implies an awareness that not all encounters between different people on the continent have been peaceful. Especially during the colonial period, there was a great deal of violence. Nonetheless, these were encounters that exposed people to certain differences and ultimately led to new cultural forms.

Mbembe’s theory is a plea for more openness towards other people, and a broader understanding of Africa and being African. He sees what he calls Afropolitanism confirmed in the art exhibition “Africa Remix”. I read Antjie Krog’s book Begging to be Black as another example. Krog is an Afrikaaner, and as such belongs to the group who are widely viewed as carrying much of the responsibility for the crimes of apartheid. In her partly autobiographic book, Krog asks those affected by the discriminatory system of white supremacy whether they can accept her as an African.

Krog first confirms that being African is still mostly understood as synonymous with being Black. As a white person, she is excluded from this identity, although she was born and raised in South Africa. Her book is an attempt to understand African history from Black perspectives. She hopes that by critically examining apartheid and African epistemologies or systems of knowledge, she can reduce to some small extent the separation between Black and white. Krog denies seeking an essence of ‘Blackness’. Instead, she strives to better understand the frames of reference of other groups in her home country, and in this way to be able to feel like she can be a fully-fledged part of a democratic South Africa.

Krog begins the process of asking for permission to belong. Not everyone will welcome her with open arms. But following Mbembe’s theory, in her book Begging to be Black, she starts a welcome thought experiment about the meaning of being African. For Krog is thinking about new solidarities that are not tied to the category of race.

Mbembe’s Afropolitanism emerges as an innovative concept that allows people to reflect on the meaning of Africa. Past and present are constantly evaluated: the good, the bad, the changeable and the unchangeable. According to Mbembe, those who think and act in an Afropolitical way reject any form of victimhood or victimisation. Therefore, there is a possibility that they could meet an Afrikaaner like Krog as an equal, despite the atrocities committed in the past. Mbembe’s Afropolitanism expresses an ethico-political attitude that places respect and appreciation at the centre of every encounter. To practise Afropolitanism is to recognise the common humanity of those one encounters, for all are part of this world and its entangled histories.

But Mbembe’s ethico-political claims do not prevent Afropolitanism from being susceptible to commercial use as a marketing term. Mbembe has nothing against the exchange of goods – the exchange of goods ultimately contributes to the emergence of African hybrid culture. But in his short text on Afropolitanism, Mbembe does not address any Afropolitan terms and conditions of trade. To many, Afropolitanism sounds sexy, like a positive image campaign for Africa. It is not surprising that, in response, critics reject the term Afropolitanism as apolitical and commercial. Emptied of Mbembe’s political claim or without Krog’s critical self-questioning I have to agree.

Insights into other Afropolitan perspectives will be offered by a monthly essay on this topic until August 2020. Next month, I will explore an Afropolitan position defined by a lack of privileges.