It’s not African libraries burning in SA

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

IMAGES of an angry mob of black South African students on a maniacal rampage, burning libraries and looting shops are presently haunting the world.

Once again, the name and image of a black African as an unreasonable and irrational idiot is back in global perspective. The White right wing in South Africa is having a party, shouting out loud that they told the world that blacks cannot rule themselves but will burn the country down. The white liberals and black elites are embarrassed and feel exposed that their years of defending black intelligence and fitness to govern are going up in smoke as black students finally demonstrate that after all Africans are animals that are prepared to burn their past, present and future as valuable books in libraries and expensive lecture theatres and auditoriums go up in smoke in the name of the #FeesMustFall struggle.

Once again, the image of Africa as a place of lacks and deficits and excesses of spectacle, scandal and disaster is back in the global media. The barrage of condemnations and expressions of shock at the irrationality of not only South African students but Africans at large and their senseless behaviours is forceful. Blackness, Africanness and fitness to rule in the world are presently on trial.

I write today not to defend the destructive and unAfrican conduct of students who burn lecture rooms and libraries but to reflect on how enslavers, colonialists and imperialists in the shape of Europeans and Americans were the first in the world to burn libraries and destroy knowledge systems of other peoples in the name of civilisation and development.

To start with, it is important to observe that a library is not just a building that houses many books, but a shelter that contains a certain archive and a type of legacy and knowledge system. A lecture auditorium is also not just a room where education takes place, it a shrine of a certain belief system, a location of instruction and even indoctrination in certain beliefs, dogma and worldviews. Libraries and lecture rooms are not innocent places but are powerfully ideological and political locations that represent certain powers and ways of thinking about the world and the universe.

The stubborn question of the day is whose power, whose archive and whose culture and legacy do the libraries and lecture theatres in South Africa represent at this point in time and time in place? Before a confrontation with these inconvenient questions, it is important to explore the African and the Global South struggle to keep and maintain their libraries and archives that have been under siege from slavish and colonial political knowledge systems.

The African Library

What has made Edward Said an intellectual hero in the Global South is the way in which he defended the culture and knowledge of Asians from attack by Eurocentricism. Orientalism, the classic book for which Edward Said became known, unmasks how Europeans and Americans deliberately defined Asian history and culture as stuff of the primitive and the grotesque. Not only that, but centuries before Edward Said, in 1492 Christopher Columbus supervised the burning of millions of Islamic books in a library in Southern Spain, the operation was meant to erase Islamic history and memory in the world and establish Eurocentricism as the only knowledge.

When the French conquered Mali in 1893, thousands of manuscripts and historical records of the Empire of Timbuktu were destroyed, burnt and buried to erase the evidence that Africa ever had any learned civilisation. Efforts are presently afoot to recover some of the lost manuscripts and records of Mali. The ancient Zimbabweans who built the Great Zimbabwe and had an Empire and civilisation of their own before conquest also had their history denied and silenced, there are even claims that it is not Zimbabweans that built the magnificent structures but Phoenicians or Germans.

Ali Mazrui’s Triple Heritage documentary on Africans was an attempt to rescue and revive some historical truths about Africa and the Africans, historical truths and knowledge that have been carefully buried and systematically silenced by the enslavers and the colonists. Part of Chinua Achebe’s glorious intellectual legacy has been the heroic attempt to recover the image of Africa from slander and misrepresentation in the past and present Eurocentric education systems of the world. As recently as 2013, Mahmood Mamdani wrote a book, Define and Rule, where he powerfully explains how colonial indirect rule defined natives in certain ways as primitive and customary people that could not rule themselves but badly needed to be rescued from their past by colonialism.

Throughout the history of slavery, colonialism, apartheid and the present era of coloniality and neocolonialism, the knowledge of and the knowledge by Africans has always been under attack. Books that defend the history and image of Africa and Africans have been banned or ignored from formal syllabi and curricular. Afrocentric thinkers with rebellious and heretic revolutionary knowledges have been thrown out of employment and their works condemned and ignored in the education systems.  In a strong way, the African library and African ideas, since conquest, have always been burning. The history of Africa and that of Africans has always been under attack in a world where Europe and America want to re-imagine the entire planet after their image and economic and political interests.

The Missing African Library

By way of experiment, I visited two libraries in two of South Africa’s leading universities last week. I chose to explore how two African leaders, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, are represented in the history and political science sections. Kenneth Kaunda, in the leading portraits appears under failed leaders who overstayed in power and had disastrous economic policies from which Zambia might not recover. Julius Nyerere is found to be a big headed African tyrant who never took learned advice and through his Ujamaa experiment totally wrecked what was a promising Tanzanian economy and polity.

That Kenneth Kaunda is an African philosopher who preached African humanism and a benevolent freedom fighter who hosted other liberation movements from greater Africa in Zambia at a great cost to his country is not mentioned. That Europeans and Americans punished the Kaunda regime for its efforts at fanning liberation in Africa is not mentioned nor is it suggested in any of the records. That Julius Nyerere refused that Africans would be taught socialism by Europeans and argued that Africans in their communal spirit of sharing had socialism before socialism was born is not mentioned. Neither is it mentioned that the failure of Ujamaa was largely because donors and investors ganged up to boycott Tanzania because the Ujamaa experiment threatened global capitalism. This fact will never be known by students of history and political science in South Africa, and Africa at large.

In the libraries of leading African universities, especially South African universities, the legacies of liberation movements and that of African liberation leaders are not represented in any truthful or respectful manner but are sectioned for demonisation and demeaning. The true African historical and political library is still missing in the African academy. The libraries that are burning or threatened with fire in South Africa are in actuality in Africa and not really African libraries. Libraries must be protected, first by students themselves and institutions, and it is also important that they become true African libraries.