Over the past month and a half, I’ve been watching a documentary series by the eminent art historian, Lord Clark, titled, Civilisation: A Personal View, which a friend bought for me a while back. Commissioned by BBC TV in 1966 and filmed in over 100 locations across 13 countries, this brilliant series is an epic examination of Western European culture from the fall of the Roman Empire right through the Industrial Revolution and beyond. As I’ve been watching it religiously and taking notes, I’ve been pondering and reflecting on the idea of building what I have termed a “modern African civilisation.” In my view, this will be one of the challenges facing the current young African generation as we go through the 21st century.
Of course we all know that the notion of “civilisation” is not one that is foreign to the continent of Africa. Africa has had great civilisations in times past. The ancient African civilisations of: Mapungubwe, Carthage and Timbuktu are well known examples. As the old saying goes, “ex Africa semper aliquid novi (from Africa always something new),”and with this in mind, it is my conviction that the continent should be mobilised around the notion of building a modern, uniquely African civilisation. This is in line with the sentiments expressed by former ANC president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, chief Albert Luthuli, in his biography, Let My People Go, “somewhere ahead there beckons a civilisation, a culture which will take its place in the parade of God’s history, beside other great human syntheses: Chinese, Jewish, European. It will not necessarily be all black, but it will be African.”
In order to pro-actively work at building this modern African civilisation we have to start with the idea that Africa is endowed with a creative potential which can make a difference to its people as well as the global village at large. The national liberation sentiment, based on the idea of reclaiming stolen land poses an ethical dilemma for development and creativity in Africa. On the one hand, we can judge it an ideal worth striving for in the sense that it entails equitable distribution of land among citizens. However, it also creates the impression that development entails going backwards by reclaiming the past. While the past has an objective immobility, it can only enable development when brought into a new creative synthesis with the present. The quest to build a modern African civilisation will only succeed if this balance is reached, between making up for the injustices of the past, achieving a consensus in the present which will unlock the creative potential of each of the different African people groups, whilst maintaining a focus on the desired future.
We’ll also have to take into account the challenge of building a modern African civilisation in an increasingly pluralistic world. In most times and places in human history, pluralism was the exception to the rule; where it existed, it operated within the framework of a strong, dominant culture. But pluralism today seeks to exist without a dominant culture. This is problematic because social systems seem to require some basic consensus to survive. In the modernised world, however, these agreements tend to be minimal. So how do we build/create a modern African civilisation, taking into account the challenges of pluralism? We’ll need: intellectual, institutional, administrative, financial and political synergy in order to bring about this modern African civilisation.
Finally, the words of former Irish statesman, Eamon de Valera, uttered in 1966, give us a significant clue as to what the ultimate aim of this modern African civilisation should be, “political freedom alone was not the ultimate goal. It was to be, rather, the enabling condition for the gradual building up of a community in which an ever-increasing number of its members, relieved from the pressure of exacting economic demands, would be free to devote themselves more and more to the cultivation of the things of the mind and spirit and so, able to have the happiness of a full life, our nation could then become again, as it was for centuries in the past, a great intellectual and missionary centre from which would go forth the satisfying saving truths of Divine Revelation, as well as the fruits of the ripest secular knowledge. “So though we have a continent full of people that are still waiting for some kind of “economic emancipation” at some stage in this century, de Valera’s words give us very clear direction in terms of what the ultimate goal of a modern African civilisation should be, that is,” the gradual building up of a community in which an ever-increasing number of its members, relieved from the pressure of exacting economic demands, would be free to devote themselves more and more to the cultivation of the things of the mind and spirit and so, able to have the happiness of a full life, our continent could then become again, as it was for centuries in the past, a great intellectual and missionary centre from which would go forth the satisfying saving truths of Divine Revelation, as well as the fruits of the ripest secular knowledge.” A civilisation which manages to strike a balance between the sacred and the secular, without the one predominating over the other. This has been a huge weakness of the current civilisation which is currently dominated by the West; It has never managed to find a balance between sacred and secular. In times past, religion was dominant and all secular knowledge was frowned upon. In the current phase of this civilisation, religion and religious knowledge is undermined whilst secularism and secular knowledge is acclaimed and prized above all. In the words of novelist George Orwell, “I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, meekly went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed oesophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul.”Unlike the current civilisation that is dominated by the West, we need to build a civilisation that will not “cut away the soul of man” through its materialistic (in the philosophical sense of the word) focus. It will be a civilisation geared towards bringing out the full potential of each individual, by enabling them to devote more time to, “the cultivation of the things of the mind and the spirit, and so able to have the happiness of a full life, having been relieved from the pressure of exacting economic demand,” as de Valera states, as opposed to the current, Western dominated civilisation, which though it has produced great technological and scientific advances, which have brought more affluence, has, through its over-emphasis on material production and economic productivity, reduced mankind to the situation that the wasp found itself in, in George Orwell’s analogy above.