Africa's long road to democracy

- November 26, 2008

“Few trips have given me as much pleasure as this one. Exactly 30 years ago, I enrolled here at Dalhousie University as a PhD student,” says Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, a former Killam scholar and PhD student at Dal who returned to his old stomping grounds to lecture to a keen crowd of staff, students and community members on “What Happened to the African Renaissance? The Challenges of Development in the 21st Century." It was the third and final lecture in this year's Killam lecture series on the theme "The Future of Africa Considered."

The department head of African-American Studies at the University of Chicago, Dr. Zeleza was nostalgic as he recounted some of his favorite experiences at Dalhousie. He regrets the Grad House, a place where he said he had some of his most meaningful and intellectual conversations while doing his studies, will be torn down. Dr. Zeleza credits his PhD education, staff and other students at Dalhousie as playing an important part in his very successful career as an academic, novelist, critic and activist.

In a fitting wrap to a successful lecture series, Dr. Zeleza spoke of important moments of African history which affect the current situation throughout the continent, and warned those interested that more understanding is needed.

“We would do ourselves a lot of good as scholars and students of Africa to spend more time trying to understand the nature and implications of these changes than in offering more prescriptions, of which Africa has received in overabundance and is no better for it.”

Dr. Zeleza believes Africa, unfairly labelled as dark, depressing and without hope, is experiencing a renaissance, blossoming with decolonization in the 1960s and resurging with the “South African miracle” piloted by Nelson Mandela who led his country’s transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy. Mandela’s torch was picked up Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded him as president in 1999, and who became identified as the architect of the idea of the African Renaissance because he spoke so frequently and eloquently about it.

But African Renaissance—“an idea and a project, a discourse and a process”—is quite distinct from the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries.

“This renaissance was quite unlike the earlier renaissance of Western Europe whose ambitions of global expansion and domination resulted in the ravages of colonization in Africa and elsewhere in the world. For Mandela, the African renaissance entailed the recovery of Africa's historical initiative in the reconstruction of the continent itself and the creation of a new world order.”

In the first of the three-part Killam lecture series, James Ferguson of Stanford University asserted that history is long. And Dr. Zeleza reminds us the future is also long. While he declined to speculate on what is to come, he urged us to revise the way we see Africa, to regard it for what it is: a dynamic and living place filled with a diverse, capable population, with a rich history and a promising future.

READ: Dr. Zeleza's lecture on his blog, The Zeleza Post


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