Which African leaders qualify as an icon? Perhaps this is always a controversial question, but it was much easier to answer, say, 25 years ago, when the public memories of Pan-Africanist champions such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere were still fresh, Nelson Mandela had just walked out of prison, and Robert Mugabe was a widely respected leader. Today, lists like New African’s 2004 “100 greatest Africans of all time” – in which these leaders took the top four places – seem somewhat stale. Beyond famous musicians, artists and authors, the time of easy consensus on who is an “African icon” seems past. The sands are shifting beneath the political icons of old.
Africa’s youth feel betrayed. The 2015 #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa are testimony to this. What began with a student throwing faeces at a statue of colonial icon and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town gave rise to nationwide calls for the “decolonisation” of universities and free higher education. As described by one of the university’s academics, Zethu Matebeni, the student protests challenged an existing campus culture that many say still excludes and alienates black people. The students’ anger, however, was not only directed at Rhodes as a symbol of colonial oppression. It also called into question the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the country’s negotiated democratic settlement, which was based on national reconciliation and political transformation. Richard Poplak further unpacks this dynamic in the context of a deeply divided society where anger is growing about high income and wealth gaps that continue to run along racial lines.
The significance of former struggle icons is contested in other African countries as well. The portrayal of Robert Mugabe’s legacy by Brian Raftopoulos shows how a once celebrated liberator turned into a deeply polarising dictator, able to invoke both admiration and contempt at the same time. In contrast, Henning Melber’s essay on a Namibian struggle hero reflects on the popular desire for leaders who remain truthful to their principles, and how people can use iconography to dissent against dominant narratives.
Takura Zhangazha notes the hegemonic influence of the Western mass media that has transferred young people’s awareness of African political icons to new figureheads, mostly in music and sports. Away from the global gaze, however, contemporary African popular culture and politics continue to introduce and sustain a multitude of icons. Fatoumata Bintou Kandé highlights some of Senegal’s national heroes and also some hidden female icons whose stories have been sidelined in the country’s public memory. In his essay on writer, poet, ethnologist, numerologist and spiritual leader Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Abdourahman A. Waberi portrays another outstanding African figure who remains relatively unknown despite his historical significance.
Mary C. Curtis argues that, although the tendency to reduce countries to negative stereotypes and positive exceptions is global, this has been especially persistent with regard to African countries. However, Mũkoma wa Ngũgi sees hope in new, horizontal social movements that may bring to the fore a new iconography that transcends the individual and depoliticised “saviour”. In reality, neither history nor culture is stagnant on the continent. As Ngũgi puts it: “We have to allow Africa to be many things, to claim old, new and growing cultural and political traditions as its own.”
This edition of Perspectives seeks to critique the meaning of “African icon”, to explore the changing readings of icons of the past, and the issues they may reveal or veil. In doing so, we invite the reader to take a fresh and more imaginative look at the continent.
This is Africa