Beyond the Individual: Redefining Icons in Africa

Beyond the Individual: Redefining Icons in Africa


Here wa Ngugi challenges conventional notions of what an African icon is and by whom they are determined. Noting the shift from vanguardist revolutions to people-powered and -led revolutions, he proposes a new iconography for our times.

Beyond the Individual: Redefining Icons in Africa Interview
Ruth First was a journalist, academic and gifted political activist. © Derek Smith — Image Credits

Richard Oduor Oduku: What comes to mind when you think of the notion of icons in society?

Mukoma wa Ngugı: I am taking issue with the very concept of icon. For one to become an icon, he or she has to be deracinated, cleaned up and depoliticised for our consumption. Mandela becomes an elderly affable man instead of a revolutionary. Martin Luther King Jr. becomes an emblem of love across races, forgetting his militant opposition to war and his class-based approach to social change. And those who cannot be cleaned up do not become icons; certainly, figures like Malcolm X and Castro or, closer to home, Thomas Sankara, are not allowed to become such because their names cannot be abstracted from their radical politics.

I also think most of the people we consider to be icons would not see themselves as such. They would see themselves as ordinary people who, against difficult odds, as in apartheid, colonialism and dictatorships, spoke up. They were not born icons, circumstances created them. The icon is what we choose to remember.

Who are some of the African icons that you would choose to remember?

I often think of Ruth First, an anti-apartheid revolutionary assassinated by the apartheid government in 1982 as our very own Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-German revolutionary assassinated in 1919 in Germany because of her political activism. I would also mention Malcolm X, because why shouldn’t we claim him for Africa? After all, he claimed Africa for black Americans when he sought solidarity with Tanzanians, Kenyans and Ghanaians before his assassination. Or W.E.B. Dubois and Sol Plaatje, the pioneers of what would become the radical Pan-Africanism embraced by Kwame Nkrumah.

I mention these to challenge who can become an African icon – do they have to be black? Then what do you do with Ruth First, a white Jewish woman? Do they have to be African? Then what do you do with Randall Robinson, an African-American who actively fought against apartheid? Why shouldn’t we celebrate Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass for advancing the rights of black men and women? Or Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the Haitian revolution’s defeat of French and British armies, making Haiti the first nation on earth to free all within its borders, regardless of race? If we take all these into consideration, then the notion of icons will always be smaller than the history they created. In fact, there is an argument to be made that icons bury the history they made.

Female icons are largely marginalised in our historical narratives. Why do you think this is the case?

Take Kenyan history, for example, and the legacy of the Mau Mau or the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army. The Kenyatta and Moi govern-ments had vested interests in suppressing it in order to loot the country blind while cementing neo-colonialism. One could not do the work of recovering the role of women in the anti-colonial struggle without contradicting the dictatorship. For example, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, the play by Ngugı and Micere Mugo, which showed the centrality of women in the struggle, was banned. Ngugı was later detained with-out trial and both were eventually forced into exile.

Organised religion has produced icons like Reverend Timothy Njoya in Kenya and Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa through their support for just causes. What do you make of the televangelists that are iconised by many across the continent?

These televangelists are prosperity preachers – really, they are the worst kind of capitalists. Jesus drove them out of the temple. They are good for nothing. Instead, we should be embracing liberation theology – the kind preached by Bob Marley in “Get Up, Stand Up”. The God who stands up for the poor and the exploited, the God on the side of justice. I cannot say it better than Marley did:

We sick an' tired of-a your ism-schism game
Dyin’ ’n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, Lord.
We know when we understand:
Almighty God is a living man.
You can fool some people sometimes,
But you can’t fool all the people all the time.
So now we see the light (What you gonna do?),
We gonna stand up for our rights! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)

In other words, let us see all religions – the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, etc. – as being in the service of justice, of the exploited and the mar-ginalised. Let us remove theology from the hands of the thieves, the “civilising” colonisers, the do-gooder NGOs, and instead read them as radical texts that speak against injustice.

To some extent, the televangelists are an expression of the era of globalisation and American cultural hegemony. Can this change?

The problem is that we have been following the same models set up by the colonisers – this is the essence of neo-colonialism. The social, political and economic structures set up by the coloniser continue to govern the newly independent African country. Globalisation is built on those same structures. Think of the havoc caused by the structural adjustment programmes from the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s. There is a model that we as Africans overlook, and that is the model exemplified by Cuba. Think of Che Guevara in the Congo, where Lau-rent Kabila’s greed and political blindness made the Cuban mission of solidarity impossible. A little later, Cubans would fight and die in Angola. Indeed, Mandela would say that it was the Cuban intervention that broke apartheid’s back. Cubans, as it has been said, are the only people to come to Africa and leave with nothing besides their dead.

Speaking of icons, shouldn’t Castro and Che be read as part of our fabric? Watch the documentary Cuba: An African Odyssey, for example. Let me put it this way: during the Ebola outbreak, Western countries pulled out their doctors. Cuba sent 400 doctors to Sierra Leone. Let that sink in. Four hundred Cubans at a time when Western countries had closed their borders and mass hysteria took the place of understanding. This is the model we should be following and asking after. We need to know more about the revolutionary solidarity coming out of the global South.

Going back to the United States’ position as the dominant maker of global culture: many young Africans exposed to mainstream media and the internet are first introduced to American cultural icons even before they know their own heroes from next door. Is there a way in which we could make us more visible to ourselves?

Africans have to be at the centre of their own cultural production. That means we should have thriving movie industries that compete with the best in the world. We need to make our own documentaries and have our equivalents of Motown and Hollywood. Nollywood is doing well in this regard, but we need to consider that we are a continent of close to a billion people in 55 countries. Each of the 55 countries could be a centre of its own cultural production.

Despite the hegemony of Western culture, the African diaspora has become an important part of the new wave of imagining the possibilities of what I would call “a new Africa”. New traditions are being fashioned and significant elements of African culture are entering foreign geographies. What types of cultural exports, hybrids, are you wit-nessing around you?

We have to allow Africa to be many things, to claim old, new and grow-ing cultural and political traditions as its own. Why is it that we do not read early slave narratives as part of African literature – that literature from the diaspora, created by tears, blood and resistance? Why don’t we really claim, as Africans, the Haitian revolution that ushered in the first black nation, as our own? To declare independence, the Haitian revolutionaries, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, defeated Napoleon! Why isn’t this history part of our collective memory? I am not so sure we can recognise the diaspora without acknowledging the revolutionary diaspora of the past.

Having said that, because some of the literature from the diaspora is coming from first-generation Africans in America, the literature will have different thematic concerns than, let’s say, the literature of the Makerere generation, the Achebe generation. For the Makerere generation, return was possible. For the first generation of Africans, the transnational generation, return is not possible.

Why is a return not possible? Is it because the transnational generation has an uneasy or a fractured relationship with the continent?

First-generation Africans in the United States are Americans and Africans. They are born and live in the United States, but they have an immediate connection to Africa. If they are lucky and they can afford it, their parents take them back to their country of origin once a year, where they meet extended relatives. Later, in college, they might travel on their own, take Africa-related courses in college, perhaps even learn an African language. But they are Americans. It is not a contradiction to be both American and African – it is just who they are. And if we understand it that way, then we should be able to think of them as pro-ducing their own distinct culture, whether it is music, art or literature. Instead of trying to box it into either African or American categories, we need to see it as different, something unique to them – culture produced by a group of people in unique circumstances.

Do you think that this uniqueness is what explains, for example, Barack Obama’s rise to become the global icon he is today?

Certainly his uniqueness, a biracial yet black American with direct familial connections to Kenya, Harvard education and charisma contributed to his rise. As did the historical circumstance where after the collapse of global economies the world needed hope. But we, especially Africans should ask what he did with the opportunity to be a global icon – mass deportations of undocumented families from the US, militarisation of Africa-US relationships through the Africa Command Center, expansion of drone warfare, Libya and so on.

Is there anyone or anything that you would recognise as the African icons of today?

As mentioned before, an icon is one that we have abstracted from real, lived history. So, by definition, icons as we have known them – actually, reified them – are always lesser than what they were in real lived history.

Understanding that they would not want to be called icons but rather a “generation of revolution”, I think the Rhodes/FeesMustFall movement in South Africa and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US give us the iconography of our times, rather than individual icons.

Rather than the vanguardist movements, led by an enlightenment few who hijacked and ushered us straight into the hands of neo-colonialism, I think the new movements are horizontal and understand political energy as the force, as opposed to individual leadership. Their long-lasting impact will be in redefining our approaches to social change and resistance, from vanguard revolutions to people-powered and people-led revolutions.

Related Content

  • Perspectives #03/2017: The (Un-) Making of Icons in Africa


    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.

  • Perspectives - Political Analyses and Commentary

    Perspectives is a publication series of the Africa offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. With this series, we intend to let experts from Africa express their views about current political issues in their region. Perspectives focuses on Southern- , East- and West Africa where the foundation has established offices.


Add new comment

Add new comment