African “citizens of the world”

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When the Africa Centre was based in Covent Garden, the basement bar was a hub for many political debates. Arguments often focused on the issue of assimilation into British culture and how far a person of African heritage should go in his or her efforts to fit in with the customs and traditions of the host community.

Zimbabwe had only recently emerged as a new nation in those days. Robert Mugabe was regarded as a heroic figure by many. Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated in Robben Island and Margaret Thatcher described him as a terrorist. It is amazing to contemplate the extent to which things have changed in a few decades.

Those of us who frequented the Centre bar and happened to be on the threshold of becoming adults were expected to absorb the ideas expressed by men (and a few women) who had different upbringings and experiences to ours. The issue of Apartheid in South Africa and how to get rid of it created an “us and them” ethos that was difficult to ignore.

Nowadays, most of those radicals from the Africa Centre bar have either emigrated back to African or Caribbean countries, or are of blessed memory. Those of us who were impressionable young things that participated in those debates and discussions are living in very different times. The internet, social media platforms and globalisation have transformed the terms of reference.  Zimbabwe and South Africa are both engaged in the process of defining for themselves as nations what effective leadership and governance should look and feel like. A couple of generations of people of African heritage have bought into the idea of being “citizens of the world”. This situation has its pro and cons, naturally.

The recent furore about the disparaging comments made in the White House about Africans and Haitians makes me wonder about progressive Afrocentric thinking nowadays. The sentiments expressed in the meeting are useful in letting us know how far things have moved on. The contemptuous disregard for African people by many others has been brought to the surface, yet again. How can we use the energy generated by this contretemps to galvanise our senses of who we are and what we need to do to make things better for ourselves?