Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton and uMunthu
I first drafted this entry more out of an urge to vent, than to reflect. I had difficulty writing about an airport ordeal and connecting it to the African Renaissance and Black Consciousness, until I learned of the recent remarks made by Nobel peace laureate and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former US president Bill Clinton. Archbishop Tutu has decried the moral depravation in South Africa, a breakdown of uMunthu, whereas Clinton has adopted uMunthu (uBuntu in South Africa) and offered it as an important tool in dealing with the world’s problems. Clinton was speaking at the Labour Party convention in the United Kingdom in September. What I present below is an attempt to grapple with the dilemma of uMunthu and self-criticism in Africa, in the context of an airport ordeal I was subjected to at Johannesburg International Airport recently. It wasn’t until I heard Archbishop Tutu’s remarks that I began making sense of my ordeal and what the former Archbishop fears is happening in South Africa.
Archbishop Tutu has been one of the chief advocates of uMunthu as a philosophical framework informed by theological and social urgency in South Africa’s political transition. Lately he has been critical of the moral direction South African society is taking. Delivering the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town recently, the Archsbihop is reported as saying: “The fact of the matter is we still depressingly do not respect one another. I have often said black consciousness did not finish the work it set out to do.” What he said on this occasion made me wonder if my ordeal at JNB was not a manifestation of the problem he was describing.
Because of the flight connection I missed from JFK to Johannesburg International Airport (JNB), it was my expectation that my luggage, two big bags containing my clothes, books, gifts, etc, would not arrive on the same flight with me at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe, Malawi. So it was not a surprise that I landed on Malawian soil without my two bags. The lodge I was staying in kindly offered to collect the luggage from the airport and bring it to my room. The person from the lodge who went to collect the luggage called me from the airport and said he was not sure if he should go ahead and pick up the bags from the carousel, given the condition the bags appeared to be in. One of the bags came off the belt half opened, with things rummaged and appearing as if some had fallen out. He asked if I had locked them both, and I told him no. I had been instructed not to lock them back in Lansing, as airport security in the United States opens and unlocks all checked in baggage. If I was going to report anything missing, he suggested I come to the airport myself and sort things out.
When I got to the Lost and Found section at KIA, I found both bags zipped close. I opened them and could not immediately tell if anything was missing. It took me a few seconds to begin recounting in my mind the things I had packed. It took me days to sort out exactly what was missing. Most of them were gifts, ie, clothing, lotions, perfumes, etc. Almost half the contents of one bag were missing.
I decided I would submit the pilferage form at the responsible airline’s baggage office in Johannesburg, on my way back to the US, rather than in Lilongwe or Blantyre, as I did not have enough time to spare in Malawi.
So on Saturday afternoon, September 16, I landed back at Johannesburg International Airport, and proceeded to check in for my connection to New York’s JFK, via Dakar, Senegal. I tried using my sense of direction to identify the section dealing with lost baggage, before realizing that I was only succeeding in getting myself lost within the airport. An airport official advised that I needed to check with immigration if they could allow me to the said section, as that was in-country. I got to what I took to be the immigration area, and was told that I had gone beyond the immigration point and needed to go back. I retraced my steps, and presented myself before the nearest station. An immigration officer stretched out her hand for my passport and boarding pass, and I handed them over. “You are not a diplomat! This is for diplomats only,” she shouted, before punching a number of keys on her computer keyboard. “It says up there clearly—For Diplomats,” she continued. “I didn’t see it, I’m sorry,” I replied.
“Did you overstay?” I told her I had just landed, barely an hour ago, from Malawi, and I was in transit. “Then how come you went beyond this point? You have entered the country. You shouldn’t have passed this point!” She was now shouting even louder and gesticulating angrily. She called out to another woman and, as far as I could tell from her tone and gestures, she lashed out at her for not watching the entry point. The other woman came over and asked me the same questions the first woman asked. “You entered the country illegally. We charge 3,000 Rands for that.” As far as I knew, I had barely moved from one side of the international departures lounge to another, and here I was, being accused of being an illegal immigrant in South Africa! I told them I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about, I was just trying to get to Lost and Found and report missing items. They weren’t impressed. They went ahead and stamped my passport, before one of them ratted out fast instructions on how to get through immigration and find Lost and Found.
All through the harangue and rudeness I did my best to stay calm and not answer back in anger, something I have recently come to realize I have great trouble doing at times. I decided I would try filing the report in New York, if I was able to get that far.
I was raging inside as I walked away from the immigration, resisting a strong urge to go back and make myself clear, so to speak. For reasons I doubt I have the clarity of mind to articulate, I became aware that I was repeatedly asking myself a series of questions: What happened to the African Renaissance? What happened to uMunthu? What happened to Black Consciousness? To African and Third World solidarity? What does any of this have to do with any of the above questions? I wasn’t going to find answers to these questions, until four weeks later, through the serendipitous occasion of the 75th birthday anniversary of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In reconstructing my worldview around concepts such as the African Renaissance, uMunthu, Black Consciousness and Third World solidarity, I have found myself rethinking some of the easy urges we have acquired from the Western school system. In particular, I am talking about the tendency by us elites and educated Africans to be overly critical of other Africans, African institutions, African governments, African cultures, sports, education, and even politics. I am not talking about genuine criticism that has indeed been central to the understanding of some of the causes of our problems, and to the transitions we have embarked on. Rather, I am talking about criticism spawned mainly by the underlying tendency to see ourselves as Africans and everything African through the perspectives of Northern global dominance and ideologies, long hand for white supremacy. In this regard, an easy reaction to the experience I was subjected to, from the missing luggage to the incomprehensible charge of being an illegal immigrant in a lounge at Johannesburg International Airport would have been to say that’s how Africans conduct their business—inefficiency, incompetence, and even rudeness. In fact that’s what I saw and heard several white passengers saying when their luggage didn’t arrive with them in Johannesburg from New York. No one needs to be reminded how common it is to associate Africa with incompetence, and Europe and America with efficiency.
But because of my sensitivity to such insensitivity about Africa, I refuse to subject Africa to such comparisons, realizing that incompetence and inefficiency happen even in those places considered highly developed and “civilized”. Thus on the surface, the problems of luggage missing, rude immigration officers, planed being late, etc, should not be seen as peculiar to Africa only. As a matter of fact, I missed my connection on my way to Malawi because an American plane was delayed at an American airport. I experienced another delay on my return flight from New York to Cincinnati. The air hostess apologized by saying “It’s JFK; what else can I say?” Upon which one passenger responded: “You need say no more. It’s JFK.” And another one: “That’s all you need to say.”
On the face of it, it appears futile, if not irrelevant, to spend time highlighting cases of incompetence and inefficiency in the global North. Many people would say these happen few and far between in the North, whereas in Africa they are the norm. In my view, that type of thinking is indicative of the very mentality I am decrying here, the tendency to associate excellence with the North and backwardness with Africa and the global South. For me, making the African Renaissance work involves challenging these stereotypes and encouraging people, Africans and friends of Africa, to be sensitive to unfair and unjust portrayals of Africa. uMunthu accepts criticism of Africa and her problems, but not when launched from white supremacist ideologies, as if often the case, by both Africans and friends of Africa.
Given what I was subjected to at Johannesburg in September, I agree with Archbishop Tutu’s appeals to Black Consciousness and uMunthu. However it is also incumbent upon the media to be more analytical and present the social context in which Africa is viewed in the global sphere. I often worry when important Africans give aid and comfort to anti-African agents by offering them language with which to actualize their prejudiced views of Africa. But in advancing our uMunthu worldview, one difficult question is the extent to which we should restrain ourselves from self-criticism for fear that it will be taken advantage of by racists, Afro-pessimists, and other agents of anti-Africanism.
Adding on to Clinton’s exhortation for the world to embrace uMunthu, Dr. Kennedy Lweya has opined that uMunthu as a “concept has a powerful meaning and potential to transform the world into one of better understanding and respect for every human being - it is about treating others as we would [want] to be treated.” It is in this spirit that we see the number of scholars who are researching, writing and publishing on uMunthu growing, in Malawi, South Africa, and other African countries. Lesser known than their South African counterparts, Malawians who have advanced this scholarship include Harvey Sindima, Augustine Musopole, Gerald Chigona, Richard Tambulasi, Happy Kayuni, and a few others. Anybody wishing to avail themselves with how uMunthu looks like, and why its scholars believe it has the potential to contribute to a different understanding of the world's problems, would do well to consult these and other scholars.