Pan-Africanism & Technology

Audiences at the Kasi Movie Showcase, at Osizweni township, KwaZulu-Natal.

Technologically Savvy Communication

For the past six years Afropolitan Explosiv has created artistic events that bring change to emergent communities of African people who find themselves confronted with new challenges post-liberation in South Africa.

But since 2015 we have placed a great deal of emphasis in using technology as a means of fostering this interaction, and dialogue in urban and rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Free State. This approach has been the most effective in terms of getting young and old people to speak, and have their ideas heard. We have used tools such as film screenings, e-newsletter, WhatsApp broadcasting and other means.

Screening at Old-Age Home in Mpumalanga province.

This interest in technological modes of communication caused us to look back at our history, so that we do not fool ourselves into thinking we are the only ones who have used technology in order to promote Pan-African perspectives in global communities. In the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s events and conferences were convened in various parts of the world for people to speak about issues affecting people who understand their descent as primarily African. Some of the platforms were technologically savvy in their orientation; i.e. they emphasized the establishment of print media technologies (such as newspaper) and later forums encouraged even the use of broadcasting.

By the beginning of the 20thcentury in South Africa alone at least fournewspapers had been formed by intellectuals in the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The initial successes were gained by aligning the print media with the missionary networks, at places like Lovedale Missions, where was printed the newspaper Ikwezi(1844) which A C Jordan later described as the “earliest records of anything written by a Xhosa speaker in Xhosa,” and in the Northern Cape (Kuruman) another publication emerged with the title Morisa Oa Molemo (1836). The contributions for such publications came from the early recipients of mission influence, and this was reflected in the content of such publications which was proselytizing and educational in nature.[1]

But subsequent publications such as John Tengu Jabavu’s Imvo Zabantsundu(1884), a weekly newspaper in Xhosa and English, Izwi la Bantu (1894), Ilanga lase Natal (1903) founded by John L Dube, were all independent African-owned newspapers. There was also Koranta ea Becoana (1897), which was edited by Sol T Plaatje from 1901. Plaatje also edited Tsala ea Batho (1910).

Beginnings of Pan-Africanism

The now established narrative of Pan-Africanism views Henry Williams’s Conference in 1900 as its inaugural moment. A Trinidadian by birth, Henry Williams, organized the Pan-African conference in London in 1900. The imminence of occassion was then announced in various newspaper bulletins in different parts of the world. This is how the term ‘Pan-African’ began to widely appear in public media and platforms.

As a build-up to the 1900 meeting, Williams had already by 1897 founded the first African Association in London.[2] Some of those who attended Williams’s early gatherings include the likes of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, who was a student in Britain at the time, and Harriet Colenso, one of the daughters of Bishop Colenso, a famous minister in KwaZulu-Natal.

Following the 1900, influential leaders of the conference moved to Cape Town in close succession. The first was Brazilian, Francis Zecharius Santiago Peregrino, who had relocated back to Africa in Ghana. Peregrino came down to Cape Town in 1901. When he arrived in Cape Town he started a newspaper aimed at ‘race pride.’ The newspaper was called the South African Spectator.

Caribbean, Henry Sylvester Williams arrived in 1903. Williams was a lawyer by training and became the first black person to be accepted to the Bar in Cape Town. He saw himself as the undisputed defender of the rights of Africans, much like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo did in the 1950s Johannesburg.

Through the Africa Methodist Episcopal Church and other religious organizations, many preachers and ministers from the Caribbean and North America were already coming to southern Africa. There was also a cohort of arrivals who came as seafarers. One of the films Afropolitan Explosiv has screened to communities is the story of Kurt Orderson, in the film On the Trail of my Father. The film discusses this movement of people across the ocean as seafarers. It shows Orderson himself as he embarks on a journey to trace his roots in Barbados in the Caribbean, where his great-grandfather was born. His great-grandfather then moved to Cape Town in order to form a new life, connected with African soil. How his great-grandfather found himself in Cape Town was through his work as a seamen; in the film it is indeed confirmed that in the Barbados town where he grew up, many semi-skilled blacks opted for the profession as it offered greater freedom of lifestyle as compared to the racial segregation of society that existed on the Island then.

By 1903 in South Africa, three newspapers were in circulation which were owned/edited by men who had a lot of international connections in terms of Pan-African ideas, and were actively involved on the ground in implementing what were modes of African self-autonomy.

Ilanga lase Natal: which was founded by JL Dube. Dube and his wife Nokutela founded the Ohlange Institute in KwaZulu-Natal, based on educational models inspired by the likes of Booker T Washington and WEB DuBois in the United States of America. Dube also formed a close friendship with John Chilembwe of Malawi, the great reformer in politics and agricultural economies in that region.

The South African Spectator: which was founded by Peregrino and Williams in Cape Town. Both men were men who played a key role in the first Pan-African meeting in London in 1900. Williams also paved the way in terms of access of the law profession for black people in the Cape.

Koranta ea Becoana: which was edited by Sol Plaatje. Plaatje became the lead campaigner for blacks in South Africa in the 1910s. He also later took up the technologies of film, in the dissemination of Pan-African ideas, as discussed below.

What is crucial to keep in mind about these newspapers is that they were start

John Chilembwe, Malawian Pan-African leader. He developed a strong friendship with John L Dube, whilst in the USA.

ed  as entrepreneurial ventures by the ambitious agriculturalists, lawyers, educators, etc. who made up the population of educated Africans at the time. The technologies of print were key in the disseminating of Pan-African ideas, and those who led them were influential people in the movement of Pan-African ideas in Africa and the diaspora.

 

Sol Plaatje and Film Technologies

Having come to England to appeal against the Native Land Act of 1913 in South Africa, Plaatje threw himself in the protests against the film Birth of A Nation in 1915. This was a film based on a book about African-Americans terrorizing white Americans, and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan by whites in order to clear the land of black people. The story of the film was a gross misrepresentation given the fact that African-Americans were a minority in the USA and were without access to state power or military resources that could enable them to terrorize white Americans at a large scale.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led the campaigns against the Birth of Nation in the United States. WEB DuBois was also asked to make submissions to the censorship board in England on why the film should not be shown. Such a film caused uproar in the emergent urban communities of people of African descent, both in Europe and the America. Due to the global protests, Birth of a Nation was not shown in the Caribbean and in many other African countries.[3]

The fact that the NAACP and DuBois were so involved in campaigns against the film designated film culture as a crucial site of struggle for Pan-Africanism, even at its infancy. It must be kept in mind that the late 1910s were an era where Garveyism grew throughout the globe.

Plaatje’s objections may have succeeded for a time, as the film was held back from South Africa circuits until 1931. But on the other hand it did prompt the creation of a film of a similar kind locally, known as De Voortrekkers (1916). In explaining racist representations of black people in Birth of Nation, Plaatje contrasted it with Shakespeare’s dramas, which he felt showed that “nobility and valour, like depravity and cowardice, are not the monopoly of colour” .[4] Plaatje had already seen misrepresentations in film before, when he saw a film about the passion of Christ, where Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was shown as being black. Something which he found quite detestable.

Plaatje’s personal involvement in the campaigns against Birth of a Nation may have had a positive spin-off: It made him take seriously the role film could play in widening perspectives of African individuals about their own lives and how far they could go, in light of the severe restrictions in technological development which were imposed on African people. He returned to South Africa in 1923, bringing with him a portable projector which he had been given as a gift in Philadelphia.

Plaatje then accumulated film collections from different sources. These he would then show to local audiences in the 1920s and right up until the early 1930s. Scholars have argued that Plaatje’s film exhibits “opened up film culture in South Africa in unprecedented ways, marking the entry of black South Africans into the world of cinema audiences, bound into the conscious project of incorporating black people into modernity.”[5]

Plaatje’s traveling film exhibits exhibited to rural and urban audiences films from Tuskegee Institute and Hampton in the United States, which showed African-Americans on screen.[6] Seeing these faces on the screen was crucial for the self-identification of black audiences in the country, and thus also a process of normalizing the technology of cinema to South African black audiences.

 

 

It also seems that Plaatje’s bioscope facilitated his own process of storytelling, it allowed him to legitimize the talks he gave about his travels in the United States and Europe. More crucially, through film technology he was able to testify of his personal encounters with other black people who had greater access to education, technology and business opportunities. In a way it gave a counter-model for locals against the deceitful notion that Africans were somehow inferior in intellectual capacity, which was being perpetuated through films like De Voortrekkers.

As journalists such as Plaatje himself, HIE Dhlomo and others discussed what they saw in the films in the newspaper commentaries they wrote, so developed a culture of film criticism for black readerships.[7]  This allowed people to reflect not only on the iconography of their immediate physical surroundings, but also of other places they had never been to; and this reference source of film technology was kaleidoscopic (it was a constantly changing set of sequences) rather than still images, which made it more believable.

It is interesting to note that Sol Plaatje’s film exhibits, the ‘Plaatje Bioscope,’ was received with more interest in the smaller towns, mission stations, and rural areas, than in the industrial cities. Brian Willan says the reason for this was due to Plaatje’s politics which had become “old fashioned” by this time. What is clear is that urban audiences were always searching for the most innovative elements in film technology. It was for this reason for instance that the eventual screening in 1931 of Birth of a Nation(almost 16 years after it had been created) was received with indifference by audiences who felt that silent movies were now old fashioned.[8] But reasons for better success in the lesser developed areas could have also been because there were already a number of bioscopes existing in the urban areas, mining centres. Missionary, Rev. Philipps, is one such figure who curated the film screenings at the Witwatersrand mining compounds.[9]  There were similar initiatives taking place in Durban and other cities.

Comparisons to Today

Hundred of Gogos and Mkhulus Congregate for Kasi Movie Showcase screenings in Vrede, Free State

As Afropolitan Explosiv we have also found that the film exhibits are received with greater interests in townships and rural areas than in the major cities. This is perhaps attributable to the availability of commercial cinemas in the bigger areas as well as international circuits of film festivals that regularly tour those areas, such as Encounters, Festival of Japanese Film, and smaller festivals organized by the universities. Such resources are loudly absent in the townships and rural areas.

One feedback we received about the film exhibits from film scholar, Dr Litheko Modisane was as follows:

It is also a roving event moving between town and township, taking film to the people. This on its own is an important feature of its vision – making films accessible, rendering knowledge about film an important element in the youth’s appreciation of the art form, while growing cultural consciousness from the grassroots.  The roving nature of the festival is reminiscent of the apartheid-era travelling theatre of playwrights and directors like Gibson Kente, who, realising that the state, in its hostility towards black people, denied us institutional support, took it upon themselves to embark on what proved to be highly enterprising cultural activity. Not only was it enterprising but it also served to make people socially and political vigilant. In this way then, the festival takes a leaf from what the United States -based academic Ntongela Masilela, has called consciousness of precedent- that sense of being aware of cultural history and integrating its cardinal points in an ongoing engagement with post-colonial modernity.

There is therefore a case to be made for technologies of communication being re-mobilized in order to elaborate and expand Pan-African perspectives in the communities we serve, in Africa and beyond. It goes without saying then as interest on African matters increases in Asia (especially China), that African innovators will be well posed to lead these interactions, with transformative representations of African culture and people through new technologies of communication.§

Thokozani N Mhlambi

____________________

[1] Couzens, T J (1976). “A Short History of ‘The World’ (And other Black South African Newspapers),” African Studies Seminar Paper, University of the Witwatersrand.

[2] Lenhardt, Bianca-Joy, “Tribute to Henry Sylvester Williams,” Centre of Pan African Thought, 9 June 2011. https://www.panafricanthought.com/tribute-to-henry-sylvester-williams/  Accessed 21 April 2018.

[3] Willan, Brian (2013) ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931, Journal of Southern African Studies, 39:3, 623-640, DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2013.826072, 629 & 639.

[4] Willan, Brian (2013) ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931, Journal of Southern African Studies, 39:3, 623-640, DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2013.826072, 632.

[5] Maingard, J. (2007). South African National Cinema. Abingdon: Routledge

[6] Willan, Brian (1984). Sol Plaatje: South African Nationalist, 1876-1932. Heinemann, 302-305.

[7] Masilela, Ntongela, 2007. The Cultural Modernity of H.I.E. Dhlomo. Asmara: Africa World Press Inc.

2003; Peterson, Bhekizizwe, 2000. Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unmaking of Colonial Marginality. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand UP.

[8] Willan, Cinematographic Calamity, 637-639.

[9] Philipps’s ideas were on the moralizing leisure time. See ‘Chapter Three’  in Couzens, Tim, 1985. The new African: a study of the life and work of HIE Dhlomo. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

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