The 25th of May has become known as Africa Day, a day on which we celebrate our continent. Importantly, on 25 May 1963 over 20 African heads of state and other representatives met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (one of the reasons why the headquarters of the African Union are located in the same city), hosted by Emperor Haile Selassie.
It was on that day that the Organisation of African Unity was founded. The main aim of the OAU at the time was to push for the decolonization of Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (from European nations) given that already two-thirds of African countries had achieved independence.
But, what does it really mean to be “African”?
Is it a matter of race?
Does being African mean you were born anywhere on the continent?
Should we even care to define this to bring diverse people across over 50 countries (and the diaspora) under a single identity?
You might think it is a frivolous question. However, I have participated and also observed in recent years in the technology and innovation ecosystem as many have questioned whether it is valid to call startups founded and run by people of a hue that is in high occurrence in Europe, African. This resulted in a heated and energetically contested debate on whether Jumia is an African e-commerce company after it billed itself as such when it listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Whenever I find myself disillusioned as to what it means to be African, I always refer back to two people I hold in high regard; Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and Kwame Nkrumah.
The late Sobukwe, addressing the race question in a speech he made in 1959, said:
“The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. In our vocabulary therefore, the word ‘race’ as applied to man, has no plural form. We do, however, admit the existence of observable physical differences between various groups of people, but these differences are the result of a number of factors, chief among which has been geographical isolation.” - Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, 1959
It is with the words “there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race” that, for me, he laid to rest the question of race when it comes to being African. It is also something I discussed with Nothando Migogo when we recorded an episode of my podcast, i.e. in our native African languages we never addressed a grouping of people using their skin color as a descriptor.
Which brings me to Kwame Nkrumah.
“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.” - Kwame Nkrumah
With that sentence, Nkrumah poetically addresses the issue of what it means to be African.
Looking across Africa, we are faced with many challenges. Although many of these challenges are a result of colonization and its long-term effects, we have to ask: “what have we done to improve the lives of Africans since gaining independence?”
It is when you ask this question that you realize that the pace of improvement of the quality of life for many Africans has been rather slow. It is when you ask this question that you go back to what Nkrumah and Sobukwe said and ask yourself if an elected leader does not deliver services for the benefit of their citizens, are they really African?
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