Africa’s having a bit of a renaissance moment in the news lately. Between the Economist‘s retraction of it’s claim that Africa is doomed, the Guardian’s report on Africa’s middle class, and a new EU-funded project that highlights Africa’s other class, it seems that people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to Africa than the grim war-torn, famine-stricken, refugee-filled images of the 1990s and early 2000s. But most of the attention so far has been on the growing material wealth of Africans (or at least, Eur-Americans’ growing recognition of the material wealth of Africans). The Africa Report and the FT’s This is Africa are both focused on convincing the business world that Africa is a sound investment.
In a different vein, this past weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper’s column featured a promising new angle that looks beyond ‘hey, Africans can buy things’ to ‘hey, Africa has a thriving intellectual culture too.’ (Again, in the mainstream media. Africa is a Country has been doing this for a long time.) As my own research is on middle class West African diaspora contributions to Atlantic intellectual and social developments in the nineteenth century, and I spend a lot of time convincing my students that much of Africa has a long history of a thriving business class and a thriving scholarly tradition, this shift can only be good for furthering my case.
The focus of Simon Kuper’s article is Chimurenga, a magazine published in Cape Town and founded by Ntone Edjabe (pictured) in 2002. Chimurenga bills itself as ‘a pan African publication of writing, art and politics’. It’s also published in Nairobi with Kenya’s literary magazine Kwani and Lagos with Nigeria’s independent publisher Cassava Republic Press. In fact it’s a little McSweeney’s-esque, with different formats and conceits for each issue. The writing, however, tends to be more non-fiction: hard-hitting journalism; book and art criticism; interviews; and a variety of other forms. Beyond the magazine itself, Chimurenganyana is the book publishing arm of the project. They are ‘ a pavement literature project consisting of low cost serialized monographs culled from the print journal’ and have published 6 books to date. They also collaborate with academia, putting out a biennual publication on Africa’s cities with University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. All of this is very cool, and certainly does its part to show Eur-America that the Africa we think we know is just an Africa of our imagination.
But what I find the most exciting about this is that it’s not for Eur-Americans. Sure, I can subscribe and can see articles on their website. But a look at the stockists reveals that this is a Pan-African magazine for an African audience primarily (and really, for South Africa at that). What I find most exciting is that this is a growing and thriving international African diaspora cultural scene in Cape Town that is spreading beyond Cape Town’s traditional art and music culture, and that has the potential to draw in a generation of intellectuals, writers, and artists just as Paris did in the late 19th/early 20th century and New York did in the early and later 20th century. Edjabe has helped to foster a creative community in Cape Town – putting up posters around the city, bringing in guest speakers (in collaboration with Penguin Press, for instance, and local bookshops), staging library exhibitions, and creating guerilla music festivals - making it a destination (real or virtual) for African artists, intellectuals, writers, and musicians.
Although it may be a reasonable critique to ask how representative these contributors are, or point out the gross inequalities in South Africa, or Africa as a whole, neither France nor the US was a shining beacon of equality – material or political – during the Belle Epoque, the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz Age. In fact, the inequalities gave the revolutionary frame to these artistic movements, and, after all, Chimurenga does mean revolutionary struggle.