An Open Letter to the African Union Commission President
By Mwalimu George Ngwane
His Excellency Jean Ping,
One of the objectives of the African Union Treaty is to “promote sustainable development at the economic, social and CULTURAL levels as well as the integration of African economies (Section 3j).
One of the Specialised Technical Committees of the African Union is the Committee on Education, CULTURE and Human Resources (Section 14g).
One of the functions of the Executive Council is take decisions on policies in the areas of education, CULTURE, health and human resources development (Section 12g).
In spite of this strong Cultural character and colour within the African Union, a summit on the theme “ Cultural Industries in Africa” has never since the creation of the African Union in 2002 been held.
At a time when the African Union is entering its 13th Summit which was earlier slated to hold in Madagascar come July 2009 but which because of the suspension slammed on Madagascar by the African Union may likely hold in Addis Ababa or Libya, and given that most themes of the last twelve summits have been economic (Employment and Poverty Alleviation in Africa, Infrastructure Development in Africa, Industrial Development in Africa), political (Grand Debate on the Union Government, UN Reform, Vision and Mission of the African Union), and social (Health, Water and Sanitation) it was time that an African Union summit be devoted to the development of Arts and Culture in Africa.
Granted that pan African cultural congresses have been held in some African countries (Kenya in 2006 and Algeria to be held from 15th to 20th July 2009) but given the increased importance of cultural issues in a broader sense in a changing world, an African Union summit on Creative industries shall give greater visibility to the idea of a cultural unification of Africa linked with the political and economic unification processes.
Granted that there have been conferences of African Ministers of Culture (the last one was in Benin in 1993) but an executive conference of Heads of State shall provide a holistic and integrated cultural policy framework in Africa.
An African Union summit on Arts and Culture shall among other objectives take stock of the major cultural issues, define strategies for a continental cultural road map, assert Africa’s creative and cultural products in the face of a threatening overdose of Eurocentric art market in Africa, explore potentials for an endogenous art market, create a platform for an interface between civil society organisations involved in Arts and Culture and the African Union, revisit the theme of cultural development so that the contribution of culture to global development becomes more meaningful in the context of an imminent African Union government.
The theme “African Renaissance is at full swing” of the forthcoming pan African Cultural Festival in Algeria and before it the theme “Culture, Integration and African Renaissance” of the pan African cultural festival in Kenya in 2006 are as critical as the statement “it is important to focus and to keep on fighting for our identity that brings African Renaissance” that was made recently in Addis Ababa by the African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs Mrs. Bience Gawanas.
There can be no African Renaissance without an African market for Arts and Culture. A Commonwealth Foundation Report called “Putting Culture First” (2008) asserts that creativity is increasingly being recognized as a resource in generating economic growth. Between 2000 and 2005 trade in creative goods and services increased at a global average rate of 8.7 percent.
Across the world, there is increasing recognition of the need for developing policies to support the cultural industries as an important part of national economies. With significant debate currently focused upon the institutionalized imbalance of trade relations between developed and developing countries, culture may offer a way forward (p11).
Individual African countries are indeed making giant strides in support of a creative environment in which cultural expressions flourish although most often limited to carnival folklore and the culture of ululation. The inability of most African countries to expand the elastic limits of Arts and culture into a web of memory and heritage, cultural freedoms and rights,orature,literature,visual and performing arts,music,film,audiovisual products, culture reporting,crafts,traditional knowledge systems, cultural tourism,fashion,culinary art, hair style, language and ornaments has been the bane of creative economic growth in the continent.
The gullibility with which our national governments imbibe and showcase foreign art and their reticence to partner with local civil society art-related organisations continues to rubbish the philosophy that a healthy cultural civil society is important in periods of crisis, poverty and instability. To fill this vacuum, African civil society art organisations turn to Western Donors who with all the best intentions undeniably have their own prisms of the definition and implementation of art and culture agendas in Africa. The result quite often is a clash in civilisations and conflict of perceptions. National governments need to provide a cultural stimulus package to art organisations in order to flower the abundance of cultural heritage still lying fallow and latent in our creative backyard.
The readiness with which most national governments transform their Ministries of Arts and culture into testaments of political griotism has impacted on our creative artistes who survive not by hearing their own voices or crafting their own visions but by trumpeting the tune of the political piper.
His Excellency, our art galleries are found on our pavements, our monuments and sites are being left in ruins, our fashion and culinary art are alien to our taste, our educational system has shifted from a productive phase to a banking concept, our cinemas are being transformed into churches, our bookshops are nothing but warehouses, indeed our indigenous cultural industries are becoming disposable objects in the face of the corrosive effects of unilateral globalisation.
An African Union summit on the Cultural industries in Africa may not chart individual national cultural policies but it will provide a platform for a more executive ownership and responsibility of what “we are losing in the fire to be retrieved from the ashes”.
For such a summit to be successful, civil society art organisations and cultural practitioners need to be consulted and invited.
His Excellency, I am not advocating an African Union summit on Arts which shall suffer from the distractions of the omnipresent shadows of crisis, conflict and cruelties in Africa. I suppose the Peace and Security Council of the African Union can handle the latter.
I am not advocating an African Union summit on Culture which shall be boycotted by Heads of State simply because their governments refuse to ratify cultural policies and conventions.
I am not advocating an African Union summit on our tangible and intangible cultural patrimony whose far reaching decisions would neither provide a trickle down syndrome nor a feel good effect among Africans in general and cultural professionals in particular.
I am advocating an African Union summit that would debate and resolve on how our cultural industries can impact on wealth creation, human development, home grown craft production and intra-African art trade.
I am advocating an African Union summit that would revitalize the most significant cultural institutions, update the 1976 Cultural charter for Africa and revise the 1992 Dakar Plan of Action for Cultural Industries for African Development.
I am advocating an African Union summit that would establish among other organs an African Cultural Fund and a pan African Arts council, a summit that would develop a coherent position for national governments to synergise their approaches within their various Arts and Culture Ministries and that would create rather than control innovative cultural spaces in our continent.
As you can see, His Excellency, there is so much to be raised in a summit on creative industries and sustainable cultural development and so much at stake were such a summit not to hold in the immediate future.
May I therefore end my letter with these words from a Ugandan friend- “Culture used to be a flower and then it grew into a tree. Now it has become a fruit. What was yesterday a mere ornament is today the very centre and soul of the human adventure. We used to look upon it as an adjunct, we coming to see that it is the heart of the matter. And so there is a need for a new approach to development that will at last recognize the decisive role of culture”.