On 10 December, a petrified world watched as Thamsanqa Jantjie gesticulated incoherently as he purportedly tried to translate speeches by several world leaders into sign language. It only took a few seconds for anyone who actually knows sign language to know that what he was doing was not it.
Jantjie would later blame his bewildering behaviour on an attack of schizophrenia − for which he receives treatment − saying that the moment he mounted the podium, he began to hear voices in his head and see angels descending into the Johannesburg stadium.
The whole fake interpreter story was understandably met with outrage around the world with many condemning the indignity it projected onto the Nelson Mandela memorial. However, seen from another perspective, Jantjie’s schizophrenic attack could be seen as a final word from Madiba on the hurdles remaining for Africa to overcome in setting itself on the path to authentic and sustained advancement.
Jantijie is not the only one hearing things. In Africa’s parliaments, presidential palaces, classrooms, boardrooms, and living rooms, Africans hear the voices of other peoples, nations and continents telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
The continent seems compelled by the will and wish of others to act out of tune with what is expected of it. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), oftentimes poorly informed about the continent’s realities, draft ill-fitting economic policies, which African governments implement as is.
European countries, especially the former colonial powers, maintain a grip over the economic situation of their former colonies.
China arrived in Africa with a bang and has so far built a ‘befitting’ headquarters for the African Union in Addis Ababa and several presidential palaces for African presidents in exchange for privileged access to the continent’s natural resources and manufactured goods markets.
Many years after colonialism, several Africans also still seem to be able to hear the voices of their former masters urging them to distrust their neighbouring ethnic groups.
Colonial governments once spread disdain and hatred amongst peoples to ensure groups did not unite to topple the colonial order, and the embers of their voices are today fanned by corrupt politicians who need ethnic solidarity to fill their empty political tanks.
This is one of the reasons foreign powers can so easily enter Africa and exploit its people. The energy that Africans should be investing to build up the continent together is being spent tearing one another down.
It is also schizophrenia that makes Africans cheat themselves, their fellow citizens and their nation through bribery and corruption.
In their heads, they still believe that the government belongs to the white people and that it is not their personal business to ensure its progress. Indeed, in several African languages, civil or public service is still literally translated as ‘white man’s job’.
It is therefore easy for companies to connive with officials from, say, the Nigerian government to deprive the country of billions of dollars in tax revenue. The country, in the head of the Nigerian, still does not belong to him or her.
It is also schizophrenia that has stopped African governments from overhauling academic curricula and replacing it with something that can help train its students to deal with the continent’s challenges today.
More than 50 years after the majority of the continent gained independence, most big industries in Africa are still owned by non-Africans. What are young Africans learning if not how to manage their own resources?
It is schizophrenia that makes the most mineral rich continent dependent on the rest of the world for its daily sustenance. The colonial masters ensured that the continent did not imbibe the principles of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, that education in Africa prepared the African to serve as clerk, secretary or, at best, personal assistant to the colonial chief executive.
Many years after the end of colonialism, academic curricula do not reflect the need for something new.
Finally, it is schizophrenia that makes the African want to copy as much of Western culture as possible without understanding the philosophy behind it. That is why Africans may be quick to show they speak with a Western accent, but plead African time in the same breath, while African parents rob their children of their mother-tongue in the name of progress.
In his lifetime, Nelson Mandela sought to free South Africa from the clutches of those who sought to direct the African’s thoughts, words and actions. When apartheid finally ended, the bureaucratic machinery supporting the voices ceased, but the voices did not stop speaking in the heads of South Africans, as they had not stopped speaking in the heads of other formerly colonised citizens around the continent.
Under colonialism, Africans were trained in submissiveness through the butt of a gun, and although their colonial masters mostly left by the 1960s, succeeding generations have continued to hear and obey their ghostly commanding voices. Those voices may no longer be overt but covert, and no longer bolstered by physical force but emotional, ideological and economic sway, but they still persist.
Mandela dedicated his life to breaking down the last strongholds of formal oppression in Africa and it is now the responsibility of all informed Africans to wean themselves off colonialism’s schizophrenic legacy.
In the words of Mandela’s comrade Steve Biko, whose life was cut short by the brutal apartheid regime, “The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.”
In medical sciences, schizophrenia can only be treated with the active participation of the patient, and the same is true of Africa’s problem. The continent can only advance when Africans decide to and learn how to shun external voices and distractions, and build themselves up instead.
If Africans truly want to immortalise Madiba, then the continent must begin to embrace what he fought for: peace with one’s innermost self and neighbours, progress in all areas of life, and freedom from both external and internal oppression.
By Chika Ezeanya- Ezeanya is a researcher, teacher and writer. She holds a PhD in African Development and Policy Studies from Howard University in Washington DC.