Observations: An elephant puppet made by the Handspring Puppet Company is paraded by the Ukwanda Puppet and Design Collective. At the Humanities Improvised conference in Cape Town in 2017 writer Zakes Mda reminded us of the potential for thinking about African art as integral to a philosophy of humanism. Picture: SUPPLIED
Observations: An elephant puppet made by the Handspring Puppet Company is paraded by the Ukwanda Puppet and Design Collective. At the Humanities Improvised conference in Cape Town in 2017 writer Zakes Mda reminded us of the potential for thinking about African art as integral to a philosophy of humanism. Picture: SUPPLIED

Africa has contributed to the world substantial literary, musical and cinematic works in the 20th century, with SA playing a pivotal role.

While it is often said that SA carried the hopes of democracy on the continent, what is often neglected is that the country also carried the hopes of the humanism of the anticolonial struggle in the world.

This aesthetic and philosophical contribution was the focus of a major conference in August 2017 when more than 300 scholars and arts practitioners from more than 60 humanities centres around the world attended the Humanities Improvised conference at the Castle of Good Hope, hosted by the Centre for Humanities Research of the University of the Western Cape. It marked the culmination of the first year of work of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation’s Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities awarded to the Centre for Humanities Research in 2016.

The gathering of such vast numbers of humanists in SA was not accidental. Neither was it unprecedented when considered in relation to the substantial literary, musical and cinematic contributions from Africa in the 20th century, with SA playing a pivotal role.

At the end of the Second World War, for example, far from reflecting a shattered world portrait, Africa promised the gift of humanism and democratic criticism. In his argument about Ghanaian independence in the 1960s, CLR James reminds that the humanism that drove anticolonial struggles in Africa, and also in Asia and Latin America, was not simply bound up with national struggles.

Rather, the humanism of the anticolonial struggle was the last remaining resource of worldly belonging in a century that saw two world wars instigated from Europe. This world, built on the economics of slavery and later colonialism, abruptly came to a close with the rise of fascism.

Europe and the US today are reaping the bitter fruits of the dissipation of the commitment to Enlightenment ideals by way of an enveloping economism and received 19th century ideas of liberalism. Both have replaced the spirit of the Enlightenment with the aura of technology, only to cultivate the conditions of an administration of fear.

In all the proclamations about globality, there is a growing nationalism and inwardness in contemporary European-American thought and politics.

Postcolonial humanism was never conceived as received wisdom. In Africa, as the Ivorian philosopher Yacouba Konaté suggests, we might consider the work of art as that which underwrites "a legitimate life".

Life supplemented by poetics and art is the core of African humanism. This was the gift of poetics to a 20th century humanism that lies behind the debate between Frantz Fanon and Leopold Senghor in the 1960s. These world thinkers were proponents of their understanding of the Negritude movement, which highlighted its positive value in the process of the remaking of the idea of Africa. For Fanon and Senghor, it was an affirmation of African humanity and whatever Negritude might borrow or appropriate from other cultures, including a European culture that would be put to use to strengthen African values and its future.

As expressed in the arguments of these and other intellectuals of the anticolonial struggles that exceeded the limits of national consciousness, African humanism resided not only in Africa but in the world.

Unfortunately, the world is punitively selective about what it admits to the stage of world history. Bearers of the gift of African humanism were generally ordered to return to the ruins of European-America’s failed modernity. The consequence for the intellectuals of African liberation was what Abdul JanMohamed describes as a limiting condition of a "worldliness without world".

We must see the contemporary restlessness of our students as partly indicative of the effort to break through this identity and humanism limit.

They too will have to come to terms with the inheritance of African humanism that a lineage of giant thinkers — including Konaté, Fanon, Senghor, Valentin Mudimbe, Nawal al Saadawi, Assia Djebar, Tsitsi Dangarembga and, closer to home, Charlotte Maxeke, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe, AP Mda and Nelson Mandela — encountered in thinking the world through Africa.

The conference was a reminder of this unfulfilled promise of African humanism. It is a gift that the dominant political formations in our country have similarly neglected, perhaps because the sources of inspiration among a generation of youth lay less with the doctrinaire political standpoints of our times, many of which have hardened in the Cold War years, but in the inspiration of unlikely arts of township youth.

South Africans forget the dreams of freedom begin with microscopic desires, not with grand plans of development. This was a message in a lecture by Zakes Mda in a memorial lecture to the Steve Biko Foundation entitled Biko’s Children.

Mda reflected on the cultural initiatives of youth in Soweto that were beginning to inspire a new desire for freedom and self-activity.

Those dreams were being made often without the support of the state or its bureaucratic apparatus, which seemingly lost sight of the inheritance of an African humanism.

If there was an inspiration that lay behind the gathering at the Castle of Good Hope on the theme of the Humanities Improvised, it was the echo of Mda. He eloquently reminded us of the potential for thinking about African art as integral to a philosophy of humanism. It is a view rearticulated by Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne in his book African Art as Philosophy.

While the state pursues its development agenda, which it must given the legacies of the underdevelopment of apartheid, it needs to take note of the evocative drift of African humanism that has energised a generation awakened to the dreams of freedom.

Writer and actor Gcina Mhlophe recently dedicated her Gold Medal Award from the Kennedy Centre of the Arts in the US to the youth of SA. Her acceptance speech recalled Mda’s earlier affirmation of the sources of freedom in the arts.

The other recipients of the award were John Kani, McCoy Mrubata, Sibongile Khumalo, and Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from the Handspring Puppet Company.

All spoke about their modest efforts to support a next generation of artists through lending time and educational support towards an understanding that the arts are indispensable to thinking freedom, not merely instrumental to development.

As a guest at the awards ceremony, I wondered about the gift of an African humanism to the world that was on full display that evening.

It was reflected in the presentation of a group of musicians trained at the University of Cape Town and the Ukwanda Puppetry and Design Collective with performers from Net vir Pret in the Western Cape village of Barrydale who are apprenticed to the Handspring Puppet Company and supported through the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.

A unique playful and attentive technical skill to mobilise life-size elephant puppets, the performances revealed the full extent of the unrealised potential of an African humanism that is a gift to a world in which the human is increasingly subordinate to technological objects. A world in which the folding of the human into art as philosophy that the humanities enables may best set to work on the desire for post-apartheid freedom.

Lalu is director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.