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21 May 2020 | Story Prof Karin van Marle | Photo Anja Aucamp
Prof Karin van Marle

In the build-up to Africa Day, I noticed – among others – the slogan ‘I love Africa’ flashing in neon colours that reminded me of music videos seen on MTV in the 1980s. The idea of Africa being loved not only by those living on the continent, but also by the rest of the world, had some moments in the same decade – with pop stars coming together, for example in USA for Africa and the UK version, Band Aid. Although these attempts might have warmed some hearts, it exposed the failure of this kind of sentimentality to contribute much to the continent. Can we think of how to love and engage with the continent in a different way?

Hannah Arendt, in her Thinking journal, contemplated the question, ‘why is it so difficult to love the world.' In response to a letter from her friend and mentor, Karl Jaspers in 1955, in which he wrote to her, “You bring with you shared memories of a lost past. You bring the wide world as it is today,” she wrote “Yes, I would like to bring the wide world to you this time. I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, to truly love the world that I shall be able to do that now. Out of gratitude I want to call my book on political theories Amor Mundi” (1985: 264). Linked to the idea of loving the world in Arendt’s work, is also that of sharing the world with each other. Arendt famously accused Nazi Adolf Eichmann of refusing to share the world with others. For the purpose of Africa Day on 25 May, I revisited these notions of loving and sharing as reflected by Arendt. I raised the question – what does it mean to love Africa and to share the continent with others?

 For Arendt, the love of the world, and linked to it – the idea of solidarity – is something quite different from equality, care, and sentiment. Love of the world, for her, entails a critical engagement with the world. What could such a love mean in relation to Africa? 

In the prologue to The human condition (1958: 5), she underscores the importance of thought and her concern about thoughtlessness, which she describes as “the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ that have become trivial and empty”. She sets out that the central theme of the book is to focus on ‘what we are doing’ and that ‘the activity of thinking’ is left out of this work. In other works, Arendt turns to the importance of thinking and, in fact, commentators have noted an ongoing tension in her work between the life of action and the life of the mind. To love the world seems to include both a thorough engagement with what we are doing and a deep contemplation of what it is that we are doing. What has always struck me in her work, is the insistence on thinking and thinking anew each time, instead of merely following what is regarded as ‘truths’. Part of what it could mean to love Africa, is not to accept or repeat trivialities and not to become complacent, but to continuously search for new ways to understand and to respond.

A tension that accompanies the tension between a life of action and a life of thinking, is that between being with others and being alone. Human plurality is for Arendt ‘the basic condition of both action and speech’ (1958:175). Becoming part of the world is like ‘a second birth’ which takes place neither by ‘necessity’ nor by ‘utility’, but by taking ‘initiative’ (177). This birth or new beginning brings forth an ‘unexpectedness’ and ‘happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability’. Where the latter always ‘amounts to a certainty’, new beginnings ‘always appear in the guise of a miracle’ (178). It is by way of action that we become part of the world, share the world with others, and become entangled in the ‘web of relationships’ (181). Of course, for Arendt we always begin again, and the possibility for new ways of doing and forging new relationships is always there. 

Antjie Krog (2015:219) remembers Thabo Mbeki’s speech on the day the Constitution was adopted. “On an occasion such as this, we should, perhaps, start from the beginning. So, let me begin. I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.” She praises Mbeki for considering the idea of ‘being ruled’ rather than ‘being a ruler’. She finds in his speech a “kind of radical relational enfoldedness with the land” that is vastly different from most discussions from all sides of the spectrum on land. To what extent are those of us living in Africa thinking differently and innovatively, for example about land, and about how we share it with others. How can we think anew about current discourses on the African Renaissance and also decolonisation?

Arendt is clear on the importance of solitude. She underscores the importance of thinking, and slow thinking, and obtaining distance from others, and from the world of action in order to do that. In her way, she was very wary of a certain kind of solidarity based on sentimentality. Engaged citizenship, for her, is always accompanied by a critical self-reflection. Arendt (2003) warned against the urge to act in haste without thinking; she warned against withering ‘under the weight of immediacy’. In a world and a continent with so many dire needs demanding attention and action, this does not mean that we should not act with urgency, but it underscores the importance of well-thought-out responses, of not falling back on old answers.

In short, loving Africa demands of us to engage critically, not to fall back on recipes and formulas, and not to follow rules blindly; it asks us to always begin again; to seek not only for new answers, but also for new questions.


This article was written by Prof Karin van Marle, Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law

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