Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article, published in the Daily Maverick on 14 June 2020.
As South Africa commemorates the 44th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprisings on 16 June 2020, I found myself reflecting on one of the books I read recently. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born caught my attention not only as an intriguing literary work, but the way it depicts disturbing issues besetting many African countries post-independence. Those who have read the book will know that the word “beautyful” in the title is deliberately misspelt. Before I explain this, there is something that I found curious about the author, Ayi Kwei Armah from Ghana.
First, he was educated in the elite Groton School in the US, whose alumni include the former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Incidentally, the headmaster of Groton School, Temba Maqubela, was a victim of the 16 June 1976 Uprisings. Armah then went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Harvard University, which has educated seven US presidents, including Barack Obama. Armah also has a postgraduate degree from Columbia University, which has educated three US presidents as well as the man who founded the African National Congress, Pixley ka Isaka Seme.
Now, the misspelt beauty in the book’s title is to indicate that what Armah writes about is not outward physical beauty. It means virtue, the best, the most educated and the most patriotic. The expression “the beautiful one” has a long history in Africa. For example, in 1370 BC in Egypt, a princess was born who was named Nefertiti, meaning “the beautiful one has come”. In essence, Armah represented the characteristics of the “beautyful ones”. Columbia and Harvard are elite US universities called the Ivy League. Armah, perhaps because of this background, was described by a famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe as an “alien native”.
A brief outline of the plot will shed some pertinent and salient points about the state of many African states today. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is about Ghana in the 1960s, starting during the Passion Week in 1965 to February 1966. The protagonist is a nameless person, only called the man and he was a railways clerk. He was surrounded by corrupt people. He, however, did not partake in corruption, but also did not discourage it.
The man had a wife, Oyo, and a mother-in-law, and both of them were quite disappointed that he was not accepting bribes and enriching his family. The man’s friend was called Teacher, and he had abandoned conventional life to live alone and often naked. The man remembered two characters, and one of them was Sister Maanan, who after being disappointed by her politician boyfriend, slipped into the margins of society and spent all her time smoking marijuana. The second person was Koffi Billy, who was injured by the negligence of the white man and ultimately committed suicide.
Then there is Joseph Koomson, who is a minister in Nkrumah’s government. Joseph was corrupt and wanted to live a life of luxury. His wife, Estelle, was a socialite who liked the finer things in life, especially those that were imported. Joseph wanted to buy a boat using government money and put it in Oyo’s mother’s name, who would get a regular supply of fish in exchange. Ultimately, Oyo was the person who signed the deal, but the supply of fish was not consistent, and the man did not want to eat the fish. In February 1966, Nkrumah was militarily overthrown while he was in Vietnam and Joseph fled to the man’s family home. Joseph eventually escaped to Ivory Coast using the corrupted boat with the aid of the man.
This, of course, is a simplistic explanation of a book that holds up a mirror to society. Fiction often provides an avenue to dissect and reflect on a community. Just as Achebe in Things Fall Apart or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in A Grain of Wheat or Zakes Mda in Ways of Dying showed us, fiction makes us examine our society. What does this story teach us? Firstly, it teaches us about a decaying post-colonial Ghanaian society that was collapsing under the weight of internal flaws such as corruption emanating primarily from government. The Irish poet W.B Yeats contended that civilisations collapse either because of external forces or internal weaknesses.
Now that we are commemorating 16 June, it is perhaps time for us to reflect on the state of our society. Will South Africa crumble because of our internal weaknesses or because of the pressures from outside? Does South Africa have a critical mass of “the beautyful ones” to prevent it from collapsing because of its internal contradictions? In this book, there is a description where a person walks into the office and requests for someone in the office to arrange that his logs are collected. The man refuses because this would be a corrupt activity, but he turns a blind eye when later, the same gentleman asks the other clerk in the office for the same corrupt help.
Here in South Africa, corruption happens across the whole spectrum of society. How can we tackle this problem if we either participate or turn a blind eye to the bribery of traffic officers? As it is written in the Christian Bible: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”
South Africa needs “the beautyful ones” who will be able to deal with corruption and to borrow the words of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, of both the flies (meaning low-level people) as well as the tigers (meaning high-level people). This will liberate our productive economic forces and build a strong country.
The South African economy has been battered in recent years. Many financial institutions in the past weeks have warned that the country is on track to see its worst growth performance in a century amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown. This has effectively brought much of the economy to a grinding halt. While this is a reality for countries across the globe – our economy was in disarray long before the pandemic hit.
The early forecasts for the year indicated that we were already on track for a recession for the year following a recession in the second half of 2019 and the return of load shedding at the start of this year. We need the “beautyful ones” to deal with our increasing budget deficit, ailing state-owned enterprises and load shedding.
As growth continues to flounder, our people have taken the biggest knock. Unemployment has rocketed to record highs as our divides deepen. The pandemic has demonstrated that despite the continued downslide in our economy, further deepening of our divides, the government can act decisively and in the interests of the people of South Africa.
While we are still to assess the dismal economic performance and uncertain post-Covid-19 society, there is hope that the government can act similarly in dealing with our structural fault lines. In the global pandemic, for example, South Africa’s response has been held up as a model to be replicated thus demonstrating that there are “beautyful ones” among us that need to reproduce themselves throughout all sectors of our society.
Amid this era that we find ourselves, it is easy to lose sight of the critical battles that need to be fought. Admittedly, the state of our education system has been to the detriment of many and this needs to be fixed. In 2018, Statistics South Africa found that more than three million South Africans are illiterate, meaning they cannot read and write in at least one language.
More devastating than this is that the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which assesses children’s reading comprehension, has placed South African children last in 50 countries. We need the “beautyful ones” who will work hard as students, teachers and administrators to usher an education system that will inculcate communication, mathematical thinking, logical and numeracy skills that are required by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As demonstrated throughout our history, the youth play an essential role in strengthening internal weaknesses and augmenting our ability to withstand external pressure. The voices of the youth were heard in 1976 in the Soweto Uprisings, in the 80s with widespread student protests against apartheid, in the 90s over concerns such as affordability and funding, all with the constant clamour of conscience that education should be accessible to all.
Recently, our country was brought to a standstill with the fees must fall protests, and this sharpened the obligations of the state to provide free education for the poor. The government played its part, and it is now up to us as students and educators to work hard to ensure that our education system is successful with dedicated educators and hardworking students.
The Black Lives Matter movement has taken its lead from the youth. We have seen this movement accelerate in recent weeks, driven by social media, driven by a need for a change, driven by the youth. In a sense, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a homage to this power and this drive. As Armah puts it: “Alone, I am nothing. I have nothing. We have power, but we will never know it, we will never see it work unless we come together to make it work.” We live in the hope that The Beautyful Ones (that) Are Not Yet Born will be born now and save us from our dilemma.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.