UJ’s Prof Tshilidzi Marwala expresses his thoughts on the blockbuster movie, Black Panther

​The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the author of Artificial Intelligence for Rational Decision Making., Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, recently penned an opinion piece, entitled The Black Panther: The story without irony. The opinion article is based on a paper delivered at the University in West Indies in Barbados

The Black Panther: The story without irony – Professor Tshilidzi Marwala

When asked to speak about the Black Panther movie at the University of the West Indies, I did not hesitate because of my fascination with the elusive and fierce creature this movie is named after. The irony of the name Black Panther is that in South Africa, panthers or leopards are not black. Leopards are so prized that in Southern Africa; their skin was a symbol of status only reserved for chiefs. However, what is in the name?

The most prized asset in this Black Panther story is a technology called vibranium. The way science and technology names things with the postfix “nium” usually mean the prefix is the important component. For example, the material discovered by scientist Marie Curie is called Polonium in honour of her home country Poland. The prefix for the material Curium is in honour of Curie. The prefix of the name Einsteinium is in honour of Albert Einstein. Now, what does the prefix of the name vibranium means? The closest I can think of is vibration. Vibration information is an interesting technology, which Africans have used to assess the integrity of the clay pots. Vibration information is often noisy and random. Now, what is this vibranium technology of Wakanda, a fictitious African country in the Black Panther, which is named noise? Of course, for us Africans, names are important and often have meanings. Rolihlahla, the African name of Nelson Mandela means troublemaker. So this technology that means noise should make us think.

This Wakanda kingdom depends on one technology, the vibranium, and it is this technology that protects it from hostile forces. Any nation that depends on a single technology for its protection is in trouble. Many of our African countries are not dependent on a single technology to protect themselves but they have no technology to depend on. As we reflect on this movie, let us think about how we are going to overthrow the concept that makes African countries consumers of technology rather than producers. This single story that, allegedly, will save us is an illusion. It is messianic and it only serves one purpose, which is to distract us. This messianic propensity drives us to questionable churches that make us drink petrol and eat snakes. It is fundamentally superstitious. We have to move our people from superstitious to scientific thinking.

The single story posture is a wider issue that occupies much of our people. In South Africa, the single story invented by the British public relations company Bell Pottinger, called the White Monopoly Capital, occupies much of our political space. The issue of monopolies and how they exclude Africans and stifle creativity in the South African economy is an important issue that needs resolution. The issue of equitable distribution of land, which is a derivative of monopoly capital, is an important issue that needs to be tackled. However, if it becomes the only story, then we shall not be able to expand our economy sufficiently to tackle the problem of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The expansion of our economy will require the creation and adoption of real technology, not the fictitious vibranium.

The movie Black Panther brings a painful reality of betrayal in our community that persist until today. Perhaps, I should reflect this time about slavery where our brothers and sisters were sent to the Americas. Why did this happen, to the extent that it did? Firstly, it was because we had not mastered the necessary technology to defend ourselves. Secondly, it was because we were divided into small ethnic formations. With unity, slavery would not have happened to the extent that it did. Unfortunately, disunity and ethnic chauvinism in all their manifestations are still the demons that we still need to defeat. The configuration of our nation states is such that the “national question” still needs to be resolved. How do we achieve this? Firstly, we need to connect with one another both in Africa and in the diaspora. This will naturally mean the relaxation of visa restrictions and reimagining the very nature of our nation-states.

The movie brings to the fore the issue of secrecy. If this vibranium was such an important technology, why was it only limited to one nation? This concept of secrecy or rather our inability to document and diffuse knowledge remains a big problem in Africa and the diaspora. In our language, there is an expression that says “Madi a tevhuwa o tevhuwa”. This means spilled water cannot be recollected to form the state it was before spilling. This is what in Physics we call the second law of thermodynamics. This means the disorder in the universe is at least always increasing. Had we documented and diffused this knowledge, perhaps we would have had the first mover advantage when it came to the laws of thermodynamics.

The Black Panther movie was exciting for us because of two reasons. First, it was because it had our dynamic language isiXhosa and secondly, it featured our famous actor John Kani. The very idea of the fact that we get excited when our languages are represented in global media is an indication of the notion of inclusion/exclusion of our cultures, languages and our beings. The Google maps application fails dismally to pronounce our isiXhosa words because the isiXhosa corpus, at least the spoken one, is excluded in the libraries of big technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. What we have to work hard on is to ensure that isiXhosa and all our languages are included in the global language corpus. In fact, what we should do is to design algorithms and gather data that will include our languages, cultures and beings.

I found the movie Black Panther as a feel good movie. It gave us a false sense of reality that we are technologically advanced, which we are not. Many of the people came out of the movie theatres smiling rather than crying. In this regard, I am reminded of the black consciousness leader Muntu Myeza who was known to frown upon people who seemed happy during those dark days of apartheid. To paraphrase Muntu, we cannot be happy as long as Africa is technologically behind other nations. We cannot be happy if narrow nationalism and failing schools are still part of our society. We cannot be happy if our students are failing to master mathematics, sciences and other vital skills. Wakanda was a country that never was.

Vibranium is nothing but a figment of imagination on the minds of the scriptwriters of the movie the Black Panther.

Going forward we need to work hard to ensure that we bring education, not certification into our community. We need to connect Africa and the diaspora to increase the size of the market we offer to the world and, thereby, improve our well-being. We need to open up to other communities to learn what makes their communities work. We need to move away from factionalism and narrow nationalism and form a strong Pan-African block to increase our market size. We need to create technology, not dream about technologies that will never exist. We need to increase Africa and the diaspora trade. All these will be possible only if we educate our people and therefore “seek ye education first and the rest shall follow”.

  • The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.
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