Inasmuch as the dark centuries of slavery and colonialism shaped Africa and Africans, the succeeding decades of decolonisation were also quite instrumental in making us what we are today.
Which naturally begs the question: What, indeed, are we today? It is something that cannot be answered in this limited space, but a question that we must grapple with as we celebrate Africa Day and conclude Africa Month.
In this reflective exercise, it is instinctual to marvel at the remarkable unity that characterised the decolonisation agenda across Africa. It was a time of rediscovering ourselves and one another as fellow Africans and as human beings who are equal to all other mankind.
It was a time – to paraphrase from that gifted son of Africa Ayi Kwei Armah – of “returning to the source” of our very being.
In Southern Africa, that journey of self-discovery and self-creation was captured with the return to the epistemology encapsulated in the statement, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” Translated to English, it means “a person is a person because of other people”.
In other words, we owe what we are as individuals to what we are as a collective; whether as families, as communities, as nations or as all humanity.
It is an epistemology that is in direct contradiction of the Rene Descartes claim that “I think therefore I am”, which is at the heart of the politics and economics that drove slavery and colonialism.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is what inspired another great son of Africa, Kwame Nkrumah, to declare that Ghana’s Independence meant absolutely nothing if the rest of Africa was not free.
It is what drove the nations of Southern Africa to establish the Frontline States and thereafter the SADCC, now SADC.
And what a price the Frontline States paid!
They were bombed and destablised because they believed in a “return to the source” of our humanity.
Civil wars were fanned in Angola and Mozambique, and we lost another great son of Africa in 1986 when Samora Machel was murdered.
Some estimates put the number of dead because of the Frontline States’ solidarity at two million, with a further seven million being displaced.
The losses were not only in terms of human life as there was also a huge economic price to pay.
According to a 1989 Commonwealth report, the Frontline States lost around US$45 billion in 10 years, a figure that represented “almost three times their combined foreign debt at the time”.
The first Home Affairs Minister of Independent Zambia, Aaron Milner, said: “We had to divert our resources to finance the different liberation movements including the ANC.”
And quite beautifully he added: “The sacrifice was worth it.”
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is what led to the liberation movements coming together under the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa (Pafmesca) in 1962.
It was to be the forerunner to the creation of the Organisation of African Unity on May 25, 1963, itself the very essence of Africa Day.
And that spirit of togetherness inspired the OAU to create the Liberation Committee, so ably led by Brigadier Hashim Mbita of Tanzania.
Whereas the decolonisation era was characterised by military battles and the fight against overt oppression, the war of today as we mark another Africa Day is not as crude but just as crucial.
Today the battle is more ideological and concentrated on the economic and cultural fronts.
And the same spirit of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu that inspired us then should inspire us now to take Africa where it should be: a land without hunger and poverty.
That same spirit should drive us to stand with the people of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in their quest for self-determination, a desire we in Southern Africa are all too familiar with.
It is that same spirit that should bring us together in finding a solution to the growing terrorism in Mozambique; to the perennial instability in the DRC; to the poverty and hunger in all our nations.
We need to revive the understanding of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu so that we put an end to the brand of politics that places self-enrichment above provision of medicine and decent housing for the majority.
As Africa Month comes to an end, we would do well to recall the words of Benjamin Mkapa, who in 2005 said, “Together we shared, together we endured and together we brought to triumph the liberation struggle.
“The spirit of the Frontline States should invigorate us into action … The solidarity … forged in the heat of struggle can, today, if properly harnessed, help us forge regional integration at a greater pace.”
And let us remember how Thabo Mbeki responded to that rallying call: “The ‘spirit of the Frontline States’ to which President Mkapa referred means … we must be ready and willing to work closely together, understanding that we share a common destiny.
“It means that all of us must understand that what we do in any one of our countries has an impact on the rest. It means that as countries, we will sink or swim together.”