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  • Putting Africa [back] on the map:the South African Parliamentary Millennium Project
  • Lindy Stiebel (bio)

Both in the selectivity of their content and in their signs and styles of representation, maps are a way of conceiving, articulating, and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon particular sets of social relations By accepting such premises it becomes easier to see how appropriate they are to manipulation by the powerful in society.

(Harley 1988:278)

Since 1994, a year which marked the start of a new era in South African politics, the construction of a new South African identity for its citizens has been high on the agenda. The South African Parliament, and particularly the majority African National Congress, led, first, by Nelson Mandela, and then by Thabo Mbeki, has seen its role in nurturing this nascent identity as a leading one. The drive has been to renegotiate, reimagine, and remap how South Africans see themselves - emerging from the past, engaging with the present and synthesising into a common entity which could hopefully be called the South African 'nation'. Using the idea of 'mapping', both in a physical and ideological sense of finding your place on the map/in the world is a sophisticated post-colonial strategy to initiate this discussion among ordinary people. This paper sets out to describe and analyse one of Parliament's most visible projects intended to create a climate conducive to raise questions of identity and belonging, namely the Parliamentary Millennium Project, launched in 2002 by the then Speaker of Parliament, Dr Frene Ginwala.

Questioning what it means to be 'African' has been one of the cornerstones of Thabo Mbeki's African Renaissance project. Though appropriating an essentially European term to describe Africa's rebirth, the historical moment has been deliberately fashioned by Mbeki to mark a movement forward and away from a European colonial legacy. So, though: [End Page 53]

The concept of the African renaissance represents an African event (liberation from racist rule) in terms of a European frame of reference (liberation as a form of Renaissance self-fashioning), also reinterprets a European phenomenon (the European Renaissance as rebirth of the modern human subject) in terms of an African frame of reference (liberation from racist rule as rebirth of a new humanity, a humanity that has its origins in Africa itself).

(Klopper 1999:24)

When the Constitutional Assembly adopted the Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill of 1996, Mbeki delivered what was to become known as his famous 'I am an African' speech in which he enumerated all the different strands that went to make up his identity as an 'African'. His was a generously inclusive definition of what he understood by the term 'African', deliberately mixing local, settler, slave and migrant roots into a quintessential African landscape: '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' (Mbeki 1998:31). This speech was a celebration of the differences that yet combined to form an 'African' identity, with the primacy of geography evident in the verbal drawing of the African landscape that precedes the human 'ingredients'.

The constructed nature of the image of the African - and by extension the African Renaissance - is acknowledged by most: Makgoba in the preface to the seminal African Renaissance: the new struggle (1999) notes:

The African renaissance is a unique opportunity to define ourselves and our agenda according to our own realities and taking into account the realities of the world around us. It is about Africans being agents of our own history and masters of our destiny.

(Makgoba 1999:xii)

Mamdani (1999), writing in the same book, highlights the importance of an intellectualised rebirth without which there can be no renaissance; and furthermore the importance of a wider African-focussed intelligentsia, not one with a narrowly South African bias. As is true of all constructions, not all concur with the definitions, or tools, or with the final outcome, or design. The debate over who can call themselves an African is an old one that has seen its application...


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pp. 53-67
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