Achille Mbembe is research professor in history and politics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Achille Mbembe: "Donors have a simple notion of development"

September 2009 -

"Relationships between Western cultural funding agencies and local artists and recipients have never been so bad. Instead of creating art, many artists in the Continent are forced to spend most of their time, energy and intelligence filling useless bureaucratic forms, begging, desperately trying to respond to ever-changing fads and policies when they are not checking the mood of ever-touchy 'cultural attachés' of Western consulates or agencies from whom they hope to get some support. This is a huge waste."

Achille Mbembe

"We can keep dressing up the unlimited power of the donors and their money and the material poverty of the recipients in the fancy language of 'partnership', 'empowerment' or even 'friendship'. All these words won't mask the brutality of the encounter between those who have money but no good ideas and those who have some good ideas but no money. South Africa has the means to develop a powerful cultural policy. But the country profoundly lacks imagination. It could fund by itself a major Biennale in the global South."

"Johannesburg could become a cultural and artistic Mecca. But the ruling party, the African National Congress, confuses 'arts and culture' with 'heritage and folklore'. It is still trapped within a racial mindset to the point where the politics of race (who is black and who is not) overshadows any intrinsic value given to aesthetics as such. For South Africa to fulfill its potential, it needs to become an 'Afropolitan' nation in which white South African artists are presumed to be as 'African' as black South African artists."

"Most Western donor agencies come to Africa with a simplistic idea of what 'development' is all about. They consider Africa to be a zone of emergency, a fertile ground for humanitarian interventions. The future is not part of their theory of Africa when such a theory exists. Africa is the land of never-ending present and instant, where today and now matter more than tomorrow, let alone the distant future. The function of art is to subsume and transcend the instant; to open horizons for the not-yet. Such is too, at least to me, the task of cultural criticism. In circumstances where millions of people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of culture is to pave the way for a certain practice of the imagination without which people have no name and no voice. This struggle to write one's name and to inscribe one's voice in a structure of time that is opened to the future is a profoundly human struggle."