Africa Day – Cause for Celebration or Commemoration, or Both?

By Steuart Pennington

As a third generation white South African, Africa Day for me is the time to reflect, celebrate and commemorate the rich history of this continent.

The extraordinary tapestry of the rich African civilisations that existed before slavery; the devastation of slavery, colonisation and South African Apartheid; the experiences of the early explorers; the struggle of managing independence in the post-colonial era; the involvement in two world wars; the local, regional and tribal wars that raged across three centuries; and the great leaders who emerged, under the most difficult of circumstances, from our complex past.

Our continental history is as rich as it is diverse; as inspirational as it is controversial; as magnificent as it is shameful.

But it remains our history.

On this Africa Day I think there are three events that should be celebrated and commemorated.

The first is, as President Cyril Ramaphosa in his weekly newsletter reminds us “Today marks 57 years since the leaders of 32 independent African nations met in Addis Ababa to establish the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union.
The preamble of the OAU charter is a rousing call to unity, cross-cultural understanding and solidarity. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter and the South African Constitution, it affirms the inalienable right of all people to control their own destiny.
We mark Africa Day this year just over three months since the first case of coronavirus on the continent was confirmed. This pandemic has been a stark reminder that regardless of whether we are born into wealth or indigence, we are all mortal, and can succumb to disease.

As countries around the world battle to turn the tide against the pandemic, Africa has taken firm control of its destiny, by developing a clear strategy and raising financial resources from its member states.
The African response to the coronavirus pandemic has received widespread praise. Despite the multitude of resource challenges they face, African countries have come together in remarkable ways, united by a common purpose.

The second is 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jan Christiaan Smuts widely recognized as one of South Africa’s finest statesmen; who survived the Boer War as one of its leaders; who uniquely presided over and signed the peace agreements after two World Wars; who wrote the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN (referred to by CR above); who served as Prime Minister of South Africa twice; who founded the Royal Airforce as a separate military unit; who was appointed Chancellor of Cambridge University and who was a confidant to Prime Minister during World War 2, and who served as acting Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

His story is so very African, born in the humble surrounds of Riebeeck West, only starting school at 12, his rise to prominence and his service to mankind is an example to us all.


The third is 2020 marks the 200th Anniversary of the arrival of the 1820 Settlers

Jacklyn Cock and Julia Wells, in The Conversation write: “Two hundred years ago 5,000 (sic – it was 4000) people from Britain were settled in the south eastern part of South Africa in an area around present-day Makhanda and Port Alfred, then called the ‘Zuurveld’, by the British colonial authorities. To some South Africans (and particularly to many of their descendants) they are heroised as having brought development and ‘civilization’ to the area. 

But should South Africa celebrate or mourn their arrival and legacy the authors question, “So what should we do with this 200th anniversary? Is it a sober reflection on where South Africa has travelled as a nation over two centuries and how the savage inequalities established in the past, continue in its present?” The article then pursues an argument that the history of the Settlers was characterised by ‘Settler Capitalism and Militarised Racism’

Really? None of the history books I’ve read including ‘Frontiers’ by Noel Mostert argue that. What the history does reveal is the context under which they arrived. “The amaXhosa were a people moving south, being ‘pushed’ by other Nguni people, their social and political structure was based on clans and not on nationhood as presently understood, these clans fought each regularly, in turn creating further push factors. Introduce another group of people, this time the 1820 Settlers who themselves had been ‘pushed’ by conditions in the UK caused by the Napoleonic wars and ‘drawn to Southern Africa by the promise of farmland and opportunities denied them at ‘home’ (Alan Penny). “The 1820 Settlers were mostly British working-class cannon fodder, no longer needed for the bankster-funded Napoleonic wars; a human surplus to be dumped in a colonial buffer zone.” (Peter Reynolds).

Historical perspective is what we should learn from and appreciate as part of the fabric of our complex continent

The Commemorative Toposcope in Bathurst, recently re-furbished, tells the story of 1820 Settler arrival, their names, their ‘settlement’ Groups, and the distance to their ‘settlement’.

The Family name, the Group Leader, where they came from, the Name of their Ship, the distance to their ‘Settlement’.

Juxtaposed on the same Toposcope is the amaXhosa Chief’s name, his Clan name, his Title, his ‘Settlement’ area.


So, as I celebrate Africa Day, I commend the emergence of the African Union and the growing ability of Africa, as President Ramaphosa says “to develop solutions, be they overcoming disease or eradicating poverty and underdevelopment, that reside within Africa itself.”

I celebrate the life of one of South Africa’s and Africa’s greatest statesmen, Jan Christiaan Smuts.

And finally, I commemorate the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, the hardships they endured, and their lasting contribution (not all of it bad as Cock and Wells would have us believe) to the fabric of our society.

Africa Day, cause for reflection, celebration and commemoration!