Citation read by Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State for International Cultural Policy, for Prof. Achille Mbembe at the presentation of the Gerda Henkel Prize

08.10.2018 - Speech

Many thanks for the great honour that it is for me to read the citation for Prof. Mbembe at the presentation of the Gerda Henkel Prize here in Düsseldorf.

I wish to offer my congratulations to two parties at the same time: to the prize winner, and also to the jury of the Gerda Henkel Foundation for its most excellent choice.

Esteemed jury of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, you are underscoring the high academic and socio‑political aspirations of the Foundation, aspirations that I share, in an impressive manner. Particularly at a time of rapid technological change and the social upheavals that are occurring as a result, it is important to emphasise the key role played by the humanities.

After all, the humanities form the basis for engaging with society; they provide orientation in a world in which we have the capacity to know more and more, and yet we are increasingly uncertain about what we actually need to know when confronted by all of this knowledge.

This year’s prizewinner put it thus: “We need to continue the project that is the Enlightenment.”

Indeed, I consider continuing the great project that is the Enlightenment to be a common task for politicians, academia and civil society, that is to say for all of us who have gathered here at the Gerda Henkel Foundation this evening. And I’m looking forward to this urgently needed discussion, Achille Mbembe, which we will continue at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday.

When I was asked to read the citation for Prof. Mbembe, I paused to reflect. There can be no doubt that this is a great honour.

However, a citation is mostly read by long‑time companions close to the prizewinner, and I hail from the world of politics – not from academia; and, what is more, Achille Mbembe and I have only just met.

But since his work is so inspiring with regard to current questions of foreign and international cultural policy;

And since this first, face‑to‑face meeting with Prof. Mbembe at the Goethe‑Institut in South Africa was something quite special for me;

Since Achille Mbembe has frequently worked with the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe‑Institut in recent years and we have, in a manner of speaking, become increasingly close, then it’s actually quite appropriate for me to be doing this.

Last but not least, Achille Mbembe, we have a common concern – or should I rather say, without subjecting the concept itself to a post‑colonialism test – a common “mission”?

You have to be a bit patient when ordering Prof. Mbembe’s well‑known work “Critique of Black Reason” from the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) these days. “Please note that delivery times will be longer. Due to an increased order volume ... processing may be delayed” – that was the message displayed on the bpb’s website for weeks in September.

However, that also means that Germany is reading Mbembe’s book – and that’s good news.

A few years ago, “Critique of Black Reason” introduced you to an even wider audience in Germany as a pioneer of post‑colonialism.

In case you haven’t yet read the book, I informed the bpb about the supply bottleneck, and hopefully further copies will soon come on stream.

Tonight, however, I would like to mention above all one of your later works, namely “We Must Get Out of the Great Night: Essay on Decolonized Africa”, which was published under the title “Ausgang aus der langen Nacht – Versuch über ein entkolonisiertes Afrika” in Germany in 2016.

I’d like to begin by quoting an autobiographical passage by Prof. Mbembe in this book:

“July. I was indeed born on a day in July as the month was drawing to a close, in a stretch of African land that only later on came to be known as Cameroon – in memory of the rapture felt by the Portuguese sailors in the 15th century when they sailed up the river near Douala and were spellbound by the sheer abundance of crustaceans they saw... I grew up in the vicinity of this nameless region, for if the name it bears is, in a sense, merely the result of the astonishment expressed by someone else, then is it not necessary to speak of a lexical oversight?”

Born in central Cameroon in the aforementioned “nameless stretch of land” in 1957, Achille Mbembe describes himself as, “in a broader sense, a product of the early phase of post‑colonialism”.

He vividly describes the fate of the Cameroonian freedom fighters who were executed and murdered – including family members:

“Denying a burial place to those who died in the struggle for independence and self‑determination and to banish them, that primordial act of cruelty to a ”brother“, not only became the main subject of my academic work from a very early stage, but also ... the prism through which my critique of Africa (...) took tangible shape and developed.”

The extent to which these events impacted Achille Mbembe’s later career and made him that great critical intellectual questioning all aspects of colonialism lies at the heart of his work.

Having commenced his studies in Cameroon in 1978, Achille Mbembe went to France in the early 1980s, to the world‑famous Sorbonne in Paris, where he subsequently completed his doctorate.

Mbembe himself had the following to say about this:

“I began my studies in my home country, but finished them in Paris, just as others go to London and Oxford. (...) During the years I spent in Paris, I learned that peoples and states do not necessarily become reasonable, let alone decent, when they reach old age. In all ancient cultures – and above all in ancient colonial cultures – there is a dark side hidden behind the façade of reason and politeness.”

Achille Mbembe strives for a “new enlightenment”, and also to reveal discontinuities and contradictions and to draw the dark sides into the light.

Stepping out of the darkness of the night and into the light and, beyond this, making what is hidden visible, illuminating it, is his life’s work.

Also with regard to Europe – the supposedly enlightened, “decent Europe” with its contradictions between the universal values of the European Enlightenment and European colonialism, which trampled these very values underfoot.

For me and all those who aren’t afraid of taking a closer look, Achille Mbembe, coming from Africa, embodies the values and spirit of the Enlightenment.

His academic career and CV are impressive.

After France, he spent a number of years in the US – at Columbia University in New York, the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, the University of Pennsylvania, Berkeley, Yale and Duke, as well as Dakar in Senegal, before, in 2011, finally being appointed to the renowned University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Prof. Mbembe still teaches today.

Let me now take a big leap in both geographical and thematic terms and turn to foreign policy, to Africa and, above all, to international cultural policy.

First of all, to Africa: Achille Mbembe said in 2015 that it was becoming ever clearer that “the fate of our planet will be decided in Africa”. We could assume that the 21st century would be Africa’s century.

He also said that the best way to approach Africa was to be prepared for the unexpected.

I took this advice to heart before my first visit to Africa: I tried to forget everything I thought I knew about Africa and to be prepared for the unexpected.

According to Prof. Mbembe, “Europe is no longer the centre of gravity of the world”. He believes that Africa, on the other hand, is in the midst of a great transformation, sweeping changes which will make the colonial age seem like an intermezzo by comparison. All of this is due to demographic shifts and migratory movements.

Although I don’t want to say any more about Prof. Mbembe’s Afropolitanism and South Africa’s role as the most visible laboratory for an “Afropolitan culture” – that’s too complex an issue to deal with this evening – I would like to at least quote Prof. Mbembe’s final appeal: “Africa should focus on something new. It should step onto the stage and do for the first time what was not possible before. And it will have to do so in the awareness that this will mean a new dawn for itself and for humanity.”

These are clear statements, a call to Africa – and pretty strong stuff for Europe!

We’re currently discussing our policy on Africa in Germany – at a time when Europe’s future has long since ceased to be clear.

What is clear, however, is that a new age has dawned, a post-colonial age: the age of cooperation, examining the past and equal partnership!

Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas summed up our discussion in Germany on how we define Europe in the 21st century with the phrase: EUROPE UNITED.

What’s more, the coalition agreement between the governing parties in Germany gives the Federal Foreign Office a clear mandate with regard to Africa: to formulate the German Government’s policy on Africa in cooperation with other ministries – with the aim of forming a genuine partnership with Africa.

We’re working on it – also within the scope of international cultural policy.

The fact that Achille Mbembe is on our side is a help.

I recommend Achille Mbembe’s work to everyone currently working on this policy,

as well as to everyone who wants more clarity in our relations with Africa.

International cultural policy is again one step ahead here, partly thanks to you, Mr Mbembe. You’ve enriched our cultural work with lectures, interviews, essays and panel discussions – at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg, the Berlin Correspondences (2016) or recently the conference in Hamburg on dealing with cultural objects from colonial contexts (2018).

An interlocutor, an outspoken guest, has become a friend in spirit. As Minister of State for International Cultural Policy, I’m especially proud of that.

For when I mentioned the “common mission” at the start of my speech, I also said it in the knowledge that we need like-minded partners and allies to achieve something.

I sense this shared bond when I read Achille Mbembe’s comments:

“In various parts of the world, arts and culture are powered by transnational flows. (...) What we inherit is the world at large. (...) Cultural expression, creativity and innovation today is less about clinging on dead customs than about negotiating multiple ways of inhabiting the world.”

That could be included word for word in our international cultural policy programme, which is currently being drafted and which we want to publish in 2020 to mark the centenary of the Federal Foreign Office’ Cultural Directorate-General.

Prof. Mbembe takes a similar view of the network of Goethe-Institut branches, which he believes facilitate encounters among people, create spaces where skills can be developed, offer forums for dialogue and make it possible to transform memory processes into a projection of the future.

Going on from there, Prof. Mbembe has developed another central idea which touches me deeply and which I share:

the very idea of sharing!

In my own words, Prof. Mbembe: life is nothing if we don’t share it with others.

Achille Mbembe also links the idea of sharing to the very topical discussion on cultural property from colonial contexts.

At the conference in Hamburg, you asked whether we really want to live in a world in which everyone and everything has to go back home.

And you gave us the answer: instead of merely striving for restitution, we should also think about the concept of sharing with the aim of freeing not only objects but also people from the concept of ownership.

So what does sharing mean in the 21st century?

I believe that we have to understand that we can only thrive in the long term if others also thrive.

That is the core idea behind international cultural policy, which is based on cooperation and understanding – as well as multilateralism!

In his “Critique of Black Reason”, Achille Mbembe develops what we could call a radically new post-colonial humanism – or in the words of Willy Brandt, the idea of global citizenship.

“In such conditions we create borders, build walls and fences, divide, classify, and make hierarchies. We try to exclude—from humanity itself— those who have been degraded, those whom we look down on or who do not look like us, those with whom we imagine never being able to get along. But there is only one world. We are all part of it, and we all have a right to it.”

Willy Brandt and the North-South Commission published the report “North-South: A Programme for Survival”.

In view of the increasing globalisation of risks and challenges, Brandt called for the “necessity for a thorough rethinking”. “There must be room for the idea of a global community, or at least a global responsibility.”

By the way, Willy Brandt called international cultural policy “working to strengthen reason as a driving force in the world” – a further parallel. We sense how urgently such voices are needed today.

In 1948 – 70 years ago – and one year before the adoption of the German Basic Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up. Despite all the setbacks, to me this document still stands for genuine progress in the history of humankind. For it guarantees the equality of all human beings.

This will remain the foundation of German foreign policy when Germany joins the UN Security Council for two years in 2019, thus shouldering responsibility on a daily basis for this one shared world.

We all shoulder responsibility today; as citizens and democrats. I’m quite certain that not only Achille Mbembe will agree with Willy Brandt, who said:

“The shaping of our common future is much too important to be left to governments and experts alone”.

Achille Mbembe, the world needs pioneering thinkers like you who can reflect on and develop ideas. People who shine a light into the darkness when the world seems to be becoming gloomy. As an intellectual from and for Africa, you embody the spirit of the Enlightenment. That gives me and many people around the world new hope that we can live together in peace.

Congratulations on being awarded this year’s Gerda Henkel Prize!


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