Thinktank on African slave isle

July 7, 1995

In 1987, a group of visionary South African intellectuals, business people and exiled African National Congress leaders incensed the government by getting together in Dakar, Senegal, and other West African countries.

It was the first high-level contact between reformers at home - who were denounced as traitors for talking to "the enemy" - and liberation leaders in exile, and the idea was for the country's future leaders to begin to get to know each other.

Apartheid's pillars had already begun to crumble, but the Dakar meeting came to symbolise the beginning of the end of Afrikaner rule. A lesser known outcome was the setting up of the Goree Institute, an African think tank on the tiny island of the same name off the Senegalese coast.

Afrikaner Breyten Breytenbach, author, poet, former prisoner and self-confessed "albino terrorist" who was for years a thorn in the side of the South African government, was a prime mover of the meeting. It was largely because of his contacts with West Africa that it was held in Dakar.

"The thinking was that there should be a place, probably in West Africa, where the kinds of contact made in Dakar could be maintained and extended," he says.

"South Africa was on its way to liberation, and would have to redefine its position in an African context. Apartheid was a barrier inside the country but also to the rest of Africa. South Africans and other Africans knew little about each other. We hoped a centre would facilitate rethinking the position of the new South Africa in a pan-African context. There is a body of experience in South Africa, because of years of resistance to apartheid, that could be useful to others. The old idea of pan-Africanism has run its time, but there is a need to re-imagine Africa within its own field of reference."

Another motivation for the institute was the sorry state of African universities, which Breytenbach believes are neither fulfilling their "traditional" functions - as places of original research, teaching and critical thought - nor moving towards new functions appropriate to Africa. The institute would try to bring intellectuals back to Africa.

He and some like-minded friends followed up on the idea, and asked a group of young lawyers and activists in Senegal to search for a venue and help set up an institute.

Goree, which means "the island of memory", was selected for several reasons - not the least of which was its location in a region rich in history, knowledge and culture but out of the Dakar cocktail circuit with its empty babble.

Goree was a notorious slave island, too small to be exploited economically after the slave trade ended but rich in symbolism for a centre for democracy, development and culture in Africa aimed at promoting civil society and self reliance. It is also beautiful and peaceful. A place where one can get work done.

A site was found in La Maison du Soudan, an old building which used to be a school run by French colonial authorities, and the institute was established in 1992.

Its board of trustees comprises 15 people from several African countries - including South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Eritrea and Benin - as well as a few non-African based intellectuals. The institute has a staff of five led by South African and former Mkhonto we Sizwe cadre Andre Zaayman, who run meetings, workshops, training courses and research programmes.

"The idea is to bring people together to exchange ideas, research different forms of knowledge and take them back into society. It is not just a matter of different cultures meeting and interacting, but also of establishing a body of knowledge that can be put to use in building democracy, development and culture in Africa."

The institute, Breytenbach says, is a Socratic-style arrangement where visitors engage in ongoing reflection:"Whether you are eating or going for an early-morning walk you find yourself getting sucked into discussions."

He spends as much time there as possible, using the institute as one of the places he writes during his travels between France, where he set up home during his long years of exile, and South Africa where he is a visiting professor at the University of Natal.

There is also a cultural dimension, with the institute providing sabbatical facilities and organising exhibitions on the island. For example, the institute is at the moment hosting musicians from different parts of Africa who are jamming together, and there are plans to provide studios for artists.

Funding for the institute comes from French and Scandinavian sources, the president of Senegal is a patron and relations with the country are good: a formal agreement ensures the institute's independence, both in terms of financing and in the freedom to bring people into the country.

Networks have been established with similar institutes in Africa - some of which are mostly into siphoning off money from bleeding hearts in the United States and Scandinavia, but others of which are seriously trying to develop Africa.

"Regression in Africa is not just economic. It is not just about impoverishment and decay. There is a regression in terms of concerted thinking about what is to be done to make Africa viable. To make it possible for Africa to survive" says Breytenbach.

"The hope is that building institutions will enable African intellectuals to stay on the continent and help it develop. The flight of intellectuals out of Africa continues. The best thinking on Africa is being done by exiles in America. We want to help turn that around.".

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