The Black Panther: The story without irony

University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, delivered a paper at the University of West Indies in Barbados where in he used the movie Black Panther to explain the challenges facing Africa and the diaspora. Simphiwe Mbokazi African News Agency (ANA)

When I was recently asked to speak about the Black Panther movie at the University of the
West Indies, I did not hesitate because of my fascination with the elusive and fierce creature
this movie is named after. The irony of the name Black Panther is that in South Africa,
panthers or leopards are not black. Leopards are so prized that in Southern Africa; their skin
was a symbol of status only reserved for chiefs. But what is in the name? The most prized
asset in this Black Panther story is a technology called vibranium. The way science and
technology names things with the postfix “nium” usually means the prefix is the important
component. For example, the material discovered by scientist Marie Curie is called Polonium
in honour of her home country Poland. The prefix for the material Curium is in honour of
Curie. The prefix of the name Einsteinium is in honour of Albert Einstein. Now what does the
prefix of the name vibranium means? The closest I can think of is vibration. Vibration
information is an interesting technology, which Africans have used to assess the integrity of
the clay pots. Vibration information is often noisy and random. Now what is this vibranium
technology of Wakanda, a fictitious African country in the Black Panther, which is named
noise? Of course for us Africans, names are important and often have meanings. Rolihlahla,
the African name of Nelson Mandela means troublemaker. So this technology that means
noise should make us think.

This Wakanda kingdom depends on one technology, the vibranium, and it is this technology
that protects it from hostile forces. Any nation that depends on a single technology for its
protection is in trouble. Many of our African countries are not dependent on a single
technology to protect themselves but they have no technology to depend on. As we reflect on
this movie, let us think about how we are going to overthrow the concept that makes African
countries consumers of technology rather than producers. This single story that, allegedly,
will save us is an illusion. It is messianic and it only serves one purpose, which is to distract
us. This messianic propensity drives us to questionable churches that make us drink petrol
and eat snakes. It is fundamentally superstitious. We have to move our people from
superstitious to scientific thinking.

The single story posture is a wider issue that occupies much of our people. In South Africa,
the single story invented by the British public relations company Bell Pottinger, called the
White Monopoly Capital, occupies much of our political space. The issue of monopolies and

how they exclude Africans and stifle creativity in the South African economy is an important
issue that needs resolution. The issue of equitable distribution of land, which is a derivative
of monopoly capital, is an important issue that needs to be tackled. However, if it becomes
the only story, then we shall not be able to expand our economy sufficiently to tackle the
problem of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The expansion of our economy will
require the creation and adoption of real technology not the fictitious vibranium.

The movie Black Panther brings a painful reality of betrayal in our community that still
persist until today. Perhaps, this is the time I should reflect about slavery where our brothers
and sisters were sent to the Americas. Why did this happen to the extent that it did? Firstly, it
was because we had not mastered the necessary technology to defend ourselves. Secondly, it
was because we were divided into small ethnic formations. With unity slavery wouldn’t have
happened to the extent that it did. Unfortunately, disunity and ethnic chauvinism in all their
manifestations are still the demons that we still need to defeat. The configuration of our
nation states is such that the “national question” still needs to be resolved. How do we
achieve this? Firstly, we need to connect with one another both in Africa and the diaspora.
This will naturally mean the relaxation of visa restrictions and reimagining the very nature of
our nation-states.

The movie the Black Panther brings to the fore the issue of secrecy. If this vibranium was
such an important technology, how come it was only limited to one nation? This concept of
secrecy or rather our inability to document and diffuse knowledge still remains a big problem
in Africa and the diaspora. In our language there is an expression that says “Madi a tevhuwa
o tevhuwa”. This means spilled water cannot be recollected to form the state it was before
spilling. This is what in Physics we call the second law of thermodynamics. This means the
disorder in the universe is at least always increasing. Had we documented and diffused this
knowledge, perhaps we would have had the first mover advantage when it came to the laws
of thermodynamics.

The Black Panther movie was exciting for us because of two reasons. First, it was because it
had our dynamic language isiXhosa and secondly, it featured our famous actor John Kani.
The very idea of the fact that we get excited when our languages are represented in global
media is an indication of the notion of inclusion/exclusion of our cultures, languages and our
beings. The Google maps application fails dismally to pronounce our isiXhosa words because
the isiXhosa corpus, at least the spoken one, is excluded in the libraries of big technology

companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. What we have to work hard on is to
ensure that isiXhosa and all our languages are included in the global language corpus. In fact,
what we should do is to design algorithms and gather data that will include our languages,
cultures and beings.

I found the movie Black Panther as a feel good movie. It gave us a false sense of reality that
we are technologically advanced, which we are not. Many of the people came out of the
movie theatres smiling rather than crying. In this regard, I am reminded of the black
consciousness leader Muntu Myeza who was known to frown upon people who seemed
happy during those dark days of apartheid. To paraphrase Muntu, we cannot be happy as long
as Africa is technologically behind other nations. We cannot be happy if narrow nationalism
and failing schools are still part of our society. We cannot be happy if our students are failing
to master mathematics, sciences and other vital skills. Wakanda was a country that never was.
Vibranium is nothing but a figment of imagination on the minds of the scriptwriters of the
movie the Black Panther.

Going forward we need to work hard to ensure that we bring education, not certification into
our community. We need to connect Africa and the diaspora to increase the size of the market
we offer to the world and, thereby, improve our well-being. We need to open up to other
communities to learn what makes their communities work. We need to move away from
factionalism and narrow nationalism, and form a strong Pan-African block to increase our
market size. We need to create technology, not dream about technologies that will never
exist. We need to increase Africa and the diaspora trade. All these will be possible only if we
educate our people and therefore “seek ye education first and the rest shall follow”.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of
Johannesburg and author of the book Artificial Intelligence for Rational Decision Making.
This paper was delivered at the University in West Indies in Barbados. He writes in his
personal capacity.