I’m not easily impressed, but I was oddly nervous about interviewing Faten Aggad. I was in awe of her credentials as an international governance and development expert, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with her on a more intimate level. Well, my doubts vanished within seconds of listening to Faten’s warm voice and her straight talk. I knew this was going to be a beautiful conversation.
Faten told me how becoming an adult in South Africa after her childhood spent in Algeria shaped her career choices, and how debates about identity are shaking up Algeria and North Africa as a whole (part 1, below). We then spoke about feminism: what it means to her, who is her feminist icon, and what ideas in the mainstream feminist narrative bother her most (part 2), but also if and how she lives up to her feminist principles in her everyday life (part 3).
A few months after the interview, popular protests erupted in the streets of Algeria, leading President Bouteflika to resign after a twenty-year rule. I wanted to get Faten’s take on the current situation in her country and the role of Algerian women in the ongoing political transition. Don’t miss out on part 4!
Okay, folks. Let’s get started.
Hi Faten, thank you for joining me today. Can you please introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Faten. I am an African whose roots are in Algeria, my country of birth and upbringing. That’s where my family and cultural roots are. I lived there until I was about 17. Then our family moved to South Africa, which I consider to be my second home, because it’s the country that shaped me in my late teens and early adulthood. And I’m an adopted Dutch by marriage: I’ve lived in the lovely and quiet Lowlands for about 9 years with my son and husband.
I am an unapologetic pan-Africanist and feminist, and I believe in the power of African women. I am a (mostly) quiet rebel with very clear ideas on what I want, what I like and what I don't like. I am also an amateur photographer and I have a huge appetite for travel. Last but not least, I have a terrible phobia of snakes!
“I am an unapologetic pan-Africanist and feminist, and I believe in the power of African women.”
Can you tell me a little about your work?
Last year I started working as a consultant, notably as a technical expert for some aspects of the African Union reforms led by President Kagame. Since then I’ve been working as an advisor to the African Union’s High Representative on relations between the African Union and the European Union.
For instance, I advise on how we can elevate the partnership beyond just aid; how to ensure that Europe’s migration issue is not externalized to Africa, which would limit African citizens’ movement in their region; how to build on our recent continental trade agreement, the African Continental Free Trade Area, to engage with international partners from a position of strength… Things like that.
Your previous job also focused on Europe/Africa policy issues, but you were employed by a European think tank. Why did you decide to switch sides and advise the Africans rather than the Europeans?
There comes a certain point in one’s career where work is no longer just a job that pays the bill. You wonder: what is your legacy? What are you contributing to at the end of the day? What are your values and where is your heart? It does not happen just like that; it’s a process. In my case, that process led me to realize something very clearly: as Africans who believe in the pan-African project, especially those of us in the diaspora, we need to put our expertise at the service of African institutions.
Through my past experiences, be it in Africa or in Europe, I had developed a deep understanding of the functioning of some African institutions. I had seen how institutions elsewhere, especially in Europe, functioned. That helped me put things in perspective and gave me insights which I felt would strengthen our continent.
“As Africans who believe in the pan-African project, especially those of us in the diaspora, we need to put our expertise at the service of African institutions.”
I’ve come to believe that a woman’s childhood and late teenage years have a huge influence on who she becomes as an adult. With that in mind, what strikes me about your journey is that you lived those formative periods on two opposite ends of the continent – literally – and it has someone shaped your sense of African-ness to the point that you’ve now dedicated your career to serving the continent. What does being African mean to you?
Growing up in Algeria, my primary identity was that I was Algerian. There were no discussions of identity, especially not of an African identity. It’s only when I moved to South Africa that I started thinking about who I was and where I fit. The years I lived in South Africa have shaped me to a great degree; I think that the person I am now is perhaps much more influenced by South Africa than by Algeria.
I studied at the University of Pretoria, alongside students who were coming from other African countries, just like me, but also my South African friends. I got to discover the continent by interacting with the diversity of people I met at the university. And of course, I was studying international relations, so I became curious about the history of Africa. I learned about the movements led by Nkrumah and others, and I could see how their ideas matched my experiences.
All of this in a university that was still very Afrikaans, at least when I joined: in fact, my faculty was one of the first at university to offer the option to choose to study in English rather than Afrikaans. My department stopped teaching in Afrikaans by the time I reached my 3rd year.
Get out of here! Are you serious? When was that?
Absolutely! It was 1999. The university was going through a transformation of its own at the time when I was doing my Bachelors’ degree. It truly was a fascinating period. You know, most Algerians want their children to study in Europe, but I’m grateful that my parents took us South, not North. I learned so much more from living in South Africa than I would have if I had studied in Paris.
“Most Algerians want their children to study in Europe, but I’m grateful that my parents took us South, not North.”
What do you think people would be surprised to know about what life looked like for an Algerian student in South Africa at that time?
That there are African institutions are out there giving opportunities for students on the continent. I was determined to be independent from my parents, so I looked for ways to cover the costs of my studies.
I was able to benefit from support by the CODESRIA [The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa] to do my Master’s, and I got a humble junior position at a Pan-African research think tank that allowed me to pay my rent and to finish my studies in South Africa. I think it’s great that some pan-African organisations are making a difference for students.
You said earlier that while you were growing up in Algeria, you felt no connection to an African identity. Do you think it was just you, or is it a wider phenomenon? I’m asking because as you know I recently moved to Morocco and I am shocked that almost everyone here speaks of Africa as a faraway land that they are not part of because, well, they aren’t Black. I feel like the whole country is in denial!
I guess identity just wasn’t on my radar as a child and a teenager. But generally, I agree with you. I think North Africa is going through an identity crisis. I don't know Morocco so well, but in Algeria there's certainly been a debate on identity.
For a very long time we’ve been told that we were Arab Muslims. That’s the identity on which the project of nation building was founded, if I can put it that way. But with time and with the political situation, that’s all starting to crumble. People are reclaiming their identity especially as descendants of the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa.
The issue of race is also there. We often think of North Africa just as people from the northern parts of the countries. But we often forget that we also have people of all skin colors. The other day I was watching a TV show and this lady said: “why are you calling these migrants Africans? We are Africans too. And since you put these stereotypical labels on migrants, then you should be fine with the French being racist towards Algerians.” So people need to be triggered to think.
“We often think of North Africa just as people from the northern parts of the countries. But we often forget that we also have people of all skin colors.”
At least people are asking questions. Does that give you hope?
I am hopeful – at least for Algeria – that the genie is finally out of the bottle and people are debating about where they feel they belong. It would be difficult to put a lid on it now. But I think there are many more questions people ought to ask, because identity is a complex issue. We are not one thing. We are many things.
There are religious undercurrents to this conversation. There is also the question of language, as not all Algerians speak Arabic and some are making language a symbol of resistance against the the false identities they feel are being forced upon them (in this case, that Algerians are pure Arabs). This will be a long process but a necessary one.