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Sobukwe’s pan-Africanist dream: an elusive idea that refuses to die


Foundation essay: Our foundation essays are longer than usual and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

Is Africa really for Africans? American commissioner to Africa and abolitionist Martin Delany asked this question a century and a half ago following his sojourn in Africa and Europe.

Attempts to answer it spawned pan-Africanism - an idea that refuses to die. This question is asked in memory of South African leader Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a doyen of pan-Africanism who died in February 1978.

What became of Sobukwe is a consequence of a myriad of factors, starting from his days at Healdtown Comprehensive School. A speech he made as head boy at the school emphasised co-operation between blacks and whites, demonstrating his sense of awareness of the issue of race at a young age.

Such awareness evolved into an ideological posture, nurtured and refined by many factors that spawned his Africanist orientation. It was at Fort Hare, a university from which a great many African leaders graduated, where much of this happened. His study of Native Administration as a subject and interaction with a lecturer who taught it, Cecil Ntloko, sharpened his political consciousness.

To these add the pursuit to forge synergy of African people’s struggles against colonialism as institutionalised in the All-African Convention of 1935; his interest in African politics; and John Galsworthy’s play titled Strife - a story of “a struggle between Labour and Capital”.

While a member of the African National Congress (ANC), Sobukwe embraced its Youth League’s definition of African nationalism that emerged during the leadership of Anton Lembede. It was at odds with the mother body as it

emphasized the exclusive basis of African solidarity, as a race and as a nation.

Sobukwe developed the philosophy of African nationalism to even higher intellectual heights. He believed that African nationalism was

a basis for the complete unity of the African people, and the basis for achievement of national freedom for the African people as a step towards a fully fledged democratic order in South Africa.

He dedicated his life selflessly to this cause. The lesson he left for humanity was his ideological stand that there is only one race, the human race. Perhaps if we had listened to Sobukwe’s teachings, the world would not be struggling today with blatant racism.

The fathers of pan-Africanism

Delany argued in his 1861 Report:

Africa for the African race and black men to rule them

Attempts to achieve this date back to the struggles against slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and racism.

They became systematised into a pursuit called pan-Africanism. It aimed to elevate the human race of African origin from centuries of humiliation. Pan-Africanism came to engender the spirit of African unity among the native Africans and those in the diaspora.

Following Edward Blyden’s theorisation of African Personality, a Trinidadian barrister, Henry Sylvester-Williams, coined Pan-Africanism. The concept came to frame efforts to

re-establish the dignity (of Africans) in a world that has hitherto conceded [them] none.

Blyden is considered the father of pan-Africanism. But, pan-African scholar William Ackah argued that pan-Africanism does not have “a single founder or particular tenets that can be used as a definition”.

WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Joseph Casely-Hayford, and George Padmore, among others, enhanced the profundity of the concept. It later evolved into an ideology, a philosophy, and a movement. It enthused the first generation of post-colonial African leadership, chief among them Kwame Nkrumah.

So what is it?

Pan-Africanism is a socio-political worldview. As an ideology, it represents integrative intent directed at fundamental change in society. In Nkrumah’s words, Pan-Africanism

guides and seeks to connect the actions of millions of persons towards specific and definite goals.

It is a philosophy “based on the belief that Africans share common bonds and objectives and … advocate[s] unity to achieve these objectives”.

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

Philosophy is the instrument of ideology for a desired social, economic and political order. According to Nkrumah, it “performs ideological function when it takes shape as political philosophy”, laying “down certain ideals for our pursuit and fortification”, and becoming “an instrument of unity by laying down the same ideals for all the members of a given society”.

After decades of decolonisation, an inevitable question is whether a desired social, economic and political order as envisaged in pan-Africanism has been realised.

Is Africa really for Africans?

Africa is a construct of colonial imagination, which the 1885 Berlin conference perfected in the resolution to balkanise her for imperial ends.

This destroyed “the cultural and linguistic boundaries established by the indigenous African population”. Africans became estranged from one another, separating into different nationalities.

The Organisation of African Unity was established in 1963 to foster unity and solidarity. But it did not deconstruct the Berlin conference stratagem of continued domination of the continent. Its focus was on colonial freedom. It did not change the narrative of the scramble for Africa. This “showed the limits of the pan-Africanism of African states”.

The decolonisation project secured the independence of the African states, but their evolution followed the pattern of fragmentation determined in Berlin. Hence, Africans characterise each other as foreigners in their colonially determined boundaries.

Sometimes this assumes the form of hatred and violence - xenophobia, ethnic and civil wars. And African leaders jealously protect their sovereignty. These are the contradictions that drive Africa’s history.

The United States of Africa remains an elusive ideal. This is a pity because an important lesson of geopolitics is that the world’s largest economies derive their strength from their unity.

Nkrumah was conscious of this. He was so committed to the pan-African ideal of a united Africa that he was even prepared to give up the sovereignty of Ghana.

He knew that for Africa to be for Africans it must unite. This requires, as Dialo Diop correctly put it:

mutual and reciprocal surrender of sovereignty among states on the basis of common interest and free popular consent.

In the concept of African Renaissance former South African president Thabo Mbeki articulated a pan-African agenda in the 21st century. He did so with profound clarity and a sense of mission, underscoring the significance of collective self-reliance of African countries.

Securing African future a pan-African way

Contemporary institutional arrangements to pursue the pan-African agenda in the African Union and African Parliament are laudable. But, do these institutions really exemplify the Unity of Africa or that of her leadership?

I am asking this question because ugly scenes of violence against African foreign nationals dominate our space. Why is pan-Africanism not yet a fully lived experience? Some appear to ascribe a reason for this to continentalism. This suggests that the African Union and African Parliament are used as a means to achieve this rather than pan-Africanism.

Most African leaders are stuck in the sovereignty of their nationalism. So are their followers. Burundi’s stand against the African Union’s decision to deploy peacekeepers is a case in point. Pan-Africanism is pitted against nationalism. This makes Africa weak and vulnerable. It gives way for “a continuity of preoccupation”.

As the decoloniality scholar Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni explains, the colonial matrices of power continue

to exist in the minds, lives, languages, dreams, imagination, and epistemologies of modern subjects in Africa and the entire global South.

For Africa to be for Africans, pan-Africanism should be a lived experience, not an ideological project for political rhetoric.

A body of pan-African thought exists. This has been developed by outstanding African scholars, political scientists, historians and philosophers living in Africa and the diaspora. It is the responsibility of African universities to accommodate it in their curricula to ensure that the future leaders of this continent have a pan-African orientation when they graduate.

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