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Pan Africanism and the question of ideology

This year celebrations to mark Africa Day and Africa Week have been dampened by the dark cloud of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. This may explain the fact that unlike past events, the 2020 commemoration traverses two themes: “Silencing the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development to achieve the goal of a conflict-free Africa”.

It would appear that the African Union (AU), the continental governing body decided to combine the themes of continental peace and security with that of the pandemic given the significance of the latter to livelihoods on the continent. This is understandable, as 2020 is the year when Africa is supposed to be free of armed conflicts, while, the pandemic is an existential threat to Africa and indeed the rest of the world.

Be the two-pronged theme as it may, Africa Day and indeed the Africa Week has grown over the last couple of years to serve as a moment of reflection on African affairs beyond themes designated by the AU. After all, while the AU may want for an explicit focus on an issue deemed crucial at any one time, a day that commemorates Africanness comes with a diversity interests from Africans dispersed around the continent and beyond.

From one point of view, Africa Day can be grasped as a moment of reflection on Pan-Africanism – the idea that Africans anywhere and everywhere in the world are in solidarity, forged in certain shared values and aspirations. Pan-Africanism has a long history marked agitation and resistance, from the struggle for the abolition of slave trade to the liberation of South Africa from apartheid.

Throughout its chequered history, the call for the unity and solidarity of Africans on the African continent and in the diaspora has been a connecting thread. The combination of resistance and global African solidarity has meant socialism-Marxist was the ideological inclination of the movement.

The question that arises from the point of view of the second decade of the twenty first century is: what does Pan-Africanism mean today? What does a reflection on Pan-Africanism on the fifty-seventh African Day reveal?

One of the remarkable traits of Pan-Africanism has been the unbroken connection between continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora, particularly African Americans. This was amply demonstrated last year when Ghana rolled the Year of Return to commemorate four hundred years since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, USA. Ghana’s strategic efforts have been the most visible.

Other examples abound as seen in the growing number of African Americans settling in African countries. African American communities are forming in cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi. A reverse development has been on hand in which Africans are migrating and settling all over the world. Although unfortunate, the case of the xenophobic attacks on Africans in Guangzhou, China in April is evidence of the growing number of Africans in Asia, a region that has traditionally had few Africans. Collectively, this phenomenon has come to be labelled “global Africa”. Essentially, the understanding is that Africanness is not to be confused with residence on the continent. Rather, it is the association of whatever kind, with the continent. “Global Africa” is therefore emerging as a new dimension of Pan-Africanism.

If the antecedents of Pan-African took the form of a movement for emancipation forged in the ideology of resistance, the “movement” and ideological traits have continuously worn thin over the years. Whereas the leaders at helm of the movement at various times were committed Pan Africanists, today, African leaders are largely ideology-phobic if not outright ideology-averse.

A reading of the biographies of the likes of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Franz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, among others shows that they were prepared to greatly sacrifice in the name of Pan Africanism. Latter Pan Africanists such as Thomas Sankara and Thabo Mbeki attempted to keep the fire of Pan Africanism burning albeit against the backdrop of waning interest in the movement. Others such as Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni started as potential successors to the progenitors even though the seduction of power to blind marred their legacies.

Today, a scan of African leadership shows little in the way of ideological inclination. If there is an ideology at all, then it is the technocratic mobilization around developmental agendas of which the recently launched African Continental Free Trade Area is emblematic. Most African leaders are either focused or pretend to focus on the notion of “development”, giving rise to ideas around “developmentalism” and the developmental state. Why is this case?

One answer lies in the fact that the fore bearers of Pan-Africanism were at once political and intellectual leaders. Both Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois led resistance movements on the streets and town halls but also in lecture halls and through their writings. Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere were prolific writers. Indeed, Nyerere’s sobriquet was “Mwalimu”, Swahili for teacher! In the recent past, the one leader who may fits this philosopher-king category of leaders is Thabo Mbeki, whose African renaissance ideology was based on deep intellectual reflection. In the current crop of leaders, we see little by the way of leadership philosophies laid out in books, let alone personal memoirs. This gives vent to the supposition that African leaders are leading without ideas!

The jury is still out on the value of ideological-intellectual commitment versus ideological-intellectual averseness. The proponent of ideological-neutrality and technocratic-cum-developmental inclinations may argue that the continent is making major strikes sans ideology. They may point to the recently rolled out African Continental Free Trade Area as a good example of what can be achieved by focusing on the economic rather than political bottom lines. Others may argue that developments are better off left to natural progression rather than chaperoned through the handmaid of ideology. Examples would include the boom in African cultures as seen in popular musical and cinematic cultures in South Africa, Tanzania and Nigeria.

What is clear, however, is that the ideological-intellectual poverty that we see on the continent means the sustainability of the dual phenomenon of Pan-Africanism and Global Africa is ephemeral. But this is a discussion for another day.

Dr Bob Wekesa is research and partnership coordinator, African Centre for the Study of the US at Wits University and adjunct lecturer at Wits Journalism Department

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