At York University, in Northern Toronto, from Nov 5-6, 2015 an international gathering of scholars meditated on themes related to African nationalism, history and development.
The keynote presentations were given by Ama Biney, author of “The Political and Social Thought of Kwame Nkrumah”, Gillian Hart, author of “Rethinking the South African Crisis”, Pablo Idahosa, author of “The Populist Dimension in African Political Thought”, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, author of “A People’s History of the Congo”, and John Saul, author of “A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation”.
Presenters hailed from, or researched in countries, including Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Egypt, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the United States, Canada, and Britain – many migrating across borders with more than one identity and affiliation. It was remarked, with regret, that any gathering of scholars of Africa always leaves behind sojourners who finally could not overcome the obstacles in their path toward arrival.
The conference had a spirit of fellowship that transcended the ordinary academic gathering. On the lower frequencies, but not always centered, there was a concern for opposing the empire of capital and even a commitment to socialist political thought. African nationalism was approached as a historical project – both the anti-colonial revolutions and post-independence crises. Nationalisms could be ethnically chauvinistic, repress African labor, abuse migrant Africans, and support unprincipled capitalist ambition. Nationalism can produce near utopian moments only to reveal shining governments of the damned and the possessive individualism found in ordinary countries. Nationalism was also seen as popular movements for a second liberation of Africa emphasizing economic justice and a basis for Pan African federation and unity. Nationalism could be a framework, if in our hearts and in formation, to defend the marginal and remind that all have a place in an inclusive anti-authoritarian community. For this to be so, not only must pessimism be overcome, but an awareness must be sustained. The nation-state boundaries were invented by the colonizers and sustained by post-independence politicians that founded the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) – many believed nationalism could be something more.
There was an awareness of insurgent populisms that suggest ordinary people have the wisdom to govern, if this essence is often captured by protean politicians who at one moment appear to be insurgent and at others function to contain discontent within ordinary party politics and the shadow of state power.
There were references, formally in presentations and informally in conversation, to the political thought of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Walter Rodney. This suggests an affinity for a radical tradition. At the same time there were penetrating criticisms of “development” and “progressive” frameworks that appear to obscure a commitment by nationalists and socialists in various ways to capitalist development and retreating visions of social welfare. There were on occasion discussions of development with a historical materialist bent that was observing historical class formation, and the evolution of modes of production, more than an insurgent perspective that condemned states and ruling classes.
There were insightful discussions of the colonialist and elitist origins of women’s league activism (Kenya), Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa rejecting new fees for water and power, and the invention of Igbo identity and the Biafra War (Nigeria). Kiswahili’s role in debates about African languages and independent epistemologies, a profound oral history of post-genocide Rwanda critical of Paul Kagame’s government, and discussion of Islam and Christian politics in Egypt were very eye opening.
The Black Power movement of the USA was shown to have a major and little appreciated influence on consciousness raising in Southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. An analysis of the political economy of cattle in Zambia, the politics of redistribution in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the repression of GLBTI peoples in contemporary Africa, a discussion of a little known mass purge within Angola’s MPLA that delivered thousands to their death, and reflection on the meaning of a general strike in Ghana that was repressed after Nkrumah came to power, illustrated how insights abounded.
There was a clear desire to discuss racism and economic injustice as a local phase of a world problem. Pan African historical and ideological frameworks were summarized, critiqued, and enhanced with new perspectives bubbling up. These included a challenge to European historical reason that assumed a pessimistic vision of projects of African unity (in light of the fact that the European Union and the United States are ravaged by their own “tribalism” and federal projects must always overcome hindrances and are never complete), and ambivalence and rejection of the nation-state itself as the best model for imagining popular self-government. Consistent with the critique of neo-liberalism, many wondered, in light of a consensus about the underdevelopment of Africa, whether the United States or Britain was still committed to a political economy of national sovereignty.
This can be a breakthrough for rethinking empire as an aristocracy of race and labor that assumed (falsely) that imperialists and the toilers below them, in Europe and North America, share a culture of contempt. Yet a political economy of national sovereignty is not anti-imperialism or international socialism. It suggests a search for an insurgent identity through jobs and justice (and a peculiar embrace of wage labor/capital relations and industry, if it enjoys thrashing finance capital for its indiscipline).
There was a youthful activist energy that inquired, consistent with radical traditions, what is the significance of academic life for the lives of ordinary people, what social class leads national liberation struggles, and where is the world going if we are caught between Western modernity and an Islamic politics of terror. The events in Paris France (and San Bernadino, California) unfortunately followed the conference by ten days.
There was a consensus that our explorations of African nationalism did not explore gender or labor enough, though critiques were raised in light of both frameworks. We must also keep in mind that women’s autonomy is not always expressed by a public discourse on patriarchy. Women led on matters of gender at this conference, but also in broad discussions of philosophy and political economy.
The conference seemed to be at a loss to forge a consensus or at least a dialogue on a topic that appeared to concern many. Where will the next Africa solidarity and anti-imperialist movements come from? Especially as the baton is passed, from elders to a generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, when the last phase of the African movements from classical colonialism, was flaming out. That the conference did not speak excessively of NGOs or a “Pan African” lobbying movement subordinate to imperial foreign policies, trade union hierarchies, and diversifying national security vistas was a good thing. It is despicable, as one recent history of Africa centered activism suggests, to work for years for the seizure and abolition of state power, only to say global activism is now to resist HIV/AIDS and to secure potable water. Are there no governments that need overturning today? Does popular self-government require the designing of a new society?
The fire next time will not come from bureaucratic or social work sectors. A coming dialogue about where to look for the next development in political thought, and how to bring it closer, will likely come out of new networks. The fellowship at this gathering was genuine, substantial, and may produce productive dialogues, publishing and linkages of resistance in the future.
* Matthew Quest received his PhD from Brown University in American Studies, the MA in African Studies from University of Illinois at Urbana, and the BA in Political Science and History from Hunter College (C.U.N.Y.). In recent years he has taught History and Africana Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and at University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is best known as a scholar of the life and work of the Pan African historian C.L.R. James. His writings have appeared in The CLR James Journal, The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, New Historian, Insurgent Notes, and Science & Society. He also has written scholarly introductions for Ida B Well's Lynch Law in Georgia & Other Writings and Joseph Edwards's Workers Self-Management in the Caribbean.
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