Opinionista Mikaela Nhondo Erskog 31 May 2017

The pitfalls of cosmetic Pan-Africanism

The black and white ruling classes of Africa today butcher ideas such as Pan-Africanism to continue their benefiting from mass exploitation of the African working class.

There is an ever-resilience of violent and oppressive imperial state apparatuses on this continent. Africa Month (“The Year of OR Tambo: Building a Better Africa and a Better World”) then cannot only be an opportunity to celebrate continental arts, ideas and inventions, but an opportunity to seriously engage the acute human problems of African peoples. Yet, the prevailing narratives and programmes that accompany this month’s national focus seems devoid of the politics of where Africa finds herself. What do “Africa Month” or calls for African unity mean when notions like Pan-Africanism seem to be shadows of their former political principles?

The World Economic Forum Africa held earlier this month was about creating “enabling environments” towards “achieving inclusive growth through responsive and responsible leadership”. In layperson speak: how do we create more conditions for more subordinate workers to produce more profits that will benefit our imperial masters and local national elites who have a monopoly on the modes of production. This is the business of growing capital accumulation (a.k.a. increasing the expropriation of labour from the worker) for the benefit of the global ruling class and their local national surrogates.

With this continued mandate for mass-exploitation of the majority African population, and the despoliation of our natural resources, why do we continue to perform the same gestures of African unity that do little to change the material conditions of African peoples? How can the Pan-African Parliament (PAP – the symbolic, unauthoritative legislative assembly of African leaders/elites) bear that very name but be devoid of any of its historically attending political content or commitment to the most exploited in society? What does it mean to call for “African solutions for African problems” without addressing the fundamentally bourgeois, elitist, anti-poor character of the inherited often white racist and colonial state infrastructures and functions?

In his 1961 speech at the 1961 Pan-African Youth Conference in Dar Es Salaam, South African political activist Oliver Tambo had the following to say:

Unity must be a tired word, overused everywhere, by everybody. We are always talking of unity. I am a member of the United Front, the South African United Front. We talk about unity in Africa, we spoke about it before the first All-African Peoples’ Conference, it was spoken of when Pan-Africanism was first discussed, it was mentioned at Bandung, hardly a month ago we were discussing unity at Accra, and the theme of this conference is unity. I think the important thing to raise here is that unity does not grow wild. Tanganyika is a rich country, all Africa is rich, there is plenty that grows wild, you don’t have to cultivate it, you don’t have to water it, to nurse it.

But unity is not like that. It does not grow wild. It has to be nurtured, built up, it wears away. It must be doctored, treated. It also has many enemies like the enemies that enter any plant that you grow, and you have to keep vigilant against these. And where does unity begin and where does it end?

I think true and lasting unity, as opposed to the unity we may seek at a given time for the achievement of a certain purpose, is one which is conceived on the basis of the essential oneness of mankind, based on what is basically a common human problem.”

In the 2017 speeches, proposals and various issues expressed during this Africa Month, concerns about the critical stage at which we find humankind or the nature of the common human problem seemed to be ghosts at the feast. Cultural events are completely depoliticised and the parody of Pan-Africanism is animated in several bourgeois political and economic networking opportunities. Rhetorical calls for a united Africa are hollow echoes through the Congo basin, tentative whispers in the poorly lit alleys of Kibera’s slums in Nairobi, Kenya, and deafening silences for those forgotten people incarcerated in the concrete of Lindela immigrant detention centre in north Johannesburg.

What lies at the heart of this tragicomedy is the commodification, idealisation and depoliticisation of notions like Pan-Africanism. Since the 1980s, Pan-African ideas that underpin our continental understandings of unity have been deployed in the service of reconfigured forms of imperial/neoliberal capitalism.

In 1982, the Cameroon Peoples’ Union (CPU) considered the bankruptcy of the Pan-Africanism evoked by institutions such as the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), suggesting that Pan-Africanism was merely a front for the neoliberal (read: imperial) African states’ apparatuses. CPU member Elenga Mbuyinga articulated this as the strategy of “Pan-African Demagogy”. He wrote: “This is the strategy being implemented by the emerging African neocolonial bourgeoisies, who are telling mountains of lies to the African peoples and to world opinion about economic development, social integration and political unity.”

Like many radical traditions such as Black Consciousness and deep green environmentalism, Pan Africanism has been commodified, idealised and depoliticised. Our Africanness is only mobilised on the basis of collective participation in capitalist consumerism practices. We are called to unite as Africans when it means we will drink Coca-Cola by the crate or upgrade MTN cellphone contracts.

When former president Thabo Mbeki promoted an African Renaissance, it was so painfully bourgeois. It retained the originary invocation of an elite intellectual and cultural project. Western Enlightenment’s socio-political ordering of things but with an African headwrap. What persisted under the banner of African Renaissance was the nourishment of an imperial hierarchical system of ownership and knowledge production by the elite for the elite.

If we understand, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put it in 1848, that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”, we see how Pan-Africanism as it stands today will undoubtedly serve the ruling class interests. The black and white ruling classes of Africa today butcher ideas such as Pan-Africanism so they benefit from the continued mass exploitation of the African working class.

To borrow from our dead German comrades (which our so-called black radicals and all-roads-lead-to-Kemite brothers and sisters might admonish me for), Pan-Africanism has become “a mere figure of speech”. Pan Africanism exists hollowed out of any political principle. It is a new(ish) mask worn by an elite, bourgeois project aimed at concealing its fundamentally anti-working class, imperialist, racist, patriarchal capitalism.

Pan-Africanism has become fixed by an idealism unwilling to deal with the ever-shifting grit and grime of the African majority’s material conditions.

We cannot be told to stop “imitating Europe” but not address the prevalence of fundamentally exploitative modes and relations of production in Africa (modes and relations of production that were so central to the rise of modern imperialist Euro-American states). Does being a good African bourgeois exploiter of a majority working class make us African? Or does it pay exquisitely flattering homage to Euro-American imperialists? Does pursuing an increased continental militarisation (as was proposed by the Pan African Parliament to combat security concerns) not make us as right-wing nutty as the US foreign policies over the last 50 years?

The contemporary rhetoric we find with calls for “Reclaiming True African Identity” are too often reactionary, lazy, dishonest, identitarian and, ultimately, cosmetic projects. Addressing the common human problems on this continent, that of the persistence of imperial capitalism and its accompanying super exploitation of the African working-class and poor majority, might bring us a little closer to African unity.

Part of this means unmasking the popularised idealised/idolising/idling of the Pan-African Demagog. Developing a Pan-Africanism that insists on a revolutionary attack on the ever-changing but consistently impoverished material conditions of African peoples might just invigorate a radical African unity with political principle, intellectual vigour and social commitment. DM

Mikaela Nhondo Erskog recently received her MA in History at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR). She was a fellow at the Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU). She is associated with the Movement for Socialism in Numsa and the Numsa Research and Policy Institute (NuRPI). Her research interests involve black intellectual traditions, in particular black women thinkers and their struggles for intellectual being.

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