May 25, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which has since 2002 been rechristened the African Union (AU). From Addis Ababa, the birth place of the OAU and the current seat of the AU, to Johannesburg, the epicentre of the 2008 xenophobic attacks on African migrants, there has not been a shortage of ‘Africa Day’ events, celebrating the vision, fighting spirit and achievements of the founders of the OAU. As one would expect in the context of persistent development challenges confronting Africa, celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of the OAU, officially marked under the theme ‘Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance’, have not been limited to pomp and fanfare. The anniversary has also served as an opportunity for the current generation of Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, to reconnect with the spirit of the forefathers and take ownership of the African Renaissance movement pioneered by the latter.
The concept of African Renaissance, believed to have been coined by Cheik Anta Diop of Senegal and promoted in more recent times by the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, speaks to aspirations for a new Africa, which is at peace with itself, is free from the negative influence of external forces, and is able to chart the course of its own political, economic, cultural and scientific development. Articulated against the backdrop of historical processes that had encumbered Africa’s progress, notably the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, the African Renaissance inevitably became the ‘Political Kingdom’ that advocates of the Pan-Africanist movement of the 20th century aspired for. For first generation Pan-Africanists such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois and George Padmore, solidarity among Africans was crucial for the emancipation of all people of African descent from the spiritual depravation and degrading material conditions that had become the reality of their existence.
In the immediate context of the slave trade and colonialism, proponents of Pan-Africanism could not have been any more accurate in their articulation of the preconditions for success in realising the African Renaissance. This is because at the time, the crude application of racial ideology had become the foremost tool in the service of engineers of global capitalism, with people of black African descent bearing the brunt of the derogation. The establishment of the OAU in 1963 and the role it played in ending institutionalised racism and direct political control in most parts of Africa embodied the practical relevance of the Pan-Africanist ideology for the African Renaissance project. Ironically, the history of the OAU, and to some extent the decade-long experience of its successor, has also served to highlight the limitations of approaching Africa’s renewal from a Pan-Africanist point of view.
As an ideology and movement whose origin resides in the early efforts of black people, both in Africa and the diaspora, to address the dual legacies of the slave trade and colonialism, Pan-Africanism in a sense frames and inadvertently reduces the quest for an African Renaissance to a struggle between people of African descent and self-styled superior racial groupings. Yet we know today that both the historical and contemporary underdevelopment of Africa and the marginalisation of black people generally is but one dimension of a far-reaching inhumane process of economic exploitation that only conveniently uses race to serve its purpose.
There is no doubt that both the slave trade and colonialism were early manifestations of global capitalism, which is best recognised today not by its racial engineering, but by the ever-widening gulf it creates between an excessively wealthy minority and the rest of humanity enslaved in poverty and hopelessness. What is more, the negative consequences of the capitalist system, in the form of gross social injustice, endless violent conflicts, moral decadence and environmental degradation, threaten the existence and wellbeing of not just people of African descent but humanity as a whole. Similarly, agents of the profit-seeking system are not confined to a single race group or geographical location, but are increasingly among even those who adorn the garb of Pan-Africanism.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the OAU could achieve little more than secure formal political independence for the continent, thereby creating conditions for the emergence of a new crop of Africans who are captivated by the allure of excessive accumulation of wealth, while paying lip-service to Pan-Africanism and the idea of an African Renaissance. The reality is not any different today. Through alliances and networks that cut across race, region or religion, the African elite, both young and old, has become fascinated with, and only hypocritically speaks against, a global economic order that produces and distributes poverty, disease and insecurity to millions of people across the world. Herein lies the limit of the Pan-Africanist approach to tackling the continent’s challenges.
Without discounting its practical relevance, especially in terms of raising awareness about the plight of people of African descent and encouraging greater solidarity among African countries, Pan-Africanism would achieve very little if it is disconnected from a global consciousness to restore the dignity of humanity as a whole. As pointed out earlier, rather than being unique, Africa’s problems are part of a larger moral crisis confronting mankind, and can only be decisively dealt with when conceived as such. It is only then that the true nature of the dynamics that undermine the continent’s renewal can be fathomed and the myriad of forces sustaining its exploitation unmasked.
Moreover, approaching the African Renaissance from a Pan-humanist perspective would guarantee that the much celebrated growth of the middle class in Africa would not come at the expense of the life of a Bangladeshi textile worker or the respiratory health of a child in Beijing.
The article was first published on SABC News.com on 1 June 2013, under the title “A pan-humanist approach to the African Renaissance”.