Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Pan-African Ideal under a New Lens: Thabo Mbeki's Contribution

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Pan-African Ideal under a New Lens: Thabo Mbeki's Contribution

Article excerpt


This essay is an attempt to assess the important evolution undergone by the pan-African ideology. It argues that from its inception the ideal was marked by moral values and political ambitions that were grounded on the desire to reverse the dominant views of African inferiority. This has not resolved the identity and racial connotations that have provoked the proliferation of views about what pan-Africanism really means. Yet pan-Africanism has become the most powerful magnet for generations, and remains the most solid reference for the construction of an integrated Africa. The last 10 years have witnessed large-scale affirmation of a particular brand of the pan-African ideology. Thabo Mbeki is one of the most significant architects of this development.

1. The beginnings

The appeal of pan-Africanism remains intact in the continent. In fact, since the turn of the century a wave of good news--from fewer wars to higher economic growth--has renewed interest in the ideal that has inspired generations of leaders and activists throughout Africa and its diaspora.

The genesis of pan-Africanism can be found in the struggle for equal rights, after the official end of the slave trade and, later, the banning of slavery in most of the Western world. Although pockets of this practice remained long into the 19th century, and equivalent forms of oppression have survived right up to the present, the shift towards equality of rights became the most prominent manifestation of the resolve of people of African descent to reverse the notions of African inferiority. The historical underpinnings of a discriminatory attitude towards Africa, and blacks in particular, are quite ancient. It has influenced a distorted view of the human universal construct and is responsible for some of the most abominable behaviour witnessed by humanity.

Groups of intellectuals which emerged with the spread of freed slaves started quite early to mobilise their kin to fight discrimination and enter the race for civil rights. This is the same movement that in most colonies started what one could call proto-nationalism. It was a moment when the political landscape was not yet ready for the articulated proposals that were later transformed into national liberation struggles in most of the colonised world, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That would become the main form of struggle only after the Second World War.

In the African diaspora, public intellectuals of the early 20th century were the interpreters of a desire for a more developed and structured movement to give all Africans pride and honour. In the absence of a geo-locator of their origins, they constructed an ideal Africa, psychologically and politically. They saw the need for the union of all Africans around a single integrated struggle against all forms of discrimination. There was no immediate political ambition of independence, but the elements of such a purpose and goal were easily identifiable in the statements of these progenitors of a pan-African cause. Africans should remember the debt they have to these precursors, originally from the Caribbean and the United States (US).

Three names from the diaspora are referenced by most: W E B DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Aime Cesaire. Each would be linked to a particular brand of the pan-African ideal. All were active in politics, members of the established political parties of their countries, and all three were involved in the construction of pan-African or writers' and intellectuals' movements and congresses. Their names are behind sometimes more, sometimes less radical views of what African unity and its links to the diaspora meant.

Another interesting element to retain from the genesis of pan-Africanism is the aesthetic concern to identify the role of blackness and define an African identity to counter the discriminatory views of Africa dating from Hegel's famous proclamation that Africans had no history, or the claim found in schoolbooks until quite recently that history starts with the written word, with the accompanying myth that the written word was absent from Africa. …

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