Farewell to Political Activism


We either value African life, understand a black life as equal to a white life and the poor as equally deserving as the wealthy – or we do not.  This reformulation of Frantz Fanon’s “a given society is either racist or not”  or better yet of Malcolm X’s “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress,” is a reminder that there are no fractions when it comes to human dignities and freedoms. They either exist in full or they do not.  Africans however have been prescribed quarter-doses of health and education, one-sixteenth dignities, and piece-meal freedoms for so long that what would not be acceptable elsewhere is welcomed in Africa. 

            These were my thoughts recently as I traveled back from Durban, South Africa, where I spent the last two weeks of June and the first week of July as one of the organizers of the third international Toward an Africa Without Borders Conference.

This simple recognition, that we either value Africans or we don’t, was being fueled by one more frightening thought.  The kind of activism we, the political activists, have been doing is not enough.  It can never be enough.  Problems facing the African continent, from slavery through colonialism, neo-colonialism, and now the hurricane of globalization that opens up the African markets leaving more poverty in its wake, have never been fully addressed. 

Slavery was abolished and the millions who died were swept under the rugs of progress.  When colonialism ended, true independence was bargained away at the Lancaster and Paris tables, colonial history and its dead blown away by the “winds of change.”  In the 1970 and 1970′s we struggled against neocolonialism; but against our dying and the dead we have globalization which has swept the idea of social justice under the carpet of democracy – a democracy without content. 

At what point in history do we simply say what we are doing is not enough?  Not because the path we have chosen is bad, or entirely wrong-headed, but simply because the problem is clearly much bigger than the solution we are struggling for?  And if we keep doing the same things but expecting different results, aren’t we just a little bit mad?

Whether we are conservatives, World Bank officials, NGO activists, philanthropists, political and scholar-activists, the whole lot of us, we all share the same statistics.  We find them indicating that in Africa infant mortality is on the rise (the only place in the world where such indicators are actually worsening).  We find that millions are projected to die from AIDS, and the poverty that feeds the fury of treatable diseases like Malaria and TB.  We look at the statistics that find African economies counting foreign aid as part of the national budget, that indicate Africa loses more money through unfair trade than it gets in foreign aid.  We find others indicating the extent of environmental degradation, and the human misery caused through exploitation of resources such as oil in places like the Niger Delta.  We look at statistics which, like bread crumbs, can be followed back to days of slavery, that show present day exploitation of resources and a rather bleak future if things continue as they are.
Yet, in the face of these enormous problems, we proscribe solutions based on our ideological professions which have one thing in common – inadequacy.  Conservatives launch an anti-corruption campaign, and prescribe more foreign aid but to accountable governments; World Bank officials call for the opening of markets and transparency; philanthropists set up more save-the-African-child foundations; NGO activists call for strategic donations and fairer US Intervention; political and scholar activists have their international conferences and alternative world summits only to pass resolutions calling for better representation of Africa in international media.  In the meantime, in a most myopic move, African leaders at the helm of this sinking ship gather in Accra to call for a United Africa to be led by one president and a two million strong army.

In a word, our various remedies have long been outstripped by the maladies.  Cynicism is not mine alone here.  Nelson Mandela, the face of the anti apartheid struggle in 2003 started a joint foundation with apartheid/colonialism crusader Cecil Rhodes’ Trust. The Mandela-Rhodes Foundation, the website declares, seeks “to build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa”.  What could be more cynical?  Who is fooling who here? In another context, this would be unbelievable: we could never imagine Jewish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel starting a Wiesel-Himmler Foundation, for example – but somehow in Africa we are willing to suspend our disbelief.  With all due respect – is this madness? Have we become this cynical or are we suffering from collective schizophrenia that allows us launder history through foundations and other self-help projects? 

We are in a peculiar position of being behind history.  We misread the present. And for it, the future is not ours.  Each day unveils what the future will hold – the US Africa Command Center, Wars on terror that, like globalization, have no boundaries and an African leadership whose best foot is Mbeki’s embrace of international Capital at the expense of majority South Africans.  We must stop sending one another congratulatory notes after each successful rock concert, international conference, or summit. 

These were my thoughts as I stood in the middle of Inanda Township in Durban, as I walked through settlements demolished under the watchful eye of the ANC government.  Near a chemical plant, children tickled by our presence broke into giggles but my laughter died where their feet were discolored by walking barefoot in chemical soaked homes and playgrounds.
 
I could trace these thoughts to 2004 in Kenya’s Dandora slums.  Sitting under a tree with writer Binyavanga Wainaina, my brothers and sisters, and members of the Kalamashaka Hip Hop band, we could hear random gunshots announcing random deaths a few miles away.  Later that evening we left the slum for Runda Estate, one of the richest estates in Nairobi, to visit a progressive Kenyan politician, where we were served food by maids and cooks dressed in snappy white checkered uniforms. Then it occurred to me that our political leadership really do not see the people in Dandroa, Mathare or Kangemi slums as having lives with value. 

The anger and the most basic humanism that had moved the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries are gone. They have been replaced by “progressive” politics laced with contempt for the poor; as if history did not happen; as if – here comes another statistic – the 380 million Africans living in dire poverty are stubbornly refusing to take advantage of the all you can eat democracy buffet.  These politicians do not have the political imagination or the will to deal with the devastation of extreme poverty and the historical legacies of colonialism.

But in 2004 it had not occurred to me that even we, the political activists, had lost that imagination, if not the will.  We too were speaking the same language as the politician.  Realizing earlier this month that African life lacked as much value in South Africa as in Kenya, that there was nothing more Pan-African than shared poverty, and the many of ways of dying, that AIDS is as much a Pan-African issue as African culture, I had to admit that my way of doing things has been wholly inadequate.  Not because I was waiting for a magic wand that can be waved (it is locked away in coffers of the global rich in the little drawer titled stop living at the expense of others); rather, my activism was miles away from comprehending let alone squarely addressing problems that were multi-generational, sanctioned by history, and local and international at the same time. 

Understanding the problem, history not withstanding, lies in understanding when and why the revolutionary became a political activist.  The activist, as I understand it, was born in the late 1980s and early1990′s, when the revolutionary died.  Revolutions under the banner of Marxism had degenerated to coups and counter-coups which produced paranoid movements and dictators.  By the early 1990′s even the thin banner of Marxism was no longer being hoisted, and it was war for power, one group against the other for the state house.  Communism in the East collapsed and with the chaos and deaths that followed, it was no longer fashionable to talk about the masses, classes and revolution. 

But movements of trickle-down economics and welfare also produced the same results – war for profit, coups and counter-coupes paranoid dictators, and then some.  Only the left took the blame.  So when Margaret Thatcher declared that there was no alternative to capitalism, not only did the conservative, liberal and radical politicians believe her, but so did the would-be revolutionaries who, looking to the East, only saw chaos and turmoil. 

Political activism as the mainstay of change rose out of the ashes of revolutionary activism – and imbedded in the idea of political activism is the belief that there are no other alternatives.  Herein is the paradox – we, the political activists work within a closed system of no alternatives even when we think we do not.  Anti-globalization will not make a dent on globalization and anti-capitalism cannot counter movement of massive international capital.  We simply have to break way from this closed system, offer and fight for other alternatives.

If we are to stare boldly at the problems facing the African continent, we must dare to say that are alternatives not only to how societies are arranged but to how we can bring about those changes.  We must return to these two twin aspects of change: the boldness of revolutionary thinking and dreaming and the boldness of action.  People power movements in Latin America, exemplified by Chavez, are one alternative.  We must speak about their potential as well as their limitations.  We cannot turn our back on what is happening in Latin America.  It is our duty to keep Cuba alive, that star that the United States has been trying to dull, so that it remains an example of what is possible.  But if we see potential in Latin America, we must use it to jump-start our own ideas and approaches to change, not as a template to be blindly copied.

In Africa we must invest time and energy in developing a Pan-Africanism from Below, one that recognizes we are not uniting governments but the people – one which is revolutionary in that it will unite the people as it frees them from local and international exploitation; that sees the emancipation of women as an integral part of its vocation and has the content of social and economic justice.   The only way to make sure of this, contrary to the July African Union meeting in Accra, is by a people’s mandate.

Pan-Africanism cannot be a lofty idea that comes from an enlightened leadership.  The days of the missionary, the small glorious band of men, the talented tenth, the revolutionary van-guard are long gone.  Pan-Africanism will have to travel through the same borders as refugees breaking down barriers and borders along the way.  It has to travel through African languages, dynamic cultures, and shared politics of anti-colonial struggles (after all anti-apartheid was a pan-African struggle), and resistance in this day of globalization.  Only then shall Africans become visible to each other.  And it is only when Africans are visible to each other that African solutions become possible.

There are collective questions that cannot be answered by one person in the same way a solution cannot be an individual affair.  And what do the African people want? What would the economy of a united Africa look like?  What kind of political systems would we create?  What kind of culture would Pan-Africanist frameworks produce?  What kind of social-gender relations should the Africa of the future embrace? What would a borderless Africa look like?  In trying to answer these questions from our various locations, we will be creating the much needed alternatives – and implementing them.

Political activism will not dream of changing governments or unifying African people.  Revolutionary thinking that is cognizant of the world as it stands will.  In this 21st Century of a thousand changes – We are either revolutionary, or we are not!
 
 
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change, Hurling Words at Consciousness (poetry) and editor of the forthcoming New Kenyan Fiction (Ishmael Reed Publications, 2008). This article first appeared in the August 1st issue of Pambazuka.

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