Blood is thicker then water
The relevance of Pan-Africanism today
By demonstrating in practice that the blood that binds the peoples of Africa and the diaspora is thicker than the waters of the Atlantic, the Pan-African movement has demonstrated its relevance in tackling the common challenges of the present, writes Z Pallo Jordan.
Pan-Africanism has had many different meanings over the ages, but the sense in which I shall be employing the term refers to the political project inaugurated by a group of African-descended intellectuals and activists at the beginning of the 20th century, with the aim of restoring the human rights of the peoples of Africa and those of African descent throughout the world. In conception and in historical fact the pan-African movement sought to unite in action the African communities on either side of the Atlantic Ocean to address their shared condition as a colonised and oppressed people.
The creation of African communities on the American side of the Atlantic was a harrowing process involving the horrors of the middle passage, the humiliations of the auction block and the brutalities of the plantation. Close to 10 million Africans perished during transportation to feed the insatiable appetite for labour power of the plantation and mining economies the Europeans established in the New World. African slaves played the pivotal role in the triangular trade spanning the Atlantic, producing the raw materials that were exported to Europe for manufacture. Finished goods were in turn sold along the Atlantic coast of Africa in return for human cargoes bound for the Americas.
Every part of the New World where slavery was practiced experienced its share of slave revolts, large and small. All were crushed with terrifying brutality. All, except for the revolution of the African slaves in the French colony of San Domingo. On 22 August 1791, two years and one month after the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution, the slaves of San Domingo rose and in twelve years of war inscribed one of the most inspiring chapters in the annals of humanity's struggle for liberation. In January 1804, after the French expeditionary force Napoleon had dispatched to the island was defeated, Dessalines halted the independence day proceedings briefly in order to rip out a band of white bunting from the new national flag. "We want nothing white in our flag!" he declared. So embittered towards their former white masters had the ex-slaves become. The liberators renamed their island Haiti and proclaimed it the first Negro republic in the New World.
Haiti, an African nation in the Caribbean, lit the torch of African freedom two centuries ago. That torch was passed on from Toussaint L'Ouveture to Henry Sylvester Williams ninety six years later, it was carried across the finishing line by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela ninety four years later. When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa's first democratically elected Head of State in 1994, in every part of the world his inauguration was hailed as marking the official end of the system of institutionalised racism that had assailed the dignity and human worth of every person of African descent for the previous five hundred years of interaction between Europeans and Africans. The Atlantic slave trade and the triangular trade cycle of which it was an indispensable link, were the material undergirding of the white racism that legitimised and sustained it. The colonial conquest of Africa during the latter part of the 19th century cemented this relationship while widening the circle of stakeholders in racism and exponentially increasing its victims.
For those at its receiving end colonialism was not the benign, civilising mission we have from the literature of imperial nostalgia. In Africa it invariably entailed regimes of forced labour - enforced with the whip, imprisonment and the gun - for the benefit of public works as well as for private purposes. Taxes and other impositions were another favourite device for separating tillers from their land in order to create a workforce to serve the colonial government, administrators and White settlers.
As colonised people Africans could claim no rights. They were not citizens, but subjects governed in terms of the colonial administration's construal of "customary laws". Even in countries, as in the US, where the Constitution guaranteed citizenship rights to people of African descent, these protections were ignored and they were treated no differently from their kith and kin in Africa and the Caribbean. The colonial authorities exercised a host of arbitrary powers which they wielded at their discretion or, worse yet, at the instance of settlers or metropolitan vested interests.
In 1900 a group of Africans from the USA, the Caribbean and the African continent gathered for the first Pan-African conference. The struggle to restore African sovereignty was indeed among the leit motifs of 20th century history.
The birth of a movement
Pan-Africanism was and remains a movement born in struggle; a struggle waged to radically change the condition of Africans on the continent and those in the African diaspora. Its history dates from 1787 when Prince Hall, an African-American clergyman in Massachusetts, campaigned unsuccessfully to return impoverished African freed persons to the continent. The Quaker shipbuilder Paul Cuffe, anticipated Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line by setting sail in one of ships he had built with 40 other black Americans and founding a settlement in Sierra Leone in 1815.
Like other movements of the oppressed and colonised of the time, the Pan-African conference was the brain-child of an educated elite. The founders were drawn from the Caribbean and North America. This Pan-African political leadership, like its counterparts elsewhere in the world, was very conscious of the precarious perch it occupied in a world dominated by the imperial powers of Europe.
The first stirrings of solidarity across the Atlantic came from the US where African-American activists attempted to arouse their own community to the threats to African sovereignty posed by the expansionist policies of the European powers. The first recorded meeting took place in Chicago in 1893, where resolutions were adopted in opposition to France's unwelcome attentions to Ethiopia. Trans-Atlantic African opposition to European colonial adventures received a welcome boost in 1895 when the Ethiopian armies repulsed an Italian expeditionary force intent on invading their homeland, at Adowa.
An African Association was formed in 1897 with Henry Sylvester Williams among its leaders. This London-educated barrister from Trinidad convened the first Pan-African conference in London during 1900.
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line," declaimed the delegates to the first Pan-African conference. "The question as to how far differences of race - which show themselves chiefly in the colour of the skin and the texture of the hair - will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilisation."
During the twentieth century the most consistent inspiration of the Pan-African movement was Dr WEB Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard University. Du Bois chaired the committee that drafted "The Address to the Nations of the World" adopted at the 1900 conference as its declaration. He convened every subsequent Pan-African conference held outside the African continent. Du Bois remained deeply involved in the movement even after he had passed the baton to younger leaders from the mother continent.
Crafted in the cautious language of petitioners, appealing to the presumed sense of justice of their colonial overlords, the "Address" Du Bois produced in 1900 may, with hindsight, strike one as extremely naive. Yet it focused on virtually all the issues that would be at the core of the struggle for African freedom in the twentieth century.
Six years later, addressing an audience at Columbia University, New York, a South African
undergraduate, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, could more optimistically pronounce:
"The regeneration of Africa means that a new and unique civilisation is soon to be added to the world. The African is not a proletarian in the world of science and art. He has precious creations of his own, of ivory, of copper and of gold, fine, plated willow-ware and weapons of superior workmanship. Civilisation resembles an organic being in its development - it is born, it perishes, and it can propagate itself. More particularly, it resembles a plant, it takes root in the teeming earth, and when the seeds fall in other soils new varieties sprout up. The most essential departure of this new civilisation is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic -indeed a regeneration moral and eternal!"
As African voices begin to be heard speaking more assertively, so too the continental dimension of the African freedom movement assumed a higher profile. What is striking about the international movement for African freedom is the central role specific personalities, bodies and initiatives emanating from the African Diaspora occupy within it. The Caribbean is particularly well represented in virtually every phase of the movement, as the names Williams, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore (Macolm Nurse), CLR James, Aime Cesaire, Franz Fanon, and Walter Rodney testify. The Caribbean was notably fecund in breeding the organisers, theorists and tacticians of a movement that helped shape the trans-Atlantic African movement at key moments, helping to give it focus and stimulating novel ideas that kept it relevant to this African community for over a century.
From its birth pan-Africanism in the New World was characterised by an internal tension between those who sought a solution in abandoning the New World and re-settling in Africa, versus those who sought to recast relations between white and African in the New World and win equality for Africans and independence in the territories where they constituted the majority. These two schools co-existed, often extremely uncomfortably, into the second half of the twentieth century, when the arrival of African independence rendered the one less relevant than in the past.
Though the strategies implicit in these two divergent approaches appear mutually exclusive, role players regularly discovered issues that made cooperation possible. The place the communities of the diaspora occupied within the movement, the resources these communities commanded as well as the international profiles its leading figures enjoyed, lent the strategists and tacticians from the diaspora a weight disproportionate to the numbers they commanded.
Reform or revolution?
When the second conference was held in 1919, Williams was no longer in the picture and Dr WEB Du Bois assumed leadership. African leaders on both sides of the Atlantic had deliberately chosen to tone down on agitation during the course of the World War in the hope that a demonstration of loyalty would rebound to the benefit of their cause.
Fifty-seven delegates, representing fifteen countries, attended the conference, which met in Paris to give it easy access to the allied powers. Though concerned with the position of all Africans, the Second Pan-African conference focused especially on the fate of Germany's African colonies. It placed two principal demands before the Versailles peace conference, that: * the Allies administer the former German colonies in Africa as a condominium on behalf of their indigenous peoples;
* Africans be allowed greater participation in the governing of their countries "as fast as their development permits" with a view to self-government.
The language was still that of the loyal subject petitioning his rulers, whom it was assumed would respond to a tone of "reasonableness". But the experiences of African soldiers during the war, including racist attacks by white American and British troops, had a radicalising impact on the political leadership. The victorious allied powers chose to ignore the petitions and pleas of the Pan-African conference as they did those of Chinese, Indian and Arab nationalists who had hoped that the contribution their people had made to the allied victory would at least earn them some token of gratitude.
"The Regeneration of Africa" invoked by Seme in his speech at Columbia has been the lodestar of the Pan-African movement since its inception. The movement was premised on inseparability of the condition of Africans on the mother continent from that of Africans of the diaspora, hence the integral involvement of the diasporic community and its leaders in its conception and in the prosecution of its project. It required the political intervention of the masses, through powerful movements on both sides of the Atlantic during the inter-war years, for a leadership that placed its reliance on the power of mass action to emerge.
Garveyism and its trans-Atlantic impact
The Garveyist movement was probably the first trans-Atlantic mass movement among the Africans of the English-speaking world. Its impact was felt in Garvey's Caribbean home, the US as well as in Anglophone Africa and Britain. Garvey catalysed yet another movement, Rastafarianism, by linking the deliverance of the African world from bondage to the coronation of an African Emperor. When the Ethiopian nobleman Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, in 1930, his name was adopted by a pan-African mystical sect with growing numbers of adherents in every part of the African world.
Garveyism in the British empire found an echo in Negritude in France's Atlantic empire, Afro-Cubanismo in Cuba, Modernismo Afro-Brasileiro in Brazil and the New African Movement among African intellectuals in South Africa. In each of these regions these movements among intellectuals were accompanied by mass protest movements such as the United Negro Improvement Association in the US and the Caribbean, and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in Southern Africa.
It was only in the aftermath of the Second World War that this new mood of assertiveness became evident among the leaders of African opinion in the Atlantic littoral countries. The Atlantic Charter, adopted by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941, seemed to endow the demands that the Pan-African movement had been making for forty years with legitimacy in the eyes of their rulers. When the US-trained Dr AB Xuma, President of the ANC in South Africa, commissioned a response to that document in 1943, he penned a preface which read in part: "As African leaders we are not so foolish as to believe that because we have made these declarations that our government will grant us our claims for the mere asking. We realise that for the African this is only a beginning of a long struggle entailing great sacrifices of time, means and even life itself. To the African people the declaration is a challenge to organise and unite themselves under the mass liberation movement... "
Xuma's preface was prescient. Churchill virtually repudiated the Atlantic Charter once it was clear that the Axis powers had lost the strategic initiative. The principles of the Atlantic Charter, Churchill said, applied only to the whites of Europe, and not to the colonial peoples of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
But the struggle for African rights had taken on a new character as expressed in the Declaration of the 5th Pan African conference that met in Manchester, Britain, in 1945. Though the participants from the mother continent were still a minority, those who were present became names to conjure with during the next two decades: Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana; Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya; Obafemi Awolowo from Nigeria; Hastings Banda from Malawi. The indomitable Du Bois was there, as were George Padmore and Mrs Amy Garvey, the widow of Marcus Garvey.
The accent of the moderate colonial subject was a thing of the past: "We believe in the rights of all peoples to govern themselves. We affirm the right of all colonial peoples to control their own destiny. All colonies must be free from foreign imperialist control, whether political or economic. The peoples of the colonies must have the right to elect their own government, a government without restrictions from a foreign power. We say to the peoples of the colonies that they must strive for these ends by all means at their disposal... Today there is only one road to effective action - the organisation of the masses. Colonial and subject peoples of the world - unite!"
That battle cry was taken up in every part of the colonised world during the next two decades.
What was notable about the 1945 document was that it linked the struggle for African independence and freedom to that of other colonised peoples, thus anticipating the themes of Afro-Asian solidarity, the Non-Aligned Movement and those of the tri-continental movement of our day.
In 1958 the first Pan-African Conference to be held on African soil began its deliberations in Accra, Ghana. The veterans of the Pan-African freedom movement, Du Bois, Padmore and James graced the occasion. But the lead was now visibly being taken by the leaders from the mother continent, culminating in the high tide of independence in Africa and the Caribbean during the 1960s.
The founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, and the establishment of its Liberation Committee in 1965, was an affirmation of the mission adopted in 1945 but it was also a recognition that the tide of liberation had come up against the immovable object of the White colonial redoubt in Southern Africa. Nineteen sixty five was the year that Ian Smith led the racist white Rhodesia Front in its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in the full knowledge that Britain would neither use armed force to suppress them, nor impede white-ruled South Africa from assisting them. The stubborn resistance of the white settler regime in Zimbabwe, the apartheid regime of South Africa and of fascist-ruled Portugal compelled the liberation movements to match the words of the 1945 Declaration - "...that that they (the colonised peoples) must strive for these ends by all means at their disposal" - with deeds.
In June 1967, the combined forces of the Zimbabwe and South African liberation movements commenced joint operations into Zimbabwe, announcing the outbreak of the Southern African liberation wars.
The wars to liberate the Portuguese colonies, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa were inter-linked and intertwined not solely by geography but also by the long-standing links among the freedom fighters of Southern Africa. The founding of the ANC in South Africa had inspired sister movements in all of South-Eastern Africa, as far north as Kenya. Many of the liberation movement's pioneer leaders were accepted as spokespersons for the entire region. Relations established as students at universities, in Europe and America, among pioneers; but increasingly at Fort Hare University College in South Africa; Adams College, Roma College in Lesotho and at Makerere in Uganda for later generations, resulted in a remarkable espirit d'corps that united these leaders around a common vision.
The unfolding of African independence coincides with and helped stimulate the struggle for human rights in North America. The African community in the US had historically made a consistent contribution to the liberation struggle on the mother continent in a number of ways.
Its most high profile leaders and public figures invariably were held up as role models among Africans, especially in the Anglophone countries. Numerous future leaders of the African liberation movements studied in US tertiary institutions, many in historically black colleges, where they came under the influence of Booker T Washington, later of Du Bois, and some under the influence of Marcus Garvey. When Italy attempted its second invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, Paul Robeson, the most famous African-American performer of stage and screen at the time, helped found the Council on African Affairs, which mobilised support within the African-American community and the wider US society for African liberation. The Council was eventually "red-baited" out of existence during the McCarthy era. Robeson, Alpheus Hunton, Du Bois, Louis Burnham, Lena Home and others who rallied to the Council on African Affairs were also leading players in the struggle for freedom within the US itself.
The African diaspora was destined to play a decisive supportive role especially in the southern African theatre of struggle, where the statesmen of Europe and the US outdid themselves in equivocation, while quietly giving tacit support to the remaining colonial and white supremacist regimes on African soil.
When the apartheid regime, having received assurances of support from the US, attempted to export counter-revolution to Angola in 1975, it was the small Caribbean nation of Cuba, with a population smaller than that of New York city, that committed its armed forces, materiel and its international reputation to the defence of the project of African liberation.
Over the following fifteen years Cuban troops destroyed the myth of white South Africa's invincibility; called a halt to its strategy of intervention and military destabilisation of independent Africa, and finally inflicted a decisive strategic defeat on the forces of apartheid at Cuito Cuinavale, thus opening the way to Namibian independence in 1990. Among the pressures that finally compelled the Apartheid regime to the negotiating table, was the defeat suffered at Cuito Cuinavale. An extra-ordinary degree of coordination among the various fronts of a Pan-African effort to deal the final death blow to apartheid occurred during these years. In the Commonwealth, African, Caribbean and Asian states were able to muster the isolation of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government which could barely conceal its support for the apartheid regime. In the US, Trans-Africa, a highly effective lobby group working in close cooperation with the Congressional Black Caucus and African-American community groups, was able to pilot sanctions legislation through Congress in 1987.
The mass struggles that swept through South Africa during that same period converged with these external pressures precipitating an insurmountable crisis in the apartheid regime. By the end of 1988 it was clear that it was just a matter of time before all political prisoners would be released and negotiations to end apartheid commenced in earnest.
African freedom and the challenges of the present
A shared history over the past 500 years dictated that the fates of the African peoples who today live on either side of the Atlantic would be interwoven. Recognition of that reality spurred the most far-sighted political leaders of the African diaspora to assume leadership of a trans-Atlantic movement for African freedom. By demonstrating in practice that the blood that binds these two communities is thicker than the waters of the Atlantic, the Pan-African movement they inspired, after close to a century of struggle, has reconquered the sovereignty of the African continent and put an end to institutionalised racism on both the mother continent and in the New World.
Despite this historic victory, Africa is an extremely troubled continent, plagued by internecine wars, political instability and its people afflicted by degrading poverty. The first free African nation of modern times, Haiti, is the poorest country in the Caribbean, with a troubled history expressed in the 37 coups d'etat that the island has witnessed. The African communities of the Atlantic are not prosperous. In the New World the legacy of slavery, compounded by nearly a century of constitutionalised racial oppression, has kept them at the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Despite the pervasive poverty evident in virtually every part of the continent, Africa still is a net exporter of wealth to Europe and North America.
Having won political freedom through their collective action during the 20th century, the challenge facing the peoples of Africa in the 21st century is how to devise a programme of action to break the chains of poverty and under-development that hold far too many of our people in thrall.
"Globalisation" is the name used to describe the developments in world economy brought about by the rapid developments in telecommunications, international travel and the movement of capital and goods across international frontiers. Though the African continent and the peoples of Africa have been at the core of evolution of the world system since the 15th century, globalisation threatens to marginalise our continent even further and to compound the social and economic situation of Africans of the diaspora. Africa has attempted its own indigenously evolved response to globalisation, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), focusing on the development of infrastructure, the redefinition of trade between Africa and its principal trading partners, the exploration of intra-African trade and the development of new partnerships among African and other developing countries.
There are important developments taking place in Africa, many of them based on our own efforts. The reversal of the attempted coup in Togo in recent weeks is a case in point. It is equally significant that it was action by ECOWAS that achieved this.
We remain engaged with the issues of the Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The struggle to achieve peace and political stability on the mother continent is going to require the same measure or commitment as well as the solidarity that brought us freedom during the 20th century. Yet it is equally true that African capacity is gravely constrained by the limited finances of the continent and the huge developmental challenges facing every African country.
Here in the Caribbean, we have witnessed yet another coup in Haiti, coinciding with the bi-centennial of Haitian independence. The Caribbean Community was unable to thwart the aims of big powers that took a direct hand in effecting "regime change" in Haiti and the interventions of the Black Congressional Caucus in the USA were greeted with utter contempt. Well nigh a century after he spoke these words, Pixley ka Isaka Seme's clarion call for the "Regeneration of Africa" should summon us all to the new battlefronts to defeat the scourge of poverty among the peoples of Africa. As in the struggle for political emancipation, self-determination and freedom it is by coordinating our efforts that we shall maximise our striking force.
Pan-Africanism remains eminently relevant in our day because there is still so much unfinished business among all of us. The future beckons. The best and most lasting monument we can erect to the generations who preceded us is to ensure that Africa does indeed walk tall. In the words of Seme: "Then shalt thou, walking with that morning gleam, Shine as thy sister lands with equal beam."
Z Pallo Jordan is an ANC National Executive Committee member and Minister for Arts and Culture. This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the South Africa-African Union-Caribbean Diaspora Conference, Jamaica, 17 March 2005.