Category Archives: Mukoma Wa Ngugi

South Africa: Farewell to Political Activism – Reflections

Posted on allAfrica.Com on August 2, 2007.

Fahamu (Oxford)

1 August 2007

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, reflects on the third international Toward an Africa Without Borders Conference and concludes that political activists ‘must invest time and energy in developing a Pan-Africanism from below’.

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’ are reminders 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 travelled back from Durban, South Africa, where I spent the last two weeks of June and the first week of July as one of the organisers of the third international Toward an Africa Without Borders Conference.

This simple recognition, that we either value Africans or we do not, was fuelled by one more frightening thought. The kind of activism that we, the political activists, have been doing is not enough. It can never be enough. Problems facing the African continent, from slavery through colonialism, neocolonialism, and now the hurricane of globalisation that opens up 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 1970s and 1980s we struggled against neocolonialism; but against our dying and the dead we have globalisation which has swept the idea of social justice under the carpet of 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 indicators of 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, based on our ideological professions, we proscribe solutions that 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 2,000,000 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, started in 2003 a joint foundation with the 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 Centre, wars on terror that, like globalisation, have no boundaries, and an African leadership whose best foot is Mbeki’s embrace of international capital at the expense of the majority of South Africans. We must stop sending one another congratulatory notes after each successful rock concert, international conference, or summit.

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).