MORE than a century after its formation, the Pan African movement was finally hosted here in South Africa last week.
This was the eighth Pan African congress since its formation in 1900 in London, and the third on African soil.
Formed at the instigation of a Trinidad lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams, Pan Africanism is an international movement of the peoples of African descent spread throughout the world.
America’s foremost sociologist and a pioneer of Pan Africanism, WEB du Bois, explained the raison de’tre of Pan Africanism at its inaugural meeting: “…The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour-line, 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”.
The Pan African movement was thus formed to mobilise all peoples of African descent against the scourge of racism throughout the world and secure them equal treatment.
For close to 50 years of its early existence, however, it was largely preoccupied with the plight of the African diaspora. This was a reflection of the dominance of the diaspora.
Du Bois singularly dominated the movement until the 1950s, organising all of its first five congresses.
Du Bois’ Pan Africanist conception, however, was not unchallenged.
Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, burst into American public life in 1915 to challenge Du Bois. Their rivalry cemented the two contrasting ideologies that defined the movement from the early 1800s.
Du Bois was an assimilationist and Garvey an exclusivist. Where Du Bois believed that African-Americans could assimilate into mainstream American society, Garvey countered that different races were irreconcilable. Inter-racial habitation, according to Garvey, made racial conflict inevitable.
To the sociologist Du Bois, however, race didn’t determine one’s culture. Racial mixing led to acculturation. So Du Bois insisted on full rights of citizenship in America, whilst Garvey agitated for the return to the motherland. “Africa for Africans”, would become his slogan.
The rivalry, though lasting for roughly 10 years, simply reaffirmed the diasporic focus of the Pan African movement in the first half of the 20th century.
It was only after African nationalism spread and intensified that the Pan African congress would pay equal attention to the plight of continental Africans.
The 1945 congress especially, in the aftermath of World War II, was inspired by the promise of self-determination. It was convened to agitate for the realisation of that promise.
And, once decolonisation began in the 1950s, so the location of the congress moved to the continent. Kwame Nkrumah, the founding president of the first independent African state, Ghana, would host the first congress on the continent in 1958. The purpose was to devise ways to accelerate the liberation of other African countries and explore forging unity amongst them as they became free.
Subsequent congresses in Tanzania and Uganda, in 1973 and 1994 respectively, would ensure that continental Africa remained central to the movement’s agenda.
What did South Africa do to deserve this splendid honour, you may ask? Presidential remarks about Malawi make this question even more appropriate.
Kwesi Prah, a highly accomplished Ghanaian-born linguist, has something to do with it. A respected Pan Africanist, Prah has been the driving force behind the eighth Pan African congress, bringing together scholars and activists from different regions of the diaspora to the southernmost tip of Africa.
Prah’s commendable efforts aside, it is befitting that South Africa hosted the eighth congress of Pan Africanism.
Official uppityness towards Malawi belies a long and strong tradition of Pan Africanism in our public consciousness.
Although the movement was formed in the diaspora, the idea itself – awareness of, and identification with, peoples of African descent – evolved locally.
Its origin dates back to the 1860s, and was articulated by Tiyo Soga.
The first ordained and overseas-educated African priest, Soga was responding to racial prejudice by a fellow missionary, John Aitken Chalmers, who had lashed out, saying Africans were doomed to become extinct. All this would happen, according to Chalmers, because Africans wouldn’t respond to his pleas to convert to Christianity. Writing in the King William’s Town Gazette’s edition of May11, 1865, Soga dismissed the assertion that only a Eurocentric demeanour would guarantee natives perpetuity.
He pointed out the obvious historical fact that the African race had lived long before its initial encounter with the missionary enterprise, during which it had experienced many a challenge, and yet continued to live: “I find the Negro from the days of the old Assyrians downwards, keeping his individuality and distinctiveness amid the wreck of empires, and the revolution of ages … I find him opposed by nation after nation … I find him enslaved – exposed to all the vices and the brandy of the white man. I find him in this condition for many a day – in the West Indian Islands, in northern and southern America, and in the South American colonies of Spain and Portugal. I find him exposed to all these disasters, and yet living – multiplying ‘and never extinct’.”
Soga’s contention heralded the onset of Pan African consciousness that would remain part of South Africa’s imagination.
Various intellectuals would subsequently take up the subject at different moments of our history. In the 1890s, for instance, anthropologist Hlonipha Mokoena tells us in her impeccable book, Magema Fuze: The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual, that Magema Fuze enchanted his newspaper readers with numerous articles informing them about the common descent of continental and diasporic Africans. The young Langalibalele Dube emerged in the 1890s as a staunch Pan Africanist. An American trained priest, Dube was quite distrustful of missionaries. “There is a saying in my country,” Dube told his American audience, “that the last honest white man is dead”.
Dube pleaded with African-Americans to return to Africa: “If the Zulus could see their own sons and daughters actually making and doing the great things that they now think only the white man can do and that have made him appear to them as a superior being, they would respect the religion which could so exalt them…”
From individual articulation, Pan Africanism found an institutional advocate in the independent African churches in the 1890s. South Africa’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church forged links with its American counter-part. The relationship saw a number of blacks going to study in the US, a decision also forced on them by denial of higher education in South Africa.
They would return as disciples of Pan Africanism, and some even shouted: “Africa for Africans”.
Racism continues to be a problem in the world. The monstrosity persists not only in Europe and the US, but is present even in India, our partner in Brics. The Siddis, who are of African descent, told the eighth PAC of horrible stories of racism at the hands of fellow citizens and the Indian government on account of their blackness. Brazil is an impressive example that racism can be overcome in the diaspora. Africans, wherever they are, continue to be united by their common experience of racism today, just as they were at the start of the 20th century. Aluta continua!
Mcebisi Ndletyana is the head of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection