What is Africa?

“The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.”– Steve Biko.

Not too long ago, the late Dr. John Garang was asked once, regarding the name of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army/Movement, “liberation from whom?” His reply came back simple and penetrating. It started with “Not liberation from whom; It is liberation from what.”

So, I ask today not the question with the obvious answer, but what is Africa? It is not a question for mere intellectual entertainment. Many important concepts we deal with today are contingent on it, such as Pan-Africanism and Black Power. A Pan-Africanist needs a definition of that ‘Africa’ he/she is ‘panning’ (‘pan’ being a combining phrase meaning “all,” so Pan-African means ‘all-African’). Likewise, since Black Power, or Black Consciousness, is connected to Pan-Africanism, the question ‘what is Africa?’ becomes inevitable, despite the observation that it has not been sufficiently addressed this directly before.

Is the answer to this question geographically defined? But what of the Africans spread all over the world and still tied to their homeland, not always physically but mostly culturally and emotionally (not mentioning those who live in the continent physically but do not belong to it culturally or emotionally)? Is the answer demographically defined? But what about those of African descent who had have their share of the African history and whose present in the diasporas tied still and interrelated with that history? Even more, is it fair to Africa, the continent, to tie it only to the negroid races? Leaving aside that this recent classification is not consistent with the demographic history of the continent at any point in time, a recent genetic study concluded that the continent, as it is today, is the most genetically diverse of all continents. Moreover, the genetic make-up of the rest of the world is but a segment of that which exists within the African continent (See the National Geographic magazine, issue of March 2006). Even the recent history, the colonial and post-colonial, tells a story of continuous re-shaping of the demographic map, influenced by many factors involving indigenous peoples of the land, natives and migrants.

Different and massive ethnic groups surveyed the continent over long periods of time, for different reasons, and with many subsequent generations now became part of the continent’s large ecological and social dialectics. Likewise, different natives of the continent surveyed Europe, South America, the Caribbean region, North America and other regions for different reasons, and with many subsequent generations now became essential components of the social fabrics of those continents/regions. There are still somehow psychological, historical and socioeconomic ties that are widely shared among all these groups, inside and outside the continent. These ties, put together, can help us find our answer to ‘what is Africa?’
The Mahatma Gandhi, way before he became a mahatma, was a lawyer in South Africa. It is there where he had a first hand encounter with colonial oppression and white supremacy’s repulsive face, and it is there that he developed the Satyagraha philosophy and tools of resistance, later to reach the giant potential it manifested in the de-colonization struggle of the Indian people. That legacy of Gandhi in Africa remained with the remaining Indian population in the continent (now native groups, no longer settlers). Mahmoud Mamdani, for example, an African intellectual of Indian origins; despite being deported from the country of his birth (Uganda, by the Idi Amin regime), continued to contribute to African politics and other African issues from his initially-forced ‘exile’ in the northern hemisphere.

On further expressions, Frantz Fanon, the black psychiatrist from the Caribbean island of Martinique, came to the French colony of Algeria in the late 1950s, where he made a clean break from the colonial government that brought him to the colony and joined the ranks of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), fighting side-by-side with his new comrades (most of whom were of Amazigh and Arabic ethnicities) and theorizing from that position for the global de-colonization movement and, simultaneously, for black movements. His book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ was equally celebrated by revolutionary Africans, South Americans and West Indians, and extended to African-Americans as well as Palestinians and Tamils in Asia. On similar traces, Dr. Walter Rodney, the black Caribbean historian who wrote the seminal book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ while he was a professor at the University of Dar es-Salaam (Tanzania) in the early 1970s. Also the leader of the Working People’s Alliance in his native Guyana, Rodney was a prominent Pan-Africanist. He was an articulate theorizer of Black Power, and he made it very clear that the concept does not refer to a state of a pigmentation (skin colour) attached to the negroid races. Black Power instead, in this perspective, is a state of subjugation by a white (i.e. Eurocentric) imperial system. This system extends its octopus hands to many nations and ethnic groups, which makes them all ‘black’ by that precise reality. ‘Black Power’ here is the antithesis to ‘White Supremacy’ or ‘Eurocentricity’; a stance against the oppressive paradigm characterized by unfairly favouring European models and ethnic backgrounds. In order for Black Power to be a true antithesis to this racist paradigm, it ought to refuse the criteria upon which the paradigm classifies people, first of which pigmentation or race. Therefore a black person, to Rodney, is not necessarily a person of a negroid race, dark pigmentation or even African descent, but a person who belongs to one of the oppressed groups by the racist paradigm anywhere in the world. Black Power, therefore, is a stance of self-empowerment against oppression taken by the revolutionaries among these oppressed groups, no matter which ethnicity they belong to. Hence Rodney openly spoke of the Indians of the Caribbean as ‘fellow blacks’; many Asians in their struggle against imperialism were fellow blacks to him as well (See Rodney’s 1969 “The Groundings with my Brothers,” Chapter 2 on Black Power). From North America, Stokely Carmichael, the African-American who later renamed himself Kwamé Touré – honouring the two African leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sékou Touré – played significant roles in his life in African-American liberation movements and the Pan-African movement.

From the natives of the continent we can speak of Steve Biko, the founding father of Black Consciousness – synonymous to Black Power – in South Africa. Biko had similar views to those of Walter Rodney, with some contextual characteristics related to the South African struggle against Apartheid. He openly called all ‘coloured’ people (as classified by the Apartheid regime) black, just like the native Africans. Those ‘coloured’ people included many Asian migrants like the Indian settlers who fought with Gandhi as mentioned earlier. To Biko, “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation. Being black is an attitude of mind.” A black person can be any non-white person, but not automatically. A black person is a non-white who acknowledges the racist reality of the system and chooses to defy and fight it in his/her capacity, not yield to it. Biko theorised that when we are subjugated as groups we have to respond as groups, and if the system oppresses us through our ethnicities, we shall organize ourselves on that same ethnic basis to fight our common enemy. That would not make us counter-racists because we did not choose the rules of the game; we are simply responding with limited practical choices. Therefore a black person would see him/herself most and for all a human being among other human beings, refusing to be racist like the system he/she fights, but he/she would also acknowledge the strategic criteria of organization in the struggle at hand; i.e. in our current historical context (See Biko’s 1978 “I Write What I Like,” a collection from his written legacy).

So, after briefly reviewing this ray of related questions, concepts and personalities, what is Africa? Would not the answer to this question need be inclusive of all the issues above? Would it make a fair sense otherwise? That is for us all to reflect upon and share; and I shall start by sharing, in the rest of this article, some results of my own reflections.

Africa is a cause. It is one that emanates from the greater cause of human development and emancipation. The continent of Africa, in our recent human history, has been one where collective forms of violations against humanity manifested more than anywhere else in the world, and these violations extended their effects to the rest of the world. This cause is widely human and global because it cannot be otherwise. We cannot address it without addressing the global human predicament of which the African problem is a blunt outcome, and we cannot attempt to find salvation for Africans in isolation of salvation for the rest of the ‘wretched of the earth’. The African cause is not a racial cause; neither is it a geographical one. Capitalism and racism – the two destructive forces causing the current human predicament – know no geographic or ‘other’ ethnic boundaries to stand in their way. Thus, they must be confronted at the moral and the institutional levels from which they originate, both of which are not confined to the African continent or its inhabitants. A racist paradigm wouldn’t be defeated by a counter-racist paradigm, and the geographic definition is just obsolete in our world today. Therefore Africa, the cause, exists wherever Africans exist, and Africans are those who identify with the African cause.

It is not an exaggeration – and evidence is abundant – that there is nowhere else on earth today where the ugliest and scariest manifestations of the human moral failure towards genuine solidarity can be found. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in modern history, no other continent or region than Africa has seen the scale of slavery, brutal oppression, forced migration and continuous exploitation of natural and human resources for the pleasure of ‘others’. Once we understand this, we can no longer afford to neglect Africa, the cause, as less of a priority; not if we genuinely care for human development and emancipation. Being a Pan-Africanist, therefore, is a matter of priority, not exclusiveness. As Ahmed Sekou Toure said, “The imperialists utilize cultural, scientific, technical, economic, literary and moral values to justify and maintain their regimes of exploitation and oppression. Oppressed people, on the other hand, utilize cultural values of a nature contrary to that of the imperialists, with the aims of better combating imperialism and escaping the colonial regime”. Pan-Africanism, then, is a strategic position determined by our limited practical choices in the current historical context (much like what Steve Biko said about Black Consciousness in South Africa). It would not do Africa justice to say that its problems are similar in scale to the problems of the rest of the third world. However, it would be totally naive to say that the two are not inherently connected. If the African problem is resolved at this level of understanding, it is my claim that the global human predicament shall be resolved as well.

Pan-Africanism is thus a conscious stream which represents the collective utilization of knowledge and skills, practical and theoretical of all related fields, to serve the African cause in all possible capacities. In the practical sense, the African cause cares for questions, such as how is it that a continent so rich in resources that it has been exporting to the rest of the world for the last four centuries – and especially to Europe and North America, contributing essentially to their ‘industrial revolution’ – be so chronically poor and degraded in the basic demands of development? How is it that, with the net flow of wealth leaving the African continent to the rich countries on the Northern hemisphere every year, the former is still severely indebted to the latter? How is it that most of the so-called ‘aid money’ given to the continent by the rich countries ends up as payments for ‘development experts’, citizens of those same rich countries, and as more debt burden on the poor citizens of the continent? Why is it that, among the citizens of African states, those who are most corrupt and brutal get to stay in power the longest, while using that same ‘generous aid money’ to flourish the business of weapon-production in rich countries? And in terms of arts, philosophy and culture, why is it that the continent which dynamically contributed so much to the rest of world, from early history to this day, through trade, massive migrations and the diasporas of the slavery era, now portrayed in the contemporary global media as the most ignorant, primitive and static of all continents? Elements of self-criticism should be embedded in all these questions.

As we can see, these questions apply equally, but on different levels, to the rest of the ‘third-world’, especially the Caribbean region whose history is clearly tied to the history of the African continent for more than four centuries now (The history of the recently devastated Haiti is one example). This same tie is apparent in ‘pockets’ of ethnic groups within the European, South American and North American continents. On the bigger picture, however, all the questions above apply to the situations of all the ‘wretched of the earth’, but the African cause makes it clear that Africa gets the priority, here and now, not because it is more important than the rest of the suffering, but because it is the one suffering the most! However, as said earlier, priority should never mean exclusiveness.
It is clear to me that this human predicament is a moral predicament in its core. It is about the level where humanity practices what it preaches. At which point would we consider critically questioning our spoiled, consumptive lifestyles in some parts of the world when they are clearly surviving due to continuous suffering for many fellow humans at the other parts of the world (and even inside those same generally spoiled parts)? When will we truly realize what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”? It is also an institutional predicament. When we seek to solve the problem by reinforcing the same philosophical and structural tools that created it in the first place, something must be wrong with our approach! (Capitalism and individualistic pursuit of wealth; the global financial system and credit regulations; The IMF, World Bank and WTO; heavily centralized systems of governance; top-down policy; etc). These institutions seldom failed in their lifetimes to maintain few extremely rich individuals, and their small circles on the top of the wealth pyramid, the most unproductive in society (production here being economic production; that of commodities and services), while keeping the large and diverse productive groups in society indebted to those few. A paradigm shift is needed, on the moral level and the institutional level, to emancipate ourselves from the oppressive structures of today which have no objective reason to exist. As the African authentic theologian and sociopolitical leader, Mahmoud M. Taha, once said, “On earth there is enough to satisfy all humans’ needs, but not enough to satisfy the greed.”

And last but not least, it is precisely because Africa, and its extended influence beyond the continent, expresses the ugliest and scariest outcome of the current human predicament that it has the potential of leading the revolution for change.

Gussai H. Sheikheldin
February 2010
(Published in Sudan Tribune Newspaper, March 1st, 2010)

Leave a Comment