This article forms the first part of a short series of happenings designed to create debate and discussion about how #BlackLivesMatter and associated movements can support struggles on the African continent as well as African diasporan activists around the world – and vice versa. Stay tuned for a Twitter conversation and a final podcast – we’ll be using the hashtag #PanAfricanismMatters
“I, for one, would like to impress, especially upon those who call themselves leaders, the importance of realising the direct connection between the struggle of the Afro-American in this country and the struggle of our people all over the world.”
“As long as we think that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.”
Abdias do Nascimento, Brazilian black rights activist speaking in Colombia, 1977
The recent wave of demonstrations across the United State of America, particularly as articulated by the social movement #BlackLivesMatter, has made use of the US-centred global media network to broadcast a clear message that ballot boxes, democracy and civil rights have failed as a panacea to colonial violence.
Historically, the imagination of the African-American experience has occupied much of the focus of the political philosophy of Pan-Africanism – and guided its trajectory. Mother “Africa”, irrevocably affected by the horror of the slave trade and European colonialism, has indeed given birth to large diasporic communities across the globe, with high concentrations in North, Central and South America.
The Americas, divided into colonies themselves, embarked on an eternal battle for coexistence between the natives, the descendants of Africa, European colonisers and waves upon waves of latter-day immigrants from Siberia to Syria.
Over the 19th century in particular, the world witnessed one of the largest post-colonies, the United States of America, dominate the macro-political landscape through its military strength, intelligence agencies and through the power of money. The ever-expanding reach of capitalism, often enacted through US-headquartered multinational corporations, could be thought of as latest expression of colonial violence.
In 1961, revolutionary Franz Fanon reflected on the rise of the US in his iconic publication The Wretched of the Earth:
“Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.”
The violence enacted by the US, specifically on the very existence of the African diaspora, has since its inception been challenged by grassroots movements and heroes like Harriet Tubman, who was said to have freed a thousand slaves; Pan-African revolutionaries such as Malcolm X (otherwise known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz); the civil rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr; the Black Panther Party for Self Defense; and today the #BlackLivesMatter social movement.
These movements and acts of resistance did not happen in a vacuum. Quite the opposite. From the abolition of slavery to the decolonisation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to the ending of the war on Vietnam, broader geo-political climates have shaped the narratives of localised struggles. Within the overarching story of Western colonialism, and how it exploited human and natural resources alike, there were a plethora of smaller stories. Beyond the famous civil rights battlefields, there were opportunities, leverage points and great efforts against the odds in towns, cities and states far away from where much of humankind’s documented history places emphasis.
In this way, we must look to understand the siting of the present day #BlackLivesMatter movement within broader political environments to understand and prepare for more locally nuanced ways of providing solidarity across contexts. This is particularly important from the position of the African continent, which continues to share an important, albeit problematic at times, relationship with both the US as a state and the African Americans specifically as a people.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement was created by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi as a call to action following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The movement’s political raison d’être is to act as a direct response to anti-Black racism perpetuated in US society (Garza, 2014). Furthermore Garza contends that this movement aims to look beyond narrow [Black] nationalism from the previous generations in a bid to re-centre women, queer, transgendered and disabled black people as a means through which an intersectional Black Liberation movement can be rebuilt.
To date, the movement has grown through its branches across the US, in universities and in broader civil society spaces, largely emphasising the extra-judicial killings of African Americans, and wider acts of brutality, by state police.
The movement has enjoyed international support through social media, as it appears that these modern tools of communication have reshaped the possibilities for disseminating facts and calls to action, from regarding demonstrations to the wider campaign. It has also provided a means of drawing attention to some of the hate and disinformation spread against the movement. This is particularly evident through platforms like Twitter.
Unfortunately, from the position of the African continent, there seems little to indicate that the swell of public support for #BlackLivesMatter has reached far beyond US borders. There was hope that the successes of the campaign might generate the political will for US actors to offer tangible solidarity to African struggles and movements.
Online African activists have regularly supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement, yet the latter has often seemed relatively silent on continental issues in Africa. Where campaigners in Africa hoped for equivalent support on major issues, for example the horrific human rights crisis afflicting countless African refugees en route to Europe, this was felt to be lacking. This speaks to the growing alienation between the political trajectories of Black peoples in different contexts, begging the questions:
What would it look like for #AllBlackLives to ‘Matter’?
These concerns, as they are presented, are by no means a damning indictment on future potential for solidarity but are offered here as a clarion call for political will from all groups of peoples identifying with “Africa” as we march along towards collective freedom.
We needn’t look further than the history of the liberation of Haiti from the French Empire, during what has been described as the only successful Black slave revolution, as captured by the iconic narration of CLR James’ book, The Black Jacobins. At the time of the revolution it was said that over two thirds of the Afro-descendent peoples on the island had themselves been born in Africa, a factor that surely played a formative role in the conceptualisation of liberation and independence in one of the world’s harshest and most violent colonies.
Looking back slightly later at the history of the early Pan-African conferences as first conducted in 1900 from London, note that it wasn’t until the fifth sitting where the world witnessed, for the first time, a serious political collaboration forming between African diasporans and continental Africans. This meeting in particular is considered a significant catalyst in the building of momentum towards the decolonisation movements that grew in the wake of the Second World War.
Independence came, but we are long overdue in taking seriously the dreams of liberation that many of our flags were said to represent. Historic partnerships between Africans and African diaspora were forged through resistance to colonialism in particular, but we are still left with the burning question of the future of these relationships in light of present oppressive realities and contemporary structural challenges.
Looking towards the present tensions in South Africa, we see the continued calling into question of the “miraculous” so-called “non-violent” transition from the apartheid government to the African National Congress in the much celebrated 1994 election. With the rise of student activism within the universities (Zuma, 2015) and the formation of the #RhodesMustFall movement (Kamanzi, 2015), which carries a decolonial mandate, there seems little doubt that South Africa’s youth are set to contest mainstream understandings of the state of society and by consequence its trajectory going forward.
Now 21 years into democracy, heated political debate surrounding land ownership, affirmative action policies and economic redistribution fuel the increasingly tense racial climate in ways that demand comparison to South Africa’s post-colonial cousin, the United States of America. Both demonstrate the different ways in which two settler colonial states have attempted to resolve deeply rooted inequality, largely through constitutionalism and legislation, in ways that produce results that the youth – very clearly – are unsatisfied with.
Meanwhile, in places such as Nigeria and Kenya, groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab have increased their capacity to contest state power, contributing to political turmoil. The US military has been extensively involved in “assisting” in these conflicts through capacity building and, where necessary, direct military interventions through state instruments such as AFRICOM (Turse, 2013), which commissioned 79 projects in 33 countries, largely across Sub-Saharan Africa.
While the US Army has a heavy bootprint in Africa, the nation’s moneymen are also embedded in the continent. Extensive economic trade continues between sub-Saharan African countries and the US through the likes of Trade Africa (USAID, 2015), which cites export revenues in excess of $2 billion in 2014 alone, just from the East African community. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, meanwhile, is a US-backed partnership involved in the industrialisation of agriculture in Africa, as well as being indirectly implicated in landgrabs.
These interactions clearly demonstrate, for better or for worse, the tied political destiny of the Sub-Sahara and the US. These practical links could be used as vital leverage points in providing meaningful solidarity between African Americans and continental Africa.
Beyond romantic appeals to historic connections and aesthetic familiarities, the social, political and economic revolution required to bring equal treatment to the African diaspora in the US would logically imply the need for attitude shifts towards its African foreign policy and could potentially go a long way towards providing political parity between African states and the ever present Western actors that refuses to relinquish their foothold on the continent.
In thinking through the potential “role” of Africa in #BlackLivesMatter, we must continue to push ourselves to think beyond even this narrow framing of the problem. In the spirit of Pan-African politics comes a much wider call for interrogation, support and relationship-building across diasporic communities from Europe, via the Caribbean through to the ends of South America. How do we begin to reconceptualise international coalitions and platforms for engagement that bring together similar struggles that remain ostensibly separated?
Notably in Brazil, the largest population of African decedents, the violent effects of the transatlantic slave trade live on through devastating housing crises, rising homicide rates and racialised expressions of police violence that parallel the US.
The question evolves: How do we conceptualise a 21st century Pan-Africanism to break into develop a world and broad social, political and economic movement where indeed #AllBlackLives do matter?
As we begin to take seriously the role of “Africa” in the realisation of the liberation of African descendants, wherever they may be, we must prepare ourselves to take seriously the lessons of the past. In particular the male-dominated nationalist movements of the previous generation continue to be replaced gradually by a revolutionary consciousness that takes seriously the damage done by thepatriarchal dimensions of the colonialist superstructure.
The ability of Black social and political movements to take on intersectional approaches towards their struggles will surely define whether we look back on the 21st century as a turning point towards freedom or whether it will be regarded as the opportunity that went missed.
Quote from Davis, Darien A. Slavery and Beyond: The African Impact on Latin America and the Caribbean, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (1 Dec 1994)
Garza, A. (2014, October 7). A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza. Retrieved from http://www.thefeministwire.com/: http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/
Global Justice Now (2015, December 14) Retrieved from Global Justice Now: http://www.globaljustice.org.uk/new-alliance-food-security-and-nutrition
Kamanzi, B. (2015, March 29). Post-Colonialist. Retrieved from The Post Colonialist: http://postcolonialist.com/civil-discourse/rhodes-must-fall-decolonisation-symbolism-happening-uct-south-africa/
Turse, N. (2013, September 6). Mother Jones. Retrieved from Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/09/us-military-bases-africa?page=2
USAID. (2015, September 9). USAID/Trade Africa. Retrieved from USAID: https://www.usaid.gov/tradeafrica
Zuma, B. (2015, September 12). IOL News. Retrieved from IOL News: http://www.iol.co.za/news/what-campus-clashes-really-tell-us-1.1915079#.Vfwupd-qpBc