The Pan-African Pantheon

Adekeye Adebajo

Sunday Independent, 11 June 2017

Pan-Africanism can be defined as the efforts to promote the political, socio-economic, and cultural unity and self-reliance of Africa and its Diaspora. It is a much under-researched topic. To correct this gap, next weekend (16-18 June), the newly established Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg will host a three-day public conference on “The Pan-African Pantheon” at UJ’s Arts Centre.

The meeting will commemorate the Soweto youth uprising of 16 June 1976 against apartheid education, during which 176 protesting students were killed. The conference also represents a concrete initiative to contribute to efforts to decolonise South Africa’s academic curriculum, and to ensure that the epistemology of the country’s curricula reflect its African context. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach that focuses on history, politics, sociology, economics, philosophy, literature, and music, the seminar also aims to contribute to transforming South Africa’s academic curriculum.

This meeting further represents an effort to create a “Johannesburg School of Pan-Africanism” that can help revive Pan-Africanism as a civil society movement linking actors from Africa and its Diaspora, that can move the concept beyond the sterile initiatives of largely rhetorical state-led efforts. The Pan-African solidarity forged in the crucible of the anti-apartheid struggle with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), TransAfrica, and other civic groups in the United States (US), Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe, has all but disappeared today. Pan-Africanism is thus in need of urgent revival. This is particularly ironic during an era (2009-2016) in which the first black president of the US with African roots – Barack Obama – was the most powerful individual in the world.

Prominent African and Diaspora scholars will present on such broad topics as: reparations; the rise and fall of Pan-Africanism; pioneers of Pan-Africanism; politicians and activists; political scientists; sociologists; historians; economists; philosophers; the literati; and musical activists. The intellectual thinking and contributions of 35 historical and contemporary figures will be assessed during this meeting: Edward Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois, Pixley ka Seme, Marcus Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Dudley Thompson, Robert Sobukwe, Thabo Mbeki, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Ruth First, Randall Robinson, Ali Mazrui, Angela Davis, Arthur Lewis, Samir Amin, Adebayo Adedeji, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Léopold Senghor, Buchi Emecheta, Chimamanda Adichie, Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and Harry Belafonte.

The essays presented at the conference will, however, not just be celebratory but also critical in areas where their subjects may have fallen short of their ideals. It is important to present a balanced picture of these historical and contemporary Pan-African figures, even while celebrating their intellectual contributions and achievements. An edited volume will be produced from the meeting that can be used for courses across Africa and its Diaspora. Within South Africa, the book will also be widely disseminated in order to contribute to broader efforts to educate the general public on Pan-Africanism and to encourage South Africans to engage more with their African identity.

The meeting further seeks to build bridges with institutions in all five African sub-regions, as well as with key Diaspora intellectual communities. It will examine the roots of Pan-Africanism based on the works of pioneering intellectuals such as Blyden, Du Bois, Marcus and Amy Garvey, and Padmore. Blyden greatly influenced Garvey, Nkrumah, and Padmore. His triple formulation in the 1887 classic Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race was adopted in Kenyan academic Ali Mazrui’s 1986 nine-part documentary “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”. From the time of Garvey and Du Bois to more contemporary Pan-Africanists like Adedeji and Mbeki, the idea of Pan-Africanism has been fiercely contested.

One of the early champions of African democracy was the only black Nobel prize winner in economics, St. Lucia’s Fabian intellectual, William Arthur Lewis. He served as the economic adviser to Kwame Nkrumah who was one of the early pioneers of one-party rule on the continent. Already in the 1960s, Lewis had called for multi-party democracy in Africa’s diverse states involving proportional representation; coalition government; and federalist devolution.

The influential idea of an “African Renaissance” was championed by Pixley Seme, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Cheikh Anta Diop. Seme was one of the founding members of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912 and its president-general between 1930 and 1936. Mbeki was thus, in a real sense, an heir of Seme: Mbeki’s African Renaissance vision echoed Seme’s famous April 1906 speech at New York’s Columbia University, The Regeneration of Africa. Nkrumah had memorably quoted this speech in its entirety at the opening of the first international Congress of Africanists in Accra in 1962. Another South African struggle icon, Robert Sobukwe, broke away from the ANC to form the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) by 1959, championing non-racialism in contrast to the ANC’s multi-racialism. Sobukwe’s ideas greatly influenced Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement.

Jamaica’s Dudley Thompson was a Pan-African lawyer, and close associate of Nkrumah, Padmore, and C.L.R. James, who put together the legal defence team that defended Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta from charges of being an instigator of the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in 1952. Thompson was also a founder member of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). He was, with Ali Mazrui, one of the members of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) Eminent Persons Group leading the movement for reparations for slavery to citizens of Africa and its Diaspora.

Finally, the issue of cultural Pan-Africanism will also be addressed. This idea represented the reaction by the black African Diaspora to the indignities that black people had suffered in the West. Writers like Martinique’s Aimé Césaire and Senegal’s Léopold Senghor developed the idea of négritude which glorified black culture. Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka and St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott are Nobel literature laureates whose work will be assessed during the conference, while the musical activism of Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Miriam Makeba, and Harry Bellafonte will also be discussed.