The concept of an African Personality as the basis for an African Revolutionary

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Having joined the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in November 2017, one of the themes we cover in our “Life, Knowledge, Action (LKA) Grounding Programme”, which is compulsory for the first year students, is Pan Africanism and African Citizenry. The aim is to expose the students to the Africanist thought, African history and African diaspora studies. The Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies, which houses the LKA Programme, is based on three pillars which are: African philosophic thought, humanising pedagogy and transdisciplinarity.

Whenever I facilitate the aforementioned theme, I am taken aback by the level of unfamiliarity of most students to African history. This points to a number of issues but in the main is the content of what is taught both at lower and higher levels of education. Through an engagement with the students, it is apparent that most students do not know or have a minimal knowledge of African history, African philosophic thought, and Africanist thought. This begs the question: Does this mirror the South African society or just the need to decolonise our education including content?

In exploring the above-mentioned theme there are many individuals that one can been looked at. But, for this piece, I’ve chosen Kwame Nkrumah.

The intergenerational conversation was epitomised by convergence and discursive divergence of outlooks and thoughts between Seme’s ‘Regeneration of Africa’, Thema’s ‘New African Movement’, Du Bois’ ‘New and Free Africa’, Lembede’s Africa-centred thinking and African nationalism, Nkrumah’s concept of ‘African Personality’, Senghor and Kaunda’s ‘African Humanism’, and Sobukwe’s ‘Africa reborn, Africa rejuvenated, a new Africa’, and one human race thesis – humanity. These thoughts, concepts and theories enrich the evolution of Africanist thought, Pan Africanism and African nationalism, and Africanist scholarship.  

For some Africanist scholars, the concept of Pan Africanism originated in the Americas in the context of the African diaspora’s struggles and quest for full citizenry in their countries. It is in this context that Nkrumah (1973) argued that Pan Africanism has its beginning in the liberation struggle of African Americans, expressing the aspirations of Africans and people of African descent.

From the first Pan African Conference, held in London in 1900, until the fifth Pan African Conference held in Manchester in 1945, African diaspora provided the main driving power of the movement. Pan African Congress then moved to Africa, with the holding of the first Conference of Independent African States in Accra in April 1958, and the all-African People’s Conference in December of the same year.

These are significant epoch making of the ideology and concept of Pan Africanism. However, the works and writings of individuals such as Tiyo Soga and Walter Rubusana, David Walker amongst others, as from 1829 more so in 1865 to the turn of the twenty century, and Lembede in the 1940s, and Sobukwe between 1949 and 1959, which can be viewed as the foundation of modern concept of Pan Africanism (and African nationalism) and their signature on the footprints of the evolution of the notion of Pan Africanism, cannot be ignored or left out of the marathon of the historical progression of the ideology and the scholarship.

The 27th April 1972, marked the death of Kwame Nkrumah at the age of sixty two. The meaning of Nkrumah on the African continent and in the diaspora is multi fold. The existing literature on Nkrumah covers both his strengths and weaknesses. I am not intending to enter into that discussion but rather to celebrate the life lived by an African icon and his intellectual tradition and vision for the African continent and Africanist scholarship. In his speech at the Congress of Africanists scholars held on the 12th December 1962 in Ghana he stated: “It is incumbent upon all Africanist scholars, all over the world, to work for a complete emancipation of the mind from all forms of domination, control and enslavement” (Nkrumah, 1973: 212).

According to Nkrumah, “An important aspect of Pan Africanism is the revival and development of the African Personality’, temporarily submerged during the colonial period. It finds expression in a re-awaking consciousness among Africans and people of African descent of the bonds which unite us- our historical past, our culture, our common experience, and our aspirations” (Nkrumah, 1973: 205). Nkrumah through his philosophy of ‘African Personality’ and conceptualisation of African revolutionary path and Pan Africanism, which were the main purpose of the total emancipation of the continent of Africa and its people, an All-African Union Government/ United State of Africa and (scientific) socialism. There are parallels between Nkrumah’s basic principles of Pan Africanism and the views of the Africanists in the African National Congress Youth League and later in the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania.

On the 24th February 1966, a joint military and police coup overthrew Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP) from power. He then went to exile in Guinea under President Sekou Toure. In the South African context, the 27th April represents the ‘freedom day’. As the previously oppressed majority exercised their democratic right to vote for the first time on the 27th April 1994. These first democratic national elections paved the way for the first black president, Nelson Mandela.

The first 25 years of ‘freedom’ can be summed up into the politics of transition and consolidation of power, and dialectics of the two. Mandela’s presidency can be presented through the lenses of transitional government/government of national unity, Mandela euphoria, Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), national reconciliation project and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC). National reconciliation was not accomplished under Mandela and even under Jacob Zuma, who used Mandela legacy to legitimise himself. There can be no national reconciliation without the social and economic justice, and the unfinished business of the past.

The Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma presidencies were of consolidation of power. Mbeki’ two terms (1st term, 1999- 2003) in the highest office on land was epitomised by a transition from the notion of rainbow nation to an African-ness. Through ‘I am an African’ speech and other African centred political and economic posture, Mbeki defined himself away from the Mandela brand, Mandela the legend. Of course, his stance on AIDS/HIV and the neoliberal economic policies that grew the economy but could not create enough jobs also characterised this period.

His second term (2003-2007) in the main was highlighted by economic growth, African Renaissance, NEPAD, promotion of free trade amongst African countries. He gained popularity at an international level while in the country, especially within the ANC and its alliance, he was losing ground. Further, with no major shift at the national sphere. 

Jacob Zuma’s two terms (2007-2018) mirrored politically indebted-ness, corruption, power of arrogance, state capture, police brutality, Marikana massacre, dwindling support of the ANC. All these episodes went parallel to each other throughout his two terms.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa adopted in 1996, which is globally regarded as one of the best; is a liberal document. The crafting of the Constitution, I submit, has African philosophical and contextual deficit. It is neither underpinned by African philosophical thought nor ‘African Personality’ or ‘African Humanism’. Rather, based on the western concepts of the 19th and early 20th centuries of liberty, rights and justice.

It is not based on African philosophy (including Ubuntu) and thinking. For instance, it is in this context that Kumkani Dalindyebo’s case can better be understood. The South African judiciary is based on Roman and Dutch law at the expense of African/indigenous law. This Eurocentric underpinning and framing permeates throughout all the post-1994 pieces of legislations in South Africa.

The Constitution is framed and moved from the worldview of the ‘Freedom Charter’ adopted by the ANC in 1955 as a peoples’ document. The content and the authorship of the latter, was questioned by the Africans within the ANC but that was in vain. Instead a different narrative of its authorship, contrary to the peddled dominant account, has emerged in Rusty Bernstein (2017) – “Memory Against Forgetting”.

The white fears and black expectations complex also find expression in the Constitution. The Constitution (and its authors) were fearful of unsettling the white privileges (property rights, the land question), white monopoly capital, and the neoliberal policy trajectory. Against black peoples’ expectations of better quality life, dignity, respect, land ownership, and humanisation of the previously de-humanised indigenous people.

Nkrumah like many of his peers such as Padmore, Du Bois, Senghor, Azikiwe, Kenyatta, amongst others, left a rich revolutionary heritage of historical epochs and Africanist scholarship that continue to inspire the present generation.

There is still a lot that needs to be done not just in economic and socio-cultural spheres, but decolonisation of the mind too. The black man’s quest of the past is as relevant today as was in the past. My wish for the next decades is for South Africa to conceptually and philosophically think and act like Africans in Africa. Not impersonate – legislative underpinning and framing of the West – but promote ‘African Personality’ and ‘African Humanism’.

Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist, the former Rockefeller Scholarship holder at Emory University (US) and the former Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (US). He is the Director and Head of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He is writing in his personal capacity.