Who is an Africanist?

Mcebo Dlamini, #FeesMustFall activist and former Wits SRC president. Photo by: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Theory and ideology are important in helping us engage the world in both its materiality and spirituality. Without ideology and theory, it would be impossible to interpret the past, anticipate the future and understand the present. It is because of this that we must be careful in how we approach theory. A reckless approach has disastrous results and this is evident in how so-called Pan Africanists have been failing at relating to the essence of the approach both as a theoretical lens and as an ideology. This failure became stark when they ‘critiqued’ professor PLO Lumumba from Kenya after he gave a lecture on Pan Africanism. 

The critique mostly came from those from the black conscious bloc and Africanists bloc. It was quite unclear where their critique was grounded but it seemed to emanate from the professor’s failure to mention Robert Sobukwe in his lecture, others accused him of being an empty pamphleteer who has not the depth of what Pan-Africanism is and what it seeks to do. Some unflinchingly declared that Lumumba is not a Pan-Africanist. These ‘critiques’ are interesting because they give us an opportunity to think (again) about what Pan-Africanism is and what the outlook seeks to do. They allow us to re-engage in the old conversation of who really is an Africanist. 

What I want to posit is that in the first instance is that Pan-Africanism is a living theory that is shaped and continues to be shaped by the ever-changing conditions of the continent. But while at that the theory is also a spirit and is not just grounded by geography, it finds expression beyond the borders of Africa. But this does not mean as Sobukwe once suggested that an African is anyone who pledges their allegiance to Africa. Here the good prof erred, what perhaps is more apt is that an African can only be defined by looking at the lived experience of a particular person. Is that person born of a collective history of a people scorned, dispossessed, exploited, enslaved, and oppressed? Is that person born of the sound of the drum, of master improvisers, of the makers of gold, pyramids and jazz? This criterion might seem open but the truth is that for one to be an African there is an indisputable blackness that has to run through one’s veins. It follows then that an Africanist is one who acknowledges this complex and layered history, one who in their thinking and action seeks to advance the knowledge and the interests of fellow Africans. 

Here although many might find it a bit controversial I want to un-categorically declare that I think white people cannot be African, in both the historical and the ontological sense. But true to their nature it is not surprising that most insist on claiming Africa as theirs. This is something we need not dwell on lest we forget that certain debates are nothing but distractions. I want to mention that although blacks we are African not all of them are Africanist. To be Africanist is to take a certain position, it is to deliberately work and conduct oneself in a way that seeks to achieve an Africa that is radically different from the one we have. It is to work towards an Africa that has its own identity, culture and that is self-aware and dependent. To be an Africanist is to fight against anything that seeks to perpetuate the suffering and oppression of Africa and its people, black people. 

It is easy therefore to see that Pan-Africanism is not a straitjacket that with an exhaustive rubric but it is dependent on one’s interpretation. Of course, bearing in mind the basic principles that I mentioned above. What perhaps I am attempting to gesture towards here is that a pan-Africanist is a way a person’s relationally with the continent notwithstanding the structure that precludes certain people. It is a person’s daily responses and attitude to their circumstances that will enable us to make a judgement. A single lecture from one prof Lumumba is not enough to dismiss him as a pan-Africanist. His ideas must be interrogated fully and of course, the judgment must not be based on how his articulation is palatable to useless academic jargon. What this means is that there are pan-Africanists that exist outside of learning institutions, the ability to sight Nkrumah, Sobukwe etc. although important is not what makes one an Africanist, the demands are much higher. 

Mcebo Freedom Dlamini is the former Wits SRC President and Feesmustfall activist.