I normally would not pay much attention to what Kanye West and his exhibitionist wife Kim Kardashian – whose obsession with her own body has reversed the gains of the women’s movement by several decades and whose ridiculous reality TV show has contributed significantly to dumbing down its viewers – but the American rapper’s ill-informed statement on slavery cannot go unchallenged.
During an interview recently, West is quoted saying: “You hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” When he was criticised for making this comment, West (whose own ancestors were African slaves) responded by saying that what he really meant was that “for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means we were mentally enslaved”.
West’s observation may apply to former settler colonies in Africa, like Kenya, but cannot apply in the Americas, where slavery was not a mental condition but one that was physically and violently enforced. However, West could have been alluding to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o (though I doubt it as the rapper does not appear to be much of a reader) who said that the liberation of African countries will not be complete until their people “decolonise their minds” – that is, when they stop aping their former colonisers and start respecting their own culture, languages and traditions.
Unfortunately, this has yet to happen in Ngugi’s birthplace, where all things British are still viewed as superior. A case in point is the Kenyan-owned Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club (probably named after Windsor Castle) in Nairobi that was charging one million shillings (about $10,000) per couple for watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding on the hotel’s television set. This staggering price, which is within the reach of only a handful of people in the country, included a luxurious night at the hotel and a helicopter ride to Mount Kenya for breakfast the next day. (According to news reports, the event was fully booked on the day of the wedding.) Even though the wedding had a distinctly African-American flavour, complete with a Martin Luther-like pastor delivering the sermon and Oprah Winfrey in attendance, it was not lost on many that this was a distinctly British affair paid by British taxpayers. And notwithstanding the bride’s black ancestry, this marriage is not likely to improve race relations in Britain or America.
West’s observation may apply to former settler colonies in Africa, like Kenya, but cannot apply in the Americas, where slavery was not a mental condition but one that was physically and violently enforced. However, West could have been alluding to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o who said that the liberation of African countries will not be complete until their people decolonise their minds.
Kenya’s mental colonisation also manifests itself in its foreign policy. While much of the world shunned the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem last week, Kenya’s ambassador to Israel made it a point to attend the ceremony, along with a dozen or so other countries, most of which were failed or fragile African, Latin American and Eastern European states. (Meanwhile, Britain, which had a hand in creating the state of Israel, was noticeably absent.)
However, this former British colony’s display of self-loathing and self-colonisation nearly fifty-five years after independence is not comparable to the physical bondage that Africans experienced for centuries in America. Kanye West believes that slaves in America did not revolt for 400 years because they were mentally enslaved. Maybe he doesn’t know that those slaves who tried to revolt or to liberate themselves were met with lynchings, beatings, torture and later with segregation laws.
West should read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which poignantly explains why even after more than a century since slavery ended, black people in the United States are still under the threat of being humiliated, locked up, beaten or killed – both by the police and by ordinary people. (If West is not inclined to read a book, he can watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck.)
The “Black Lives Matter” movement is happening in today’s America, not in Martin Luther King’s America or in 18th century plantation America. Today young black men are more likely to be stopped by police, searched, murdered or incarcerated than any other group in the United States. In his book, Coates wonders how a black man in America can live freely in his body when that body is under constant threat of being exterminated.
In an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, wrote that he is often referred to as “a nigger professor” or “a nigger with a PhD”. He says that he received several racist and threatening messages after he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that was in the form of a letter asking readers to accept the truth about what it means to be white in a society created just for white people. One woman even accused him of being a racist. The messages were so vitriolic that campus police were forced to monitor his office.
It is not just the die-hard racists who exhibit this sense of entitlement, or what is known as “white privilege” – the result of distorted history lessons – but so-called progressive or liberal whites as well. At a meeting that brought together human rights activists from around the world, one of the white women (Dutch or Danish, I can’t remember which) admitted to me that she was rather ashamed of the fact that despite having lived in South Africa for several years, she had not yet found a black boyfriend – as if to say that sleeping with a black man would lend more credibility to her activism credentials and define her as a non-racist.
Because I am prone to be rather blunt and tactless, I told her that she need not worry – some of the most racist white slave owners in America regularly slept with/raped their black female slaves, and that did not make them any less racist. (I didn’t tell her that I am married to a black African man and that I have rarely used this fact to gain points with my fellow Kenyans. Or that because most Kenyans are still mentally colonised, and value white skin more than black skin, a detail that often works to my disadvantage, partly also because my husband belongs to a politically and economically insignificant ethnic group.)
I then proceeded to remind the visibly stunned young woman that the sexualisation/fetishisation of the black body is part of the continuum of racism and that in the seaside Kenyan town where I live, European tourists seek out young black women and girls not because they want a relationship with them but because in a country like Kenya, it is easy and cheap to buy sex from impoverished women and girls. The silence that followed this conversation was palpable. I had clearly touched a nerve.
I was reminded then of what the writer James Baldwin had said about racism in America: “At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.” One of the ways white America lives with the fact that the United States’ wealth is built on the bodies of black slaves is by blaming the latter for their own fate – as Kanye West did. And the only way white people can live with black people is by dehumanising and emasculating them so that they will not be forced to engage with them on equal terms, and therefore, will not have to confront the immorality of their ancestors’ actions.
I then proceeded to remind the visibly stunned young woman that the sexualisation/fetishisation of the black body is part of the continuum of racism and that in the seaside Kenyan town where I live, European tourists seek out young black women and girls not because they want a relationship with them but because in a country like Kenya, it is easy and cheap to buy sex from impoverished women and girls.
This also involves not knowing or telling the truth about oneself, which leads to a schizophrenic existence. White Americans, as Baldwin put it, “are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence” – the kind of incoherence that led a young European woman living in South Africa to apologise for not having an African boyfriend. White liberals suffer most from this, as they cannot even hide behind their racism to avoid making contact with non-white people. It is a sad spectacle to watch. (Relax, I often tell them. And listen, I mean really listen, if you can. )
I will end on a personal note. I am not white, nor am I black. I am in that murky category of people who white people refer to as “people of colour” (who comprise the majority of the world’s people). I have experienced racism and sexism in various shades, but it is only in recent years that I have become more aware of what it means to not be white in this world, perhaps because I am now much more conscious of it, and maybe also because people like President Donald Trump have made racism more acceptable. I have always been aware of my race, having lived in a former colony in Africa where I stand out as a non-black minority. Juggling issues around race is part of the DNA of most people who have experienced racial segregation or European colonisation.
But I never thought that racism could manifest itself in the way it did a few years ago when I was leading a project whose team members were all white. Over the course of the project, the group became sullen and uncooperative to the point where I was forced to abandon the project altogether. When I told a black Kenyan friend about my puzzling experience, she laughed and said, “Can’t you see? You were the only non-white person in the group, and you were leading it. They had to revolt against you and sabotage the project. They had to put you in your place.”
When I told a black Kenyan friend about my puzzling experience, she laughed and said, “Can’t you see? You were the only non-white person in the group, and you were leading it. They had to revolt against you and sabotage the project. They had to put you in your place.”
What I learnt from that experience was that racism is so insidious and so deceptive that it can suck in the most well-intentioned people, including African-Americans like West, whose reckless utterances are lapped up by Trump’s America as evidence of black people’s servility and self-hatred. West owes his people an apology.
Will COVID-19 Spell the Death of Cities?
The rapid spread of COVID-19 in urban areas is raising questions about whether this pandemic will herald the demise of cities. RASNA WARAH argues that cities will continue to exist and grow despite the coronavirus crisis because of the distinctly human need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration.
“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” – Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City (2011)
In February this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced the Kenyan government to impose a partial lockdown in the country, I moved to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a city with a population of 4.4 million, from Malindi, a small town along Kenya’s coast with a population of just 120,000. I had been intending to move back home for several years but 2020 seemed an opportune time to do it. I had spent ten long years in Malindi and was ready to get back to the thick of things where the action was.
Now I know, for most people who live in Nairobi, the city is not “home” – the “true north” of most Nairobians, as Alexander Ikawah pointed out in a recent article, is their rural home, the place they identify most with. Ikawah says that Nairobi is just a place where “city villagers” work; where they have “houses”, not “homes”.
But I am not among these people. I was born in Nairobi, and so was my father and my grandfather. Kenyan Asians don’t typically have a rural home (Asians in Kenya were not encouraged to settle in rural or agricultural land both before and after independence and so are concentrated mainly in urban areas). And even if they have an ancestral home in India or Pakistan, they don’t tend to refer to it as “home”, nor does this ancestral home loom large in their imagination. In fact, many Kenyan Asians have never visited their “motherland”.
I have lived in London in the UK and Boston in the USA, and have travelled to many, many, cities around the world – New York (my favourite city), Istanbul (a cultural delight where East meets West), Mogadishu (a wounded city with nice beaches), Kabul (wounded but with majestic snowy peak backdrops), Havana (a salsa-lover’s dream, arguably the world’s most egalitarian city), Paris (a romantic city with many bridges), Mumbai (a buzzing “maximum city” of people, people, and more people), Beijing (interesting but with high levels of air pollution), Cairo (history lives here), Florence (a beautiful outdoor museum), Johannesburg (a legacy of apartheid, not my favourite city), Dar es Salaam (a friendly coastal city with huge potential), to name a few – but for me, Nairobi is not only home, it is also the place where most of my memories reside.
I will not go into the details about my reasons for leaving Nairobi in the first place, but it had a lot to do with trying to regain some perspective on life after having led a busy treadmill-like work existence where career success depended so much on pleasing a boss and undermining colleagues to move up the career ladder. I was hoping that a break would allow me to do things I hadn’t had time for before, like writing and spending more time with my husband. I dreamed of looking out of the window and seeing palm trees swaying in the wind, and breathing in the salty Indian Ocean breeze. Oh what bliss (and it was)…until I discovered that meaningful social interaction was much more important to me than the sounds and smells of nature. Voluntary self-isolation, I discovered, is neither natural nor healthy. Human beings are wired to be social animals – that is how they survived as a species.
While living in a small sleepy town where nothing much happens gave me the freedom to pursue writing (I ended up writing three books during my self-imposed “exile”) and other interests, I had a gnawing sense that I was in danger of disconnecting and self-isolating myself from all that was meaningful in my life. I yearned for intellectual stimulation and missed cultural and literary events. I longed to go to the cinema and hang out with my family. My social interactions in Malindi were superficial; I was in danger of becoming like the many expatriate (mostly Italian and British) retirees in the town, whose lives revolve around bridge parties and afternoon siestas induced by copious amounts of wine.
The truth is, I was lonely. I had not found my “tribe” in Malindi.
Then COVID-19 happened. It is unfortunate that my return to Nairobi coincided with a dusk-to-dawn curfew and partial lockdown, so my intentions of absorbing myself into city life have once again have been put on hold. I am back to self-isolating again.
Cities are not the problem
The coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about whether cities will lose their allure, and whether people will look to leading simpler rural or small town lives. The fact that the virus emanated from the city of Wuhan in China and spread across the world through networks of cities and transport hubs is making people wonder whether we should be seeking more dispersed and less dense forms of settlement.
However, Tomasz Sudra, a former colleague who is now retired from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told me that it was unfair to blame cities for COVID-19 because the virus could have been contained early if the Chinese government had not decided to suppress “bad news”.
“The medical doctor who blew the whistle on the virus and died from it was forced to confess that he was spreading false news and was arrested,” he said. “The epidemic [in China] became a pandemic because the government suppressed the free flow of information.”
Cities have not only been associated with the rapid spread of diseases, but environmental degradation as well. The concentration of human and industrial activity in cities and the over-reliance on motorised forms of transport have been blamed for the air pollution that characterises so many of the world’s large cities. Images of smog-free cities as a result of lockdowns (especially in China, where air pollution levels are so excessive that city residents routinely wear face masks) have been circulating on social media. People are asking whether the climate crisis could be blamed on cities, and whether COVID-19 will force us to seek alternative lifestyles.
John Gray, writing in the 3 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, says that the current crisis is a “turning point” in history. “The era of peak globalization is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were,” he predicts.
Is the city – itself a product of globalisation and the movement of goods and people from one shore or trading route to another – losing its attraction? Will there be a return to the nostalgic longing for rural life popularised by people like Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “true India” could only be found in the country’s villages? I don’t think so. The world, including India, is more urban than it was in Gandhi’s time. “True India” is no longer only in India’s villages, but in its teeming cities and towns, which currently host 34 per cent of the country’s population.
Just over a decade ago, there were more rural folk on this planet than city folk, but that changed around 2007 when the world’s urban population equaled the world’s rural population for the first time. Though some regions of the world, notably Europe, North America and Latin America, became predominantly urban much earlier (around the 1950s), the rapid urban growth rates in poorer parts of the world in the last fifty years have demonstrated that the pull of the city is stronger than ever. Cities must be offering something that villages don’t, or can’t.
I must confess that I have spent much of my professional life writing about what is wrong with cities and what can be done about it. At UN-Habitat, where I worked as an editor for more than a decade, the emphasis was on urban poverty and all its manifestations, including informal settlements (also known as slums). In 2006, UN-Habitat declared that one out of every three city dwellers lives in a slum, with sub-Saharan Africa having the largest proportion of its urban population living in slum conditions, with little or no access to water, sanitation, electricity and adequate housing. Asia hosted the largest number of slum dwellers, though some sub-regions in the continent were doing better than others. Slums, warned UN-Habitat, were threatening to become a “dominant and distinct type of settlement in cities of the developing world”.
This grim assessment was followed by another one in 2008, when UN-Habitat sounded the alarm on rising inequalities in cities, and warned that economic and social inequalities in urban areas had the potential to destabilise countries and make them economically unsustainable. Highly unequal cities – where the rich lead vastly different lives from the poor – are breeding grounds for social unrest, and social unrest disrupts economic activities, went the argument. UN-Habitat stated that pro-poor and inclusive urban development could significantly decrease these inequalities and make cities more sustainable. While the UN agency acknowledged that energy consumption in cities was impacting negatively on the environment, it made a case for mitigating the impact of carbon emissions through solutions such as environmentally-friendly public transport and the use of green energy.
Cities are not the problem; how we plan them is the central issue, said the experts.
The benefits of city life
Throughout history, cities have a played a central role in creating and sustaining civilizations. Cities are not just places where economic activities are concentrated, they are also crucibles of innovation and culture. The rise and fall of cities has often been associated with the rise and fall of civilizations. Cities such as Rome and Athens had their “golden ages”; some survived a loss of status; others became relics.
In 2006, I was asked to write a short chapter on the benefits of urban living for UN-Habitat’s 2006 State of the World’s Cities report, which focused almost entirely on the gloomy topic of slums. The thinking was that there was a danger that in highlighting the problems in cities and slums, we might inadvertently throw the baby out with the bath water and that as the UN’s “City Agency”, it would be counterproductive to focus only on the negative aspects of urban life. In other words, by presenting cities as places where nasty things happen, we might actually be sending an anti-urban message to the general public and to policymakers.
Because cities were – and still are – viewed as the engines of economic development, and economic growth is generally credited for reducing poverty levels (though this has not been the case in some countries), I had to make an argument that made economic sense to governments and the public at large. So I argued that because so much economic activity in a country is concentrated in its cities, “cities make countries rich”. I further pointed out that the concentration of populations and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewerage systems, drains, roads, and other infrastructure. Therefore, the economies of scale that cities offer are not replicable in small, less dense human settlements. Building a hospital or a road in a town or village with a population of just 50,000 is far less efficient per capita than building a hospital or road in a large urban area that hosts a population of 5 million (regardless of the ethics of making such a choice).
The central argument was that rural people don’t just up and move to a city; the main driver of rural-to-urban migration is economic opportunities and the chance to lead a better quality of life. In almost all countries, rural poverty levels are higher than urban poverty levels. (For instance, the poverty rate in rural Kenya is about 40 per cent, compared to around 28 per cent in peri-urban and urban areas.) Indeed, the data showed that despite the pathetic and hazardous living conditions in slums, people who lived in slums often viewed them as a “first step” out of rural poverty. As Edward Glaeser, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, says in his book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, “Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.”
However, villages are not stagnant places either; some, like Mumbai, which was once a fishing village, grow to become megacities (defined as cities with populations of more than 10 million). Some cities, like Nairobi, were not even villages originally; Nairobi literally grew out of nothing except a railway depot built at the beginning of the 20th century. The world’s great cities did not only grow because they were centres of trade and commerce; they also grew because they were religious, political, administrative or cultural centres, and this is what drew – and continues to draw – people to them.
Many rural people move to cities because they believe that they and their families will have better access to health and education. Cities also offer women more opportunities for social and economic mobility. Unrestrained by discriminatory customs and traditions, urban women are more likely than their rural counterparts to have access to property and other assets. Child and maternal mortality rates are also lower in cities, including in slums, compared to rural areas.
The downside is that city life exposes people to hazards such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, congestion, and crime, which significantly impacts the health and lives of urban dwellers. Cities can be incubators of disease, crime and other vices; but these disadvantages have never stopped cities from growing, even when plagues and other health hazards infest cities and kill populations. The 1665 Great Plague of London, for example, killed thousands, but did not diminish London’s stature. COVID-19 has decimated populations in the city of New York – the city with the highest COVID-19-related death rate in the United States – but even images of mass graves of the disease’s victims are unlikely to deter people from moving there.
Safety nets are also weaker in cities, which is one reason why so many people in the developing world (where there are few government-funded welfare systems) identify with their rural homes, where, as Ikawah points out, social capital obtained through filial ties is much stronger (though associational life in slums, through cooperatives and self-help groups, have helped reduce some of this deficit).
Cities have also been derided for promoting mindless consumerism. They have been accused of driving a type of capitalism that encourages people to go on endless shopping expeditions to buy things they might never use or need. Large shopping malls – a distinct feature of modern cities – are filled with products that keep the wheels of capitalism moving. Alain Kamal Martial Henry predicts that the coronavirus will overthrow this “Western bourgeois model” imposed by capitalism. And this may lead to the eventual demise of cities and urban living.
The problem that has no name
I asked Daniel Biau, a former colleague who served as the Deputy Executive Director of UN-Habitat from 1998 to 2005, whether we could from henceforth witness a decline in urban growth levels, and whether people will now seek to move out of large cities to places that are less dense and concentrated.
Biau was not convinced that the coronavirus pandemic will change the way people view cities. “As usual, a few journalists will write about risky cities but their alarming views will be completely ignored by ordinary people who know very well that cities are, above all, places of job opportunities, social interactions, education and cultural development,” he said.
He predicts that in the digital age, it is likely that small and medium-sized cities will grow faster than big metropolises because teleworking will become the norm. “Already in France 40 per cent of the working population is currently teleworking,” he said.
“History has shown that some cities could shrink due to economic or environmental reasons. But cities have never disappeared due to health reasons. This is why the UN should provide guidelines for the promotion of safer and healthier cities as part of the wider sustainable cities development paradigm,” added Biau in an email exchange.
Cities will exist – and continue to grow – because of human beings’ need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration. As Glaeser points out in his book, “The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”
However, despite their density and diversity, cities can also be lonely places. The “little town blues” that I talked about earlier are also experienced in large cities. People living in high-rise apartment blocks in big cities or in suburbs on the periphery of cities often report not knowing their neighbours and lacking a sense of “community”.
Some believe that rapid suburbanisation since the 1950s, especially in the United States, led to increasing disillusionment among married women, whose isolated lives in well-planned (but boring) suburbs led them to question patriarchial norms and the virtues of being stay-at-home wives and mothers. This angst (described by Betty Friedan as “the problem that has no name” in her book, The Feminine Mystique) sowed the seeds of the American women’s movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, and led many women to seek careers outside the home.
Some cities are better at fostering human interaction than others through carefully planned urban designs, and more people-friendly infrastructure, such as parks and other public spaces, including pedestrian-only streets. Recently, after a wave of rape cases in India, urban planners have also been thinking about how cities can be made more woman-friendly, with more street lighting and more gender-sensitive public transport. The designers of these cities understand one basic fact: cities are not about buildings and infrastructure; they are about people and communities.
The COVID-19 lockdowns have demonstrated how abnormal and disturbing self-isolation and social distancing can be. The pandemic has underscored the fact that human beings have an inherent need to interact with other human beings, even if it is at a cursory level. This physical connection with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds is what makes cities attractive, and is the reason why the city – in all its beauty and ugliness – is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
The Failure of the Left in Contemporary Movements in Africa
How do we account for the failure of left working class movements taking root in most of Africa?
The early 1950s witnessed an extraordinary sweep of popular mobilisations across the African continent inspired by aspirations for emancipatory freedom: an end to the colonial yoke. Nationalist parties convinced people that the path to freedom was through political independence. Since then, many of the gains of independence, which cost the blood and lives of millions in Africa, have been reversed with the privatisation of the commons and public utilities, as well as by dispossessions of land, by unemployment, and by the increasing costs of food, rent, and other necessities of life.
In response, discontent has been growing across the continent, with spontaneous eruptions and mass uprisings that have in some cases resulted in the overthrow of regimes nurtured and nourished by imperialism (e.g. in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burkina Faso). In such circumstances, one would have thought that there would have been fertile grounds for the emergence of strong left working class movements across the continent. But why has this not happened?
Left and communist parties of various sizes and influence have arisen in a number of countries across the continent over many decades, despite the terror of colonial repression that they faced. In many cases, the political strategy of these parties was to merge with the nationalist parties in the struggle for independence. This was in line with the prevailing dogma at the time: the ‘stagist’ view of revolution according to which communists were required not only to support the emergence of a national bourgeoisie as part of the ‘national democratic revolution,’ but to concede leadership to the nationalist movements–much as we have seen with the South African Communist Party yielding to the leadership of the ANC since 1994.
On coming to power, most of the nationalist governments, often supported by the left, believed that all that was required to satisfy the demands of the masses was to take control of the state. But what they ignored was that the state was itself a colonial state, and set up to serve, protect and advance the interests of imperial power and its entourage of corporations and banks. That state had a monopoly over the use of violence. It had police forces, armies, and secret police and it used force and, where necessary, violence, to protect the interests of the way in which capitalism operated in the peripheries.
Having occupied the state, independence governments essentially sought to make modest reforms consisting primarily of deracialising the state and modernising it so that the economy could be more fully integrated with the new emerging international order that the US, Europe, and Japan set about creating after the Second World War. The structures of state control, the police, army, and special forces–even the structures and powers of native authority established by colonial powers–all these were left fundamentally intact, albeit dressed up in the colours of the national flag. The structures of the capitalist state were left intact, even where regimes proclaimed an adherence to ‘Marxism-Leninism’, as in Mengistu’s Ethiopia.
Few understood the dangers of occupying, rather than creating alternatives to, the capitalist state. Amongst those must be counted Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau), and Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso). They had in common their commitment to building alternatives to the colonial state. Cabral was emphatic: “It is our opinion that it is necessary to totally destroy, to break, to reduce to ash all aspects of the colonial state in our country in order to make everything possible for our people.” Tellingly, all three were assassinated by their own comrades, in collaboration with empire.
While the repressive arms of the state may have been dressed in new uniforms, their role–that of protecting the interests of capitalism in the (former) colonies–remained unchanged. And as the emerging middle class and party officials who now occupied the neo-colonial state realised the potential for private accumulation and looting that access to the state provided, so their interest in transforming the state waned.
‘Africanisation’–or in South Africa’s case ‘Black Economic Empowerment’–was the battle cry of the emerging national bourgeoisie that would legitimise their access to sources of private accumulation. The growing presence of transnational corporations and international financial institutions, and the growing interest in ‘investing’ (principally in the extractive industries) provided too many lucrative opportunities for them to even consider making changes to economic power. The state became a honey-pot, and therefore frequently a terrain of conflict between different factions of the emerging class. In some cases, leading members of the left joined the ranks of the national bourgeoisie, just as we have seen in the case of Cyril Ramaphosa and others in South Africa.
As Fanon put it:
The national bourgeoisie discovers its historical mission: that of the intermediary. As we can see, its vocation is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism, forced to camouflage itself behind the mask of neocolonialism. The national bourgeoisie, with no misgivings and with great pride, revels in the role of agent in its dealings with the Western bourgeoisie. This lucrative role, this function as small-time racketeer, this narrow-mindedness and lack of ambition are symptomatic of the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie to fulfill its historical role as a bourgeoisie.
In fulfilling its function as an agent of the Western bourgeoisie and ‘as a small-time racketeer,’ this class turns upon the left that aided its path to power, and slaughters it, imprisons it, exiles it, or marginalises it. Slaughter was the case with one of the strongest communist parties in Sudan when, in 1971, Gaafar al-Nimiery launched a campaign that resulted in almost the total elimination of the party. Even where the organised left was not strong, the post-independence period witnessed assassinations of radicals: for example in Kenya with the assassinations of Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, and JM Kariuki, or in South Africa with the assassination of Chris Hani and, more recently, of members of NUMSA and Abahlali base Mjondolo.
‘African Socialism’ was fêted as the answer to the continent’s underdevelopment in the early post-independence years, but in every case, this was combined with the requirement that there be only one legitimate party. Whatever the actual political colour of the regimes, it was not uncommon for nationalists to proclaim an allegiance to socialism, albeit to an ‘African’ version.
Kwame Nkrumah was perhaps the most radical of the nationalists, but even in Ghana, no attempt was made to dismantle the colonial state. As a result, radicalisation spread amongst the population. In 1961, railway workers organised a national strike, but the state became increasingly authoritarian and independent political organisation was repressed, until eventually a one-party state was declared. Nkrumah’s political writings became much more radical after the coup d’état that overthrew him in 1966.
Similarly, Julius Nyerere established his own particular brand of socialism–Ujamaa–in the aftermath of the revolution in Zanzibar, in which he orchestrated the repression of Abdulrahman Babu’s Umma Party. Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration declared a one-party state, preventing the independent organisation of left, working class organisations. A once ardent trade unionist, Ahmed Sékou Touré led Guinea to independence in 1958, and in 1960, declared his party, Parti démocratique de Guinée, the only legitimate party. The combination of repressive one-party states that proclaim themselves ‘socialist,’ the establishment of Stalinism in the Soviet Union with its own form of repression and one-partyism, and its final demise in the collapse of the Berlin Wall; all these have contributed to the discrediting of the idea of ‘socialism’ as a progressive force. In many African countries, the word ‘socialism’ is a dirty word that has been lost in every-day vocabulary.
Another factor that has inhibited the development of the left in Africa needs to be considered. The last thirty years of neoliberal policies have resulted not just in material dispossession, but also in the dispossession of memory. Many people born or raised in the aftermath of the implementation of structural adjustment programmes have lost connection with their own histories in an environment of CNN and MacDonalds culture. As Milan Kundera put it: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history, Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. There remains today the challenge of building strong left, working class movements. Whatever the constraints that we may have inherited from our history, the reality is that after independence our national bourgeoisies have failed to deliver on their promises. Thirty years (or some twenty years in the case of South Africa) of neoliberal policies willingly imposed by this class have resulted in conditions for the majority that are in many ways worse than they were at independence. Today discontent is growing, especially among the youth. But there is also a more widespread disenchantment with postcolonial governments that derives from their loss of credibility and legitimacy. Serious questions are increasingly being raised concerning the ability of this class to lead the way to emancipation.
The objective conditions offer, at least potentially, good conditions for building a left movement. But that cannot be done on the basis of the forty-year-old analysis of the nature of capitalism and imperialism to which much of the left has become accustomed. There is work to be done in deepening our understanding of the changes that have occurred in both the nature of today’s financialised capital and its operation in the ‘peripheries.’ Such an analysis is necessary if we are to appreciate the fact that the workplace is not the only site where accumulation by dispossession occurs: it also occurs through the extraction of income and wealth through rents, the privatisation of health and social welfare, education, land, water, power, etc. All of these are subject to speculation.
This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal
Nyerere: Africa’s Philosopher King
A new biography of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, reveals a complicated legacy.
Julius Nyerere was one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. Tanzania gained independence from Britain in 1961 and Nyerere, known as Baba wa taifa (father of the nation), became its first president. Under Nyerere’s leadership, the state declared ujamaa (African socialism) as its postcolonial path forward and signaled its intention to build a society based on human equality and dignity. His commitment to nonalignment in the midst of cold war tensions and his support of African liberation movements garnered the attention of many around the world. Even after he stepped down in 1985, Nyerere continued to hold remarkable influence over Tanzanian politics. Today, twenty-one years after his death, his contested legacy continues to loom large in the nation, as his presence in the discussions surrounding the upcoming elections attests.
In early 2020, Tanzanian publishing house, Mkuki Na Nyota, released the three-part biography, Development as Rebellion: A Biography of Julius Nyerere. Penned by Saida Yahya-Othman, Ng’wanza Kamata and Issa Shivji, the books offer an impressively nuanced examination of a man who has been, in the words of the authors, “revered and demonized in equal measure.” Yahya-Othman is a retired professor of English Linguistics who taught at the University of Dar es Salaam, Kamata is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Dar es Salaam and Shivji is a retired Professor of Public Law and the first holder of the Julius Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam. A detailed exploration of Nyerere’s personal and political lives, this is also a multifaceted history of Tanzania and the political context in which its first and most influential leader emerged. Monique Bedasse had a brief conversation with Issa Shivji about his installment of the biography, Rebellion Without Rebels. Professor Shivji took on this biography after decades of thinking and writing about Nyerere and Tanzanian politics more broadly.
Monique Bedasse: What motivated you and your co-authors to write this biography?
Issa Shivji: It is a long story but I’ll cut it short. Even while Mwalimu [Swahili for “teacher;” how Nyerere is generally referred to in Tanzania] was still alive, I used to say half-jocularly that when the philosopher-king ceases to be a king—meaning he has left power—I’d like to do his biography. It never came to pass. Meanwhile, Mwalimu passed on in 1999. Between 2008 and 2013, I was the Mwalimu Nyerere Chair in Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam under which, together with my co-authors—Professor Saida-Yahya Othman and Dr Ng’wanza Kamata—we organized many intellectual activities around Mwalimu’s ideas generally and his perspective on Pan-Africanism specifically. In the process we learnt that our younger generation knew very little about Mwalimu and his times. Unrelenting criticism, albeit subtle, of Mwalimu’s policies of Ujamaa and its alleged failure during the two decades of neo-liberalism had taken its toll. Our youth had a very lop-sided view of their recent political history. A more nuanced story of Tanzania under Nyerere and his uncompromising stand on nationalism against the constant onslaught of neo-colonial forces needed to be told.
Five years of working together also brought the three of us closer. Fortunately, at the time, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology under its Director General Dr. Hassan Mshinda was amenable to consider our application for funding. Thus was born the Nyerere biography project. After some six to seven years of extensive research and writing, the three-volume biography was finally published in March 2020 by a leading local publisher Mkuki na Nyota.
Monique Bedasse: One of the strengths of this biography is that you force the reader to confront conflicting accounts of particular histories. An example of this is your treatment of the contested circumstances that led to Edwin Mtei’s resignation after the International Monetary Fund’s mission visited Dar es Salaam in 1979. Not only does this make for an engaging read, but it also ensures that we never lose sight of the fact that Nyerere and the other members of the Tanzanian government with whom he worked were fully human. Furthermore, it reminds us that the IMF’s visit is connected to both the larger story of the “transition from socialism to neo-liberalism” in Tanzania within a global context, and to the local history of contestation within the government. You bring together a vast array of sources to provide us with such complexity. Tell me about the research process for this book.
Issa Shivji: Hunh! Monique, it is like you read our minds. Yes, we wanted to tell a story which was both human and social. The widespread belief that Mwalimu always got his way was simply not true. Mwalimu’s ideas were contested and there was the ubiquitous struggle, class struggle if you like, like in any other society.
As for the research process, it was rather unconventional. We did exactly what we warn our PhD’s not to do. We entered the field without any pre-conceived ideas or hypothesis or even a research plan. The only guiding principle we agreed on was that in telling the man’s story we must also tell the story of his country and society; that we should desist from projecting Mwalimu as the hero and, broadly, we should apply the method of historical materialism. I leave it to the readers to assess how far we succeeded. With the wisdom of hindsight, for me personally, I think we succeeded pretty well in our first two objectives, but I am not sure if we equally succeeded in consistently applying the method of historical materialism.
I must say our research was very extensive and intense. We spent considerable time in the United Kingdom combing the UK archives but also visiting several university libraries and conducting interviews. We did over 100 interviews. Thankfully the retired leaders of the ruling party (CCM) and the state were very co-operative. We also were lucky to get access to the CCM archives and Mwalimu’s personal State House files kept at Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation. At the end of the process we found that we had collected piles of material and it was a challenge how to synthesize and analyze without falling into the trap of not being able to separate wheat from the chaff. Having said that, I must also underscore that we did not always eschew details where we felt that they needed to be recorded for future generations. It is the details, I believe, which helped us to bring out Mwalimu as human rather than some abstract political actor.
Monique Bedasse: You write that “what is specific to Nyerere’s idea of equality is that it is inseparable by definition from the idea of utu—best translated as “human dignity” or “humanness.” You also argue that at the end of his career, “he could rightly take pride” in having successfully made this the basis of the nation he worked to build. I have long thought about Nyerere’s use of the word “dignity “and its meaning for postcolonial nations and for non-European peoples in particular. Would you please say more about that?
Issa Shivji: I’m absolutely wedded to the idea of human dignity and Mwalimu in his splendid language clarified this idea to me—it ceased to be a cliché and became a fundamental concept around which the idea of equality is woven. We, therefore, argued that Nyerere’s idea of equality which has been around for at least a thousand years is fundamentally different from the liberal (bourgeois) idea of equality. For the latter, equality resolves itself in equal rights. For Nyerere, the essence of equality is dignity or humanity which cannot be captured by the notion of rights. Excuse me but I never tire of quoting Mwalimu’s beautiful poem on equality; in particular the following two stanzas. (I quote it first in Kiswahili, then in translation.)
Watu ni sawa nasema, zingatia neno “watu”,
Siwapimi kwa vilema, ambavyo ni udhia tu,
Siwafanidi kwa wema, ambao ni tabia tu,
Lakini watu ni watu, mawalii na wagema.
Niseme maji ni maji, pengine utaelewa,
Ya kunywa ya mfereji, na yanayoogelewa,
Ya umande na theluji, ya mvua, mito, maziwa,
Asili yake ni hewa, hayapitani umaji.
I say people are equal, note the word “people”,
I don’t judge them by their disability, which is only a bother,
I don’t compare them by their goodness, which is only a habit,
People are people, holy men and (palm-)wine tappers alike.
If I say water is water, you may understand,
Water to drink, water to shower,
Of dew and snow, of rain, rivers, lakes,
Its ancestry is in air; it does not deviate from its wateriness.
“Humanness” is the “wateriness” of people. In a concomitant article he wrote on human equality, he explained it thus:
Human beings are equal in their humanity. Juma and Mwajuma do not differ in their humanity. In all other matters, Juma and Mwajuma are not equal, but in their humanity, they do not differ an iota. Neither you, nor me, not anybody else, nor God can make Juma to be more of a human being than Mwajuma or Mwajuma to be more of a human being than Juma. God can do what you and me and our fellow beings cannot do—God can create Juma and can make Mwajuma to be a different creature better or worse than a human being, but God cannot make Juma or Mwajuma to be better or worse human beings than other human beings; God can neither reduce nor increase their humanity.
What more can I say? Let me venture to suggest, though, that I think Nyerere’s concept of equality possibly gives us an anchor to construct an alternative discourse from the liberal discourse of equality and rights which is so hegemonic and yet it is so inadequate for postcolonial peoples to locate themselves in.
Monique Bedasse: After stepping down from the presidency, Nyerere spent the time between February 1986 and August 1987 traveling to different regions in an effort to recharge the party. In responding to complaints from the people about the failures of the party leadership, Nyerere reflected on the past and deduced that the leaders lacked the “same fire and fight” of their predecessors. As he saw it, “during the struggle for independence, the party was fighting for freedom and knew its enemy. It was united in its objective and mission.” As your analysis suggests, the question of “who is the enemy?” is an important one. Are you implying that Nyerere would have avoided certain challenges had he sought to answer that question at various points as the political terrain in Tanzania evolved?
Issa Shivji: It is a valid question but, frankly, answering it would be indulging in hypothetical history. What we can say is “what happened” rather than “what could have happened if …!” Were choices available at strategic conjunctures? Yes, they were. Why was this and not the other course of action chosen? Well, that can be explained only partly by the constraints of circumstances. The individual actor does make choices given his or her own outlook and social interests that he, consciously or otherwise, represents. The driving force for Nyerere was nation-building which demanded unity and which resulted in suppressing diversity or what he believed to be dissipating forces. So, in spite of formulating a beautiful phrase “development as rebellion”, the title of the biography, he could not tolerate rebels who pointed towards a different course of action at strategic junctures. This is captured in the title of book three of the biography: Rebellion without Rebels.
Monique Bedasse: You end the book with a question: “Was Julius Nyerere more of Plato’s Philosopher Ruler than Machiavelli’s Prince?” Many authors attempt to resolve such an analytical problem; to tell us in more pointed terms how we should remember a particular historical figure. Why did you decide to end with a query?
Issa Shivji: We wrote this biography with utmost respect for our readers guided by the dictum, “People think.” People are capable of resolving the query in their own way—we have provided sufficient material and analysis. But, more importantly, the query underlines the oft-repeated observation that great persons in history are enigmatic. Enigma is the stuff of which greatness is made. Let me end by quoting from our preface to the biography:
Our biography of Nyerere is grounded in the history of people’s struggles in which Nyerere, the man, was immersed and from which his greatness emerged. Our narrative does not shy away from recounting controversies surrounding Nyerere the man, or providing a reasoned critique, occasionally severe, of Nyerere the politician. All this does not detract from his greatness. Controversies and critiques constitute the stuff of which great men and women of history are made.
About the Interviewee
Issa Shivji is Director of the Nyerere Resource Centre at the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology in Dar es Salaam.
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