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The revolutionary dream of Pan-Africanism

We must learn the history of Pan-Africanism and re-engage with the revolutionary anti-colonial activists who first pursued its dream, argues Kevin Ochieng Okoth

9 to 11 minute read

The outline of Africa, coloured in red, sits amid the pan-africanist colours of red, black and green

Pan-Africanism is back. This year, the Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta marked the opening of its 2024 spring-summer menswear show with the publication of Air Afrique, a magazine named after the now-defunct airline, which was once a symbol of pan-African pride. The story of the airline maps onto a phase of Pan-Africanism itself. 

Established in 1961, just as a wave of decolonisation was sweeping across the continent, Air Afrique was co-owned by eleven newly independent Francophone African states. Because they lacked the financial resources to create their own national carriers, they joined together to create an African airline to show off the continent’s newfound confidence to the world.

Air Afrique quickly became one of the most reputable carriers in west Africa and a notable patron of the arts. But its fortunes started to decline by the 1980s. Faced with fiscal constraints imposed by the IMF and World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes, as well as internal corruption and mismanagement, it eventually ceased operations in January 2002. With its demise, a cycle of pan-African politics came to an end. 

The oil crisis, the advent of neoliberalism, an ensuing debt crisis, corruption and the geopolitics of the cold war stifled the capacity of African states to continue their pan-African dream. By the 2000s, the notion of a strong alliance of African peoples and states, which could proudly proclaim their cultural, political and economic independence, seemed far-fetched.

So why, in 2023, would a group of artists name their magazine after a failed African airline? The answer might have something to do with the enduring appeal of Pan-Africanism’s visual language.

For newly independent African states, culture was a tool of liberation. Lacking political or economic power, Pan-Africanism was a means of exercising ‘soft power’ on the international stage. Festivals such as Panaf ‘69 in Algiers and Festac ‘77 in Lagos introduced the world to a new conception of ‘Africanness’, which broke with colonial depictions of Africans as uncivilised or uncultured.

Air Afrique’s multilingual in-flight magazine, Balafon, confronted such prejudices through photography and art by showing African culture in all its beauty, diversity and modernity – a project that surely still appeals. The difference today, however, is the connection of culture to the vision for complete social, political and economic liberation, which dominated a vocal strand of Pan-Africanism in the 1960s and ’70s, is notably lacking.

Back to Africa: Pan-Africanism’s return

The historian Hakim Adi argues that the history of Pan-Africanism can be split into three phases. From the 18th to the mid-20th century, it remained, for the most part, a project of the black diaspora. Early pan-African thought emerged in places such as Harlem, Paris, Lisbon and London, as intellectuals affirmed the value of black life and culture through a shared ‘African’ aesthetic.

These expressions of black pride – from Marcus Garvey’s ‘back to Africa’ movement to the Harlem renaissance or the founding of Négritude in 1930s Paris – became the dominant mode of pan- Africanism. But the 1945 Manchester Pan-Africanist Congress, organised by Jomo Kenyatta, W E B Du Bois, George Padmore, Amy Ashwood Garvey and Ras Makonnen, connected the black diaspora’s vision of return with anti-colonial freedom movements in Africa. 

Lacking political or economic power, Pan-Africanism was a means of exercising ‘soft power’ on the international stage

Finally, in 1958 the All-African People’s Conference, organised by Padmore in Kwame Nkrumah’s newly independent Ghana, brought Pan-Africanism home. This coincided with calls for closer political and economic cooperation in Africa as a means to resist imperialism and neo-colonialism. Pan-Africanism, as envisioned by Nkrumah, was a nationalist project beyond the nation. For him, African states could only be independent if they protected their economic and political freedom via continental unity in the form of a federation. This federal state would develop a common army, currency and diplomatic apparatus.

There were, of course, conflicts over how ‘Africanness’ should be interpreted. While anti-colonial activists on the ground embraced the multiplicity of African identities, for pan-Africanists from Europe and the US, Africans needed to unite under the banner of a common black identity to resist both racism and imperialism. Though these conflicts were never truly resolved, Nkrumah tried to unite conflicting visions of Pan-Africanism under the banner of his short-lived flagship project, the United States of Africa. Nkrumah’s vision appealed to black activists such as Du Bois and Padmore, who both made Ghana their permanent home.

In 1963, 32 African governments went on to form the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the forerunner to today’s African Union (AU). In negotiations about the direction of the OAU, countries including Ghana, Morocco, Guinea and Algeria joined together to form the Casablanca bloc, which promoted the idea of full cultural, political and economic integration. But the Monrovia group, including Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia and Ethiopia, restricted their interpretation of African unity to economic cooperation between independent states. 

The Monrovia group’s vision eventually prevailed and the dream of a united Africa faded. Like Air Afrique, the OAU disbanded in 2002. It was succeeded by the AU, which became merely another arena where nation-states – and the neo-colonial elites that govern them – pursued their own narrow interests.

Pan-Africanism from below

Though Pan-Africanism was first an elite project led by black diaspora intellectuals, and later a state-led project of African unity enacted from above, its story can also be told as people’s history. The US journalist and author Howard French suggests that revolts by enslaved Africans – from the rebellion against the Portuguese in 16th-century São Tomé to the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) – expressed a ‘nascent but tentative pan-African ideal’. 

Of course, as Adom Getachew, of the University of Chicago, points out, the political and ideological framework of pan- Africanism only emerged much later. But these revolts did construct new political identities, based on Africans’ shared experience of slavery and other forms of racialised exploitation. The spirit of pan-African unity was built on the communication networks of enslaved black people that reached across the oceans.

In the 20th century, pan- Africanist ideas shaped debates within the African trade union movement. The Kenyan lawyer P L O Lumumba said that the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) divided Africa ‘into spheres of influence for purposes of exploitation’. Working-class organisations, like trade unions, rejected these colonial borders, and often placed their struggles against the state within the wider context of pan- African liberation. 

The trade union movement achieved important victories but split along ideological lines as the cold war intensified. On one side there were African unions associated with the World Federation of Trade Unions that maintained close ties to the Soviet Union. On the other were those who joined the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions – an anti-communist organisation with links to the CIA. Both identified as pan-Africanists.

In South Africa, the grassroots movement for Pan-Africanism brought more contradictions out into the open. In the 1960s, the Pan- Africanist Congress (PAC), which had split from the African National Congress (ANC), embraced the idea of a continent-wide, federal African state. While the ANC pushed for a multi-racial South Africa, the PAC’s political vision built on the language of cultural Pan-Africanism. Its leader, Robert Sobukwe, insisted that only black self-government would truly liberate the people. 

The PAC was popular with black South African workers and inspired mass mobilisations across the country. But its distrust of communism and its essentialism (i.e. the claim that only black Africans were part of the pan- African project) risked reducing the PAC’s project to the struggle for black power – a tendency that has long plagued pan-Africanist movements.

For Pan-Africanism to succeed, it needs to be in touch with the grassroots struggles of working people. But the neo-colonial leadership of African states has often stood on the side of imperialist capital. Before he became president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa served as non-executive director at the British mining company Lonmin. In 2012, Ramaphosa, once a respected trade union leader, sanctioned the assault on striking mine workers by the South African Police Service that killed 34 at the company’s platinum mine in Marikana. 

Not much has changed since: the ANC leadership has been accused of condoning the recent assassinations of members of Abahlali base Mjondolo, the South African shack-dwellers’ movement. This war against the black workingclass has been waged by a black-led government. Far from liberating Africans, the post-colonial state has become a tool for the repression of popular democratic forces.

A relic of the past?

Today, we are a long way from the Pan-Africanism imagined by Nkrumah, the Casablanca group or the radical African trade union and people-led movements. What started as one of the most progressive social and political movements of the 20th century has been transformed into an aesthetic, which is comfortably integrated into global commodity circuits. 

Conflicts among African states and peoples remain an issue, too. In Tunisia, discrimination and racist attacks against African migrants are sanctioned by the government. South Africa continues to struggle with xenophobic prejudices against African migrants. And Morocco is still engaged in the ongoing illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

For Pan-Africanism to succeed, it needs to be in touch with the grassroots struggles of working people

Most African countries exist in a situation of dependency. They are exporters of primary commodities, net importers of food and manufactured goods, and have little advanced industry. The biggest economic challenge that a new, revolutionary Pan-Africanism would have to confront is the continent’s spiralling debt crisis

Debt is a mechanism of neo-colonialism, which restructures dependent countries according to imperialism’s economic needs. As Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso who was assassinated in 1987, warned, ‘Those who lend us money are those who colonised us.’

Today, African states need to engage in a debt strike, but this would require an unprecedented level of coordinated action. The precondition would be a pan-African ideology that provides the cultural, political and economic basis for the project of de-linking from the global capitalist system. 

Realising the dream: Pan-Africanism and communism 

In his 1956 book Pan-Africanism or Communism?, George Padmore, himself a former communist, argued that Pan-Africanism – and the closely associated ideology of African socialism – offered a path to liberation that couldn’t be reduced to western or Soviet ideologies. Though he never rejected communism altogether, Padmore concluded that communism in Africa had simply followed the objectives of Soviet foreign policy. 

Recent scholarship, however, shows that this wasn’t the case. Instead, communist ideas were adapted and transformed in the struggle, as African anticolonial activists navigated the complex geopolitics of the cold war. Moreover, the Communist International (Comintern) itself had shaped its policy on the ‘Negro question’ around the pan-African idea that Africa and its diaspora shared a common struggle against racism and imperialism.

The history of Pan-Africanism is closely intertwined with the rise of Marxism in the ‘third world’. While the relationship was never without friction, the encounter between Pan-Africanism and Marxism produced some of the 20th century’s most radical political thought. African Marxists such as Amílcar Cabral recognised that historical materialism gave them a method to analyse the conditions of their oppression. 

In their hands, Marxism became a pan-African ideology, which explained how slavery, colonialism and imperialism had shaped the struggles of working people across the world. As Walter Rodney put it, ‘National liberation [required] a socialist ideology.’ Marxism alone could not liberate Africans. But Marxism, which was more than just a cold war import, played a decisive role in the liberation struggle. 

We need to revisit the political thought of these revolutionary anticolonial activists, whose vision of Pan-Africanism was never limited to either the aesthetic affirmation of African culture, or the economic integration of African states into the capitalist world system. As a cultural and political project, Pan-Africanism is as complex as it is diverse. 

Considered in isolation, it risks becoming an empty signifier. But alongside Marxism, it becomes one of the most powerful tools for liberation that African and Afrodiasporic people have at their disposal. The pan-African dream can only become a reality if our renewed interest in its aesthetics comes with a deeper engagement with its revolutionary socialist past. 

This article first appeared in Issue #241 Pan-Africanism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Kevin Ochieng Okoth is a researcher and author of Red Africa: Reclaiming Revolutionary Black Politics (Verso, 2023)

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