Strength in Unity: Why Pan Africanism matters today

Drawing connections between events as disparate as the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell and recent mudslides in Sierra Leone, Remi Joseph-Salisbury points to the enduring relevance of Pan African thought for anti-racist struggle today.

November 24, 2017 · 7 min read
A mural in Tanzania

From Trump and Brexit, to the shifts to the right across Europe, recent political upheavals have surely smashed the Obama-induced illusion of a ‘post-racial’ world. Not only do these events make clear the persistence of racism and white supremacy, they also point to the need to reflect upon and strengthen anti-racist movements. In this regard, Pan Africanism has much to offer.

A central tenet of Pan African thought is its insistence upon drawing connections between African Diasporans, the African continent, and the history of Africa and its Diaspora. Taking this lesson seriously offers a way forward for those engaged in anti-racist struggle.  

Pan African thought has been insistent that Diasporans must always remember that history did not begin with slavery and colonialism. Whilst this is an important anti-racist endeavour, to understand the current situation of Africa and its Diaspora, and to move towards meaningful social action, due recognition must also be given to the way those processes have shaped and continues to shape society.

Whether through the plunder of colonialism and imperialism, or through the gross exploitation of the Transatlantic slave trade, countries like Britain are literally built on the backs of Africa and its Diaspora. As Walter Rodney has so convincingly shown, the development of Europe is intimately and inextricably connected to the underdevelopment of Africa. Understanding the connections between this history, the present, and the future, paves the way for Africa and its Diaspora to demand reparations for that which is owed.

White supremacy is, in part, dependent upon the erasure of contemporary society’s connection to this history. To excavate this history is an endeavour that is antithetical to the dominant contemporary logic. The dominant logic in Britain seeks to occlude connections to history and present racial inequalities as ‘just the way things are’, or even – more sinisterly – as the fault of African nations or individual African Diasporans.

Under this logic, African nations are framed as ‘fantastically corrupt’, as David Cameron put it, and are imagined as lacking the morals and intelligence to lift themselves out of relative poverty. In a similar vein, demonstrating the connections between Africa and its Diaspora, African Diasporans are framed as lacking individual motivation, as lazy, and as coming from families and cultures that do not provide the means to succeed. These are stereotypes that endure despite so much evidence to the contrary.

These alternative (white supremacist) explanations obscure the connections to history – that is, how the history shapes the present. It is only through severing connections to history that David Cameron was able to tell Jamaica to ‘move on’ from the legacies of slavery, whilst the contemporary wealth of his family is connected to the ownership of African slaves.  

If we really start to take this focus on connections seriously, we can see how so many of the contemporary issues we grapple with are shaped by a history of slavery, colonialism and exploitation. More than this, we can see how these issues are connected across national boundaries, and across contexts.

Seeing through such a lens reveals how the deaths of Edir da Costa, Rashan Charles and Darren Cumberbatch are linked to a long history of black deaths as a consequence of contact with UK police. This lens also reveals how those deaths are connected to the French police’s brutalization and abuse of Theo earlier this year, and the countless deaths African Americans experience when they come into contact with the police force that is supposed to protect them. It then becomes apparent how those deaths are connected to the countless stop and searches, and the inhumane detention of Africans who seek asylum in Europe. All of these events, and the countless others, are linked directly to a need to control the black body that with slavery and colonialism.

If we see these connections, we can see how the police’s desire to control black bodies is linked to the private security company G4S’s desire to do the same. On a global scale, G4S literally makes money out of criminalizing and controlling black bodies. G4S operates prisons, border controls, deportations (that, as in the case of Jimmy Mubenga, can be fatal), and more: in a sense then, G4S, like other private security firms, and even the police, operate as modern-day slave masters. This statement is not to make light of the Transatlantic slave trade, or to disregard any racial progress that has been made, but to emphasize the continuation of deep-seated racisms.

Although they might seem near completely disparate, connections can also be drawn between the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell, and the recent atrocities in Sierra Leone.

Both the burning of the Grenfell tower, and the mudslides in Sierra Leone, may initially appear as pure accidents that occur at random and could happen to anybody, anywhere. But in the case of Grenfell we know that black and brown children are far more likely to live in substandard housing, and that most children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks are black and Asian. We know that residents warned of the dangers way before this happened and we know those deaths could have been prevented.

Sierra Leone has seen a lacklustre response from international powers, perhaps because too often, Black bodies, Black African bodies, do not matter. Moreover, because of the ways in which Europe continues to under-develop Africa, Sierra Leone does not have the kind of infrastructure needed to cope with such disasters. Climate change is a causal factor in those mudslides, and whilst the West are responsible for much of that climate change, it is on the African continent that those consequences are being more harshly felt.

Just as black and Asian children in Britain are more likely to live in the conditions that could see them caught up in a ‘disaster’ like Grenfell, those on the African continent (and in the Caribbean and Asia) are more likely to live in conditions that leave them susceptible to the threat of disasters like these latest mudslides. What connects these ‘disasters’, is the devaluation of black bodies and a disregard for black lives.

As anti-racists, the challenges we face are interconnected, and they are connected to a long history of racism and white supremacy. To overcome these challenges, we need to offer an interconnected response: this response would be cognisant of the connections between the fates of Africa and the African Diaspora, the connections between African Diasporans, and the connections between our struggles.

The struggles against racist policing, and the struggles against substandard anti-Black education, are connected. So too are the struggles against climate racism, the struggles for adequate housing, and the struggles for equality in employment.

All these struggles are connected to the struggles of African nations and the African continent: the struggles against land grabs, and the struggles against international debts and economic inequalities.

Recognising the interconnectedness of these struggles will enable us to build much stronger movements, that recognise and learn from the past. Moving forward, our strength is in our unity: this is a lesson from Pan African thought.

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