EXTRACT | The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, poets and philosophers

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Pan-African Pantheon
Pan-African Pantheon

'The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, poets and philosophers' consists of biographical essays of 36 major Pan-African figures by a diverse and prominent group of African, Caribbean, and African-American scholars. They examine historical and contemporary Pan-Africanism as an ideology of emancipation and unity. Among those covered are Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, and Thabo Mbeki, as well as popular figures not typically identified with mainstream Pan-Africanism such as Maya Angelou, Mariama Ba^, Buchi Emecheta, Miriam Makeba, Ruth First, Wangari Maathai and Wole Soyinka. The book also covers topics such as the history and pioneers of Pan-Africanism; the quest for reparations; politicians; poets; activists, as well as Pan-Africanism in the social sciences, philosophy, literature, and its musical activists. Here is an extract from a chapter written by Sir Hilary Beckles.


The Great Betrayal: The 2001 World Conference against Racism

Then came “Durban”, and the betrayal of the diaspora, in the building it had helped to construct – a free South Africa – by those leaders who had benefited the most from the great sacrifices of those who came before them. It was in August–September 2001, at the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, that “old Pan-Africanism” was finally laid to rest, without being given a decent burial. A global audience was gathered to examine the legacies of chattel slavery, native genocide and colonialism that remained in place, still defining the post-liberation era of African history. Hosted by South Africa’s president Thabo Mkebi (see Adebajo in this volume) – the heir who had inherited the Pan-African mantle of the saintly Nelson Mandela – the diaspora arrived in Durban with its agenda to discuss reparatory justice for the historical crimes committed against humanity during five centuries of slavery and colonialism.

It was a grand reciprocal moment when the diaspora expected –and had good cause to celebrate – the epic Pan-African continuation of black solidarity. We expected the liberated “Mother” to stand cheek to chest with its Creole children in embracing the case for collective justice in order to soothe the sorrows of slavery. It was, however, not to be. Up to the designing of the Durban gathering, the expression of Pan-African solidarity was vocal and sometimes vociferous. Reparations would, however, turn out to be the key that slammed African doors in the face of the diaspora.

The “West” – the United States, Canada and Western Europe – stood in solidarity with each other. Africa broke with its own diaspora, joined with the former enslavers and colonisers, sending shivers down the spines of Pan-African soldiers and scholars. Thus was shattered the Pan-African solidarity that had so painstakingly been constructed over half a millennium. One by one, African leaders told the West that it had nothing to fear from the diaspora, now cast in the diplomatic dungeon as disruptors of the Durban peace. Nigeria – which had lost about five million souls to the sugar plantations of the West Indies – joined with the West against the West Indies. Ghana – which was first gutted by the British slave trading companies owned by the royals of Westminster in the late seventeenth century – joined with the descendants of these former monarchs against Barbados, the first Ghanaian diaspora. Senegal – where it had all begun on the island of Gorée, the place that had sent the first shipments from Gambia to the galleys of the slave ships – was aggressive in its betrayal of its enslaved ancestors. Its president, Abdoulaye Wade, dismissed claims for reparations as “childish”.

South African host Thabo Mbeki presided over the Durban debacle that sent the diaspora home bewildered in its isolated reality. The Caribbean feared that it could no longer count on Africa to reciprocate within Pan-African solidarity. Reparations were officially expunged from the agenda, and placed in non-binding brackets in the conference documents so that Western governments could walk away from their unspeakable historical crimes. In post-apartheid South Africa, then, West African states and West Indian nations parted ways. The Durban conference, as a result of this unbridgeable rift, agreed to a resolution to be adopted by the UN, that the enchainment and enslavement of Africans in the diaspora should have been a crime. The treachery of the word “should” stood as clear testimony of the betrayal that had driven a sharp wedge through the heart of Pan-Africanism.

For participants at this inter-governmental forum – including this author – the Pan-African ideal had died a painful death in Durban at the hands of African leaders who were clearly not representing the popular views of their own civil societies and 800 million-strong populations. From Senegal to South Africa and from Banjul to Bamako, civil society groups stood in solidarity with the diaspora. They too had been betrayed by their political leaders. They too had had the scales removed from their eyes, as their rulers’ compromises on the most violent crimes committed against humanity stood in stark contrast to how the West had dealt with the Nazi Holocaust, which had killed an estimated six million Jews between 1933 and 1945.

The diasporic dream of Pan-Africanism thus descended into a nightmare that became the “Durban delusion”. This paved the way for the official approach to post-apartheid amnesia. The description of the diaspora as “naive” in its expectations of support for the cause of reparatory justice only added insult to injury. “Sold from Africa” had been the old diaspora song; “Sold out in Africa” now became the new jingle. Jazz gave way to the blues, and the lady was no longer singing.

Pan-Africanism was resoundingly rejected in Durban in 2001 in the language of African political leaders who saw their future responsibility for Africa as having little or no relevance to the diaspora. For sure, the latter had hoped that the reparatory justice movement would create for Pan-Africanism a new frame of reference, adjusted and more relevant to the liberation agenda of the twenty-first century. It was expected to rekindle the same passion and purpose that had characterised its twentieth-century antecedent. This was, however, clearly not the thinking of African leaders. They proposed to the world body a different vision and language. Rolled out instead was the concept of the “African Renaissance”, a nebulous alternative to global “reparatory justice” that sought to delegitimise the diaspora by winning Western support, aid and investments (see also Adebajo on Mbeki in this volume).10

Mbeki’s African Renaissance was effectively a general reformulation of the World Bank’s development strategy for Africa in which the continent’s dependence on foreign direct investment and financial assistance, largely from the West, was considered the only option available. Steeped in Western dependency, the African Renaissance lacked any moral or intellectual integrity or authority, and used a weak rationale for rejecting the diaspora’s vision for the deepening of Pan-Africanism and the continuation of African liberation.

After Durban: The Birth of “Global Africa”

 What has unfolded in the two decades since Durban speaks to the weakening of solidarity within Pan-Africanism. The state of Africa’s political leadership no longer inspires the diaspora, and there is a growing belief that what the Caribbean sees as African liberation is not what Pan-Africanism itself had imagined. The diasporic betrayal at Durban is now read, in hindsight, as a necessary step to unhinge the leadership of Africa’s growing dependency – as well as its neo-colonial politics and policies – from the vision of Pan-Africanism. Furthermore, Durban is seen across the diaspora as the first salvo to free African governments from any moral obligation to diaspora nations by foreclosing any request for reciprocity. The evidence of this rupture and the rescinding of historical obligations is found in the data that show, for example, Angola’s extraordinary high levels of direct foreign investments from Portugal, the coloniser that bled its people dry, while Luanda has attracted no investments of any significance from Cuba, which had paid the greatest human price in blood for its liberation. Likewise, South Africa, despite its post-Mandela euphoria, has not promoted much development in “New World” diasporas that had campaigned vigorously for its liberation over decades of bloody sacrifice. The tepid designation of the diaspora as Africa’s sixth region by the African Union (AU) in the aftermath of Durban,13 and the effective marginalisation of “global Pan-Africanism” within the AU, reveal how “shadow politics” have replaced the real life centrality of “Global Africa”.

In the absence of a legitimate Pan-Africanism to guide its ideological emergence, Africa and its 55 nation-states of one billion people have drifted into neo-colonial idealisms that invite the cultural and political recolonisation of the continent. Many minor reversals have had a snowball effect, each with its own weakening impact upon the consolidation of liberation movements. Africa’s rising middle classes find reasons to crave and celebrate “Europeanness” in their midst. The collapse of continent–diaspora solidarity at Durban signalled, in many respects, the beginning of the end of twentieth-century versions of Pan-Africanism. It also brought to a close the traditional ideological hierarchy that had structured the vexing “pure and Creole” and “core and castaway” paradigms.

Furthermore, Durban discredited the legitimacy of the call in Pan-African discourses for diasporas to accept their subordinate status and play a supportive role in the service of the Motherland. Instead, what reached full maturity was the notion that “continent and castaways” were now on an equal footing, both home to nation-states that were equal in the new Pan-African community.

- Sir Hilary Beckles is a Professor and a Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI). He is Vice-President of the International Task Force for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Slave Route Project; and an advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Sustainable Development. He is Chair of the Caribbean Communities Commission on Reparation and Social Justice. He has lectured extensively in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, and published over ten scholarly books, including 'Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide'.


*That was an extract from a chapter from the book 'The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, poets and philosophers' written by Sir Hilary Beckles. It is edited by Adekeye Adebajo and published by Jacana. 

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