Giving voice to global Africans in Joburg and Barbados

Written by Prof Adekeye Adebajo

Africa’s one billion people and its Diaspora’s 134 million citizens in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Europe constitute what is commonly known as “Global Africa.” Members of this group fought for the emancipation of black populations from the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and were active in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. Since 1994, the bridges between Africa and its Diaspora have been broken, ironically during an era when a Kenyan-Kansan – Barack Obama – was president of the United States between 2009 and 2016. The African Union’s idea of the Diaspora as the continent’s sixth sub-region has also become an empty gesture, largely devoid of substance.

The establishment of the Institute for Global African Affairs between the University of Johannesburg and the University of the West Indies in Johannesburg and Barbados this month, thus represents a civil society effort to rebuild “Global Africa.” Both institutions are planning a joint Master’s degree on Global Africa which will cover important issues such as Pan-African Thought, Sustainable Development, Conflict Resolution, Gender, and Race and Identity in Africa and the Caribbean. This initial 10-year collaboration also envisages research collaboration and academic exchanges.

So, why is the Caribbean important to Africa?

The intellectual roots of Pan-Africanism were laid by the pioneering work of St. Thomas’s Edward Blyden in his 1887 classic Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey built the largest black civil society movement in the world – the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA). Trinidadian lawyer, Henry Sylvester-Williams, was the moving force behind the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 which began the struggle for African liberation that culminated in the independence of most African states by the 1960s. Fellow Trinidadian scholar-activist, George Padmore, worked as an adviser to Ghana’s founding president, Kwame Nkrumah.

Another Nkrumah adviser was St. Lucia’s Arthur Lewis who remains the only black Nobel prize winner in economics, and championed multi-party democracy across Africa. Martinique’s Frantz Fanon was instrumental in philosophising the need for Africa’s post-independence political and socio-economic revolution, and opposed France’s savage war against Algerian independence (1954-1962). Jamaica’s Dudley Thompson assembled the legal team in 1952 that defended Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta from charges of being an instigator of the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, and was also a founding member of Julius Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union (TANU).

Trinidad’s C.L.R. James was a pioneering voice in Post-Colonial Studies and a political activist who focused centrally on Subaltern Studies. His 1938 Black Jacobins remains a classic of the Haitian revolution. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaican sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall – one of the pioneers of the “Birmingham School of Cultural Studies” – incorporated issues of race, gender, and hegemony into the field of Cultural Studies. Guyanese scholar-activist, Walter Rodney – a pioneering member of the Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy – traced the roots of African underdevelopment to European colonialism in his famous 1972 treatise How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney consistently lamented the consumerist rather than the productive nature of African economies and the general lack of savings across the continent. A more contemporary scholar, Barbadian historian, Hilary Beckles, has insisted that European nations pay reparations to Caribbeans and Africans for four centuries of slavery, arguing that African governments betrayed the reparations movement at the United Nations (UN) Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001.

Caribbean citizens also contributed to the cultural emancipation of Global Africa. Pan-Africanism represented the reaction by the black African Diaspora to white racism, and Martinique’s Aimé Césaire developed the idea of négritude which glorified black culture, and affirmed the worth and dignity of black people across the globe. Bahamian-American actor, Sidney Poitier, was the first black winner of an Oscar in 1964. St. Lucia’s poet-playwright, Derek Walcott, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Haitian-American film director, Raoul Peck, produced tragic tales on Patrice Lumumba and the Rwandan genocide (Sometimes in April). Grenadian-Trinidadian British director, Steve McQueen, produced the Oscar-winning best film, 12 Years A Slave. African cultural decolonization was further waged through the radical reggae rhythms of Jamaica’s Bob Marley, and the fiery calypso rhythms of Jamaican-Martiniquan American, Harry Bellafonte.

Caribbean countries – notably Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago – also contributed enormously to the anti-apartheid struggle both bilaterally and through supporting the multilateral activities of the UN, the Commonwealth, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Guyanese public servants went to work in post-independence Zambia. About 2,000 disproportionately black Cuban soldiers – the descendants of former African slaves – also died fighting for South Africa’s liberation in Angola between 1975 and 1988. Their sacrifices are now commemorated in Freedom Park near Tshwane.

To revive Global Africa, the AU could invite Caribbean leaders to participate in its meetings, and host annual AU-CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) summits. This would give concrete substance to the idea of the Diaspora as Africa’s sixth sub-region. It is also essential to promote a civil society-led movement from Kinshasa to Kingston, from Bahia to Boston to Birmingham.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in the Business Day (South Africa), 26 November 2018.

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