by Mandisi Majavu, Pambazuka
Frantz Fanon once wrote that the challenge facing civil society and
progressive governments in Africa is how to organize African countries
around values that promote and encourage participatory democracy, equity
and mutual aid. Although most African countries gained independence
from European colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s, that remains the
biggest challenge facing the continent today.
It is for this reason that many political commentators expected the Arab
Spring in North Africa to spill over to Africa south of the Sahara.
When that did not happen it was hastily pointed out that Africans are
too technologically disconnected and rural to organize protest movements
that would topple dictators on the continent. The weakness of this
argument, however, is that it does not take into consideration the
political protests that have been taking place on the continent for the
past two years.
These political events indicate that people on the continent are
increasingly demanding to participate in socio-economic decision-making
that affects their lives.
The recent general strike and mass protests against the fuel subsidy
removal in Nigeria show that people want to be included in economic
decision-making that impact on their lives. Similarly, the Mozambique
food riots of 2010 illustrated this point well. The food riots were
sparked by a jump in the price of bread which led to a three days of
protests in Mozambique, and that in turn forced the government to
reverse the increase in the price of bread.
The walk-to-work campaign in Uganda in 2011, which was also a protest
against high living costs and rising fuel prices in that country, did
not quite achieve the same results that people in Mozambique won.
Nevertheless, these protests, as well as other ongoing social conflicts
in other parts of the continent, point to the fact that African
societies are failing our people. It is a truism to argue that African
societies are incapable of meeting people’s economic desires and
people’s political aspirations.
A liberatory politics is warranted, and a better way of organizing
African economies is long overdue. The starting point would be to
recognize that neo-liberal economic policies are not the solution. As
Ha-Joon Chang points out in his book ‘Bad Samaritans: The myth of free
trade and the secret history of capitalism’, even developed countries,
which include Britain and the US, did not become rich on the basis of
following the neo-liberal economics mantra. “Today’s rich countries used
protection and subsidies, while discriminating against foreign
investors,” writes Chang.
Further, the self-serving worldview of the African elite that economic
development should take priority over democratic demands has proven to
be a very effective propaganda trick that keeps the African masses in
line. The economic relationship between China and African states is
based on this notion. Thus dictators such as Robert Mugabe are able to
access financial aid from China for ostensibly economic development
while, simultaneously, overseeing one of the most repressive regimes on
It is also worth noting that although Chinese financial aid comes with
no strings attached, economists argue that international borrowing tends
to entangle poor countries in debt traps from which it is impossible
for them to escape. Additionally, the current global economic system is
designed to favour stronger and bigger economies as opposed to weak
economies. Naturally, in such a system, the Chinese will always come out
the winners in their engagements with African states.
What is to be done? The African Union (AU) has, among other things, been
grappling with this question for a long time. Since its establishment
in 1999 the AU has ineffectively tried to accelerate the “process of
integration in the continent to enable it to play its rightful role in
the global economy”. The meetings and summits that the AU holds
regularly do not seem to lead to any fundamental political changes in
I am of the view that fundamental economic and political change in
Africa will only come when ordinary people agitate en masse for
political changes. The Mozambique food riots of 2010 and the recent mass
protests in Nigeria show that people are capable of forcing governments
to back down from enforcing policies that have a negative impact on
their lives. It is this history that ought to inform our politics, and
not the AU summits and meetings.
There are political and economic models that African states could
emulate. For instance, research shows that societies that are organized
along social democratic policies tend to have low poverty rates, low
unemployment rates, and high standards of living. That is one model for
those with a liberal bent.
For the rest of us who are for social revolution, we want nothing less
than the elimination of social hierarchies, authoritative
decision-making, poverty and inequality. We seek to build liberatory and
human centred societal institutions for production, consumption and
allocation. For a new Africa to function, it is necessary to create
societal institutions that complement and support one another across
different societal realms. This means that the new economic institutions
that we create ought to be consistent with the aims of our political
institutions as well as our mental outlook.
This is the Africa that Fanon had in mind when he wrote the essay, “This
Africa to come”. As Fanon once wrote, the current oppressive system
will not commit suicide for the new Africa to be born. The first step
toward building new societies is through events that change history,
such as, the mass protests against the removal of the fuel subsidy,
which recently took place in Nigeria, as well as the Mozambique food
riots of 2010.
The most important step in bringing about a social revolution is to
develop a vision for a better society. It is the lack of such a vision
that prevents mass protests from becoming full-blown uprisings.
Developing a coherent vision that is relevant to the 21st century Africa
is the task facing the new generation of activists in Africa.