When Radical Scholars And Activists Converge: Inward Conversations

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020
  |
Njuki Githethwa

A Kenyan writer and Activist

The third of the series of the workshops held by the Review of African Political Economy, better known by the acronym of ROAPE took place on 26 and 27 November, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The workshop was held under the title: Resistance and Transformation in Africa: A Workshop for movements and activist – scholars.

A host of radical scholars and activists, most from Africa participated in this workshop. This paper is a reflection of the theme and content of this workshop.

Scholars as activists, activists as scholars

There are varied contestations whether the radicalism of movements, scholars and activists are similar. Can scholars be part of the movements for social justice while primarily located in the realms of academia? In other words, can scholars be radical without necessarily being active in social movements? Is there meaning for theory without active practice? Likewise is argued for radical activists. The futility of activism without a concrete theory underlying the activism and images of the alternative world they are struggling to create. The widely held consensus is that theory does not have meaning without practice, to paraphrase Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Cabral among others.  Likewise, activism is futile without being grounded in theory.

This is where vogue terms in movements theorizing and practices come into play. Of scholar activists for those whose field of play is academia but stretch out in activist struggles, the theory meeting practice. Of the activist scholars engaged in practical struggles but who dabble in scholarly study and discourses on social movements to understand and give meaning to their activism, practice meeting theory.

This is the convergence of the organic intellectual referred to by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and political activist. Issa Shivji in his presentation titled, Metamorphosis of the revolutionary intellectual - https://www.pambazuka.org/pan-africanism/metamorphosis-revolutionary-intellectual elaborates on Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual:

‘Organic intellectuals of the oppressed and exploited social classes may be considered, proto-revolutionary intellectuals to the extent that they seek to make the ideology – by word and deed of the oppressed - hegemonic. By thus participating in ideological struggles, they contribute to the underlying class struggle, even though they may not participate directly in such struggles. Some of these organic intellectuals may become actual revolutionary intellectuals by directly participating in class struggles. We have examples of such revolutionary intellectuals in our midst. Amilcar Cabral was one such intellectual; so was Chris Hani, John Garang, Félix Moumié, Walter Rodney, to name a few. All of them were assassinated at strategic moments in the respective struggles they were involved in.’

Sites of convergence for movement scholars and activists

Scholars and activists for social movements live out their lives engaged in various sites of resistance and mobilisations across the continent. This workshop provided spaces for analysis and discussions on the various sites of struggles that scholars and activists are engaged in across the African continent: On mapping resistance across the continent; youth and student mobilisations and intergenerational learning; work, trade unions and the working class; land struggles and rural struggles; popular mobilisations, alliances and revolution; and the public event: Africa Rising: conversations across generations.

Mapping resistance across the continent

Mapping resistance across the continent interrogates perceptions of protests and mobilisations in Africa based on ACLED interaction codes analysed by the Centre for Social Change (CSC), University of Johannesburg.  ACLED is an acronym for Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), a disaggregated conflict collection, analysis and crisis mapping project. Case studies of the protests between 2012-2018 are drawn from 11 countries in Africa: Tunisia, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

The entry point of this analysis and presentation is not necessarily on the data shared, but to understand whether these protests and mobilisations fit into the long history of political transformation in Africa. Key to this focus is whether there is a pattern to these protests and mobilisations. Are the protests ideological, based on class for example? Are the protests focused on dismantling the neo-colonial states or reforming capitalism and the neo-liberal order? What are the current sparks and hotspots of resistance that social movements can create liberated zones? What are the grievances and identities of the actors driving these protests and mobilisations across the continent? Such analysis and understanding provides cannon fodder for scholars and activists to transform various sites of protests across the continent to sites of struggles for a just social order. 

Youth and student mobilisations and intergenerational learning

This creates an understanding of the implications of youth’s struggles for political transformation across the continent. It is about forging links of resistance and struggle between unemployed youth, young workers and students. It is about identifying new forms of organizing, communication and media that are championed by the youth. This comes against the background of accusations from the youth that the older generation of freedom fighters is not mentoring them adequately, that they do not understand them, that they are not giving them space.

Likewise, the older generation of freedom fighters accuse the youth of being impatient, assuming to be all-knowing, of thinking they are the centre pieces of the struggle, of wanting to displace and overthrow the old. The moon being seen by the young is the same moon being seen by the older generation. The youth are only seeing this moon with fresh, brighter and focused eyes of the times as the older generation did in their times. There is nothing like handing over the struggle. This is a neo-liberal marketization of the struggle. The youth usually take over the struggle with their vibrant and boundless energies, new songs, new means of communication, new ways of organizing, new languages of the struggle that the older generation cannot keep up with, neither fathom.

The older generation thus steps aside, still as partakers in the struggle, to caution, advise and support wherever necessary based on the realities of the times, devoid of the biases of their times. The struggle for a just social order displaces no age.  The older generation of freedom fighters should take seriously the struggle of the young generation of freedom fighters, learn and engage with them within their limits. Likewise, the young generation of freedom fighters needs to learn from past struggles and listen to the caution and advice of the older generation, forging new paths and forms of struggle without being bogged by past analysis and ways of organizing. Each generation creates new languages, new paradigms, new terrains, new forms of organizing in the struggle, only being captive of class and ideology, not age-sets, neither identities nor gender.

Work, trade unions and the working class

This is about the nature of the workplace and the roles of the working class in the revolution. Relation and access to the means of production is central to the revolution. The peasants and workers were central in relation and access to the means of production. They were a class, a force and agents of the revolution. Are the peasants still a force and agents of revolution when neo-liberalism has commodified peasantry lands and pushed the peasants to margins of subsistence and games with survival? When the daily worry of the peasant is where to get enough to feed her or his family and make a living out of farm produce; not on how to organize for greater produce and markets and collective prosperity?  When merchants of neo-liberalism continue to preach and configure the interests of the workers as only the quest for higher wages and affluence more than their neighbours? When ravages of deregulation and austerity measures have reduced millions of workers in Africa to the struggle for food and survival, making them to cling hopelessly to their precarious jobs? When strikes and protests mean loss of jobs and a life of painful penury for the worker’s family? On the margins is the mass army of the unemployed, mostly the youth, waiting with baited breaths to take over their jobs. Their trade unions are in bed with the exploiting state and owners of capital, making their leaders filthy rich, oceans apart from the plight and realities of the ordinary struggling workers.

For the current worker to engage in collective industrial actions, there needs to be safeguards for victimization and security of jobs that the neo-colonial states and owners of capital have dismantled. The current industrial workers are in precarious positions to engage in collective industrial actions. They have lives to lose, not only their chains.    

Perhaps then the current revolutionary classes in Africa are the labouring classes with nothing to lose as they have lost everything already to neo-liberalism. These are the unemployed, casual labourers, informal workers, known in Kenya as Jua Kali, petty traders and hawkers, known as Wamachinga in Tanzania, the marginalized workers as the current force and agents for the revolution. This would require new ways of theorizing, analyzing and organizing the new working classes and an ideology not focused on analysis and debates but on heightening the pent-up anger of these labouring classes as a means of improving the conditions of their lives. The language of the revolution is the language of anger that is captured clearly in contradictions such as toilers versus exploiters, oppressors versus the oppressed or in the Rastafari parlance, Them versus Us – Them bellyful, We hungry. This gives way to a rethinking of new paradigms and identities of the struggle and the identification of new sites and narratives of power. However, the revolution is not a matter of yes or no to any labouring classes but a focus on the class with the greatest potential for the revolution. 

Land struggles and rural struggles

Land struggles and rural struggles express the dynamics and similarities of resistance between the rural and urban areas. The peasants and urban workers are equally ravaged by the demands of capitalism to focus on personal survival and interests. Many young and able bodied in rural areas have been pushed into extremes of despair and frustrations by hopelessness, seeing their only way out as disappearing into alcoholism and drugs or escape into the cities in search of jobs. Their parents and the elderly eke out their survival in subsistence farming, most steeped in escapist religion and mysticism, looking out for their sons or daughters or spouses in the cities to improve the conditions of their lives.

Peasant lands in many settler economies such as Kenya continue to get smaller and smaller as they are sub-divided among family members and kinsfolk or put on sale to assuage greater financial demands. Across all Kenya for example, there are countless signposts dotted all over of ‘Land for Sale’. The entire country is on sale. Land is no longer taken as a means of production but as a commodity in the market going to the highest bidder. Enterprising folks in the rural areas have turned into merchants and speculators of land sales, not of farm produce.

Ravages of climate change and the inability of the peasants left behind to fashion good farming practices and diversification of crops has rendered commercial peasant farming an exercise in futility or a study in rural patience. The affluent urban middle classes have turned into grabbers of rural lands ignited by the capitalists’ vanity and pride of ‘making it’, and ‘owning’ for self - esteem and ego among  their class a piece of the world. The grabbers and looters mantra is of land as the best and most enduring investment. Any talk of land nationalization is taken as another big word in the dictionary, not for concrete practice. Not even a collective desire. Just another nice word, close to nationalism.

The vistas of land and rural struggles in many countries across Africa is to reshape the mindsets of the rural youths, the able bodied and their parents which have been distorted by neo-liberal capitalism, to take land as a natural resource, a means of production, owned and used for the benefit of the collective. Spaced and strategic popular forms of political education, coupled with various forms of self-reliance to assuage the demands of day to day survival, will go a long way to capture the revolutionary and material interests of the peasantry. This is a slow and protracted process, much unlike urban insurgencies. Attitudes and mindsets for land nationalization come along as needs of survival and prosperity for the peasants own sake, not from top down rhetoric. This is the practice of socialism from below, not top-down. This would require the scholars and activists steeped in ideological study and analysis in the cities and rural areas to be grounded in rural realities, working and journeying alongside the peasants as one of them. This will not be an immediate revolution, it is protracted, a study in ideological patience, at best the concept of liberated zones as a process of the revolution in the prevailing circumstances.  

Popular mobilisations, alliances and revolution

Popular mobilisations, alliances and revolution explore the relationship between popular mobilisations and politics. Positions that insurgent uprisings can end up successful or doomed depends on the ideological moorings of the movement or the alliances with, or infiltration by,  radical insurgents focused on ideological organizing and social change. Bereft of ideological footholds and visions of the kind of society they want to build, insurgent movements go through moments of high and low, frustrations, disillusion, doubt and eventual collapse. The disillusion and collapse of insurgent uprisings comes faster when they dalliance with NGOs whose visions of change is short-term, reformist and revisionist within the neo-liberal framework. Insurgent uprisings tend to go further, albeit slower in their alliances with progressive trade unions and social movements of the working classes, much faster and orderly when collectively focused on an ideological restructuring of their neo-colonial states and the neo-liberal order.

Popular uprisings can end up being political parties on their own and compete in elections. Left political parties can form alliances with  popular uprisings or become the umbrella of popular discontent when they work and walk along painstakingly with insurgent uprisings as part of the movement, not as unique and set political formations. Participation in general elections is usually of low-tide moments for movements forged out of popular uprisings and left political parties as the voting masses are easily swayed over during elections by short-term gains fronted by moneyed politicians and liberal political outfits.  The substitute is when popular uprisings and left political parties score tangible gains for the masses as liberated zones along the process of popular uprisings, when they convert liberated zones as domains of liberated people. Participating in elections then becomes one of the processes of liberating the people, not a finality of the struggles. Community organizing, movement building, strategic alliances and engagements become essential keypads for the popular uprisings in the liberation of zones and mindsets of the people for the revolution.

Africa Rising or Africa Uprising?

The public event is a conversation across generations dubbed as ‘Africa Rising’. The event organisers had previously toyed terming the event as Africa Uprising. There are in vogue other variations known as Africans Uprising, etc.

Africa Rising is a trendy term generated within capitalist and neo-liberal outfits and mind-sets to signify the economies of some African countries whose GDP is rising exponentially. Africa is also considered as the continent with the most youthful population across the world. These young Africans are taking lead in innovations and creations in various fields of human endeavor. The middle class is taken as ballooning in Africa. Millionaires and billionaires are rising in Africa, taking the pride of place among the ranks of the richest in the world. Forbes Magazine’s list of Who is Who amongst the richest in the world has pride of place and its sights are set on Africa.

Africa is viewed in the eyes of the West as one country, thus the narrative of Africa rising as one country. Africa rising in neo-liberal outlooks ignores the realities of the majority of African countries and people still strapped in internecine warfare, backwardness and poverty.  The true measure of development or rising then is not on how many innovations and creations are emerging from Africa, or the millionaires and billionaires being created in Africa, not even the rise in GDP in some countries in Africa; it is the measure of how many Africans are rising out of poverty, to freedom, equity and justice.

The fact is that colonialism, just like slavery, apartheid, and such other epithets cannot be blamed forever for the material shackles of many countries and masses of people in Africa. To blame and crush down is the neo-colonialism and the ravaging waves of neo – liberalism sweeping across the continent. These waves are leading to progressive uprisings in Africa. Perhaps then, the identity that is most befitting is ‘Africa Uprising’.  Africa uprising against neo – colonialism and neo-liberalism.

Taking possession of the term ‘Africa Rising’ that is generated from neo-liberal thoughts and practices, in spite of its nuances in various connotations is to ignore the concrete realities in Africa and to give credence to neo-liberal distortions. Owning the language of description and naming of realities in our own words is in itself an uprising towards freedom and equity. It is about shaping our own identities and taking possession of the path of development and the kind of social order that makes meaning to Africa and the freedom to choose friends and company. These are the conversations across generations.  It is the dialogue and stances among radical scholars and activists when they converge.

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