What does it mean  to be ‘african’?

The apartheid state of South Africa, as did the colonial regime in Kenya, used the term ‘African’ to classify people who had a particular skin colour, curly hair, and certain facial features, based on the assumptions that separate the human species into ‘races’. Others use the term to refer to those who live in, or whose origin is from, any part of the continental land mass known as ‘Africa’. Still others use the term to refer to those in or from the continent but exclude the Arabic-speaking people of the northern parts of the continent. Some exclude even those who may have migrated to the continent centuries ago because their facial and hair features are not consistent with an essentialised idea of the African. Can all those who are citizens of African countries (and its associated islands) be considered African? Just what is meant by the term? It’s surprising how many take the term for granted.

I want to discuss, here, the political meaning of the term ‘African’ that breaks with the biological and essentialised caricature of what it means to be African.

My starting point is the following excerpt from an important speech Amilcar Cabral made to party members of the PAIGC:

We talk a lot about Africa, but we in our Party must remember that before being Africans we are … human beings, who belong to the whole world. We cannot therefore allow any interest of our people to be restricted or thwarted because of our condition as Africans. We must put the interests of our people higher, in the context of the interests of mankind in general, and then we can put them in the context of the interests of Africa in general. (Cabral 1979: 80)

There are three elements in this statement around which I will structure my argument. First, how did a section of humanity come to be viewed as ‘African’? Second, how might the ‘condition as Africans’ restrict or thwart the interests of the people? And finally, what is meant by putting ‘the interests of our people higher’ in the context of the interests of humankind in general, a people who ‘belong to the whole world’?

How humans became Africans

It has long been established how the peoples who lived on the continent of Africa formed a diverse range of social formations that paralleled, and, in some instances, were in advance of those that emerged in other parts of the world.  While these societies occurred on this vast geographic landmass today called Africa, the inhabitants of these societies would not have considered themselves at the time as being ‘African’. The continent was home to many of the world’s great civilisations, such as Egypt, Kush, Aksum, Ghana, Mali and Great Zimbabwe. We must remember that much of southern Europe was occupied by the Cordoba empire over a period of more than 700 years, bringing developments in medicine, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy that originated from Africa and were translated from Arabic scripts. The empire was eventually destroyed in 1492, the same year that Columbus set sail across the Atlantic (guided by pilots from Africa).

It was not until the fifteenth century that the concept African came to be applied as the nomenclature of all the peoples who lived on the continent. It was a term conceived by Europe that came to prominence in the period of the establishment of the European enslavement of Africans, the Atlantic slave trade and the condemnation of large sections of humanity to chattel slavery. While Europe was aware that there was a great diversity of societies and cultures of the people across the continent (which were exploited to facilitate the capture and enslavement of Africans), they assigned the category ‘African’ to all those who in European minds belonged to the ‘dark continent’. ‘Colonialism did not think it worth its while denying one national culture after the other. Consequently the colonised’s response was immediately continental in scope.’ (Fanon 1961: 151)

To be able to subject millions of humans to the barbarism of enslavement and slavery required defining them and treating them as non-human. The process required a systematic and institutionalised attempt at the destruction of existing cultures, languages, histories and capacities to produce, organise, tell stories, invent, love, make music, sing songs, make poetry, produce art, philosophise, and to formulate in their minds that which they imagine before giving it concrete form – all things that make a people human. This attempt to destroy the culture of Africans turned out to be a signal failure. For while the colonizers destroyed the institutions on the continent, the memories of their culture, institutions, art forms, music and all that which is associated with being human remained, both on the continent and in the diaspora where the enslaved Africans found themselves.

In essence, if we were to search for a word that encapsulated the outcome of this dehumanisation process, it is the word ‘African’, a word that represented the transformation of humans from a particular geography into being considered as non-humans or sub-humans. Africans were to be considered as a people without a history, without culture, without any contribution to make to human history, a view perpetuated by philosophers of the Enlightenment. Racism was a fundamental feature of nascent capitalism and later a fundamental feature of the emergence of capitalism and the subsequent period of colonisation that subjugated vast sections of humanity across the globe to its voracious need for increasing the rate of accumulation of capital.

As such we cannot talk of capitalism, and its evolution as a colonising power, as imperialism, and in the form of modern-day ‘globalisation’, as something independent of racism – the process by which vast sections of humanity are defined as being less than human. As Domenico Losurdo points out, liberalism and racial slavery had a twin birth and have remained intertwined ever since. The democracy of the sacred space that the Enlightenment gave birth to in the New World was a ‘Herrenvolk democracy’, a democracy of the white master race, a democracy that refused to allow blacks, let alone indigenous peoples, or indeed even white women, to be considered citizens. The ideology of a master-race democracy was reproduced as capital colonised vast sections of the globe. The construct of race was the product of racism, not the other way round.

Reclaiming humanity: African as an emancipatory term

If being cast as African was to be defined as being less than human, the resounding claim of every movement in opposition to enslavement, every slave revolt, every opposition to European colonisation, every challenge to the institutions of white supremacy, and every resistance to racism constituted an assertion of their identity as humans. Where the European considered Africans subhuman, the response was to claim the identity of ‘African’ as a positive, liberating definition of a people, a people who are part of humanity (Manji 2017a). ‘A reconversion of minds – of mental set – is thus indispensable to the true integration of people into the liberation movement wrote Cabral. ‘Such reconversion – re-Africanization, in our case – may take place before the struggle, but it is complete only during the course of the struggle, through daily contact with the popular masses in the communion of sacrifice required by the struggle’ (Cabral 1973: 45).

The most important breakthrough in asserting the universalist humanity of Africans occurred on an island in the Caribbean. The San Domingue revolution, which began with the uprising of slaves in 1791, ended with the establishment of the independent state of Haiti in 1804, the first successful revolution led by African slaves (most of whom were originally enslaved from what is today the northern regions of Angola and the southern regions of the Congo). This was to shake the western world because of its truly emancipatory nature. ‘Few transformations in world history have been more momentous, few required more sacrifice or promised more hope’ (Hallward 2004: 2).

It was this same cry to assert that Africans are humans that informed the movements for national liberation in the post-Second World War period, and indeed informed the emerging revolution in South Africa from the mid-1980s until 1994. It was the mass mobilisations of those seeking to overthrow the oppressive yoke of colonialism that formed the basis upon which the nationalist movements were thrown into power. The struggle for independence in Africa was informed, at the base, by the experience of struggles against oppression and brutal exploitation experienced in everyday life.

In the struggles for national liberation, the term African had become intimately associated with the concept of freedom and emancipation. The very definition of African came to be viewed in political, not racial or ethnic, terms. Cabral went so far as to draw a distinction between those whom he defined as ‘the people’ and those whom he classed as ‘the population’, based on their political stance against colonialism: the definition of people depends, he insisted, on the historical moment that the land is experiencing:

Population means everyone, but the people have to be seen in the light of their own history. It must be clearly defined who are the people at every moment of the life of a population. In Guiné and Cape Verde today the people of Guiné or the people of Cape Verde mean for us those who want to chase the Portuguese colonialists out of our land. They are the people, the rest are not of our land even if they were born there. They are not the people of our land; they are the population but not the people. (Cabral 1979: 89)

‘Rice only cooks inside the pot’: Delinking African from emancipatory freedoms

What happens when the concept of ‘African’ becomes delinked from the idea of the struggle for emancipation, freedom or sovereignty? What then is left of the meaning of the term African?

National liberation struggles did not always result in the achievement of emancipation. The rise of neocolonial regimes in the post-independence period, many of which arose out of the defeat or grinding down of the mass movements, gradually resulted in the demise of the struggles for emancipatory freedoms in Africa, and consequently had the result of delinking the concept of African from an emancipatory goal. The blame for what happened after independence cannot be placed entirely at imperialism’s door. As Cabral points out: ‘True, imperialism is cruel and unscrupulous, but we must not lay all the blame on its broad back. For, as the African people say: “Rice only cooks inside the pot”.’

Having grasped political self-determination from colonial authority, the new regimes were reluctant to accord the same rights to their own citizens. The new controllers of the state machinery saw their role as the ‘sole developer’ and ‘sole unifier’ of society. The state defined for itself an interventionist role in ‘modernisation’ and a centralising and controlling role in the political realm (Manji 1998: 15). The idea of modernising was reduced to developing only the infrastructure of capitalism in the peripheries that would allow more efficient integration of the former colonies into the world capitalist economy.

Camouflaged in the rhetoric of independence, the prevailing narrative treated the problems faced by the majority – deprivation and impoverishment and its associated dehumanisation – not as consequences of colonial domination and an imperialist system that continued to extract super-profits, but rather as the supposedly ‘natural’ conditions of Africa. The solution to poverty was seen as a technical one, with the provision of ‘aid’ from the very colonial powers who had enriched themselves at the expense of the mass of African people whom they had systematically dehumanised to maintain their control over the continent. The colonial state, which had been established, together with its armed forces, military and police, to serve the interests of colonialism and international capital, was in most cases not transformed but, rather, occupied by the newly emerging elites. Indeed, the repressive instruments of the state remained largely unchanged. Just as the colonial regime used violence against any political protest, so the neocolonial regimes continued to do likewise.

Tribalism, ethnicity and identity as caste

Once the struggles for independence became delinked from the historical emancipatory struggles for reclaiming humanity that were embodied in the movements for liberation, then all that was left in the meaning of being ‘African’ was a taxonomic identity devoid of political content, and African began to be defined once more in the same way the racist regimes in South Africa once insisted upon.

In Kenya, we are all reduced to being ‘tribes’ — not in the sense of a long historical tradition of culture, but as a mere colonial caricature. Ethnicity and tribalism rule. It is not the diversity of humans that is acknowledged and celebrated, rather the assertion of essentialised identities that serve only to divide us and enable the elite to rule. In a sense, we are witnessing a recasting of identity as caste.

Cabral’s (1979: 80) statement that ‘We must put the interests of our people higher, in the context of the interests of mankind in general, and then we can put them in the context of the interests of Africa in general’ reminds us that the struggles to reinvent ourselves as humans is relevant not just for those in the location in which such struggles take place. It is not possible to understand, or even recognise, African people’s humanity without also taking into account our long history of struggles for emancipation and as makers of history, things that our elites work to erase from our memories. We have to assert that the politics of African histories are understood and transcended to reveal their fundamental contributions to the universal human condition – experiences that, as Cabral (1979: 80) put it, ‘belong to the whole world’.

NB: This article is a summarised version; you can download it for free at https://bit.ly/2QavSCA


  • A Publisher of Daraja Press and Adjunct Professor, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

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