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Pan-Africanism - The Future Of Pan-africanism

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The career and rise to international prominence of Thabo Mbeki (b. 1942) as South Africa's second freely elected president exemplify the mixture of promise and immense difficulties facing Pan-Africanist projects and Africa in general in the twenty-first century. Like Nelson Mandela (b. 1918), Mbeki devoted his life to the fight against apartheid in South Africa, but, whereas Mandela was imprisoned for much of his adult life, Mbeki spent years in forced exile in Britain after 1962, earning a Master's degree in economics from Sussex University in 1968 and working with Oliver Tambo (1967–1991), the effective leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in Mandela's absence.

In 1969, like most ANC leaders, many of whom were also long-time members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Mbeki went to the Lenin International School in Moscow for a year to receive military training. After serving as political secretary for Tambo, the ANC president in the late 1970s, he became the ANC's chief diplomatic liaison, which increased the antiapartheid movement's profile abroad as well as his own, and rose to the SACP's central committee in the late 1980s. However, following F. W. de Klerk's (b. 1936) lifting of the ban on dissident organizations like the ANC, SACP, and the Pan-Africanist Congress on February 2, 1990, Mbeki gradually distanced himself from the SACP, allowing his membership to lapse at the same time as he spearheaded attempts to transform the ANC from a prohibited liberation movement into a legal political party. Then, having served as Mandela's deputy president from 1994 to 1999, Mbeki was inaugurated as his successor in June 1999.

Mbeki's presidency became mired in a series of controversies, most famously concerning his flirtation with "dissident" views on the nature and treatment of HIV/AIDS, but his espousal of an "African Renaissance" made possible discussions over the relevance and potential of Pan-Africanism in the twenty-first century and, more specifically, the role of a free South Africa on the African continent. Mbeki's notion of an "African Renaissance," though deliberately vague, has a number of ideological roots. For one, it is situated within the long tradition of South African leaders who, regardless of their ideological or physical hue, have asserted the country as the driving force behind development on the continent in general. This is a position that, it is said, South Africa must reclaim and would otherwise already occupy had it not been for the artificial privileges accorded by race under apartheid.

The international stature of Nelson Mandela reaffirmed this assumption of the naturalness of South African leadership in both internal diplomatic relations in Africa and projecting Africa's interests into the global market and international political organizations like the United Nations. Yet, as Peter Vale and Sipho Maseko observe, it was largely "the appeal of Mbeki's lyrical imagery that turned the obvious … into a tryst with destiny." It is clear that Mbeki's thought rests on a social-contractual reading of the African Renaissance. It represents essentially a double-edged agreement that not only commits the South African state to a democratic concord with the people of South Africa but also to the cause of peace and democracy across the continent.

Unfortunately, the emancipatory potential of Mbeki's message remained unrealized and, by and large, more promise than policy, limited changes like South Africa's assumption of a peacekeeping role in Africa notwithstanding. Moreover, some have criticized the limitations of Mbeki's approach: buoyed by the same modernization theory that inspired economic ambitions under apartheid, though directing attention backward to Africa's past, it fetishizes new technologies, endowing the latter with the power to trigger profound social changes almost single-handedly. Nevertheless, the ambiguity and potential weaknesses of Mbeki's rhetoric have created a political space in which a multiplicity of competing interpretations of Africa's future can be debated.

Vale and Maseko identified two distinct approaches to the idea of an "African Renaissance," one "globalist," the other "Africanist." Based firmly in the modernist tradition, the former seems to assume that what is good for South Africa is also good for the rest of Africa, views the continent as principally an expanding market, and sees free markets, privatization, and cuts in public expenditure as prerequisites to curtailing the power of authoritarian governments. The latter, however, envisions an African Renaissance to promote a series of complex social constructions that turn on issues of identity and call for a reinterpretation of African history and culture outside of the analytical frameworks and narratives of European imperialism. Thus, representatives of the Africanist approach eschew the modernizing tendency toward Africa's encounter with Europe, or "chasing of scientific glory and money," and maintain that the globalist perspective will merely result in an externally driven consumerist movement in Africa. According to this view, Africans will continue to be valued solely for their capacity to absorb foreign goods if development on the continent continues to follow the globalist path. Despite advancing a powerful critique of globalist/modernist assumptions and encouraging alternative visions of Africa's future, Africanist arguments rarely appear in mainstream political discussions of interstate relations in Africa. This is due in large measure to prevailing socioeconomic conditions on the continent in which states, suffocating under the burden of international debt, increasingly fail to provide their constituencies with basic amenities like water, electricity, and adequate housing.

One final development in black internationalism—the emergence of the concept of the "Black Atlantic"—figures in the future of Pan-Africanism. The idea was originally introduced by black British scholars, most famously Paul Gilroy, who emerged from the Cultural Studies group under the leadership of Stuart Hall at Birmingham University and whose work focuses heavily on African American and black British literature and popular culture. The notion of the Black Atlantic injected new life into attempts to examine the historical formations outside of the analytic framework of the nation-state by highlighting the singular importance of the legacy of the Middle Passage and African slavery around the Atlantic. In Black Atlantic (1993), Gilroy offered a compelling critique of the increasingly unproductive impasse between "essentialist" and "anti-essentialist" positions on racial and ethnic difference and what became known in the late twentieth century as "identity politics." Many of the insights—as well as the potential pitfalls—of this approach have been picked up by academics in the Americas, and especially the United States. For example, Brent Hayes Edwards expands on this scholarship while also exposing the tendency of much work on the African diaspora to overemphasize similarities and obscure differences rather than recognizing the management of difference (cultural, economic, linguistic, etc.) as an inescapable and, indeed, constitutive aspect of the elaboration of any particular vision of diaspora.



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Marc Matera

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