BOOK REVIEW: African Awakenings: The Emerging Revolutions

2011 saw the emergence of powerful new movements stretching from Wisconsin to Egypt, from Chile to Greece. It was the year of Occupations as public spaces were taken over by activists beginning with Tahrir Square in Egypt and eventually moving on to Wall Street, Oakland and hundreds of other locales worldwide, including several unsuccessful attempts in South Africa. Conspicuously absent from the renewed and resurgent discourse amongst anti-capitalist forces and the popular imagination was sub-Saharan Africa, and by this I mean “black Africa,” the Africa of the eternal cycle of dictators, corruption, famine, “bad governance” and debt. African Awakenings: The Emerging Revolutions ambitiously sets out to remedy this and place the host of new movements arising across the continent in a singular socio-political context. This ambition importantly matches one of the more impressive features of the movements of 2011, in the form of the growth of a new internationalism as statements of solidarity and support were transmitted from the occupations of Wall Street to Tahrir Square and activists have begun to share tactics and experiences in what is increasingly being perceived as a global struggle, emerging from specifically local contexts.

African Awakenings begins with Pamabazuka editor Firoze Manji posing a question which goes on to form a central part of both the book and thinking about “Africa” in general: “Where does Africa begin and where does it end?” Historically there has been conceptual distinction between predominantly Muslim North Africa, which has been lumped in with the Arabic world and “black” sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that much of Africa’s Muslim population is, in fact, black. In this, black Africa is culturally separated and walled off from the rebellious spirit of North Africa; it is stuck in the same primal stasis which Western commentators continually repeat in the same tired coverage on the ever-constant “African Crisis.”

The book itself has an explicit goal to rescue the “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Spring” from the insular liberal narratives which seek to isolate the revolutionary wave which swept North Africa and parts of the Middle East last year as a specifically “Arab thing,” a reawakening of the Arab people. This sort of ethnic narrative, which fits into the same limited pathology which failed to predict or understand the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia in the first place, except as a some of sort of Western inspired phenomena, inspired by the “Western forces” of Facebook and Twitter or according to the New York Times’s most respected court jester Thomas Friedman, even “Israel”…“Africa,” meaning specifically black Africa, is of course a place of stagnation and repetition, not of history and thus cannot be susceptible to such world-historic revolutionary moments. African Awakenings, on the contrary, attempts to situate this revolutionary wave within the context of long-running and emergent struggles across the continent directly linked to the events in the Maghreb.

Pambazuka is a unique entity formed of some 2800 writers, bloggers, activists, academics and artists, based in Oxford and edited by Firoze Manji; it is an earnest attempt to provide a continental forum for African intellectuals and activists located both in the continent and in exile across the globe. It is, as far as I know, the only source of both serious analysis and commentary by such leading intellectuals as Mahmood Mamdani and Samir Amin, as well as local reports of struggles from South Africa to Algeria. It functions both as an accumulator of information about various struggles across Africa and a forum for debate and conversation for those committed to serious change. The book itself is the offspring of some of the writings featured in a weekly newsletter which reaches an impressively sizable audience.

It speaks to the sheer diversity and strength of the content carried by Pambazuka that such a book could be assembled like this without being a complete waste of time. There is nothing earth-shatteringly new contained within the pages, rather a selection of on-the-ground reports and reflections from activists, particularly activists who participated in the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions, mixed with various essays from mainly academic contributors. In this the likes of Samir Amin and Mahmood Mamdani share the pages with dedicated members of the million strong Tahrir Square occupations. South African academics such as Patrick Bond and Richard Pithouse are featured along with those of a more international bent such as Nigel Gibson and Horace Campbell.

Pithouse’s contribution “South Africa: On the Murder of Andrias Tatane,” chronicles the resurrection of police militarization in South Africa during the build-up to and following the 2010 World Cup, leading to the eventual televised murder of an activist (Andrias Tatane). This wave of militarization closely resembles both politically and tactically similar developments in the United States, the results of which were experienced first-hand by those caught up in the various occupy protests, particularly in Oakland. South Africa according to Peter Alexander “can be reasonably described as “the protest capital of the world.” In the last three years, there has been an average of 2.9 “gatherings” per day resulting in a 12,654 “gathering” incidents during 2010–11.[1] This however has yet to transform into a mass movement capable of forming an effective challenge to the state or the ruling ANC’s (African National Congress) hegemony.

One of the notable points made early on in the book is the centrality of Africa to the functioning of the global economy. This centrality takes two forms, one in the form of the influx of debt payments to Western powers, most of it incurred during the heyday of Structural Adjustment Programs forced upon countries. Each year $340 billion flows from Africa Northwards to pay off $2.2 trillion of debt. Since 1980, over 50 Marshall Plans worth somewhere over $4.6 trillion have been sent from the peoples of “the periphery” to their creditors. Combine this with a staggering amount of capital flight—an estimated 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africa”s GDP and Africa might be a net creditor to the rest of the world.[2] Africa is also the location of strategically vital raw materials central to both Western powers and increasingly the emerging economic powerhouses of China and India. The immense mineral wealth of countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the oil riches of Libya, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria have been anything but a blessing to their people, as most of the population continues to live in relative poverty while a small elite continues to prosper and Western investors reap most of the benefits. Historic attempts to reverse this established neo-colonial paradigm in the form of organic attempts at building African Socialism or nationalist projects led by the likes of Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, have ended in failure, whether through the barrel of the gun of an assassin, a US sponsored insurgency or the pressures of international capital.

With this in mind and a recognition of both the crisis of capitalism we are currently experiencing and the emerging struggles across the globe, Africa, at least “black Africa,” has been conspicuously absent from the discussion. Attention has been focused on the Occupy Movement which swept across the United States last autumn, the student movements in Chile, the UK, the May 18 movement in Spain, the increasingly militant movements in Greece and of course the forces that brought about the downfall of Mubarak and Ben Ali. At the same time shack-dwellers’ movements and an increasing wave of small scale insurgent protest in my own nation of South Africa have been accompanied by protests and small insurrections in countries as diverse the Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Burkina Faso. Even the last absolutist monarchy in the world found in the tiny country of Swaziland was rocked by a wave of mass demonstrations inspired by the “Arab Spring” and chronicled in the book by Peter Kenworthy. Furthermore, there was of course the latest grand outing of imperialism in Libya, another bout of regime change led by the French and endorsed by the UN in Ivory Coast, increased covert bombing and on-the-ground activity in Somalia and the beginnings of a new outpost of the American empire in Uganda (yes, even before the almost satirical imperialism of Kony 2012).

One of the weaknesses of the book is the homogeneity of the writers in the context of the particular struggles, mostly the country which I know best. Sadly all of the writers who have contributed in relation to the struggles are white middle-aged academics, not that their contributions are not important, but reports from working-class participants in said struggles would greatly strengthen the section. Furthermore, the lack of younger voices is troubling considering that in line with global paradigms younger activists are often at the front of these struggles, particularly in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia.

Another notable weakness is an excessive focus on Libya, rather than focusing on the emergence of new movements and the awakening of “Africa,” the text is stuck in chapter after chapter aimed at dismantling the myths surrounding the latest bout of humanitarian intervention and assaulting the myth-makers of Imperialism. Valuable as this may be, it’s out of place with the desired goals of the book and becomes repetitive quickly, even reaching dangerous flirtation with Qadaffi apologetics in the case of one essay by Jean Paul Pougala.

In South Africa, the precarious position of the youth is a national tragedy as the majority of young South Africans face the very real possibility of never finding decent work in their lifetimes. Furthermore, the official left formations of the national trade union COSATU (Congress of South Africa Trade Unions) and the SACP (South African Communist Party) have remained ensnared in a Faustian contract in the form of the tripartite alliance with the ruling ANC (African National Congress). The alliance has led to the leadership of both the SACP and COSATU being deployed as ANC cadre and defending ANC neoliberal policies. Both formations have been unable to provide a response, let alone leadership or formations, aimed at combating what is increasingly looking like a position for permanent precarity for the so-called “born frees,” referring to the generation that grew up after the fall of Apartheid in 1994. This political vacuum poses a challenge to forming a resurgent independent left in South Africa and remains alive with possibility particularly because the hegemony of the ANC is not quite so potent among those who have grown up in abject poverty. The absence of these voices amongst the independent left at least in South Africa, speaks of a current location on the margins of South African politics and the failure to take advantage of the lack of interest and neglect of the ANC aligned left.

The voices of this new generation of activists in South Africa and across the rest of the continent is where an “awakening,” if it can be called that, has its base. So far, we have yet to witness the transformations of current “African” struggles from local contexts into long-term revolutionary mass movements or see the transformation of spontaneous uprisings such as the one which gripped Nigeria early this year sparked off by marked increase in gas prices, due to an end in state subsidies, into sustained mass movements. A measure of realism is needed when assessing African politics, not a banal morbid fatalism, but an honest assessment of the strength of social movements, an avoidance of romanticism and the descent into sectarianism which distinguishes a marginalised left.

The book itself illustrates the formations of a new wave of struggles, but it is unfair to view them yet as a part of an “African Awakening.” The ambition of the book fails to match up to the current reality; this is not however to say that the seeds of dissent may not spring into something else in the near future. Although it is fair to place these struggles in the same political universe as the other movements of 2011, the book itself is not going to feature as a future monument to the world-historic events of 2011. It was hastily assembled and the essays featured within are a mixed bag; however it serves as a valuable introduction to contemporary African left politics. Furthermore, the internationalism and ambition at the heart of Pambazuka is admirable in itself; the fact that a book with such a diversity of content could be assembled in such a manner serves as testament to the strength and potential of Pambazuka News. In short an admirable if not quite successful book which, ultimately, is more useful than necessary.

  1. [1] See “Protests and Police Statistics in South Africa: Some Commentary.”
  2. [2] Firoze Mangi, “African Awakenings: The courage to invent the future,” p. 7.

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