||Beyond The Colourline
Beyond the Colour Line.
By Kwesi Kwaa Prah
Florida (RSA): Vivlia, 1997, 188pp
Amnesia embraces the global reality of 23 million per annum
dead of hunger and hunger-related disease
That’s a daily average equivalent, in fatalities, of one Hiroshima
Buried each day
Under the cloud of amnesia
It should never be forgotten that the people must have priority.
(Ho Chi Minh in Pilger 1998:564)
Twenty one years ago Peter Tosh protested that “Everyone is crying out for peace. None is crying out for justice.”1 These days the almighty Market gazes at us through CNN and the rating agencies in order to, amongst other things, reward docility and punish outbreaks of “autonomous dignity.” (Memmi 1990: 194). Peace means the stability that comes from “sheepish obedience” (Biko 1996: 34), and it is the real currency of the moment. But, when there’s finally enough to order manna, the Market is out of stock and delivers a hire-purchase golden calf instead. If you accept the laws of the Market justice is a quaint artifact of another age and if you’re known as American’s Most Eminent Philosopher justice is a ‘language game’. (Rorty:1989) Yet people who work with material realities estimate that the debt servicing, the brain drain and resource transfer together mean that 23 million dollars leave the third world for the first world every hour of every day and that 8,3 million of that comes from Africa. (Abdul-Raheem 1996:107) A continent where a third of the population are malnourished.2 Linton Kwesi Johnson is quite right to say that what are living in is a new word order.3
So on those rare occasions when a book on Africa is written and published in Africa by a well known African academic there is reason to be excited about the new collection of words. And when that book receives continuing attention in the popular press4 and the enthusiastic endorsement of public figures like Zakes Mda5 it becomes essential that it is read closely.
The author, Kwesi Kwaa Prah, is Professor of Sociology and the founder and director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of African Society at the University of the Western Cape. He is also a well known Pan-Africanist activist and theorist and South Africans will be particularly interested to know that for a while his home in Gaborone served as the armoury of the (South African) Pan-Africanist Congress. His Beyond the Colour Line consists of an autobiographical sketch, a preface, two obituaries, two book reviews, one newspaper article, 3 conference papers, 2 letters which contain conference reviews, 3 pieces about the 7th and proposed 8th Pan-Africanist Congresses and a short error ridden index which largely lists names. Prah asks for this collection of journalism, personal correspondence and academic work to be seen as “a window into my thinking on Pan-Africanism” (1996:12) and this review considers it as such.
There are numerous examples of similar collections of work which have made elegant books6. However prospective readers must be warned that Prah’s book is both badly edited and badly written. The expression of the author’s ideas has been seriously compromised by exceptionally poor spelling, frequent use of sexist language and a style that is cliché ridden, occasionally pedantic and at times just plain bad. The text also suffers from a high degree of fragmentation, a failure to provide empirical or theoretical support for most of its claims as well as the author’s tendency to insult his opponents in Butheleziesque terms rather than to attempt to refute their arguments7. However for the reader the greatest irritation is probably the large degree of repetition. Prah does warn his readers about this in the preface but this does not excuse, for example, making the same point twice on page 57, quoting himself on page 83 or repeating the same claims throughout the book instead of making a claim and then going on to explain and defend it. For instance he tells his readers on 5 separate occasions (1997:48&49, 61, 68 &69, 113, 160) that Asia’s ‘economic miracle’ is premised on the recognition and use of indigenous languages. Yet he never once offers empirical evidence or a theoretical argument to support this claim.
I have only mentioned the poor presentation of the author’s ideas as a warning to prospective readers and I will now shift the focus from the book’s form to its content.
I will begin with a brief look at the empirical information which Prah’s book contains and then go on to investigate his vision of the good, his understanding of the context of African’s challenges and his strategies for change before developing a critical analysis of a few key themes. Because Prah’s book is a fragmented collection of largely undeveloped and undefended claims which contains very few sustained arguments my explication will as much an interpretative exercise as a reporting exercise.
2. PRAH’S EMPIRICAL CONTRIBUTION
Beyond the Colour Line provides a rough guide to certain personalities and political movements and issues. The central contributions in this regard include.
1. Obituaries of Pan-Africanist activists Ras Makonnen and Joseph Oduho.
2. An introduction to the political crisis in the Sudan.
3. An introduction to the history and contemporary identity politics of the South
African “ Coloured” community.
4. An overview of the origins of Pan-Africanism, the 7th Pan-Africanist Congress
and some of the issues surrounding the hosting of the proposed 8th Congress.
5. Introductions, in the form of reviews, to Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa and Appiah’s In My Father’s House.
6. Fairly extensive but scattered autobiographical information.
Much of this information is available elsewhere or will not be new to South African readers and some of it is so particular to Prah’s own life that it is strictly for fans only. But, because the South African media, libraries and bookshops make it far easier for the general public to learn about Foucault’s sex life than African intellectual history, Prah’s book is a reservoir of valuable information. This is particularly so for South Africans striving to break out of the prison imposed by what Mahmood Mamdani calls the “prejudice” of “the notion of South African exceptionalism”. (1996: 27) Nevertheless it should be pointed out that Tajeen Abdul-Raheem’s introduction to Pan-Africanism, the book which came out of the 7th Pan-Africanist Congress, does give a much better idea of the movement’s history and current concerns than Prah’s Beyond the Colour Line. Where Prah’s book excels is in the introduction that it provides to the largely ignored crisis in Sudan. When Prah was at Juba University he was actively involved in the African resistance and he writes about Sudan with insight and passion. If his work can help to jolt South Africans out of their notorious insularity and inspire some concrete solidarity with the oppressed and enslaved in Sudan its publication will have been enormously valuable.
3. PRAH’S VISION OF THE GOOD
As Kwame Nkrumah insists: “ A revolutionary ideology is not merely negative. It is not a mere conceptual refutation...but a positive creative theory, the guiding light of the emerging social order.”(1964: 34) Africanism, by definition, strives to meet Nkrumah’s challenge and it is within this context that I consider Prah’s concept of the good.
He claims to be fundamentally opposed to the process of “mimicry and imitation” whereby “The externals of the westerner have become our image of the desirable” (1997:46) but makes no practical attempt to develop an alternative vision. However, he does give a number of clear hints and reveal a number of assumptions about his concept of the good. He also makes a number of largely unexplained and undefended claims about the nature of progress. In particular he writes about “the emancipation of the African people on the continent and in the diaspora” (1997:1, see also 24, 63); Africans joining the “the global process of empowerment” (1997:6); “the empowerment of the African masses” (1997:112);“the liberation of the creative spirit...and the development of the forces of production.” (1997:6, see also 87); “unity” of the African people (1997: 24), “rights and life” (1997:25); “hope, bread, justice and emancipation” (1997:26); an “awakened Africa” (1997:26 & 53); “emancipation, democracy and development, based on the principles of self-determination and anti-imperialism” (1997:35, see also 31); earning “self-respect and equality in the eyes of other people” (1997: 34), “the solution of the national and agrarian questions” (1997:40); “unity and common identity” (1997: 40); “unity, emancipation and societal development” (1997:41); challenging “the dependence of Africa on so-called donor support” and the decline in “the quality of life in all senses of the term” (1997:42 see also 87 & 160); “democratic transformation, emancipation and total independence’ (1997:54) and overcoming “the relative backwardness of Africa and her peoples” (1997:68). In a similar vein he quotes with approval a statement from the 1900 Pan-African Conference that Africans “may prove to the world their incontestable right to be counted amongst the great brotherhood of man” and goes on to add to this sentiment with Pixeley Isaka Seme’s hope that Africa “waking with that morning gleam (will) shine as thy sister lands with equal beam.” (1997:24) He indicates that African development is not an end in itself but rather a means to being able to meet the gaze of the other when he argues that: “If we want to be regarded as equal...we would need to treat our own as equal in the first instance.” (1997:71) And finally, in a parallel theme running through his book, Prah makes it clear that: “Above all, I need to point out that, for me, in theory and practice, African emancipation can and must contribute to the emancipation of humanity as a whole.” (1997:iv). He repeatedly stresses the point that “we seek ultimately the freedom of all humanity and the untrammeled social intercourse of all peoples of this earth” (1997:37, see also 56, 59, 60, 61, 82, 83, 84, 111, 114, 165, 167, 181). And so for Prah, “any definition of the freedom of any people or group, which in theory or practice pans out in the proscription or disavowal of the freedom of other groups is in principle and practice objectionable.” (1997: 83, see also 105, 111)
Five things are clear. Firstly it is apparent that Prah subscribes to the vision which Cesaire calls “a true humanism - a humanism made to the measure of the world” (1972:56) and which Biko describes as a “true humanity where power politics will have no place”(1996: 90). This rejects, as co-option, the embrace of an “amorphous common humanity” (Ibid: 50) in the name of which Europe “are never done talking of Man, yet murder men...in all the corners of the globe’ (Fanon 1967: 251). The counter ideal is to replace assimilation with genuine integration based on “free participation by all...(and)... catering for the full expression of the self.” (Biko: 24) An
allied point, which Prah subscribes to fully is that, as Kwame Nkrumah, puts it: “The emancipation of the African continent is the emancipation of man.” (1964: 78)
Paradoxically it is equally clear that for Prah an important goal of the African struggle is to meet some unspecified aspect of the Western criteria for success and by redeeming Africa in Western eyes redeem it to Africans. It is also apparent that Prah seeks the development of a vibrant civil society in a democratic order and improvement in the material conditions of human life. Finally it is also clear that he supports the political unity of Africa as a both a means to the good and part of the good.
With the exception of the ideal of true humanity, it is not at all clear what Prah really means by this string of vacuous political cliché. Both the concepts and the relationship between them are left unexplained. So, for example, while it is clear that by unity he means the political unity of black (non-Arab) Africa it is not at all clear how he would like to see this unity structured. There is no explanation of what unity would mean for the relationship between the rural and the urban or even whether Prah is advocating American style multi-party federalism, European Union style multi-national unity or the Museveni style no-party state. It’s equally unclear what he means by emancipation, development, democracy, rights, empowerment, freeing the creative spirit and overcoming backwardness. These are all deeply complex concepts and especially so in Africa where elites have often been allowed to reduce economic progress to their own enrichment or to proletarianization and to initially reduce democratisation to deracialisation and then latter to the development of an urban civil society. The weaknesses of the first reduction are obvious and those of the second lie particularly in the failure to acknowledge that “In the absence of the detribalization of rural power ...deracialization (can) not be joined to democratisation.” (Mamdani 1996: 289)
Unfortunately Prah’s affiliation to the Pan-Africanist movement provides no particular clarity on his view of the good because the movement has been a vehicle for both revolutionaries and reactionaries. As Abdul-Raheem explains some Pan-Africanists have seen the movement as “a vanguard of the oppressed allied to global revolution and socialism” while others, and in particular the Lagos group, have seen it as “a black only initiative with a bias towards a black nationalist bourgeois position.” (1996: 9)
Because Prah’s explicit comments on this matter say very little it seems that it would be more fruitful to look at the concept of the good implicit in his work. Both his uncritical use of highly contested concepts like development and backwardness as well as his clear desire for Africa to be like “other” regions does seem to imply an enthusiastic embrace of (industrialised) modernity. After all the “other”, in who’s eyes Africa apparently sees its shame, is almost certainly the West and South East Asia rather than, say, the Sandinistas, the Zapitistas or even the internal other of the Mau Mau, the Ruwenzururu or the enduring legacy of Fanon’s vision. But even so it is impossible to say with confidence whether, for example, Prah’s concern for rights is limited to a Western conception or whether it might be directed at defending the rights of communities to organise on their own terms.
However his obsession with the Asian model of development provides the clearest clue to his concept of the good. He repeatedly valorises the “Asian tigers” (1997:113) and argues that “ Asia been...successful and triumphant.” (1997:160). He mentions Japan (1997:48, 61, 113) three times but also argues that: “In places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore...economic and social development has been phenomenal.” (1997:68) These are all authoritarian societies with dark sides but because Prah informs his readers that while in the Netherlands he “actively supported the Indonesia Committee” (1997:iv) we can assume that he is familiar with the situation there and that his enthusiastic and uncritical support provides a window into his thinking about the meaning of progress.
Well before the disaster surrounding the referendum in East Timor commentators like John Pilger had pointed out that numerous sources confirmed that a third of the population of East Timor have been killed during the Indonesian dictatorship’s occupation. (1998:283) Ten years ago Noam Chomsky was calling it “the greatest slaughter since the Holocaust.” (1989:107) More recently he accused “the Anglo-American guardians of virtue” of “happily robbing East Timor’s oil jointly with the Indonesian conquerors” (1994:24) and commented that the country “has some of the worst working conditions and lowest wages in Asia, about half the level of China.” (Ibid: 173) Years ago Jeremy Seabrook wrote about a working environment where duties may include sex with management and workers are often exhausted and malnourished and called Indonesia a society based on “free market slavery.” (Pilger 1998: 325) In 1998 most Indonesians were still working for $2 a day and the military was crushing independent trade union activity. (Ibid:325)
If invasion and occupation of a neutral territory, mass murder, organised rape,
environmental destruction of the highest order, attempts at cultural genocide, a programme of violent forced removals affecting 20 million people (Ranheema & Bawntree 1997: 241) and appalling working conditions are not enough the Indonesian regime has also been running a programme of racial genocide. In December 1987 the Governor of the island of Irian Jaya, who had previously launched a programme to separate indigenous Irianese children from their parents, publicly called for “a further two million Javanese migrants to be sent to Irian Jaya so that ‘backward’ local people could intermarry with the incomers - thus ‘giving birth to a new generation of people without curly hair.” (Ibid: 239)
Suharto’s Indonesia was regularly hailed by the Western media as a “gleam of light in Asia...the West’s best news for years in Asia...an investor’s paradise” (Pilger 1998: 324). But when an Africanist wants Africa to “shine as thy sister lands with equal beam” (1997:24) one would expect that he would have something rather different in mind. Something like the glow of the people’s spirit rather than a gleam in the eye of the Market.
At the very best Prah’s uncritical support for the Indonesian model reveals that despite his progressive rhetoric it is economic growth as defined by Western hegemony and not democracy, freedom, civil society or real quality of life that is his primary concern. He wants Africa to have equal power with S.E. Asia and the West and in the same currency. He makes no mention at all of the ideal of genuine autonomy or of alternative power currencies like, for example, Gandhi’s soul force (1968) or Fanon’s “unshakable national ardour.” (1967:50)
This view is supported by Prah’s failure to refer to the Africanist argument, expressed here by Cesaire, that:
They dazzle me with the tonnage of cotton or cocoa that has been exported, the acreage that has been planted....I am talking about natural economies that have destroyed - harmonious and viable economies...-about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development orientated solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan countries, about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials. (Cesaire 1972: 22)
It seems fair to conclude that, despite his rhetoric, his concept of the good in practice amounts to a vague affirmation of a true humanity and an embrace of rapacious free market capitalism entered into with the aim of being able to meet the Western gaze. Neither this nor his vague ill-defined support for political unity, civil society and poverty alleviation meet Nkrumah’s challenge.
4. PRAH’S VIEW OF THE WAY THINGS ARE
In this section I want to draw on the relevant comments scattered through Prah’s book in order to develop a brief explication of his understanding of the way things are. I begin with his ideas on race and then move on to look at his thinking about imperialism, African responsibility for the condition of Africa, the nature of post-apartheid South Africa and, finally, the post-cold war resurgence of African civil society.
The 19th century laboured under bizarre but, for the ruling class useful, theories of race which were given respectability by people like Herbert Spencer and infected even the likes of Marx. So, as a phenomenon with roots in 19th century Western thinking about race, Pan-Africanism (and its more influential mystic off-shoot Rastafarianism) are often associated with ideologies of racial essence. It therefore makes sense to begin my explication of Prah’s world view with his ideas on race.
On this score he is clear and consistent and he argues strongly that Pan-Africanism needs to “clearly make a break from biologically-based rationalizations of its theory and agenda. The way I put it is that we must go beyond the colour line.” (1997:111)
For Prah “The racial definition of an African is flawed. It is unscientific and hence untenable....no group of people has been “pure” from time immemorial. Notions of purity belong to the language of fascists and the rubbish bin of science”. (1997: 36 & 83 see also, 126) So for Prah “Africaness is ultimately colourless (and) is more history, and/or culture and not biology.” (1997:5) But while he does not recognise race he recognises both racism and the necessary raciality (Adams 1996) of the resistance to the disease. He argues that “Racism is a power relationship; a social and ideological construction which raises superficial biological attributes to objects and markers for social and economic dominance or subordination.”(1997: 82) And with regard to the racialised character of resistance he explains that:
While...exploitation and oppression has been primarily economic. The myth of race and colour has been the language for defining and justifying this practice. The language of resistance has in contradiction reflected colour and will continue to do so for as long as colour discrimination of people of African descent persists. (1997: 2, see also 164, 172)
However he draws the line at thinking which sees an essential connection between race and space and argues that there are “nationalities of non-African origins, who now belong to Africa, in an existential sense. African society and culture have on the whole been greatly enriched by the cultures which these groups represent.” (1997: 58, see also 37)
When it comes to the level of macro-politics Prah employs the rhetoric of the “global village” (1997: 6, 37, 83) ideology but he makes it very clear that for him that village is feudal rather than a space independent version of Disney’s take on Small Town USA. His critique operates in the overlapping spheres of culture and economics. With regard to the former he argues that “There are many, particularly among westerners who....equate universal culture with western culture.”(1197:37) And he stresses the point that “Ideas and views do not descend on us like manna from heaven. They have social, historical, economic and cultural derivations (and)....serious political implications.” (1997: pp 162-163)
With regard to the economic aspect of ‘the global village’ “We live”, he says, “in an Africa in retardation” (1997:30) and a world in which “the age of neocolonialism has reached maturity.” (1997:87) He ascribes this state to a combination of Western imperialism and African failings. He subscribes to a neo-Leninist theory of structural imperialism similar to the models of Frantz Fanon (1967), Steven Biko (1996 ) and Johan Galtung (1971). He says nothing about the phenomenon which Alex Callincos refers to as “the rise of sub-imperialisms in the third world” (1994: 45) but with regard to the neo-Leninist model he argues that:
It is easy to change the name of a state, hoist a new flag, and sing to the strains of a new national anthem. It is another thing to sever the hold, and throw off for good, the suffocating embrace of imperialism. (1997:9)
Indeed, he argues that “The present African flags are only institutional representations of imperial devolution of partial political power.” (1997:40) For Prah “the sociological linkages to the apron strings of the metropolitan powers of the world established under colonial rule remain largely unrevised ” (1997:27). He adds that the real power seems to reside with the “United States” and “The IMF and the World Bank (which) supervise an economic order which rather than providing means for African development and growth structurally adjusts Africa into increasing poverty and hardship.” (1997:26) So for him African problems are “embedded in the global political economy” which is “a system created and dominated by external metropolitan interests.” (1997:40) He ascribes a conscious will to power to these interests and argues that: “Imperialism has no intention of allowing us the economic and technological wherewithal to develop because they know too well that, that might imply a global shift in the center of wealth and technological power.” (1997:42) He also points out the West sees itself as judge and argues that:
the hypocrisy of the captains of western power defies sober imagination. Thus western moralism has not infrequently been freely and desperately twisted, and made an instrument for the defense of purely selfish western interests, and the pursuit of exclusivist real politik. (1997:7)
Prah gives two reasons for the persistence of imperialism. The first is the collaboration of local elites and the second is the second is a lack of the capacities that would allow effective resistance..
African elites are, he argues, “the mimic men”, (1997:25) “creatures of colonialism (un)able to live down their heritage” who subscribe to “a mimetic culture” (1997: 87), have “come to believe (their) own lies” (1997:41) and remain “appendanged in inferiority to the metropolitan powers of the world” (1997:10), “coopted” (1997:95), “ captured ” (1997:168), “castrated “ (1997:4&168) and afflicted with a deep sense of “cultural inferiority” (1997:112). He goes to argue that “the African elite consumes what it does not produce” (1997:47), has “poor acumen for capital accumulation” (1997:40) and “is more consumptive than innovative.” (1997:70) When this class has access to the state bureaucracy it is “parasitic” (1997:43) and when in power “state revenue is treated as booty” (1997:86). But, despite his Fanonesque contempt for the African elite he does stress that “the fundamental contradiction of our times, is the contradiction against imperialism, internal contradictions are in the main of lesser significance.” (1997:54) So the elite is judged more severely for its co-option than its excesses.
4.3 African responsibility
For Prah “Africans....cannot continue ad infinitum to blame others for their own inadequacies” (1997:pp 69, 70). African are responsible for the condition of African and must recgonise that responsibility. He makes a number of points in this regard with the primary one being that Africans have “become submissively infatuated and idiotically enthralled with western culture” (1997:47) and in particular the “African elite” who are “such shabby replicas of the western man.” (1997: 53)
He also points out, in passing, that Africa has been cursed by “endless and proliferating wars” (1997: 30, see also 26, 31) and is now in “the era of warlordism.” (1997: 10) But there is a connection between this and his argument that “as conditions further deteriorate...(e)thnicism and regionalism have increasingly become relevant symbols for (the) existential survival of contending local elites” (1997:10) who “sanctimoniously revere” the “Identities left in place by the departing colonial powers ... as a basis for their legitimacy.” (1997:39) He also makes the point that:
With remuneration under the colonial dispensation for such traditional authorities, the colonially created polities tended to guard their new found identities and quickly internalized new or revised mythologies of ethnic differentiation. (1997:91)
Although Prah makes it clear that in his view “Not all nationalism...is politically unprogressive” (1997:111) he stresses that “Tribalism is atavistic and retrogressive” (1997:39). Prah rejects the idea that ethnicity is an essential identity and points out that a number of “Tribes were invented” (1997:94, see also 51, 91) by colonial administrators, missionaries and researchers. This understanding leads him to reject “nationalist programmes which articulate atavistic and mystical practices and which ring more of flat footed populism.” (1997:113) He also slams intra-African xenophobia and points out that “we welcome, bow and scrape to nationals from all other continents, but reserve our worst reception to are (sic) own brothers and sisters, especially the most immediate.” (1997:58) (i.e. Those from neighbouring states.) Because he advocates an alternative Pan-African identity it is clear that Prah sees narrow ethnic consciousness as neither desirable nor inevitable.
Prah also castigates the African elite for accepting “ the ideology of the primitivism of African culture” (1997:3) and argues (with rare gender sensitivity) that “no other factor was as crucial in denting the African’s confidence in his or her culture as the subversion of the status of the religion of his or her ancestors” (1997:47). Nevertheless he argues that “the process of disinhabiting the world of invisible things and the movement into the scientific world” (1997: 176) has yet to be fully achieved and that “we must relentlessly disregard perishable cultural cargo.” (1997:177). Moreover although he does agree that “technological....advances have not been always matched by an increasingly improved social consciousness” (1997:6, see also 165) he clearly sees science as the road to redemption and argues that ‘African backwardness’ is partly a result of the failure to have “science and technology firmly implanted at the village level.” (1997:57, 58) He also deplores “the academic lilliputians and the scholastic pedestrians who happen to be too many for any good in contemporary Africa.” (1997: 141)
4.4 The prospects for South Africa
Prah follows thinkers from across the spectrum by implying that the struggle against apartheid was a “microcosm of the global confrontation between the Third World and the rich white nations.” (Biko 1996:72, see also Richmond 1994: pp 206- 217 and Johnson 1992:728) And he predicts that the victory over apartheid will have much the same consequences as victory over colonial occupation elsewhere in Africa. i.e.” The loot (will) remain with the historical looters” and “A small group of African elite will emerge politically center-stage...but as very junior partners within the power elite.” (1997:44) Of course there are significant differences between South African apartheid and what Anthony Richmond calls global apartheid. One is that in the latter education and wealth allow the oppressed to change sides and although Museveni pointed out, at the 7th Pan-African Congress (Abdul-Raheem 1996:195) , that 100 0000 African professionals have taken advantage of this Prah is silent about the African brain drain. However a second key difference is that in apartheid South Africa white/rich and black/poor lived in close physical proximity. In the cultural sphere Prah sees this proximity as part of a future blessing and argues that “the cosmopolitanism of South Africa...(which) is unrivaled... on the African continent...provides the basis for a shared cultural space which will be the envy of most countries of the world.” (1997:114)
4.5 The new winds of change
Prah cautions his readers that: “I am analytically convinced that socialism will historically supersede capitalism, but that period is not immediately around the corner.”(1997:55) He adds that in his view it is “the socialism of fools to think that socialism on a world scale is round the corner, or can be voluntaristically selected or rejected, in much the same way that we go to a shop to buy goods.” (1997:55) However he does foresee the continued unfolding of two significant processes the first being the extension of multi-party democracy and the second, a radical challenge to power. i.e.
The dictatorships which emerged soon after the beginning of the independence era are slowly yielding to pressures for democracy. Since 1990 several decrepit regimes and old dictators have been chased out of power. Others will follow. (1997:42)
In the next two decades, it (the neo-colonial Africa elite) is likely to go through death throws for which the masses will be responsible...The instruments of state power are likely to be challenged in one country after another as these states fail to deliver the benefits of the economic and social inventions of our times. The tragedies of Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, herald the difficult and painful times ahead of us. (1997: 70)
5. PRAH’S STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE
Prah puts forward five major strategies for change which melt into each other at a number of points. They are African political unity which is recommended for a number of reasons the most important of which is that it will facilitate the development and use of indigenous languages, the cultivation of a positive Black and African consciousness, the development of a principled internationalism and the elevation of science over myth. However before explaining these strategies it is important to say something about how he understands the mode and pace of change.
5.1 The mode and pace of change
There are a few moments when Prah can be read within the great tradition of Fanon and many more moments when he can be read as a copywriter in the World Bank’s marketing department (Development and the Market are, after all, products) or, more kindly, a disciple of the Karl Popper school of piecemeal social engineering. So the reader finds Prah insisting that “Our salvation lies in our own hands” (1997: 26) and a few pages later arguing that “America is in the leadership of today’s world and must accept the responsibilities thereof.” (1997: 64) This contradiction is difficult to resolve but others are perhaps best seen in the light of his argument that the Marxist approach to “the analysis of social and historical process (is) methodologically unrivaled” (1997: 60) but that practical realities mean that “we must use the existing system to develop further the productive forces in Africa.” (1997: 55) By ‘use’ he seems to mean “learn to bend” (1997: 40) and he is clear that it would be a mistake to oppose capital accumulation by the local bourgeoisie. He doesn’t say how Africa can avoid the fate of Brazil and Mexico where bitter experience teaches that “even when the multinationals cooperate in the promotion of local accumulation they still ship more capital back to the center than they bring in.” (Evans: 307)
This combination of an occasionally radical horizon and a constant commitment to use only Market approved means of moving towards it would appear to be the thinking behind many of the apparent contradictions in his strategies for change. For example although he says that “the agrarian question is the bedrock of the African revolution” (1997: 54) and he supports in “principle” the land redistribution called for by the Pan-Africanist Congress (SA) “Contemporary realities demand a subtle and pragmatic approach which does not damage the economy.” (1997: 76) In a similar view he cautions that we “need to slowly work against the impositions of (colonially imposed) borders.” 1997: 87) But although his dominant message is that the Market must be appeased he surprises the reader by arguing that that “Writing off ‘debts’, is a way of avoiding any fundamental and critical examination of the system” and that “By releasing the built-up pressure in the system in the form of debt relief the system does not explode.” (1997: 43)
5.2 African Unity
Prah has nothing but contempt for the neocolonial state and, indeed, it is difficult to contest Terrance Ranger’s view that:
many African countries appear to be states in name only. Their sovereignty is virtually a political fiction; their control over economic flows across their boundaries, effectively minimal; their lapses from public security into political violence, fostered by foreign arms dumping; their retreat in practice from the populist promises of the early nationalist period after independence, often externally enforced; their impoverishing withdrawal from public welfare institutions, internationally sanctioned; their proliferation of the state salariat, frequently foreign-aid driven...increasing economic dependence... kleptocracies in collusion with extractive transnationals (and) the suborning of...postcolonial elites by global consumerism.
His solution is the political unity of Africa. He repeatedly makes comments to the effect that “Africa’s development...is inconceivable without unity.”(1997: 43, see also 1, 65 ) He doesn’t explain how Europe and Asia ‘developed’ without this unity and he doesn’t explain how it can be achieved when clearly, as Appiah notes, “the integration of states often posses a threat to those states’ elites.” (1992:168) But in so far as unity is a strategy he recommends it for two reasons. The first being that it can assist with the development of African languages and the second that it would mean that “ethnic divisions, and chauvinist inspired ethnic conflict (tribalism) would be obliterated” (1997: 56) because “in a united structure....no ethnicity/nationality can enjoy structural preeminence.” (1997: 39, see also 10, 57, 94) This is not a claim which makes much intuitive sense (after all some government or adminstration would have to be local and therefore a possible site of local ethnic conflict ) and it’s hardly backed up by the experience of Europe where moves toward political unity have certainly not ‘obliterated’ ethnic conflicts
With regard to the language issue he explains that the “myth that Africa has a babel of languages” (1997:90) is a consequences of the colonial imperative to invent tribes in order to “divide areas up into manageable bits and pieces.” (1997: 91) He adds that
“well over 90% of African languages are spoken across borders” (1997: 92) and argues that political unity will create the opportunity for “standardization of proximate versions within clusters of high mutual intelligibility.” (1997: 94, see also 57) This process of standardization is vital in his view because “African languages and their untrammeled usage...(are) the key to African development” (1997: 13,see also 160 ) and “intellectual and scholastic progress” (1997: 53) This is because “these languages represent the living form...of...our culture” (1997:51, see also 87, 89, 95, 112) and “development is impossible, if it is not premised on our own historico-cultural conditions” (1997: 46, see also 61, 68, 71, ). This is because: “Only then can we develop with confidence” (1997: 180); “we create best in our home or first language” (1997: 88); giving “seniority of place” to “colonially inherited languages...cuts off the African masses....from advances in ideas, science and social organisation, from the mainstream of the march of humankind.” (1997: pp 52 & 53, see also 57, 58, 69, 89, 94) and “African advancement....requires...a literate mass society (which)....cannot be developed on the basis of the borrowed colonial languages.” (87, 95)
Although Prah doesn’t offer much to defend these claims and although he is clearly generalising when says that we create best in our own language (Samuel Becket found - and Sandile Dikeng finds - the opposite) the general thrust of what he’s saying fits comfortably into the line of thinking initially popularised by Fanon and Ngugi. The three key ideas are firstly that “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture” (Fanon 1982:38) or, in Ngugi’s words, that language is “a carrier of culture” (1986: 13) and that use of a foreign language results in “alienation from the immediate environment.” (1986: 17) Secondly that this results in a realisation that “The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.” (Ngugi 1986: 9) So, in time the colonial language is “felt to burn your lips” (Fanon 1967 :178) and hence the need for “an almost magically inspired, quasi-alchemical redevelopment of the native language.” (Said 1994: 273) And thirdly that “the language of government...is securely possessed by only a small portion of the population (Appiah 1992:3)” and that this is inherently undemocratic and acts to concretise class divisions.
5.2.1 what mode of governance?
If Africa must unite then two basic questions arise. The first is what form this unity should take and the second is who is an African. Prah largely ignores the first question but he does recommend that the diaspora should have “rights to the African nationality on demand” (1997: 51, see also 105) He also makes a number of vague comments about democracy. However they aren’t very helpful because, as Linton Kwesi Johnson warns:
people powa jus a showa every howa
an everybady claim dem demacratic
but some a wolf an some a sheep
an dat is problematic
And of course there’s a huge difference in the ‘democracy’ of , say, the Ruwenzuru, the USA and Zimbabwe. Radicals often think in terms of Marx’s vision of “converting the state from an organ superimposed on society into one completely subordinate to it.” (1983: 549) This may be what Prah is gesturing towards when he advocates opposing tyrannies where “The mass of the population remains cowed and poorer by the day, a citizenry benumbed, deafened and silenced.” (1997:42) He seems to think that a broad based and vibrant civil society will achieve this and agues that:
the establishment of democratic practice requires the involvement of a literate mass society. This literate society cannot be developed on the basis on the mimetic culture of the elite...If mass society in Africa is to be empowered and creatively freed, this can only be achieved on the premise of African historico-cultural belongings, with selective borrowing and adaptations, which do not negate the cultural roots of the people. (1997:87)
While it is absolutely clear that democracy is dangerously compromised when the language of governance and privilege is largely limited to the ruling class Prah’s vision of an authentically African mass literate civil society leaves basic questions unanswered. For example he makes no attempt to explain how this vision fits in with evidence that in the precolonial era:
It was repeatedly the ‘small’ and not the ‘large’ societies - the village governments and not the royal or imperial systems - which framed Africa’s insistent interweaving of the duties of the individual with the rights of the community, and produced Africa’s specific forms of egalitarian democracy. (Davidson 1992: 71)
Moreover it is clear that a mass civil society requires a mass media and Prah says nothing about how this could be defended from the giant corporations that seek purely quantitative growth to the extent that “the contents of the media itself have now become commodities, which are then flung out on some wider version of the market with which they become affiliated until the two things are indistinguishable.” (Jameson 1991: 277) Amongst other things this leads to the rapid spread, under market principles, of “technologies that could help produce the end of participatory democracy, by transforming politics into media spectacles.” (Kellner 1995: 336)
In fact, aside from his comments on the language issue, Prah gives no evidence to suggest that a unified African state will be any better than the neo-colonial state. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that he makes no attempt to tell his readers what form this state will take or exactly how it will serve the interests of the dispossessed. While African and third world co-operation in the face of First World domination could serve the progressive function of challenging the situation where an effectively united West exploits a fragmented Rest Prah’s vision of a United African is, politically,
so vague that it’s almost meaningless
5.2.3 who is an African?
The second question that arises from Prah’s focus on political unity is who counts as an African and Prah describes this question as “frightfully relevant” (1997: 33) and although he doesn’t explain why it is that important he deals with it extensively. His starting point is that “Africaness is ultimately colourless. ”(1997:5, see also 38, 58) and that although “Most Africans are black... not all Africans are black (197: 36, see also 111) For Prah the category of African includes:
those whose historical and/or cultural origins are African, from the African continent, and whose sense of identity as understood and recognized by themselves is rooted in Africa. Thus the diaspora is African whilst the Arab peoples on the north of the continent are not. (1997: 64, see also 38)
Although he looks forward to “the day South Africa reaches the point where being and (sic) Afrikaner becomes a notion free from racial connotations.” (1997: 133) his antipathy to Hollywood’s current villains, Arabs, is clear and he goes so far as to say that: “I seriously regard it an insult against my intelligence to be searching for modes of unity with people who from time immemorial, to the present day, continue to hold us in slavery.” (1997: 66, see also 59, 106-108) He accepts that in the case of the diaspora “cultural bonds are becoming increasingly tenuous” (1997: 107) and the overwhelming majority...have no wish to return to the continent” (1997:105) but explains that: “What bound those African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists was of course the African ancestry they shared, but only because of the wider societal implications that fact underscored.” (1997: 164) Just as he ignores the possibility of sub-imperialisms he takes no cognizance of Gramsci’s hypothesis “that American expansionism (could) use American Negroes as its agents in the conquest of the Africa market and the extension of American civilisation.” (1971: 21)
What Prah does say is that:
Every time we affirm the diasporal link we ....transcend continentalism.... But of course, this is only of use if it ultimately serves the wider interests of humanity as a whole. Otherwise it becomes a reactionary positions prey to bigoted flag-waving and jingoism. (1997: 105, see also 36, 108, 111, 146)
Although there is no necessary connection between biological non- Africanness and ontological non-Africaness Prah uses strong language to stress his conviction that
“In too many parts of Africa, people who do not regard themselves as Africans are regarded as such by Africans. Being African is virtually equated with citizenship. I think this is often deliberate and wicked.” (1997: pp 33 -34, see also 37, 64, 108) He doesn’t explain why but he does add the seemingly contradictory caveat that “Needless to say, they are full citizens and must always remain full and equal citizens in all respects” (37)
5.3 Black and African Consciousness
A central component of Prah’s strategy is activism in the sphere of consciousness. It is based on a (neo-Hegelian) Sartrean understanding of resistance and transcendence and has been part of anti-colonial thought from Fanon through to Breytenbach. The cultivation of consciousness of the self is conceived as a negative moment in the dialectic which creates itself only on order that it can be transcended.
It is premised on the view that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” (Biko 1996: 68) and it seeks to develop a positive consciousness of the self within an oppressed group. Traditionally this process has had two primary thrusts. The first is that “The thesis is in fact a strong white racism and therefore, the antithesis to this must, ipso facto, be a strong solidarity amongst the blacks on whom these white racism seeks to prey.” (Biko 1996: 90) The second is concerned with the development of autonomy is the sense that Pierre Bordieu defines the autonomy of a field as the extent to which it can “define its own criteria for the production and evaluation of its products.” (1993:115) So, to return to Biko:
“black consciousness” seeks to show the black people the value of their own standards and outlook. It urges black people to judge themselves according to these standards and not to be fooled by white society who have....made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other. (1996: 30)
This autonomy is valued for four principal reasons. The first is a form of what Jane Caputi calls “psychic activism” (Hallman 1995: pp 80 - 91) aimed at repairing the damage which oppression can do to the single or collective consciousness. This process can be explained by way of the example of Jung’s report (McLynn 1997: 282) that an Elgonyi diviner told him that his people no longer dreamed because now the District Commissioner did all their dreaming for them. The development of autonomy through the cultivation of consciousness of the self aims to give a group of people the power to dream their own dreams. The second key thrust of this process is to develop the confidence to be able to take seriously the cultural and material realities of a context rendered peripheral or irrelevant by a power structure. It is in this spirit that
Nkrumah argues that “Our philosophy must find its weapons in the environment and living conditions of the African people.”(1964: 78) Allied to this is resistance to the “monopoly of the power to consecrate producers and products.” (Bordieu 1993:42) The third thrust of the process is the development of a capacity to take responsibility for oneself and to stop waiting, in the manner of a cargo cult, for salvation to come from outside. Finally an autonomous consciousness can lead to the development of what Johan Galtung calls the “power-over-oneself” that leads to “fearlessness” (1973: 34) or the “Soul force” which, Gandhi writes, “begins when man recognizes that body force, be it ever so great, is nothing compared to the force of the soul within.” (Hallman 1995:186)
Although he makes no explicit distinctions it is clear that Prah advocates two overlapping types of consciousness which are black consciousness and African consciousness. With regard to the former he says things like “the African elite...invokes and endorses images of black people which rejects (sic) the physical structure of blacks in favour of whites” (1996:3 see also 116, 122) and “If you organized victims of Jim Crow treatment in Georgia fifty years ago they would all have turned out black. But that would not make that a racist movement..” (1996: 82, see also 48, 65, 111, 165) In the case of African consciousness his support for the formal use of African languages has been noted and in addition he argues that development is only possible if a counter-elite emerges which “treats cultural borrowing as adaptable additions and not wholesale replacements of our heritage.” (1996:169, see also 3, 5, 45-50, 53, 58, 89, 90, 104, 109, 112, 123, 151-154, 179)
He doesn’t mention Achille Mbembe’s view that faced with a shifting plurality of public spaces and social spheres “the postcolonial ‘subject’ mobilizes not just a single ‘identity’, but several fluid identities which, by their very nature, must be constantly. ‘revised.’”(Ranger: 1996:1) Because Prah says nothing about the possibility of multiple forms of black and African consciousness he could be accused of what Paulin Hountondji calls “unanimisim.” (1996). Moreover because he makes no explicit space for psychic activism in the realms of class, gender, sexuality, age or ethnicity (aside from a broad sub-Saharan African consciousness) he could also be accused of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe refer to as the process whereby actual multiplicity is reduced to an abstract theoretical simplicity in the name of “essentialist apriorism, the conviction that the social is sutured at some point.” (1985: 177) These omissions could also turn out to be very practical lacunae. After all, as an example, it has recently been argued that
in the study of African politics the youth factor... may take over from ethnicity’. Military entrepreneurs in this case can ‘provide employment and hope for significant numbers of potentially dissident, part-educated rural youths mobilised by international media [Rambo and Bruce Lee films on video, notably] and alienated from the state by the collapse of educational and formal sector employment opportunities.(Ranger Ed: 1996: 62)
However when it comes to the issue of class it is essential to stress that Prah argues that:
ideas like “Negritude” and “African personality”....were meaningless in the lives of the masses. They were in fact populist notions reflective of petty bourgeois positions. They were however significant in so far as they posed a counterpoint to western racism. (1996: 84)
And because he argues that “without a cultural renaissance, the African masses cannot be empowered” (1996:112) it seems clear that for Prah psychic activism can and should be about far more than bourgeois narcissism. His support for indigenous languages is the only practical suggestion which he makes for a mass based cultural renaissance. But, given the democratic nature of this suggestion and the fact that languages are, as Ngugi shows, a carrier of culture, it is a valuable suggestion.
Finally, because consciousness of the self is so often misrepresented as insularity it is important to say that Prah subscribes explicitly and firmly to the view that:
The consciousness of the self is not the closing of a door to communication. Philosophical thought teaches us, on the contrary, that it is its guarantee. National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing which will give an international dimension. (Fanon 1967:199)
It is with in this general spirit that Prah is firmly internationalist. He argues that: “Because the struggle for African emancipation, freedom and unity is tied to the democratic struggle of humankind.... We must support democratic processes where ever they may be.(1997: 61) “Alliances and cooperative relations with democratic movements and emancipatory process worldwide....serves humanity, enriches our understanding and helped inform practice better.” (1997:05) Given the global reach of the Market and its defenders Prah is clearly right to argue that real opposition requires a principled and resolute internationalism.
5.5 Science v myth
Prah is a polytheist and he worships at the alter of science with the same reverence with which he bows to development. When he uses the phrase “light years” (1997:30) to indicate time it doesn’t seem that he understands science particularly well but of course understanding has never been a prerequisite for faith.
He does use the standard example of the Nazi Holocaust to make the point that “material advances have not been always matched by an increasingly improved social conscience.” (1997:6, see also 165) Moreover he also criticises Appiah for assuming that “the world of invisible agents and that of science and modernisation are oppositional realities” and argues that “the world of invisible agents and that of modern science and technology are in an important sense actually points on a continuum.” (1997:76) However Prah’s practical suggestions for progress make it clear that he subscribes to a fundamentalist version of scientism.
For Prah a society which is developing is the same thing as a society “which is scientifically and technologically advancing.” (1997:89) He seeks “the demystification of the sacred” (1997:175) and argues that “it is through social praxis and the cumulative results of this that the process of disinhabiting the world of invisible things and the movement into the scientific world is achieved. (1997:176) He suggests that language standardization is the key as this will “open the channels for the masses to understand science and technology” so that “a decade later we could have science and technology firmly implanted at village level” (1997: pp 57- 58, see also 94) He does warn that “We need to culturally carry our own as we march into the brave new world of science and technology” but he insists that “as we do this, we must relentlessly discard the perishable cultural cargo that we carry along the way, as and when this is necessary.” (1997:177) Although he provides no criteria for determining which cargo should be strapped down and which jettisoned he does make it clear that he parts company with Afro-centricism when “it begins to scale the heights of mysticism” (1997:103)
His uncritical acceptance of two controversial ideas is immediately problematic. The first it his acceptance of Western science as universal science and the second is the idea that Western science can free us from myth and erroneous belief in the world of invisible things. With regard to the former it seems to be a strange omission given the wealth of criticisms of Western science in popular culture (e.g. Capra 1983), grass roots activism (e.g. Ekins 1992: pp 88-111) and academia. In the latter context the words of the physicist Vadanna Shiva spring to mind. She argues that the reductionist and universalizing tendencies of science serve to “realize, uniformity, centralization and control” and, as such, are “inherently violent and destructive in a world which is inherently interrelated and diverse.” (Ranheema & Bawntree: 1997 pp161-162) And, of course, many people have been asking if “modern science (is) an ethnoscience?” (Harding in Eze 1997: pp 45-70)
It also seems strange that Prah so casually presents Western science as the destroyer of illusion. After all he is writing after Paul Feyrebrand made a good case for the view that “The similarities between myth and science are indeed astonishing” and that in both cases “Attacking the basic ideas evokes taboo reactions.” (1975: 298) Indeed Feyrebrand is careful to point that the “The rise of modern science coincides with the suppression of non-Western tribes by Western invaders.” (Ibid: 297)
Moreover many critics have pointed out that science is used to sustain and produce many of the more invidious myths of consumer culture. For example Naomi Wolfe argues that science is a key tool sustaining “the beauty myth as the gospel of a new religion” (1990: 86) that comes complete with rites and rituals, miracles in the shape of cosmetics and promises of ultimate redemption for the faithful. (see pp86-130) Amongst the other myths in the church of science are the profoundly disempowering cult of the expert one example of which is the deification of the doctor. One of the reasons why this is problematic is that, as Ivan Illich points out: “Every dollar spent in Latin America on doctors and hospitals costs a hundred lives...Had each dollar been spent on providing safe drinking water, a hundred lives could have been saved.” (Ranheema & Bawntree 1997: 96) And, even when education tries to move it’s grounding from the sacred to the profane, myth is still an inherent part of the structure. I quote Ivan Illich again: “ All Latin American countries are frantically intent on expanding their school systems” but
Each dollar spent on schooling means more privileges for the few at the cost of the many; at best it increases the number of those who, before dropping out, have been taught that those who stay longer have earned the right to more power, wealth and prestige. What such schooling does is to teach the schooled the superiority of the better schooled. (Ibid 1997: 96)
If science can be used to generate and support erroneous, dangerous and conservative myths then clearly it is not good in itself. It is, as thinkers like Kwame Gyekye have persuasively argued (Eze 1997: 24 - 44), a tool which can be used for a variety of ends and until those are specified it makes little sense to present science, in itself, as a panacea.
Prah’s general antipathy towards myth also seems strange given his embrace of the ideal of African unity. After all, as Michael Ignatieff argues, national consciousness inevitably requires some leap of faith since “You can never know the strangers who make up a nation with you. So you imagine what it is that you have in common, and in this shared imagining, strangers become citizens...A nation therefore is an imagined community.” (1994:109) Moreover Prah’s enthusiastic embrace of the South East Asian model of development is a clear acceptance of consumer culture and, as Marx warned so long ago, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” (1983:444) Indeed he even goes so far as so speak on commodities as being surrounded by “magic and necromancy” (1983:451). More recently William Leech’s rigorously empirical study of the manufacture of consumer culture concludes that: “Today the myth of consumption as the ideal world of freedom has grown, fostered by commercial media that depict every consumer moment as a liberating one and every purchase as a sexual thrill or as a ticket to happiness.” (1993:386)
We live after Nongqawusu and all know that myth and faith can bring disaster. But Prah has not explained why, aside from his rejection of the imminence of socialism and his rejection of racist colonial myths, it is only African myths that must be questioned. After all few myths have a more pervasive impact on African life than that of The Market. It is instructive to contrast Prah’s myopia with Jeremy Cronin’s poem The Time of The Prophets in which he argues that structural adjustment is the new cattle killing:
The diviners presented themselves not as high-priests, but as
economists in communication with the mysteries of stock
market sentiment. (1997:38)
Given that the myth that helps to shape many contemporary African lives is the myth of The Market Prah’s failure to critique the myths of the new world order amounts to a spectacular failure to engage with the real issues. After all there is, for example, hardly much point in exchanging the myths that lead to female circumcision with those that lead to obsessive ‘dieting’ and exercise, anorexia, bulimia, brutal and dangerous ‘cosmetic surgery’; the psychological torture of the cult of youth and a culture that makes money from presenting female fat as a disease for which the sufferer bears the shameful responsibility. Not to mention the sheer inanity of a women’s media through which educated professionals advise their peers to do things like “Think of holding a dime between your buttocks...when...walking, watching TV, sitting at your desk, driving in your car, standing in a bank line” or “handle, fondle and experience a single orange for twenty minutes.” ( Wolfe 1990:124)
Prah has bought into the Western myth of science and has failed to show how Africans can use science constructively instead of allowing it to be a pernicious new orthodoxy, or in Lacanian terms, a despotic signifier, which subjugates local knowledge. While Prah rails against Christianity as a “heathenizing ideology” (1997:68) he unwittingly promotes the ultimate heathenizing ideology. Moreover he has not given his readers a single criterion for determining what is myth. Just as serious is his omission to raise the issue of the possibility of whether or not all myths are ideology and whether or not there is or could be such a thing as a progressive, enabling or constructive myth.
6. CONCLUDING ANALYSIS
Prah’s book does, as he promises, provide a window into his thinking about Pan-Afriicanism and with some effort a reasonably coherent vision can, as I hope to have shown, be gleaned from his work. The question which arises is whether or not his vision is valuable.
Although Prah is working in an established tradition he, like Appiah, presents his work as an advance which takes Pan-Africanism further by firmly freeing it from any remaining vestiges of 19th century thinking about race. However it seems to this reviewer that both Prah and Appiah may well have overstated the extent to which the problems of Pan-Africanism are racial. Clearly the founding fathers of the movement were men of their times and early African figures like Senghor and Nkrumah may possibly have subscribed to what Appiah calls intrinsic racism. However this can be understood as a homeopathic anti-racist racism and, moreover, the giant of Africanist thought, Frantz Fanon, is able to simultaneously recognise, resist and transcend racism. For Fanon African unity is a logical and practical response to the European oppression of Africa into a reductive and disparaged whole. He writes: “Colonialism did not dream of wasting its time in denying the existence of one national culture after another. Therefore the reply of the colonized peoples will straight away be continental in its breadth.” (1967:171) Fanon is also clear that:
The settler is not simply the man that must be killed. Many members of the mass of colonialists reveal themselves to be much nearer to the national struggle than certain sons of the nation. The barriers of blood and race-prejudice are broken down on both sides...Consciousness slowly dawns on truths that are only partial, limited and unstable. (1967: 116,117)
Furthermore, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, in his introduction to the published proceedings of the 7th Pan African Congress held in 1994 is very clear that Africaness and blackness are not equivalent.
we in Kampala rejected as reactionary blackism this attempt to balkanize Africa behind the so-called Saharan and Sub-Saharan divide. We accepted as African any citizen (by whatever means acquired) of any of the countries of Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo...and also recognize anybody of African descent in the disapora. While a majority of Africans are of Negroid origin, it is not true historically, factually or even politically that blackness is the only condition of Africanness.....If the ANC for instance had sent the late Joe Slovo to the congress it would have been proper. (1996: 11)
So it seems clear that Prah, despite his claims to be some sort of iconoclast in the matter of race, actually takes race far more seriously than forms of organised Pan-Africanism. Nevertheless his book is a contribution to an important debate and is therefore of value.
The next question which arises is the extent to which Prah’s version of Pan-Africanism meets the claims which he makes for it. There are many points which can be made here but because Pan-Africanism is essentially about nationalism I’ll make some brief remarks about Prah’s African nationalism.
Michael Ignatieff’s influential distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism is well known and therefore a good place to start. He defines the former as the view that “an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community.” (1994: 4,5) Civic nationalism on the other hand is the view that “the nation should be composed of all those - regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity - who subscribe to the nation’s political creed...it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.” (1994: 3,4) For Ignatieff ethnic nationalism may run deeper than civic nationalism but civic nationalism is superior as it has a greater claim to sociological realism. This, he argues, is because even when societies are mono-ethnic “ethnicity is only one of the claims on an individual’s loyalty” (1994:4) and civic nationalism, because it sees society as held together by the rule of law which enshrines democratic values and procedures, makes provision for individuals to “reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community (and thus)...assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.” (1994:4)
Clearly Ignatieff’s distinction is premised on a highly Eurocentric world view. For a start it doesn’t understand the strategic need to marshal, as the Mau Mau did, the deep resources of ancestral culture in order to feed the courage of the people who need strength to fight very necessary struggles. Indeed, as Mamdani points out, “it is difficult to recall a single major peasant uprising over the colonial period that has not been on an ethnic or religious basis.” (1996:24) Moreover Ignatieff simply fails to appreciate the extent to which oppression premised on a denigration of ethnicity necessarily requires an affirmation of ethnicity as both a means and end of resistance. Nevertheless there is something useful in the distinction between nationalisms that are purely ethnic and lack a progressive civic commitment, like Inkatha’s Zulu nationalism, and those that are conducted in the name of a people but are also tied to significant civic commitments, like the African nationalism of the former South African liberation movements which, in the case of the dominant ANC, was clearly tied to the Freedom Charter. Indeed there is no reason why a nationalism grounded in the affirmation of a denigrated culture can’t accept the noble principle that, as Marx put it, “that the free development of each should be the condition for the free development of all.” (1983: 228) Adherence to such a principle, within and between ethnic groups, would ensure that, amongst other things, the powerful are not able to make use of the convenient fiction that “ the Bantu only ask for satisfaction of an ontological nature (instead of) decent wages...comfortable housing...food.” ( Cesaire 1972: 38, 39) So it seems that Mahmood Mamdani is quite right to argue that ethnicity is both the problem and the engine of resistance and that struggles should be assessed, not on the extent to which they are ethnically constituted, but rather on the criteria of whether they “tend toward realizing equality or crystallizing privilege.....In other words, when do they signify a struggle for rights and when a demand for privilege?” (1996:203)
Prah’s rhetoric locates his vision of African unity very firmly in the former category. But despite his use of words like democracy, empowerment and renaissance and his clear recognition that Africa is part of a global economic structure which disadvantages the poor at the expense of the rich he provides no substantive civic vision. The reader is given no idea at all of how he conceptualises ideas like democracy and empowerment and what criteria he would like to see being used to determine which aspects of which African cultures should be retained in the new state. He ignores many crucial issues like the rural/urban bifurcation of the post-colonial state and, indeed all that is clear is that his vision is resolutely modernist (as oppose to a communitarian defense of culture) and that he advocates a progressive internationalism, the cultivation of a positive consciousness of the self and the upgrading of the status of indigenous languages. These are all ideas which have been around for some time and while it is good to be reminded of them Prah has not developed them further, updated them or, indeed, even explained them as well as their original exponents.
Moreover while Prah’s support for indigenous languages should be welcomed as a necessary condition for any genuine programme of democratisation it can hardly be said to a sufficient condition. Similarly while a progressive internationalism and the development of a positive black and African consciousness are both still valuable suggestions Prah’s vague and unspecified embrace of these general principles does not constitute a meaningful civic vision. Moreover Prah’s enthusiasm for freemarket capitalism is decidedly strange given that Africanist thought, by definition, generally sees the way forward in communitarian terms. Indeed, the economic model Prah advocates is one which has historically benefited third world elites at the expense of the poor. It’s ‘benefits’ have not trickled down and it is clear that Prah is making the basic error of confusing the whole with the part. In this case he is confusing the mass of the people with those parts of the economy which can compete with or serve the West on Western terms.
Moreover while his commitment to African unity could well be a platform for the solidarity necessary for effective resistance to Western hegemony he provides no clear principle on which African unity should be founded and so there is no guarantee that unity would have a progressive character. In fact, because, he says so much about solidarity with the Diaspora, a little about the principle of solidarity with non-African and non-black struggles (but in practice endoreses the Suharot regime)and nothing about struggles within Africa and within the Diaspora it seems fair to assume that the experience of direct and personal racism is more important to him than democratisation or overcoming poverty. Of course the two are connected to a significant degree and it’s no accident that, for example, toxic waste is far more likely to land up in a black American neighbourhood or in Africa than in a white American neighbourhood. All Africans are clearly affected by the racism of the Market, U.S. foreign policy, CNN etc. However outside of South Africa the personal experience of direct racism is not a problem directly confronted by the average African. Just because it’s a serious problem for much of the Diaspora and the globetrotting elite does not mean that it is should be made the central African issue. To do so would be to wage an elite struggle in the name of the masses and thus undermine or obscure genuine mass struggles or issues. Despite his rhetoric to the contrary Prah seems to subscribe to the reactionary myth of “Africa as one undifferentiated mass of historically wronged blackness.” (Ngugi 1986:21) He has failed to heed Fanon’s warning that, in the postcolonial era,: “If you really wish your country to avoid regression....a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.” (1967:163) Prah has failed to develop his healthy antipathy to racism into a meaningful critique of the racist structure of the current world order and so he is left with a hostility to direct racism that, at times, reduces the problems of Africa to a problem faced by the African elite.
So if we go back to Mamdani’s criterion for assessing struggles it seems clear that Prah’s vision is both a struggle for rights and for privilege. For the elite it is a struggle against racism and for international prestige on Western terms but it is also, probably unconsciously, a struggle which privileges elite concerns above the concerns of the masses . It must, therefore, also be judged as a struggle for privilege and in the interests of the (relatively) privileged. Again Fanon’s words come to mind:
the national government, before concerning itself about international prestige, ought first to give back their dignity to all citizens, fill their minds and feast their eyes with human things, and create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign men dwell therein. (1967: 165)
So Prah’s vision should be supported in so far as it is a struggle for rights but it should not be allowed to present itself as the African struggle rather than as a mere part of the African struggle.
In conclusion, Prah claims to be progressive and no doubt aims to be progressive. But
although he does make one progressive suggestion that goes some way beyond easy rhetoric (standardising and advancing indigenous languages) his failure of imagination has left him incapable of mounting any significant challenge to the neo-colonial order. His vision is largely cosmetic and, if taken seriously, his empty ideal of African unity could well become a conservative narrative used to suppress actual struggles and actual questions in the name of an empty abstraction.
Africa does not lack some essential capacity to resist and to innovate. What we lack at this moment is a fecund progressive imagination. If Cetswayo’s soldiers could bring Chelmsford’s army to its knees; if the Vietcong could take Saigon and if the Zapitistas could revolutionise the Chiappas then we can find ways to meet the Market’s gaze on our own terms and to make progress. Progress towards resolving global contradictions through principled African and Third World solidarity. Progress, also, towards resolving internal contradictions by prioritising the well being of the worst off within a vision that incorporates radical democratisation. Prah’s book, despite its noted strengths makes no significant contribution to the development of this vision. On the contrary is another example of the post-struggle condition where people ooze all the clichés of left rhetoric but in practice endorse standard conservative policies.
And, as Mabogo More argues, part of Biko’s lesson is that it is bad faith to identify with facticity at the exclusion of transcendence. It may even be the case that in the final analysis Prah’s book, despite its flowery rhetoric, is more evidence of what Cesaire called “the persistent bourgeois attempt to reduce the most human problems to comfortable, hollow notions.” (1972:43)
1. On the album Equal Rights which was released and licensed to a number of different labels
2. The Commission on Global Governance p 21
3. On the album More Time released in 1999 on LKJ Records.
4. Feature articles and interviews with Prah have been carried in newspapers like The Sunday
Independent, the City Press and the Sunday Tribune
5. On the back cover of Prah’s book Mda writes that “the Preface alone is worth its fifteen pages in gold.”
6. Topical examples includes Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Breyten Breytenbach’s The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind
7. For example he writes about , “Philistines” (1997:35, 36), “simple minds”
(1997:55) and, even, sprouting “poppycock” (1997: 36).
8. See John Grey’s False Dawn for a powerful critique of the myths surrounding
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