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Updated: May 25, 2013 17:43 IST

Celebrating the African renaissance

Giulia Bonacci
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The Organization of African Unity marks its 50th anniversary today amid not just the search for solidarity across a continent but for a vision of a global Africa

Africa unite!

Unite for the benefit for the benefit of

your people!

Unite for it’s later than you think!

Unite for the benefit of my children!

Unite for it’s later than you think!

Bob Marley, Africa Unite, 1979

On May 25, 2013, Africa celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Heads of African States, high profile personalities and guests from all over the world are pouring into Addis Ababa to testify that the early objective of the OAU has been fulfilled: the total liberation of Africa from colonialism and white supremacy. As the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, said at the 1963 Summit: “Our liberty is meaningless unless all Africans are free.” However, this celebration does more, and illustrates how Africa is entering its renaissance.

Foundational step

The African renaissance is the political and social vision promoted by the Africa Union, launched in 2002 to transform and succeed to the OAU. The establishment of the OAU in 1963 was a major political step in cementing Africa’s continental bond, and was also one of the fruits of Pan-Africanism, often defined as the most ambitious and inclusive ideology that Africa has formulated for itself since the 19th century. The legacies of Pan-Africanism are today to be represented, at least in their political aspects, by the interests of the 54 African nations forming the African Union. As such, Pan-Africanism stands as a foundational step to the African renaissance, its source, its roots and its main ambition.

Celebrations are the time to exhume from history charismatic characters, unexpected trajectories and great struggles. Pan-Africanism is rich in each of these and spans over centuries and continents. Like other “Pan-” movements, Pan-Africanism articulates the unity of nature and the destiny of cause of African people in Africa and those scattered across the world. Pan-Africanism was first elaborated by activists and intellectuals in the diaspora and testifies to the indomitable spirit of people like Edward W. Blyden, a scholar born in the Virgin Islands in the Eastern Caribbean and who settled in Liberia, West Africa in 1851. Blyden wrote and talked about the historicity of Africa and of the prophetic destiny of black people, the sons and daughters of the Africans brought as slaves to the American shores, deemed to return to their original homeland.

Other intellectuals, like American W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black graduate of Harvard University, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909, committed his life to the advancement of black people and chaired a few of the Pan African Congresses where leaders and activists met. Invited to Ghana by President Kwame Nkrumah, he obtained Ghanaian citizenship. He was later buried there in 1963.

Pan-Africanism had an expanded social base by the 1920s when millions of black people in the Americas, Europe and Africa enrolled as members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA was founded in New York in 1918 by charismatic and controversial Jamaican Marcus Garvey, a printer by trade who in a few years had mobilised the black masses around slogans such as “One God, One Aim, One Destiny,” and “Africa for the Africans at home and abroad.” The sense of collective purpose was nourished by the increased visibility of the aspiration of a people wanting a god in their image, a government of their own and a land to which to belong.

Early Pan-Africanism is inseparable from the context which produced it, its matrix being the international system where trade in human beings was legal and profitable. Legacies of this system are explicit in the violent and racist policies that plagued many societies, fascism in Ethiopia, segregation in the U.S., apartheid in South Africa and institutional racism in Western metropolis. In 1945, a new generation of African leaders, often exposed to the peculiar experience of the diaspora, gathered on the occasion of the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England. In a shift towards Africa in the trajectory of Pan-Africanism, the seeds of struggle bore fruit with the independence of African countries and the gradual recognition of black people in their civil and human rights.

Soft power

Beyond the political realm, Pan-Africanism has also produced musical cultures, social movements and religious world views, and some of them have become global references, like the Rastafari people and reggae music. Rastafari people embody the very idea of sovereignty and revere the last Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie I, the “father” of Africa and convener of the 1963 Summit in Addis Ababa. With its diffusion beyond the borders of Jamaica in the 1980s, reggae has transmitted a spirit of rebellion that found echoes all over the world, most vividly in the music of the iconic Rastafari musician, Bob Marley. A Bob Marley tape might be the best passport to cross Africa and to share the language of the African diaspora.

Empowerment

Today, Pan-Africanism is again at a turning point. Stalwarts of contemporary Pan-Africanism leave Jamaica to teach in Zimbabwe, depart from New York to settle in Ethiopia, and organise the upcoming Eighth Pan-African Congress, while Pan-African institutions of learning and education, regional organisations, political parties, and civil society associations are in search of a vision of a global Africa. Many challenges offer fertile ground to social and political change in Africa: the experience of neo-colonialism, the threat of acute militarisation, the persistent poverty and underdevelopment are brewing deep discontent in African people and the diaspora. As there is no room for global failure of humankind, struggle and achievement will have to prevail. If renaissance there should be, it will take shape in new social solidarities, through the transmission of history and collective security at its heart. And it will probably have the face of a woman. For the first time, a woman, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from South Africa, is chairing the African Union Commission, and the empowerment of women is a top priority on the agenda of the African renaissance.

(Dr. Giulia Bonacci is a historian and researcher at the Institute of Research for Development, currently based at the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.)

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