Did pan-Africanism die with our founding fathers?

On 25 May, we celebrated Africa Day. In the second blog of our Africa Day series, Kesa Pharatlhatlhe explains what being African means to her, and why pan-Africanism is important for Africa’s future generations.

What's on this page
    % Complete

      I still remember vividly sitting in the backseat of the student bus on our way to the evening church service in Randburg, South Africa.

      That day, the route leading to church was unusually different. There were flashing red and blue lights at the roadside, and you could hear many police sirens.

      Filled with curiosity and a surge of anxiety, I decided to ask what was happening. A sad truth came to light: earlier in the day, an African foreign national had been brutally attacked and killed in the middle of the road. The year was 2008, and the first bout of xenophobic attacks had just erupted in South Africa.

      As a young student from Botswana, I had grown up with a keen interest in South Africa’s political history, since Botswana formed part of the frontline states that supported the liberation struggle led by the African National Congress.

      Knowing the painful history of apartheid against the majority of the black population, I found it extremely hard to reconcile the xenophobic attacks sprouting up from this backdrop. How could the same country that leaned so heavily on the pan-African liberation solidarity during its dark period now turn its back on fellow brothers and sisters, who gave them refuge and support during their struggle for freedom?

      Although never truly feeling at danger myself, I had to fight against fear – shared by fellow African students, unsure of their safety, as soon as they stepped out of the university compound.

      I questioned whether this was really the same country of Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Solomon Mahlangu.

      A difficult road to unity – and the painful lack thereof

      Fast forward to 2015, when I moved to Ethiopia. Being a pan-Africanist at heart, I could not contain my excitement to finally set foot in the land of the Great Haile Selassie I (Ras Tafari), a country that for me epitomised the African renaissance, never colonised and home to the highest pan-African organisation that exists to date, the African Union Commission.

      However, I shortly found myself confronted with afrophobia on this very land and being on the receiving end of utterances such as ‘go back to your country!’, and of questions such as ‘are you from Africa?’. A mind-boggling question, considering that this conversation was happening within the very borders of the continent.

      The greatest paradox – and quite a painful one – was being called ‘nigger’, a racially derogatory word which carries a historical pain – for all black people – uttered by a black African, to a fellow black African in Africa. Even more disappointing was the fact that such a rude awakening was occurring in the country where the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) itself was born in 1963.

      It has been 55 years since the formation of the OAU – which now became the African Union. This year, as we celebrate Africa day, I ask all Africans to take a moment to engage in true self-reflection and ask themselves: what really is pan-Africanism?

      The spirit that swept through all corners of the continent back then seems to be a dwindling notion today. Do we still know what it stands for? Or are we becoming increasingly nationalistic, feeling a bigger sense of belonging to our fragmented 55 states than to this long gone concept of African Unity that we don’t fully understand or believe in?

      At the highest political and intergovernmental level, Africa is moving forward towards the realisation of Agenda 2063 to become a prosperous, peaceful and integrated continent.

      This goal is reflected in recent initiatives such as the Continental Free Trade Area, the introduction of an African passport, the signing of the Free Movement of People protocol, and the African Single Air Transport Market.

      As positive as these steps may be, ultimately we must ask ourselves if we, African citizens, subscribe to this reinvigoration of unity shared by our leaders. Let us not forget that the achievement of this unity falls heavily on the shoulders of the ordinary people.

      As Africans, both at home and abroad, we need to confront these seemingly hard questions of identity and common heritage. We need to ask whether Africanism is an ideology that we nonchalantly throw around without really interrogating its origins, and what it really means for us today.

      The Africans of today and tomorrow should not forget the pan-African spirit of yesterday

      I have to confess that I still want and do call myself a pan-African. And there have been many moments where this felt true.

      Over the years, while travelling to Ghana, Lesotho, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and many more countries on the continent, I have been met with the beaming smiles of fellow Africans. It was clear that they were seeing me as an extension of themselves – so interested to learn which part of this vast land I was from, allowing me to transport them to my country of birth as we engaged in conversations spanning from our shared appreciation for the richness in the flavour of our food to our undeniable African rhythm.

      These experiences have given me the hope that, one day, I will step into any African country and call it home regardless of what national passport I hold, and that my continent will eventually rise up and provide opportunities for its citizens that they currently seek elsewhere.

      With Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ in the background, I wonder why we choose to fight each other instead of uniting against common enemies such as poverty and corruption. And why did we choose to fight over anglophone and francophone languages instead of fighting for the promotion of our indigenous languages?

      I also wonder if the remnants of colonialism have made us forget who we are and if – as Bob Marley puts it – we need to emancipate ourselves.

      How can we recapture the pan-Africanist spirit of yesterday and transfer it onto the next generations?

      In my quiet moments of solace, I so often think of our forefathers – Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Thomas Sankara, Haile Selassie I.

      I hope that the spirit of pan-Africanism and their wish for a united Africa has not been buried in the African soil along with the great icons who fought so hard for it in a not so distant past and that, one day, we, the generations of the future, will make them proud.

      The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

      Africa Day series


      Loading Conversation