Has Pan-Africanism outlived its usefulness?

Icarbord Tshabangu on African presidential solidarity and the flawed deal in Zimbabwe

Tolstoy once remarked that patriotism is the cruel tradition of an outlived period, which exists not merely by its inertia, but because the governments and ruling classes, aware that not their power only, but their very existence, depends upon it, persistently excite and maintain it among the people, both by cunning and violence.

For those of us who cherish the true ideals of Pan-Africanism we watch with great misgiving an emerging paradigm within the African political discourse recently affecting Zimbabwe and other parts of the continent, which seems to promote a culture of ‘speak no evil, hear no evil and see no evil' even when a son of the soil is caught red-handed with hands dripping blood of fellow Africans.

The embarrassing and laughable declaration by president Mbeki in April 2008 that there was ‘no crisis' in Zimbabwe, despite glaring evidence from a political, humanitarian and economic perspective, adds to the view of an egoistic, elitist pan Africanism amongst our leaders and a culture of ‘speak no evil, hear no evil and see no evil' against your black brother.

It was not surprising therefore to hear Robert Mugabe diplomatically scold Botswana president Masire at the signing ceremony for having publicly criticised the Zimbabwe's brutal regime over the violent June 27 election. Mugabe vowed like a principled pan African that he would never criticise a sitting African president. 

Maybe that's a good rulebook in the presidents' club or for those leaders who subsist on their people's misery. It is quite clear that most African citizens who have suffered abuse under such archaic forms of leadership would prefer to sing from a different hymn that promotes accountability and transparency.

Some commentators have observed as we noted at this year's African Union summit in Egypt that some African leaders are paralysed by the ‘skeletons in their cardboards' arguing that ‘let him who has no sin cast the first stone'. Maybe that is the challenge we face as Africans, which is to rid ourselves of what former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela referred to as ‘tragic failure of leadership', in this case, African Leadership.

Despite our solemn allegiance to Pan-African patriotism and African solidarity we have to ask as to whether the spirit of safeguarding human rights and a sustainable democracy is still sacrosanct in our interaction or it only matters where a white person has brutalised a black brother.

It is important that we ask these questions because Pan Africanism is rooted in human rights - the fight against brutality and exploitative forces of slavery and colonialism. Are we now as Africans, under this patriotism of a queer nature, re-entering and happily inhabiting a house of horror, which we once liberated ourselves from, simple because our new host is now a black slave master?

Pan Africanism is a philosophical and a socio-political movement whose quest is to unify Africans and those in the Diaspora against forms of exploitation, particularly arising from servitude and racism emanating from the slavery holocaust and colonialism.

In setting aside African cultural differences and asserting the principality of our shared values as Africans, Pan Africanism abhors neo-colonialism, modern forms of slavery, and numerous other injustices perpetuated even by our black ‘slave masters' masquerading as our liberators from the white ‘slave masters'.

For most Africans, our experience from colonialism to the present has been the changing of the driver and not the direction of the vehicle. Enunciating some ideals of Pan Africanism and African solidarity or patriotism, our leaders have caged us in a state of impotence and fear of the multicultural worldview, which may threaten their stranglehold on state power. 

As Africans we have to ask and judge for ourselves whether the ideology of Pan Africanism, as presented by some of our leaders, is still useful, or has outlived its usefulness. If useful, to what extent can it be channelled effectively to espouse and express the general will of the African people and not serve the interests of a few despots and those in service of the former slave master?

While upholding African-ness and sacred principles of humanity, as Africans, we should not be blinded by hollow and obsolete forms of patriotism, peddled by some of our elitist leaders in their self-preservationist strategies to harness political power and their deodorised legacies. Criticising them and demanding a higher standard of moral leadership and accountability, should not be equated to attacking our African-ness or the downtrodden African populace.

One African proverb states that ‘a king is only a king because of his people'. Maybe the tragedy we have as Africans is the high number of ‘illegitimate' leaders amongst us. Such Leaders do not owe their allegiance to the people but to the grit of force and other constitutional flaws and processes that keep them in power. Despite a damning report by the African Union and SADC observer missions on the 27th of June 2008 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, the African presidents looked the other way and exposed their lack of political integrity even on the electoral protocols set by their institutions - just to shield their own under the guise of pan African patriotism. In the process, the people of Zimbabwe continued to pay dearly for exercising their primordial democratic right - voting for a party and candidates of their own choice.

Buoyed by other Africans and the international community, most Zimbabweans made their voice known on 29 March 2008, that they wanted a change of government, despite risk to their lives. Some African leaders save for Zambia and Botswana in the region, have since been complicit through their anointed mediator, president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, in reversing through stealth, cunning and violence, the will of the people and rescue Mugabe and not the downtrodden people of Zimbabwe and per chance salvage a so called legacy for president Mbeki and Mugabe.

The political deal has now been sealed, and as desired from a pan African perspective, puts Mugabe in the driving seat, since Morgan Tsvangirai is perceived to be pro Western. It's quite clear from many observers that the will of the people has been subverted - once again and that Tsvangirai was in some ways under pressure to act ‘patriotic' to his other African brothers and put pen to paper.

It is also noted that there are still other key unresolved issues of power such as Ministries allocation to be negotiated between the principals that is Zanu PF and MDC. The vagueness of the power-sharing document especially in areas of power and authority, suggests that much is yet to unravel and that some of the proponents to the deal may find themselves defending the indefensible.

Like in every other flawed process many Zimbabweans did not know whether to cry or celebrate when the deal was announced. Some of those who decided to celebrate at the Harare venue on Monday later found themselves battered or thrown into prison cells as shown in some media.

The international community who are supposedly expected to rush in and help resuscitate the economy are said to be highly cautious. Not a good start, is it? The jury is still out. Like a family housed in a structure built on sand, Zimbabweans may have to wait longer before they can celebrate this political deal thanks to elitist forms of pan Africanism that find the tenets of democracy a tough proposition in Africa as stated by Mugabe in his signing ceremony speech.

Centuries ago, citizens were largely uneducated. Rulers often had a monopoly of information and thus it is recorded that rulers often demanded or enforced obedience without question. In the 21st century where the media and technology has revolutionised modern democracy, such forms of leadership at every level have become obsolete and a greater demand for shared leadership has taken root among the people. It is now unthinkable that the role of a citizen, that is, African citizens can only be limited to mere deference towards the ‘Strongman' or ‘Bigman' of Africa.

Maybe as observed by Tolstoy, patriotism even in Pan Africanism is like a scaffolding, which was needful once, to raise the walls of the building, that is, to free ourselves from slavery and colonialism, but which, now represents the only obstacle to the house being inhabited, but is nonetheless retained, because its existence is of profit to certain persons of power.

*Icarbord Tshabangu is a researcher on Education and Citizenship