Who is an Africanist, really?


Theory and ideology are important in helping us engage the world in both its materiality and spirituality. Without ideology and theory it would be impossible to interpret the past, anticipate the future and understand the present. It is because of this that we must be careful how we approach theory. 

A reckless approach has disastrous results and this is evident in how so-called Pan Africanists have been failing at relating to the essence of the approach both as a theoretical lens and as an ideology. 

This failure was starkly illustrated recently when a number of people on social media “critiqued” Professor Patrick (PLO) Lumumba from Kenya after he gave a lecture on pan-Africanism on the Economic Freedom Fighters Book Club live lecture series recently . The critique came mostly from people in the Black Consciousness and Africanist blocs. It was unclear what their critique was grounded on but it seemed to emanate from the professor’s failure to mention Robert Sobukwe, the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, in his lecture. Others accused him of being an empty pamphleteer who has no depth of understanding what pan-Africanism is and what it seeks to do. 

Some unflinchingly declared that Lumumba is not a pan-Africanist. 

These critiques are interesting because they give us an opportunity to think (again) about what pan-Africanism is and what it seeks to do. They allow us to re-engage in the old conversation of who really is an Africanist. 

What I want to posit is that, in the first instance, pan-Africanism is a living theory that is shaped and continues to be shaped by the ever-changing conditions of the continent. But the theory is also a spirit and is not just grounded by geography — it finds expression beyond the borders of Africa. But this does not mean, as Sobukwe once suggested, that an African is anyone who pledges their allegiance to Africa. What perhaps is more apt is that an African can only be defined by looking at the lived experience of a particular person. 

Is that person born of a collective history of a people scorned, dispossessed, exploited, enslaved, and oppressed? Is that person born of the sound of the drum, of master improvisors, of the makers of gold, pyramids and jazz? This criteria might seem open but the truth is that for one to be an African there is an undisputable blackness that has to run through one’s veins. It follows then that an Africanist is one who acknowledges this complex and layered history, one who in their thinking and action seeks to advance the knowledge and the interests of fellow Africans. 

Here, although many might find it a bit controversial, I want to categorically declare that white people in general cannot be African, in both the historical and the ontological sense. But, true to their nature, it is not surprising that most insist on claiming Africa as theirs. This is something we need not dwell on lest we forget that certain debates are nothing but distractions. 

I want to mention that, although blacks are African, not all of them are Africanists. To be an Africanist is to take a certain position, to deliberately work and conduct oneself in a way that seeks to achieve an Africa that is radically different from the one we have. It is to work towards an Africa that has its own identity, culture and that is self-aware and dependent. To be an Africanist is to fight against anything that seeks to perpetuate the suffering and oppression of Africa and its people. 

It is easy, therefore, to see that pan-Africanism is not a straitjacket with an exhaustive rubric but is dependent on one’s interpretation. Of course, bearing in mind the basic principles that I mentioned above. What I am perhaps attempting to gesture towards here is that being a pan-Africanist is determined by a black person’s relationship with the continent. It is a person’s daily responses and attitude to their circumstances that will enable us to make a judgment. 

A single lecture from Lumumba is not enough to dismiss him as not being pan-Africanist. His ideas must be interrogated fully and, of course, the judgment must not be based on how he appeals to the demands of academic decorum. There are pan-Africanists who exist outside of learning institutions. The ability to cite Kwame Nkrumah, Sobukwe et cetera, although important, is not what makes one an Africanist, the demands are much higher. 

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Mcebo Dlamini
Mcebo Dlamini
Mcebo Dlamini is a former president of the students’ representative council at the University of the Witwatersrand

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