Shivji: An Inconvenient Pan-Africanist
WHEN the Cold War ended, or seemed to end, and the dreams of a socialist global utopia evaporated, most Marxist intellectuals retreated to seek shelter in different ideologies and political projects.
Most African Marxists such as Yash Tandon, Samir Amin and Sam Moyo toyed with dependency theories, toned down their Marxist vocabulary but maintained their political economy framework of analysis in search for social justice.
In the West, Marxist thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou escaped from the sociology of Marx and hid in the psychology of Freud Sigmund and Jacques Lacan that emphasises psychoanalysis as a tool of understanding man in the world. Having failed, perhaps, in understanding the world outside man through sociology, they ran to try to understand the world inside man through psychology. Failing to fix the world for man may entail trying to fix man for the world, maybe.
Presently, in the decoloniality movement and intellectual canon Marxism is getting a beating for being another Eurocentric fundamentalist ideology that was largely blind to the colonial and racial problem in the world.
This intellectual beating that Marxism is suffering is made severe by Karl Marx’s own thoughts that regarded colonialism as a good method of modernising backward and primitive societies; Marx is not getting forgiveness for his celebration of the colonisation of India for instance. With escalating crisis of capitalism worldwide, an imminent Third World War and increasing social inequalities Eurocentric Marxists led by Zizek and Badiou are gaining confidence, circulating themselves in the global academy with a huge shiny ego and an “we told you so” attitude.
In Africa, it seems, there is no renewed enchantment with Marxism but a vogue of decoloniality that claims its roots from the Bandung Conference of 1955 that asked for a rejection of Eurocentric political and economic fundamentalisms.
Not again is Africa going to be mesmerised by Eurocentric ideas that are innocent and ignorant of the colonial history and racial wounding of the continent and its people, this seems to be the attitude that gives oxygen to decoloniality as a philosophy of liberation.
Decoloniality is not just powering student struggles but it is achieving currency in social movements like the World Social Forum, governments of the Global South and liberation theologians of the Christian and Muslim world. One African scholar and intellectual, the Tanzanian resources of its own, enough not to rely on instructions from Europe and America. What the scholars of the World Social Forum have done in unmasking the use of the concept of human rights, as a political ideology rather than an idea and practice of liberation, has also been nuanced by Shivji who believes that human rights must truly be about human beings not about the elitist struggles for political and economic power. In a word, Issa Shivji, politically and intellectually has been formed by African struggles for liberation and produced by the continental perplexity for the rehumanisation of Africans. Breaking bread with fellow Travellers In the early 1990s when the combative Archie Mafeje had gotten tired of the democratisation debate in Codersia he penned a definitive review of the debate titled “Breaking bread with my fellow travellers” in which he chided his comrades such as Ibbo Mandaza, Thandika Mkandawire and others for adopting among other things, some Charlie Chaplin approaches to serious continental issues. On 20 October 2017, at the University of the Witwatersrand, it was Issa Shivji’s turn to break bread with fellow scholars and carry out a critique of African intellectuals, himself included. Shivji was delivering the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture and did so by mainly exaggerating his views just to make a point.
First he commiserated with South Africans whose social situation points to the fact that the sun has not set on the sunset clauses that prevent radical transformation after apartheid, where blacks still live under apartheid conditions under a black government.
Shivji made lunch of African intellectuals that have produced ideas that rationalise and legitimate toxic power in the continent. He portrayed intellectuals as having been a very dangerous lot in Africa in that they have invested more in producing ideas for the purposes of deception rather than illumination of truths.
Ideas, especially intellectual ideas have become a commodity in Africa, and like any commodity in the market place they are now carefully and cleverly packaged for commerce. African intellectuals have, according to Shivji, turned many political falsehoods into common sense and learnt respectability and acceptability to poisonous ideas, just for the sweet jingle of coins. All seems to have been lost in Africa when intellectualism became a form of entrepreneurship where research is guided by the needs of donors and other buyers of ideas in the scholarly marketplace.
To demonstrate his point concerning the decline of intellectualism in Africa and the love for power by intellectuals, Shivji asked his audience to just observe the tyrannical behaviours of academics that have been promoted to university administrations.
Where intellectualism has been commercialised and corrupted “history becomes tourism and heritage, corporate greed becomes corporate responsibility and democratic governance is taught as good governance.”
The once venerated “political economy is replaced by econometrics, with no sense of either economics or politics.” Shivji loudly wondered why “Africans in Africa study Africa in Centres of African Studies in the image of Centres in the North?”
In Africa “all studies should be African studies.” And then the bomb dropped “once upon a time our universities took pride in being centres of controversy; now we covet to become centres of excellence. You can’t attain excellence if you are controversial! Simple truth often overlooked.” In that way Shivji made his own contribution to views on the decolonisation of knowledge and the university in Africa.
Like many veteran African scholars, Shivji looks more into the past than the future of the university in Africa. For him and his generation there was once a paradise of intellectualism that seems to have been lost and must be found and recovered. This romanticisation of the past in the African university leads to ignorance of the important struggles that present university students and scholars are fighting as a continuation of the battles of yesteryear. Speak well as he may, Shivji does not speak from a location of purity and innocence, he is part of the present powers in the university as a distinguished Head of the Julius Nyerere Research Chair in Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar Es Salaam.
Importantly, Shivji ended his lecture with a dedication and a commemoration of African public intellectuals, past and present, that have endured persecution fighting for social justice in their countries.
The critical work of scholars such as Shivji cannot be erased, denied or silenced easily, what it needs is to be expanded and made alive to pressing present challenges in the African academy. African Pan-Africanism and nationalism as ideologies of decolonisation need to be reloaded, expanded and given a new decolonial critical edge.