The Sixth International Conference on African Unity for Renaissance will take place in Pretoria between 22 and 25 May. It has an inspiring theme of “The Knowledge, Spiritual and Struggle Heritage for Re-imagining Innovative Africa”. Among its aims are to show that Africans have made “substantial contribution to science, knowledge, history and civilisation”; and to carry out “African structural transformation by employing grounded and context-specific approaches and conceptual and theoretical frames.”
This blog is written to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that this conference presents to generations of post-independence Africans who have cherished the Pan-African ambitions of leaders like, among others, Leopold Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. How do we undertake structural transformation of African political-economic reality through “context-specific approaches and conceptual and theoretical frames”?
The CFTA and the TFTA
At its January 2012 Summit the African Union, under the theme ‘boosting intra-African trade’, endorsed a plan to set up a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) by 2017. It is a dream consistent with the theme of the above conference on African Renaissance. When the CFTA was announced I had thought at the time that the dream was running a bit too ahead of the reality on the ground. 2017 is just round the corner. I was more excited about the idea of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) bringing together the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); the East African Community (EAC); and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) that was first launched in October 2008.
On June 10, 2015 the 27 TFTA members signed an agreement in Cairo pending ratification by national parliaments. Five days later, on 15 June 2015, the AU Summit at Johannesburg launched negotiations to create the CFTA by 2017 with the objective of intensifying the economic integration of Africa. The two potential free trade agreements – the CFTA and the TFTA – aim to reach their ambitious goals by 2017. Of course there is no contradiction between the two –the TFTA could be a stepping stone towards the CFTA. Nonetheless, I still think that most African political leaders have not fully taken into account the hard realities of the continent’s neocolonial economic structure. Unless and until this is done, both the CFTA and the TFTA will remain what they are – cherished dreams, or even mirages.
Why are these neocolonial realities not acknowledged by the African political elite when the aim of the May 2016 Renaissance Conference is to provide “context-specific approaches” to African liberation from received “knowledge” of its erstwhile colonial masters? Is there a role that grassroots organisations and activists can play in providing another perspective – another “conceptual and theoretical” framework of knowledge? Is it because in the attempt to hammer out solutions there is antipathy … or a sense of futility in understanding our current binds?
The Kampala Workshop on CFTA
On 27-30 April, 2016 I attended a brainstorming meeting in Kampala organised by three activist organisations – the Ghana-based Third World Network-Africa; the Uganda-based Southern and Eastern African Trade, Information, Negotiations Institute (SEATINI); and the US-based Regions Refocus – to consider the CFTA agenda and its challenges and promises.
Recognising the challenges that the creation of the CFTA poses, the conference adopted what it called a “slow thinking” methodology. It is an alternative to a top-down, state-led approach. The workshop – while not exactly bottom-up – brought together some twenty-five African progressive academics, trade justice activists, feminist and youth organisers, and policy makers together with a few solidarity activists from outside Africa. The Kampala initiative was designed to create space for a “heterodox and feminist economic analysis” of Africa’s role in the global trade system – starting, initially, with the East African region. Its aim was to discuss alternative strategies to the dominant neoliberal paradigm that practically all African governments have adopted as the basis of their strategies.
This methodology has three elements, and here I quote from its concept paper:
Teach-ins on heterodox and feminist economics, deconstructing theory and policy to cultivate a shared understanding amongst a cross-section of movements and policy-makers;
Strategic planning to generate public mobilisation and state support for progressive trade policy particularly at sub-regional level; and
A public forum to stimulate public consciousness on the CFTA and how it can contribute to structural transformation of East African economies.
The strength of this approach is precisely its “slow thinking” methodology that seeks to provide an alternative conceptual and strategic perspective through “teach-ins” which, hopefully, would inspire a younger generation of activist thinkers. Unlike CFTA and TFTA, its deadline is not 2017. Its ambition is to stimulate public awareness through open public debate and discussion. It is a hard, long journey.
Some of the highlights of the Kampala Workshop
The workshop organisers will, no doubt, issue their own report. These are my personal reflections in order to catch the Renaissance Conference train in Pretoria.
The discussion raised some deep philosophical and epistemological issues. Where does knowledge come from? Why is there a preponderance of neoliberal ideologies pretending to be “knowledge” that supposedly would bring “growth” to Africa? What is “growth”? The economy of the United Kingdom, for example, is based on essentially three things – the fictitious capital produced by the banks in the City of London; the arms industry – the more people they kill in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen the bigger UK’s “growth”; and the pharmaceutical and illicit drugs trade. So what constitutes growth in Africa? For whose benefit?
We live in prisons – real and conceptual. The neoliberal language is a prison. The reality of neocolonial economy is a prison. At independence Uganda, for example, had several vertically integrated textile mills which have all disappeared since the onslaught of neoliberal economics. People now wear either imported or second-hand clothes. Why does it have to be this way? Africa imports baked beans and chicken legs from Europe. Why? Are African farmers incapable of producing beans and raising chicken? Kenya exports water in the form of flowers to Europe. Why?
Language is a trap. Women have for decades sought to challenge a male-dominated vocabulary that biases the narrative in favour of the masculine and patriarchal system. Much progress is made in introducing a feminist discourse to challenge this. We need to move away not only from patriarchal systems but also away from androcentric (male-centric) thinking that women like the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher embraced… as does Hilary Clinton.
Trade is War. This is the title of my book that was launched at the close of the workshop. But during the workshop I was not the only one to say so. One of the papers at the workshop also argued that trade is war. The author went on to suggest the “Rwanda Model” as an innovative approach to development that might be emulated by other countries. There was not enough time to discuss this, but it is worth reflecting on what this model is – its promises and challenges.
We live in illusions – reformist illusions. We need a transformative, revolutionary strategy. For that we need a new kind of training – “teach-ins” for the young to understand the African reality on the ground and how to change that reality to serve the people. SEATINI had started an “Equator School” in 2004 with this in mind, but it failed to take off for various reasons. May be its time had not come. But now the Empire is collapsing under the weight of multiple crises – above all a crisis of legitimacy, a moral crisis. It is time to re-launch the Equator School.
The Sixth African Unity for Renaissance Conference in Pretoria might want to address some of these questions. It matters where “knowledge” comes from and who produces that knowledge. Africa must reject the “free market” theories which camouflage the reality of aid and trade as instruments of “growth” whereas in actual fact they are weapons of war against Africa and African peoples.
Our political leaders have an obligation to explain how these theories have undermined policy independence of our countries during the last 30 years. They must look for alternatives that draw from the ancient wisdoms of our peoples; the practical experience of our peasant farmers on land and workers in factories and in the informal sector and our value systems in this world of globalized culture.
The Sixth Renaissance Conference has an inspiring theme – “The Knowledge, Spiritual and Struggle Heritage for Re-imagining Innovative Africa”. We hope it lives up to its ambition.