In his recent piece (Beware of African nationalism February 9 2014, The Sunday Independent) Prince Mashele argues that African nationalism has run out of its relevance as a philosophy. Its usefulness was limited only to the early anti colonial struggles and has now in the post colonial time, he argues, become nothing but a tool at the hands of the tyrannical rulers of the post colonial Africa to subdue the “ordinary” Africans in the face of the unjust power of the ruling elite. He argues that it is more than important today that ordinary Africans should beware of African nationalism. In the context of post colonial scenario it has run out of uses and its inclination to “group” Africans is incompatible with the modern demands of development and democratic governance for it drowns the individual for the sake of the ‘GROUP”.  Mashele argues that the ANC of Jacob Zuma in it’s, supposedly tyrannical, rule of the people of South Africa relies on African Nationalism to guarantee itself immunity from criticism by blacks. This it does by pursuing a line of argument that urges black people to fear embarrassing their black leaders and therefore, by this logic, themselves  and in doing so these black people should  then protect Zuma and the Nkandla happenings.  To quote and paraphrase Mashele “African Nationalism was born out of the colonial experience, it was used by liberation fighters to mobilize black people to be part of the quest for political liberations”.

Mashele further labours to make this point when he says “African Nationalism assigns to animalism blackness; it treats blacks as if, like beasts, they lack consciousness – the mental capability to be aware of one’s surroundings.   To close it off he asserts that the “ordinary” African made a mistake of thinking that African Nationalism would last forever. Of course I can reference many other passages that Mashele scribes to hammer home the point that the current historical moment needs less African Nationalism and more acknowledgement of the African as an independent individual who must not, as he says, unduly be subject to some tyrannical ‘group’ ideology.

One can deduce from the articulations of Mashele that his perspective is founded on the notion that since the fall of apartheid and colonialism Africans no longer need to be engaged in a discussion, collectively, to set out their shared duty in creation of a post colonial Africa. One can deduce that it is Mashele’s argument that the since the fall of the apartheid state and direct colonial oppression Africans no longer need to coalesce at all, at least not on the basis of African nationalism.

But my argument is that Mashele is not necessarily speaking against African nationalism as an ideological persuasion he is speaking against the very notion that human existence is a phenomenon whose very essence is collective cooperation. He is speaking against the very phenomenon that human beings need unites action for historical progress to occur. He is, by doing so, making the most raw of liberal arguments that history is a function of actions of brilliant individuals who by their sheer brilliance carry history on their shoulders while everybody else is merely fortunate to witness it in their lifetime or if they are literate read it from the books. He separates human thought and action from the totality of human existence as a contextual and historical experience and makes human thought and idea pure, objective and removed from material human existence and as such ascribe to the will and thought of an individual the triumph of epochs.  

To make this point Mashele identifies African Nationalism not as an organic and revolutionary human instinct born of people who were resisting colonial oppression but as a tool “used by liberation fighters to mobilise black people to be part of the quest for political freedom”. In this quoted phrase Mashele makes three major mistakes. First, he accredits his “individuals” (the liberation fighters) as inventors of African Nationalism, a tool they used to mobilize blacks in quest for freedom. In this case freedom is their idea that they sponsor to black people. Secondly he portrays “black” people as a docile group of individuals who waited for liberation fighters to come to them with mobilization tool and subsequently acted as instructed. Lastly he erroneously, at least in the context of SADC liberation struggles, makes African Nationalism an exclusive tool to only liberate blacks whilst African Nationalism has been embraced by all freedom loving people regardless of race, it is precisely why the ANC mobilized all the people of the country to resist what the SACP called “the colonization of a special type”. In this fashion Mashele makes the greatest mistake of intellectual laziness, he manipulates history to serve his short term argument.

The truth of the matter is that African nationalism is an ideological persuasion whose roots lie in the more than three hundred years of resistance of the oppressed African people.

It is African Nationalism precisely because the colonial conquest was based on, among other things, the colonizers’ persistent effort to wipe from history of the colonized their sense of nationhood, to destroy the power structures through which the colonized explained their social existence and defend that existence for the reason that it is crucial in constituting them as nations. To put it simply the colonizers sought to reduce nations who recognized their common destiny to a bunch of individuals who accidentally happen to share a geographic space with each other. The end game is that the unidentified individual is easier to coerce into thinking that his destiny is his own and has nothing to do with his or her class brother or sister. This is the ultimate hypocrisy of liberalism that it is an ideology of the rich in that it is only the rich who can go by denying that they are part of the sum total of society and that the social forces of that society govern and determine his social standing.   

African Nationalism therefore developed and mutated in struggle and through active resistance and with passage of time and evolution of conditions to carry as part of its characteristics aspects as non-racialism and non-sexism and other features that define the progressive movement in the present day. So Mr. Mashele needs to recognize that it is by now, even by the most extreme of liberals, an accepted idea that ideologies that shift historical epochs are not made in libraries and war rooms of liberation fighters or boardrooms of the Midrand Group but are organically produced in the grinding wheel of social change. The issue however is that liberals believe that the end game is to liberate the individual from society while we on the last are vindicated everyday that the end game is to constitute a just society based on the fundamental recognition that human existence and social justice are not anchored on elevation of the individual.  African Nationalism is an organic product of the grinding wheel of social change as it is was with Abolitionism in the times of slavery and as it was during the Renaissance times.  It’s work of history.

However there is an ideological inconsistency in the articulations of Mashele that betrays his own inability to reconcile his liberalism and his inclination to accept that African Nationalism (as what he labels group mentality) was once useful.

He puts it this way “in the context of the fight against colonialism and apartheid, African Nationalism was indeed an emancipatory instrument.” Before he mounts a deadly assault on this African Nationalism that he meekly credits here above, he first makes a timid assertion that African nationalism is a “herd” mentality and by implication equivalent to African chauvinism or some criminalistic cult belief. Then for the big bang, he boldly says “to reduce Africans into a nationalistic mass is to assault their basic humanity. It is to imply that, outside the mass, blacks are not normal human beings – they cannot think”.   It’s a contradiction because he offers no substantial and conceptual explanation now why he moves from one extreme to the next except an excuse that some dictators abused it.

If this argument was philosophically correct it would follow naturally then that we should do away with labour unions and worker organizations and the general idea that the fort of workers is their unity and their organization because some unionists have abused labour organizations, unions and so on. What of defenceless workers? Extinguish African Nationalism and replace it with the Mashele brand of liberal individualism. What of the citizens of Central African Republic who suffer the yoke of French meddling and regime changes, effectively denied their nationhood continuously ? What of Zimbabwe that is subject to Western sanctions for carrying out a domestic land reform programme? (Whatever its shortcomings and there are several). African Nationalism continues to be relevant in world where the world affairs continue to reflect an African continent that continues to pay debt of multitudes of years of colonialism and neo-colonialism. It is a collective cry of African people for complete self determination in a geopolitical space that makes an African subhuman. Human solidarity is not an occasional need as Mashele argues it is rather the most consistent thread that cuts across all fundamental epoch as an indispensible ingredient for progress.

The enemy that Mashele is shooting is the wrong one: crucifying the wrong Jesus so to speak. The enemy is not the concept of African Nationalism. And the solution is not this blatant liberal individualism he preaches.

The fact that he sees and identifies the wrong enemy betrays his overt inclination to join the white liberal offensive against the people of South Africa, black in majority, which offensive persists to chastise the people of South Africa for supporting the ANC. It angrily and with patronizing tones at the same time shouts at them for believing in the transformation project that the ANC leads and in the capacity of the ANC to lead that project.

The only explanation this contingency has as to why our people believe in the ANC and its programme is that our people are brainwashed by some ideology and that they cannot, if they were in their right mind, repeatedly support the ANC. That perceived brainwashing instrument is what Mashele calls African Nationalism. To top it all Mashele and his colleagues believe that African Nationalism is about Black people. I have explained above how very grossly out of order that is. It is neither racist nor chauvinistic.

In the final analysis Mashele made a lot of liberal noise and raised nothing accurate nor worthy of respect as intellectual engagement. Which is truly not surprising. His anti-Jacob Zuma and ANC traits clearly surpassed whatever reasoning capabilities he had. 

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  1. very helpful, thank you

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