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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

Zine Magubane


How do we talk about how to develop a meaningful political process in societies that have been fractured by colonialism and violence? What, indeed, does progress mean in societies that were systematically dismantled by the West in the pursuit of progress? Grappling with these questions first requires that we think about what the West has defined as progress and how its pursuit of progress impacted societies in Africa. Hegel summed up what was to become the standard opinion on Africa when he declared that it was “an unhistorical continent, with no movement or development of its own” (Hegel 1975 [1822]: 142). In his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History Hegel argued that, from a philosophical perspective, non-European peoples – Native Americans, Africans, and Asians – were less human than Europeans because they were not fully cognizant of themselves as conscious, historical beings; nor had they contributed in any meaningful way to the historical development of the world. Indeed, Africa functions in Hegel’s text (as it would come to do in so many others) as the negative standard against which progress could be measured. Africa was, in his words, “that unhistorical and undeveloped land…which had to be mentioned before we cross the threshold of world history itself” (Ibid. emphasis mine). In a world constructed around binary opposites, a completely stagnant Africa is a necessary fiction in that enables the West to understand itself as a having a special dynamism, completely lacking in other societies. Africa thus exists as either a purified and simplified example of what the West once was or a spectre of what the West is not.

The British (as did the French, Spanish, and American colonial powers) were keenly aware of the fact that the progress of their own countries was dependent upon their relationships with the “backward and benighted” parts of the world. The following speech made to the British Parliament in 1851 makes the point that England’s own progress was a function of colonialism.

We all know that, ever since the New World was discovered it has been the unceasing desire of England to plant the New World with New England’s. It was the ardent wish of this country that its children should occupy the uninhabited portions of the earth’s surface and carry along with them to their new homes the laws, institutions, and feelings of Englishmen. That they should there become bold, energetic, and self reliant men capable and willing to aid their parent in times of need (Great Britain 1851: 1373).

The end result of all this was, quite simply, what Walter Rodney called the “development of underdevelopment” whereby “the wealth created by African labor and from African resources was grabbed by the capitalist countries of Europe and…restrictions were placed upon African capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential” (Rodney 1974: 25). What overlays and obfuscates this process, however, are layers upon layers of ideological fictions which serve to displace the source of progress from the economic, political, and social arena and, instead, make progress a function of ephemeral character traits that are exclusive to the West. It is such that, as recently as five years ago, The Economist declared Africa to be the “Hopeless Continent” and surmised that “brutality, despotism, and corruption exist everywhere – but African societies, for reasons buried in their culture, seem especially susceptible to them” (Hopeless 2000: 17).

Thus, any attempt to begin to assess what progress means in Africa must start by looking at how the notion of progress has played an important role in this process of ideological obfuscation. To put it plainly, the prevailing notion about progress is that Africa should aim to move closer towards where the West is – socially, politically, economically. As The Economist went on to argue: “The recent apparent spread of democracy on the continent is a sham. …Certainly, there would be few elections in Africa were it not for outside pressure” (Ibid.: 24). This way of conceiving of the world conveniently sidesteps the ways in which economic processes, that systematically worked to create an impossibly wide chasm between Africa and the West, were consistently represented as the surest path to moral, spiritual, and economic ‘progress’ for Africans. Uday Mehta (1997: 59) makes the important point that:

In its theoretical vision, liberalism, for the seventeenth century to the present, has prided itself on its universality and politically inclusionary character. And yet, when it is viewed as a historical phenomenon, again extending from the seventeenth century, the period of liberal history is unmistakably marked buy the systematic and sustained political exclusion of various groups and ‘types’ of people.

To fail to acknowledge that is to become what Aimé Césaire called “dupes in good faith of a collective hypocrisy that cleverly misrepresents problems, the better to legitimize the hateful solutions provided for them” (Césaire 1972: 10). Césaire goes on to note:

Whether one likes it or not, the bourgeoisie, as a class, is condemned to take responsibility for all the barbarism of history, the tortures of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, warmongering and the appeal to the raison d’Etat, racism and slavery, in short everything against which it protested in unforgettable terms at the time when, as the attacking class, it was the incarnation of human progress (Ibid.: 49 emphasis mine).

The Antinomy of Progress

In an important article wherein he examined what he called “liberal strategies of exclusion” Uday Mehta makes the critical point that “one needs to account for how a set of ideas that professed, at a fundamental level, to include as their political referent a universal constituency nevertheless spawned practices that were either predicated on or directed at the political marginalization of various people” (Mehta 1997: 59). No small part of the answer to this important question can be found in the fact that liberalism, like all seemingly universalist ideals such as progress or democracy, derives its logic and meaning from historically specific social relations.

In the German Ideology (1864) Marx and Engels admonished the idealist philosophers for having detached “the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attributing them to an independent existence, confining ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas” (1970: 65). In arguing that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships,” Marx did not simply aim to argue that the economically powerful imposed their conceptions of the world on the powerless. Rather, Marx was attempting to demonstrate the processes whereby ruling classes naturalized and eternalized ideas that expressed particular and historically specific social relations; thereby making those ideas appear to be outside history, inevitable, and therefore, unalterable.

Marx dismissed theorists that failed to consider the forces that worked to structure the organization and emergence of the basic organizing principles and concepts of a society as having taken “every epoch at its word [believing] that everything it says and imagines about itself is true” (Ibid.: 65). Thus, in Capital (1867) he devoted considerable space to historicizing (some might say deconstructing) the historically and socially specific meanings behind the seemingly universal ideas of freedom and equality. His careful analysis showing how, in bourgeois society, each derived their meaning from the ‘logic’ and demands of the market, which he described as the “very Eden of the innate rights of man.”

There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract us as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes of what is his own. And Bentham because each looks only to himself (Ibid.: 176).

As Marx demonstrated so forcefully in his historicization (or de-construction) of the concepts of Freedom, Equality, and Individualism, our categories of thought arose through distinct historical processes. Since concepts are neither eternal nor trans-historical, they are always open to being struggled over and contested. As Marx and Engels (1967: 66) went on to explain, “each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.” Therefore, it was not the case that Marx was arguing that ideas were simply determined by economic structures or that certain ideas belonged to certain classes. Rather, he was attempting to show that ideas and ideology were terrains of struggle. Marx and Engels (1967: 61) repeatedly stressed, however, that struggle could never take place solely in the realm of ideas. “Liberation,” they admonished “is an historical and not a mental act and is brought about by historical conditions.

Rearticulating the Idea of Progress in Africa

What we are seeing on the Continent today is a struggle on the part of both leaders and agents of civil society to grapple with the fact that although the standards of democracy and economic progress bequeathed from the West were forged in a crucible of African oppression, Africans have no choice but to engage with them – oftentimes on terms set by the West which are not of their own choosing. In a speech made before the Global Cultural Diversity Conference in Sydney Australia in 1995, Thabo Mbeki made the important point that:

We can no longer describe democracy merely in terms of regular multiparty elections with the winner exercising exclusive power until the next elections. …The success we seek with regard to our own country depends not only on the opening of our democratic space to give voice to all forces that are part of our culturally diverse society. It rests also on our ability to create a situation in which there is an equitable access to material resources, both for the individual and the community, to address any sense of grievance that some are discriminated against and to work towards the situation in which the inalienable dignity of the individual is not compromised by poverty and deprivation (Mbeki 1998: 58).

If we look at the methods whereby the anti-apartheid struggle sought to reframe concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, for example, it is clear that supplanting the dominant meanings of these terms required action in both the material and ideological realms. The Freedom Charter, for example, articulates a vision of freedom that encompasses ethical and material dimensions. Freedom is defined not only in terms of representative democracy and equal standing before the law, but also the right of the people to share in the country’s land and wealth, to organize as workers, and to have access to learning and culture.1 In more postmodernist parlance, it ‘re-articulates’ the discourse of freedom. However, the Charter itself makes clear that this re-articulation can only become meaningful if those efforts are part and parcel of a broad-based struggle to transform material conditions.

We must consider, therefore, the extent to which the discourses of freedom promulgated in the Charter were premised on a particular vision of the world economy and how subsequent acts of ideological re-articulation have been impacted by the fact that that world has, in important respects, been eclipsed. The discourses of freedom articulated in the Charter can only be realized in the context of fundamental transformations in domestic and international economic relations. The vision of freedom the Charter put forth was premised on the nationalization and redistribution of the country’s resources, which could only take place in the event that South Africa disengaged substantially from the international capitalist economy. The Charter thus demonstrates, in a very concrete way, the exactitude of Marx and Engel’s notion that “forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism…but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which give rise to them” (1970: 58). Symbols with powerful political charges cannot be expropriated from the dominant discourse by means of discursive operation alone. Ideologies cannot become effective as material forces until they are articulated to a field of political and social forces. As Phil Eidelberg (1999: 59) explained:

Although the Freedom Charter has been described as non-socialist and moderate on economic issues, it in fact advocated a very radical restructuring of the South African economy at the expense of large-scale white and foreign capitalist interests. This would have meant the nationalization of these assets which would allegedly be to the benefit of not only organized labor but also of African entrepreneurs, as it would remove competition within the domestic market from domestic and multinational corporations. In turn, nationalization would imply perforce the substantial loosening of ties between South Africa and the international capitalist economy.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was still possible for the opposition in South Africa to envision joining the ranks of the ‘non-aligned’ countries, which were able to pursue foreign policies and economic strategies with some degree of independence from the major capitalist powers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the untrammeled march of neo-liberal globalization the possibilities for charting a different vision have been markedly reduced. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, has consistently stressed that South Africa has no chance of overcoming the legacy of apartheid without engaging with the global economy and the major capitalist powers. Mbeki has repeatedly stressed that, given these exigencies South Africa has no choice but to remain a capitalist society.2 As he stated at a recent address to the US/SA Business Council on May 24, 2000:

Our greatest challenge is to improve the lives of our people. The levels of poverty and unemployment are too high. The costs of apartheid have been high and it is for this reason that we are still a developing country, despite the modernity of our economy and infrastructure. We have approached this fundamental challenge in a very strategic and considered manner. It was clear that unless we reformed our economy and engaged successfully with the world economy then it would not be possible to grow. Accordingly, this was the first task we embarked upon.3

The imperatives of the global economic order have had a clear and decisive impact on how discourses like ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human-rights’ are being re-articulated by the post-apartheid regime. In his second National Institute for Economic Policy (NIEP) lecture, given on August 11, 2000, Mbeki noted that without the attainment of economic equality:

[O]ur protestations that we are committed to the building of a human rights culture within our society assume a hollow ring. Human rights culture has a limited meaning in a society such as ours, that is characterized by widespread, centuries old and deeply entrenched poverty and its associated ills such as disease and ignorance.

Mbeki’s comments point to his desire to see South Africa challenge the current hegemonic definition of what constitutes the rights of the free individual. In capitalist societies, social rights (the rights to an adequate standard of living, food, shelter, health, and education as set out in Articles 11-14 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights)4 have long been maginalized as compared to civil or political rights. This attitude has served to reinforce the social rights/civil rights dichotomy which, as Paul Hunt (1996) points out, makes the two conceptions of rights appear divided and opposed, rather than indivisible and interdependent. As Hunt demonstrated in Reclaiming Social Rights: International and Comparative Perspectives, although the idea of social rights has been in existence since the 18th century, during the Cold War it was linked to the Soviet Union, eventually resulting in the bifurcation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite Mbeki’s protestations to the contrary, it is clear that the imperatives of capitalist globalization in South Africa have meant that the bifurcation of civil and social rights that Mbeki criticized is, practically speaking, being reinforced, rather than undermined. In his May 2000 speech before the US/SA Business Council, Mbeki spoke of the advances the ANC had made in bringing the South African economy in line with the imperatives of neo-liberal globalization by reducing tariffs, removing agricultural subsidies, privatizing the public sector, and disciplining labor. These economic changes were instituted with the express purpose of courting badly needed investment capital from the dominant capitalist powers (which, incidentally, were not forthcoming). Noting that these actions had resulted in significant job losses, he concluded, nevertheless that “the democratic system in our country is an established reality, underwritten by a constitution, which strongly protects and advances human rights.”

The extent to which the business classes consider the struggle for ideological hegemony to be an important one is evidenced by an editorial in the South African business publication Finance Week. The author argued that because “the basics of South African constitutional life are accepted almost universally” the real (and more decisive struggle) still to come would be in the ideological realm. “The behind-the-jargon debate over how the next five years will leave an imprint on our future pits individual equal opportunities against demographic representivity, the inviolability of ‘private space’ against the needs of transformation. It’s an ideological fight” (Pereira 1999: 14). The public discourse of former pro-apartheid ideologues and other political representatives of the ruling bloc suggest that they realize that they must use radically different language to articulate their agenda. Neville Alexander (1995: 7) has characterized these shifts as ideological “somersaults” undertaken for the process of furthering capital accumulation.”

Indeed, in stark contrast to the position they advocated two decades ago, the capitalist class in South Africa now freely invoke the notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘individual rights’ as well as ‘non-racialism’ and ‘democracy’ that were anathema just two decades ago. The South Africa Foundation, an organization of the top 58 South African companies5 (which was originally established in 1959 to promote South Africa’s business interests abroad and make the Nationalist government seem reasonable) has now developed a new raison d etre appropriate to the changing political climate. They unabashedly invoke the notions of the rights and freedoms of the individual as they defend the agglomeration of capital and the rights of big business by fighting against unions and re-distributive economics (South Africa Foundation 1996).

When capital articulates the discourse of freedom, the goals of re-distributive justice and individual freedom are portrayed as diametrically opposed.

The dirty little secret underpinning South Africa’s second democratic election is the nature of the society we are trying to build here – one based on either individual freedom and merit or on racial preferences and control (Pereira 1999: 14, emphasis mine).

This view of freedom is diametrically opposed to that being articulated by poor and working class people. Testimony from the ‘Speak Out on Poverty’ hearings (April and June of 1998)6 clearly demonstrates that many of South Africa’s most disadvantaged communities construct the idea of freedom very differently, viewing poverty as a fundamental obstacle to the exercise of civil and political rights (2000a). Testimony collected from a variety of different communities, including fishermen, casual and seasonal workers, domestic workers, and farm workers, strongly challenges the conventional wisdom of treating ‘first generation’ civil rights and ‘second generation’ social rights as being of different orders. In the oral evidence of respondents there is an implicit critique of the standard definition of human rights which poses first generation rights as ‘negative,’ – thus requiring the state to do nothing – while second generational rights are ‘positive’ – requiring affirmative measures on the part of the state. The testimony of a number of different individuals points to the fact that most poor people see the two kinds of rights as indivisible and interdependent and imposing multiple obligations on the state (2000b).

The Search for Alternatives

A third way perspective is in the process of coming into being in Africa. The frequently maligned idea of an African Renaissance seeks to bring together what in the past were generally seen as oppositional ideologies. On the one hand, a constitutive part of the renaissance ideology is the idea of African economic and political autonomy, achieved via pan-African cooperation. Mbeki stated this in an October 1995 speech before the Eleventh Conference of Heads of State of Governments of Nonaligned countries, proclaiming that “South-South cooperation is, among us, an article of faith” (Mbeki 1998: 213). At the same time, Mbeki argues for continued – indeed extended – cooperation between European and African economies, pointing to the fact that “history has tied the two continents of Africa and Europe by an umbilical cord which cannot be severed” (Ibid.: 215). Hence, pan-Africanism is married to a reconstructed African capitalism, not to African socialism. As Mbeki (1998: 49) noted in a 1995 speech before the Business and Finance Forum:

Steps have been taken in the direction of reducing protective tariffs in line with our commitment to the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. …In the same context, we have signed on to the World Trade Organization and are fully committed to extensive though gradual tariff reform, we are taking steady steps towards the removal of exchange controls, and are also introducing changes in our monetary and fiscal policies with the objective of creating a climate conducive to local and foreign investment..

At first glance, it might appear that the concept of an African renaissance is seeking to bring together the mutually exclusive objectives of claiming more of Africa for Africans and claiming more of Africa for the West. However, as Durham (2003) points out:

This convergence of strategies does not mean that the objectives of African leaders of their rendition of an African Renaissance are the same as their Northern counterparts. For instance, regionalization serves African interests by building economies of scale to resist Northern hegemony while it is establishing a global power base of South-South alliances. Only from such a broader base of global power, can Africans hope to restructure the economy of Africa in ways that serve Africans. This includes finding a way to influence the rules of global trade, i.e. taxes on buying and selling foreign exchange, regulation of finance, and debt cancellation.

Ultimately, the development of an authentic and representative political culture cannot be divorced from the struggle to redistribute resources and lessen economic inequality. At present a number of initiatives has taken place on the Continent, aimed at achieving progress on African terms. NEPAD (The New Partnership for African Development) was conceived by five African presidents: Thabo Mbeki (South Africa), Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria), Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), Abdoulaye Wade (Senegal), and Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria). NEPAD’s aims are broad and far-reaching and involve inter-African as well as North-South cooperation. As Hunter-Gault (2006: 78) explains:

While Africans want to run their own show, they realize that with few exceptions, most countries on the continent are too poor to go it alone. Therefore, they set up a bargain with the West: Africans get control of their political and economic houses in exchange for help with resources to build adequate housing and create jobs that will erase the reality of one in two Africans – some 315 million people – living under $1 a day, implement programs that will help stem the spread of AIDS, distribute medicines to treat or eliminate diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, provide food that will feed the legions of the hungry, make available education that will feed Africans’ minds and, in time, help Africans feed themselves.

It is clear that African people are now asserting their rights to define progress for themselves. As such, the agents of progress are assuming a different form on the Continent. A recent article in The Chicago Tribune entitled “In Africa: Women are the Vanguard of Progress,” Goering (2006) made this important point.

Bucking tradition, women are quietly and steadily assuming larger leadership roles across much of Africa. Liberia has Africa's first elected woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist. Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe have women prime ministers and South Africa and Zimbabwe have female vice presidents. Zambia has a woman running for president, Tanzania has a female foreign minister and women hold at least 30 percent of the legislative seats in Burundi, South Africa and Mozambique.

The face of progress on the Continent does not only break with traditional gender stereotypes, but with racial ones as well. President Obasanjo of Nigeria, in his address to the presidential plenary session of the 7th Leon Sullivan Summit in Abuja in July declared that the African diaspora would play a key role in promoting progress on the Continent. As he put it:

When we often say that Africa’s offshore asset is of great importance to the present and future, we are referring not to oil, gold, diamond or coal, but to out people in the Diaspora. People of African descent are everywhere, contributing to the economics and politics of countries throughout the world as businessmen, intellectuals, academics, politicians and professionals.

Obesanjo went on to note that “Africans in the United States of America are the best educated immigrant population working in different capacities” and, further, that “remittances made by those immigrants exceed other inward financial flows in some African countries, thereby contributing meaningfully to the economies of those nations” (Ikokwu, Ezeigbo, Omale 2006).

Thus, what we are seeing on the Continent today is an attempt to decisively break with how the West has defined progress and chart a new course. This new course includes redefining the meaning of democracy to include economic as well as political rights; emphasizing cooperation, rather than competition or domination; and redefining who the agents of progress are. If this vision takes hold and meets with success, Africa is poised to become an example to the West – not of poverty, corruption and despair, but rather of the tremendous possibilities that exist for redefining freedom, democracy, and progress. As Hunter-Gault (2006: 103) put it:

Clearly, there is still a bumpy road ahead. But for the first time in some forty years, Africans at all levels of society are looking at taking their lives into their own hands. And while they may debate, sometimes vociferously, what are the best strategies to transform their societies and their continent, the new news is that there is something substantive to these debates, and the debates are, as it were, taking place within the family.

Césaire (1972: 61) concluded Discourse on Colonialism with the observation that “unless Europe galvanizes the dying cultures or raises up new ones, unless it becomes the awakener of countries and civilizations…Europe will have deprived itself of its last chance and, with its own hands, drawn up over itself the pass of mortal darkness.” Perhaps, in the 21st century, Africans will be the ones to succeed in this important and difficult task of showing Europe (and America) a new and different way forward.

End Notes

1. The Freedomn Charter was adopted at the Congress of the People, Kliptown (26 June 1955).

2. See “Second National Institute for Economic Policy (NIEP) Oliver Tambo Lecture” (11 Aug. 2000); “State of the Nation Address at the Opening of Parliament” (4 Feb. 2000); “Address by the Executive Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to Corporate Council on Africa’s Attracting Capital to Africa’ Summit” (19-22 April 1997).

3. See also “State of the Nation Address at the Opening of Parliament” (4 Feb. 2000); “Speech at the Annual National Conference of the Black Management Forum” (20 Nov. 1999); “Statement of the President of the African National Congress, Thabo Mbeki, at the 10th Congress of the SACP (2 July 1998); “Second National Institute for Economic Policy (NIEP) Oliver Tambo Lecture” (11 Aug. 2000); “Statement at the 35th Ordinary Session of the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government (13 July 1999).

4. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, adopted 16 Dec. 1966, G.A. Res. 2200 (XXI), U.N. GAOR, 21st Sess., Supp. No. 16, arts. 11-14, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 933 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force 3 Jan. 1976).

5. Includes Absa, British Petroleum, BMW, DeBeers, Eskom, Shell, Old Mutual, Telkom, and Volkswagen SA.

6. Between March 31 and 19 June 1998 the South African Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality, and the South African NGO Coalition convened a series of ten hearings on poverty. Hearings were held in each of the nine provinces. Over 10,000 people participated in Speak Out on Poverty by attending the hearings, mobilizing communities, or making submissions. Nearly 600 people presented oral evidence over the 35 days of the hearings.

Works Cited

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Durham, A. 2003. “Designing Boundaries for a Continent: The North-South Geopolitics of an African Renaissance.”

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Goering, Laurie. 2006. “In Africa, Women are the Agents of Progress.” Chicago (August 9):,1,1523377.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

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Ikokwu, Constance, Onyebuchi Ezeigbo, and Fummi Peter-Omale. 2006. “Diaspora Involvement will Define Africa’s Future.” Accra Mail. (July 20)

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Rodney, Walter. 1974. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C: Howard University Press.

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