Thinking radically in Africa must start with political education
It’s easy to dismiss education as part of the work that an activist does, but without it our activism remains reactionary, not radical.
This article is part of the Radical Activism in Africa special series, guest edited by Stella Nyanzi.
“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning – getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.” – Ella Baker, 1969.
Ella Jo Baker was the activist behind every activist you’re likely know from the American civil rights movement. She was one of the people Martin Luther King Jr. called when he needed advice; that Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) reached out to when he needed help thinking through logistics; and that the NAACP, SNCC and SCLC coordinated with when they were planning marches through the segregated south. Baker’s influence on theories of liberation and community organising have probably influenced many of the world’s dominant protest movements today, beginning with Black Lives Matter. Yet even if you are in the US, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of her.
Baker’s definition of the word “radical” is urgently important to African activists. Progressive movements working for more just societies have never been more heavily bombarded with causes. In Kenya alone this year, there has been a policing crisis triggered by harsh lockdowns and a threatened closure of Daadab refugee camp. A drought has devastated the north, floods have hit the west, and environmental degradation has worsened amid ill-advised infrastructure projects. The president has conceded that concession at least 2 billion shillings ($200 million) are lost to corruption each day, even while the treasury continues to borrow internationally, making this generation of Kenyans the most indebted in history. Get up and walk a hundred steps in any direction and you will find something worth protesting. And this is even before you situate yourself as pan-African and start thinking internationally.
The demands on activists looking for social justice have never been greater, even though it feels like there are fewer and fewer people signing up to join the cause. Part of the challenge is that authoritarian regimes have done a tremendous job of slandering the label “activist” so that many people – across class, gender, and age lines – are unwilling to identify as such. Pro-democracy campaigners are routinely labelled “foreign funded traitors” because the idea of putting one’s life at risk in service of the greater good is inconsistent with the neoliberal logic of accumulation and self-preservation. As Togolese pro-democracy activist Farida Nabourema once tweeted, “when you are an activist, the people you are fighting against will fight you [and] the people you are fighting for will fight you”.
I think this is partly because of the triumph of neoliberalism in the public sphere in many African countries. Without a strong countervailing narrative of communitarianism, and in the context of inequality and the illusion of scarcity, we are witnessing some of the rawest expressions of self-preservation. Corruption, ethnonationalism, and even patriarchy are multiple faces of the same core evil: the idea that the survival and prosperity of the individual are more important than those of the collective. We are living in economic and social systems that tell us no one is going to look out for our individual interests but ourselves, and the competitive instinct that is unleashed puts a premium on identity politics and accumulation as a way of making sure we are the ones who survive. For activists, this makes it difficult to mobilise people to take the collective actions and risks necessary to make movements work.
Another core challenge facing modern African activists is that we are struggling to name the enemy. During colonialism, the enemy was visible and ever present. This made it more straightforward to divide labour throughout various movements, all united by the overarching goal of ending colonisation. But post-independence, our incomplete decolonisation has created a confusing situation in which key remnants of the past are deliberately depoliticised, oppressors have taken on the language of liberation, and the core issues we should be organising against are hidden beneath increasingly nebulous terminology. We are supposed to fight for “development” without naming the political institutions that stand in the way of it. We are supposed to battle “inequality” and strive for wealth, but not for justice.
And so, we birth women’s rights organisations that won’t use the words “patriarchy” or even “feminism”. We witness demands for the end of police brutality that don’t recognise that the logic of the carceral state is to protect the wealthy from the poor and preserve the systems of alienation that keep those two groups separate. We live in societies where we are told to focus on maximising our individual wealth rather than removing the obstacles to collective wellbeing. We are constantly at tension with each other and at odds with the natural environment because the logic of this version of “development” is consumption, accumulation, and competition.
As a result, trying to get a political education as a lay person can be confusing. Is neoliberal feminism about emancipation or exploitation? Are we people or products? Should we be working with the police or organising for a world without them? How do you reconcile a president’s history of fighting tyranny and oppression with their present as a tyrant and oppressor themselves? Should you trust an activist who is funded by international organisations that are seeking to depoliticise political struggles?
Independence movements that once provided much of the political education in Africa have not only been co-opted but are the leading oppressors of Africans today. They know the right words but deprive them of their meaning. A president can detain his critics indefinitely and engage in widespread corruption, yet still loudly declare himself a liberator and deride demands for economic accountability as the tyranny of “white monopoly capital”. The cosy relationship between these oppressors and foreign governments, who only see Africa as a place where money can be made rather than a place where people live and love, only compounds the challenge for activists. To add to Nabourema’s formulation: you not only have to fight the people you are fighting against and fight the people you are fighting for; you also have to fight the governments that are supporting the people you are fighting against.
The burden and, by extension, the mental and physical health of those who do stand up and speak out is greater than ever. 33-year-old Luc Nkulula, founder of the Congolese group LUCHA, one of the most electric youth movements on the continent today, was burned to death in his house. During the 2017 election in Kenya, frontline activists were often targeted for reprisal by political figures, only to come online and find police brutality being denied by paid influencers and a public sphere too focused on individual survival to pay attention.
A solution for African activists lies in Baker’s words. We need to get to the root of the problem. To me, that begins with a political education, both for activists and the communities we work with. People will have to direct at least some of their protest energy towards understanding, naming, and defining the challenges that face us, not as abstract academic work but as concrete dialogue within our communities. We have to reframe education to move away from formal systems and books, and towards thinking about networks and having conversations. We need to make our demands for transformation an organic extension of the way we live and move through the world.
It’s easy to dismiss education as part of the work that an activist does, but without it our activism remains reactionary. And reactionary activism means that power is still setting the terms of engagement – they lead, we follow. Reviving a tradition of political education that includes circles of consciousness, public facing learning and unlearning, and thinking beyond the crisis of the moment towards the kind of future we want to have is a major step in reclaiming activism from the way it has been deliberately undermined by power.
Moreover, activists cannot assume that people know the things they know: we must be willing to teach. Black Lives Matter’s success in reframing debates around rights and justice – not just for African Americans but black communities around the world – wasn’t an overnight change. It came about through many years of learning, teaching and building, culminating in sustained protest that is now finding its way into power. That is how social change happens: a process, not an event.
So, to get to the root of the problem we begin with the right questions, looking beyond the immediate challenge and thinking about how to communicate this to and with the public. In Nairobi at least, groups like the Mathare Social Justice Centre and the Coalition of Grassroots Human Rights Defenders have been doing this work, even while mainstream civil society lags behind. What connects the challenges of neocolonialism, corruption, poverty, conflict, and whatever else stands in the way of Africans living free? What is it about this system that stands in the way of us getting what we need, and how do we change that? This is the work behind the work that Ella Jo Baker was so remarkably good at, and that needs to happen so that the work can succeed.
Radical Activism in Africa is a special series about how people across the continent are responding to injustice, imagining alternative futures, and mobilising in transformative ways. The series brings together leading writers, activists and thinkers from across the continent. It is guest-edited by Stella Nyanzi with James Wan. An online panel event will discuss the themes of the series on the evening of 18 October 2021, in collaboration with Africa Writes.