People creating change in Africa

Published on Pambazuka News, by Hakima Abbas, Issue 500 Oct. 13, 2010.

In a speech given to the Africa–Canada Forum, Hakima Abbas discusses the contemporary challenges for Africa’s self-determination and the centrality of the continent’s social movements in ‘entrenching democratic principles’ … //

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… In regards to natural resources, Canada is itself a superpower in the African mining sector. While Canada’s mining presence is relatively new in Africa, only South Africa is just ahead of Canada in the African mining industry. The value of Canadian mining assets in Africa has grown from US$233 million in 1989 to US$14.7 billion in 2007. While Canada has endorsed the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, voluntary codes of conduct and self-regulation need be made mandatory through national legislation to ensure internationally recognised standards for Canadian companies operating in Africa. In particular, we must demand recognition of communities’ rights to free, prior and informed consent. 

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Amidst these conditions, Africa has seen unequalled levels of civil resistance in the last five years from Egypt to Senegal, Guinea, Kenya and Zimbabwe. There is a line in a song I enjoy by a North American artist named Ani Di Franco that says: ‘Growing up during the plague of Reagan and Bush, watching capitalism gun down democracy, had this funny effect on me, I guess.’ Indeed, my generation and younger of Africans, who grew up during structural adjustment programmes that have turned our universities into private extensions of the corporate job market, who have only known the plagues of Hosni Mubarak and Robert Mugabe, from north to south, and who see no alternative in Morgan Tsvangirai, who have witnessed genocides, both political and economic, and indeed watched capitalism gun down democracy, well, it has had this ‘funny effect on us, I guess’. People-centred progressive movements are spreading across Africa and provide an important platform for the voices of the most marginalised to express their interests, provide services and create alternatives. These movements are key to entrenching democratic principles and provide one of the few viable avenues for participatory democracy, to hold states and governments accountable to the needs and demands of African peoples. Indeed, meaningful change in Africa has never occurred without the active participation of peoples movements. We have seen charismatic and visionary leaders, but Kwame Nkrumah would not have achieved independence without the market women of Ghana, nor Amílcar Cabral without the peasants of Guinea-Bissau or Julius Nyerere without the youth of Tanzania.

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Today, African social movements are often deliberately marginalised from participation in key national and continental processes. They lack the resources, information and platforms to effectively drive processes of change. They face state repression – often violently – and are disparate geographically and/or by the issues they seek to address, and are unable to create networks across these lines thus lacking solidarity and access to learning. Notably, the generation of social movements emerging from Africa at this time have also been deliberately removed from the historic and theoretical frameworks and lessons that would strengthen the struggle for peace, justice, equity and accountability.

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Through all of the challenges that we face as a globe and suffer most deeply in Africa, we must stop believing that a single solution, a silver bullet, will fix all. We must be willing to experiment and not simply keep implementing the same programmes or projects that we have for decades and expect a different result (I believe the Chinese call that madness). We must also remember, as Cabral said, that ‘nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory’ (‘The Weapon of Theory’, Cabral, 1966). And so we must re-inject political theory into activism, not only relying on a dichotomous paradigm of left and right, socialist and capitalist, but embracing complexity and challenging ourselves to develop new political thought that is grounded in African practice and responds to our needs. We need to create long-term strategies that will dismantle from the crux the structures of power and privilege and transform our societies, from the individual to the state, putting at the centre of all decisions the economically, socially and politically oppressed peoples of Africa: farmers, women, workers, informal workers, queers, people living with disabilities. Together, we must end corporate control over production and consumption and support our small-scale farmers to create alternatives that will enable food sovereignty, meet the needs of low-income consumers and respect the rights of Mother Earth, as our Latin American comrades coined.

Long gone are the days that Africans believe that there are friends without interests at the state level or have hope in grandiose promises. However, perhaps together we can reignite the light of genuine solidarity between the peoples of Africa and Canada, solidarity based on the understanding of mutual gain from sharing and transferring knowledge, experience, resources – be it between our farmers, our indigenous peoples’ movements, our feminist movements, our movements for the earth. A true ally in any movement is always asked to do the work first within their own communities, and I believe this is what many of you here are doing – challenging Canadian policy to be fair and equitable. I am honoured to be part of the conversation and look forward to contributing to strengthening our solidarity.

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I would like to end with the words of Thomas Sankara who said: ‘You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future.’ Let us have the courage to invent the future. (full long text).

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