Pan-Africanism: beyond survival to renaissance?

Addressing the African Union 50th Anniversary Heads of States Summit, Amina Mama challenged the gathering to redefine the terms of Africa's insertion in the global economy, and raised critical questions regarding the lived realities of ordinary people and the central contribution of women to Africa's continued survival.

Amina Mama
28 June 2013
Potrait photo of smiling woman

Amina Mama

Address to the African Union 50th Anniversary Heads of States Summit, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. May 25th 2013.

Honourable Presidents, your Excellencies, Madam Nkosazana Dhlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union, Honourable Chair Dr Carlos Lopez, ladies and gentlemen, fellow celebrants –

I salute you with respect for your dedication and commitment as our leaders. As our Heads of State, you are the official embodiment of African peoples collective aspirations for peace, prosperity and justice for all. The fate of Africa and all her people’s is vested in you and your power to sustain and advance the Pan-African vision through concrete and concerted action.

Deeply humbled by Madam Chairperson’s invitation to share a few ideas, I will begin by drawing courage from the very many women whose courage and creativity have provided us with a proud, fearless and doubt-dispelling legacy of commitment to freedom and justice. Their examples locate our contemporary women’s movements at the heart of the Pan-African project.

I reflect on the unknown and unnamed millions of African women whose lives and struggles paved the path that Africa’s women’s movements tread today.

I resolve to speak my humble truth to your political power.

I appeal to your Excellencies to honour all the hope that we, ordinary African citizens have vested in you. Ordinary citizens fought and died to ensure that we would have independent governments of African people, by African people, and for African people. The will to political independence was not just a matter of pride – but also rooted in very clear material and political interests - African people hoped that having our own states would empower us to end to the structural underdevelopment of Africa set in place by colonialism, as so clearly outlined by Caribbean scholar Walter Rodney (1972).  African people sought – and still seek – freedom and self-realization, an end to poverty, ignorance, disease, discrimination and injustice.

The fact is that after 50 years African’s millions are not happy. The date tells us our celebrations are due, but the data caution us. I appeal to you to stay alert to the discontents of women, youth, and many millions of marginalized others, inhabiting mining areas, oil drilling areas, our great savannah lands, forests and deserts, coastlands and highlands. This discontent clearly finds expression across the region in numerous protests, protests in which young people and women dissent and put themselves on the frontlines.  Honourable leaders please do not ignore the African Spring, and so imperil of the future we seek.

Our writer Chinua Achebe, whose funeral took place yesterday, once asked to present a Presidential lecture at the World Bank in 1998, spoke like a seer under the title ‘Development is People’. Why would this be necessary if not for the fact that he spoke in the context of the misguided externally imposed consensus that privileged markets over governments, profits over people, especially the devalued majorities of poor people, women people and young people who inhabit the African continent. 

We all agree that on this continent of huge land, mineral and resource wealth it is our beauty-full people who are our greatest wealth and prospect, and who deserve our highest respect. We are women people, men people, old people, young people, able-bodied and disabled people, from a rich variety of cultural, religious, linguistic backgrounds, who deserve economic, cultural, labour productive, sexual freedoms and reproductive rights . We are those you charged to govern and to protect.

About a half century ago, a young Nigerian writer more assertive than most - encountered the largely French-speaking poets and philosophers of the negritude movement –Cesaire, Senghor, Diop and others. Wole Soyinka’s repost: ‘does the tiger need to proclaim his tigritude’? My question to you, decades later, is this: what if the tiger has been flogged mercilessly, stripped of its stripes, and brutalized to a state of caged confusion so that it bites its tail, attacking its mate and killing its children?’ What if our proverbial tiger has been through what Africa has been through? Soyinka’s question revisited today, 50 years into political independence invokes the historic conditions that have us professing that we are African, we will serve Africa, and do our best to use all the vast human and material wealth to recover and protect our stripes.

Looking across the world and comparing the variously genocidal histories of imperialism, slavery and colonization, histories that all but destroyed the indigenous civilizations of the Americas and Australasia, provokes a basic question we might consider as we celebrate the fact of our survival:

How have the people of Africa survived - and in such numbers, with such vibrancy? It is nothing less than a miracle of human civilization that we survive, despite this history of subjugation, and our unfavourable positioning in the global order.

I respectfully submit that the secret of African resilience is something we take so much for granted that we too easily overlook it, and fail to value and cherish those who have thus far sustained us, at our peril. I speak of the quiet power of African women, manifest in extensive subaltern farming, trading and provisioning networks through which African women sustain our families, communities and societies, no matter what.

This has been African women’s invisible work for centuries –and still largely is. Today 60-80% of our food is produced by women, and these low level networks still sustain the people inhabiting the worst of our conflict ridden man-made disaster zones.

Today, let us be alert to the implications of the fact that African women, like our lands before us, have now been “discovered”. Our silence will no longer protect us. Women’s labour is no longer shielded by the gender blindness of the colonizers, or exploited by the gender blindness of developing nation states. Let us be alert to the challenges posed by this hard –won visibility, situated as it is in a world economy that has been premised on the exploitation of gender divisions since the very dawn of modern capitalism. The European-style social contract is premised on a sexual contract – a gendered division of labour that we should discard for our own good.

What does it mean to describe us as “the world’s 3rd largest emerging market”, when Africa’s location in the global terms of trade remains unfavourable? Will African women becoming an “emerging market” like China or India allowing us to realise our potential, free ourselves and our dependents from abjection?

The terms of African women’s integration into development have been based on a flawed premise – that we sit around as a vast underused reserve army of labour. Inclusionary ‘women-in-development’ strategies have thus added work to the already overworked women doing double shifts between their homes and farms. Economic reforms have simultaneously sapped/zapped state efforts to address poverty, ignorance and disease – through public health, welfare and educational services necessary to sustain and reproduce labour in a waged-based economy.

African women are no longer ignored, and we celebrate a new level of hard-won recognition and global consensus on the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment. This takes nothing away from men whatsoever – while adding great value to our understanding of ourselves as women and as men.

Recognition demands redistribution of resources. The new recognition of poor African women’s productive and reproductive labour may be celebrated as a positive development, but we must be alert to the fact that it also means that Africa’s care economy - including its productive aspect - is up for a new round of global grabbing.

Economic reforms have been based on an unsustainable assumption - ‘the infinite elasticity of women’s work’. Structural Adjustment Programmes stretched the hidden fabric of Africa’s resilience to breaking point – this is what is reflected in the seemingly intransigent problem of maternal and infant mortality. Women are in crisis. Globalization has created conditions under which it is simply too dangerous to keep our heads down and our noses to the grindstones.

Perhaps this explains the proliferation of feminism – of increasingly radical women’s movements in so many of the worlds poorest and most exploited regions? Growth without development has been a reality for most of Africa’s long suffering people, particularly women experiencing the brunt of poverty, violence and the general precariousness that characterizes their lives. GDP goes up without trickling down, unless government take concerted action to resist the uncounted, gendered human costs of superficial and unsustainable models of growth.

50 years ago Kwame Nkrumah – Pan African visionary extraordinaire – called for a political kingdom and promised an economic one. Sadly, he has been proved wrong. We now have 54 political kingdoms, and our union is now 50 years old, but our economies are still as deeply unequal as they are falling short of the pan African vision. We need to recover our economic sovereignty – the freedom to organize our economies to suit ourselves and however we choose to organize labour, production and consumption.

‘In Africa, poverty has a female face’ declared the World Bank in 2009.

Africa’s rising Gross Domestic Product is good news, but how should we react when crisis leads rich countries to turn once again to the Africa they had only a decade ago condemned as ‘lost’. I think we should give them a tough time when they once again look to the region. At least we should make them beg a bit, and define our terms more assertively at the age of 50.

We must turn this renewed interest round to ensure that we work this new interest in including poor women in the global economy to our advantage, so that we do not simply find African women split open for a new and even deeper round of predation and exploitation. Microcredit – while we can recognise that it may help some women do what they already do - also marks a minimalist strategy for inclusion in the global economy - at the bottom of the informal sector. But why should it be micro-credit for women? More serious support would enable women to scale up and become ‘captains of industry’, run transnational corporations?

Unless we negotiate better terms of engagement for Africa, including for African women, our people - especially women and the next generation - will continue to be as exploited, poor and vulnerable to abuse as we have been.

The global construction of African women as poor, pregnant and beaten contains a germ of truth. Women work harder than ever, but remain poorer than ever. But we also continue to struggle for more just economies, which can support women beyond mere survival– to build on the way women continuously improvise and innovate, invent and create new ways of doing things.

I am concerned rather than excited by the global call to entrepreneurialism as the answer to poverty, underdevelopment, and even violence. After all, women in Africa have always been entrepreneurs, in the sense that I have argued –creatively fending for themselves and their dependents through farming and trading etc, before, during, and since colonialism, despite colonialism, and with minimal government support. The feminization of poverty has occurred despite our long traditions of entrepreneurialism.

“Women are the 3rd largest emerging market after China, India…” declares Forbes Magazine.

Given what the market has so far meted out to Africa, and to African women in particular, this is a statement that should place us on alert. What happens to the African economy – buttressed as it has always been by the feminized survival economy - when women are “discovered” and redefined as an emerging market? Who and what will be brought and sold, and for whose profit? We will need to be fully conscious of what we are buying and selling, lest we find ourselves further incorporated into a global market that has not favoured our collective interests, or those of our continent. For all the talk about poverty alleviation, poverty remains endemic, a scourge that is here to stay until we stop being fooled by global-village talk and tackle the structural transformations that are now on the table.

Structural violence – poverty, absence of social protection infrastructure, chronic insecurity and precariousness of livelihoods - manifests at interpersonal levels - in our homes and on our streets. Male frustration and stress taken out on the tender bodies of women marks the worst dispossession of all – our dehumanization, the loss of our selves and our capacity to care for and support one another.

I appeal to all of you to end this now.

Let us make it clear to the world that violence and tolerance of violence are not endemic, not an “African tradition”, nor simply what black men do to women. Rather they are the results of systemic injustices. Focusing, for example, on ‘rape in war time’ without understanding this as intrinsic to the practice of war is bad enough. It is not enough to address the disturbing abuse of women without understanding this as a function of our location within a global racialized gender regime that has never been kind to Africa, or to Africa’s women. It is a regime that is premised on gender divisions, and relies on the continued devaluation of women, and their work. The systematic rape and abduction of women in the colonial Congo was deliberate management tool during King Leopold’s time- used to force men to labour on rubber plantations. It is was the unjust, imperialist and racist gender regime that laid down the historic and material conditions of pain and dispossession. This is the source that lies behind that scandalous data on rape, harassment and abuse, femicide, sex trafficking, child marriage, harmful practices.

Let us not leave this intimate but systemic problem and its unseemly display of self-hatred to ‘external forces’ to appropriate for their own agendas, while the systemic causes persist. Ensure the implementation of the declarations and resolutions you have already signed on to, provide the legal, medical and social facilities to protect and attend to women’s basic human rights, and above address the systemic inequalities that render us vulnerable to abuse. These systemic injustices and gender inequalities intensify as societies move into fully-fledged conflict, but the conflict in our homes persists long after peace has been official declared.

Land. Homes. Decent work. Security for women. Human security for all.

The real security need for Africans is security from poverty, ignorance and disease. wrote our brilliant social analyst, Claude Ake.

Africa’s independent states arrived at independence fully militarized by their significant involvement in the two World Wars. As a continent with the colonial and militarist history that we have, we urgently need to place the good of our people first, and above the acquisition of guns. The horrors of postcolonial conflicts show these leaving no-one untouched – these now feature 90% civilian casualties, up from 10% in the wars of the early 20th century, and 20-40% involvement of women as fighters, not to mention their prominence as victims and casualties of war.  The realities of resource inequalities, gender injustices, sexual and identity politics in Africa’s wars need to be kept at the centre of Africa’s future security architecture. This will require more than adding women to security forces – it requires changing the militarist paradigm of statecraft we have inherited and which has afflicted us through the Cold War era -during which Africans continued to die in vast numbers. Since 9/11, and the US declaration of the Global War on Terror the US has pursued significant war efforts that affect us deeply.

Despite our human development failures, Africa is still increasing its military expenditure, long after much wealthier nations have started to reduce theirs. Why? Why continue to serve as an outdated weapons dump, when we all know that the largest portion of the debt we carry was accumulated by discredited military regimes ? Spending on weapons that kill other Africans has been allowed to displace our development agendas, retarding long term investment in human security.

We resist military re-occupation, to the extent that the AFRICOM idea has been pushed back to evolve from George Bush’s original poorly conceived idea of a fully-fledged base on this continent. Instead, under the Obama government we have into a series of new partnership agreements complete with regular training exercises all over the region, numerous operations with grandiose names. What would a future-oriented regional security strategy grounded in prioritising African interests and concern look like? If we open our internal frontiers to facilitate the mobility of people as well as resources, will we still need so many national armies?

Do we need the many armies that we have, given the weakness of some and the threat that others have posed for democratic governance? Let us at least have the sense to question the direction of the last 50 years, in which the cost of war has significantly retarded development and exacted huge costs, leaving collective traumas that are yet to be healed, as we move towards the idea of sustainable peace – and the human security that we can then address instead of purchasing the next rounds of weaponry.


Imagine a continent in which no grandchild has been raised in fear, subjected to abuse, poverty, hunger, and growing up with the physical and emotional scarring that drains creativity. In which all the mothers survive pregnancy and we no longer know what it is to bury a child.

Imagine a world in which Africa’s billions are freed from the burden of survivalism – freed to lift themselves up and pursue the immeasurable creative potential that freedom from overwork and over exploitation would unleash for us, and on the world.

Africa in 2063 will have undergone the paradigm shift we seek – we will have used our maturity at 50 to radically alter the terms of our integration into the world order.

Africa in 2063 will be a place where Africa's wealth enriches all of Africa's people. It will be a place that has pushed back the land grabbing of the early 21st century, to reclaim the 30 billion hectares appropriated by foreign and private interests in the last 5 years. We will have transformed land use, access and ownership, so that our vast wealthy lands are used in sustainable, collectively intelligent and environmentally sound ways, enabling women and men to move beyond indebtedness, and pursue much high goals and dreams.

The global regime of trades and tariffs will have been overturned, and our elites will have stopped lining their pockets and ensured that Africa’s people benefit from Africa’s wealth, and the inhabitants of our oil zones will no longer have to plead “Leave the oil in the soil”! Instead our rich bio-diverse ecosystem and the livelihoods of local peoples will be protected for the common good.

What will inspire the radical systemic change that will lift us – liberate us - to think beyond survival?

Renaissance is recognition and redistribution, cultural freedom backed up with structural change that allows people to benefit from more judicious and accountable use of our resources.

“For us Africans, literature must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass, and fight corruption and authoritarianism. It is understandable why the African artist is utilitarian.” Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghanaian feminist novelist once said.

As a young woman, Ama Ata Aidoo the freedom fighter vowed never to write love stories. Let’s delight in the fact that over the years she has changed her mind about the value of writing about love, as her rich edited collection of highly original and diverse ‘African Love Stories’ demonstrates. She has traveled her path and had the courage to grow and change while retaining her deep commitment to Pan- Africanism. Love flourishes, after all is said and done.

By 2063 our creative writers will still inspire and rally us all, and call government to account. But they will never doubt the need to stay in love with Africa, to be renewed daily in our love for Africa, for all Africa’s beautyful people born and unborn and our descendents will have more love and more joy to share every single day.

What is abundantly evident is that we – women and men of Africa - are not lacking in vision, creativity or imagination, though at times we’ve lost touch with Africa’s genius, or suppressed and denied that talent resides among women, the poor and the oppressed. Amilcar Cabral saw this potential, and so should we.

In 2063 strong and well resourced research, cultural and educational institutions, will be there to inspire and challenge us, enabling us develop the intellectual and emotional capacities to dream of an even better future.

We look forward to a future in which our talents and creativity are no longer wasted and frustrated by the exigencies of survival and hampered by lack of access to resources.

I humbly appeal for our African Union to be a people’s union that will support the establishment of strong and inclusive pan-African culture, media and research institutions, and strengthen those that have already been established in response to the challenges of our times,. I appeal for us to facilitate the redistribution of our material wealth among our people for our collective liberation, for democracy, for equality, and for justice.

Thank you for your attention.

Listen to Amina Mama, interviewed by Walter Turner, on KPFA Pacifica radio here

 Chairperson Nkoszana Dlamini Zuma took the unprecedented step of inviting a 4-person civil society panel to address African Heads of State at the 50th Anniversary Summit in Addis Ababa last month. Chaired by the Dr Carlos Lopez, President of the UN Economic Commission for African, the panel comprised  African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka, former Prime Minister of Jamaica PJ Patterson,  Secretary General of the Pan African Youth Organization Tendai Wenyika, and feminist intellectual Amina Mama.

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