“Capitalism means that the masses will work, and a few people — who may not labor at all — will benefit from that work. The few will sit down to a banquet, and the masses will eat whatever is left over.“
A man of ascetic and unostentatious personal habits, and instantly recognisable in his Mao tunic, Julius Nyerere was born at Butiama, on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, into the small Zanaki tribe. He was 12 before he first went to school, but was immediately singled out for his sparkling intelligence by the Roman Catholic priests. After Makerere University, in Kampala, he taught for three years.
In 1949 he became the first Tanzanian to study at a British university, when he went to Edinburgh on a government scholarship. And it was there, under the influence of post-war Fabian socialists, that he developed his own political ideas of grafting socialism on to African communal existence.
On his return to Tanganyika, Nyerere was forced by the colonial authorities to make a choice between his political activities and his teaching. He was reported as saying that he was a schoolmaster by choice and a politician by accident. Working to bring a number of different nationalist factions into one grouping he achieved this in 1954 with the formation of TANU (the Tanganyika African National Union). He became President of the Union (a post he held until 1977), entered the Legislative Council in 1958 and became chief minister in 1960. A year later Tanganyika was granted internal self-government and Nyerere became premier. Full independence came in December 1961 and he was elected President in 1962.
Nyerere’s integrity, ability as a political orator and organizer, and readiness to work with different groupings was a significant factor in independence being achieved without bloodshed. In this he was helped by the co-operative attitude of the last British governor — Sir Richard Turnbull. In 1964, following a coup in Zanzibar (and an attempted coup in Tanganyika itself) Nyerere negotiated with the new leaders in Zanzibar and agreed to absorb them into the union government. The result was the creation of the Republic of Tanzania.
As President, Nyerere had to steer a difficult course. By the late 1960s Tanzania was one of the world’s poorest countries. Like many others it was suffering from a severe foreign debt burden, a decrease in foreign aid, and a fall in the price of commodities. His solution, the collectivization of agriculture, vilification (Ujamaa) and large-scale nationalization was a unique blend of socialism and communal life. The vision was set out in the Arusha Declaration of 1967:
“The objective of socialism in the United Republic of Tanzania is to build a society in which all members have equal rights and equal opportunities; in which all can live in peace with their neighbours without suffering or imposing injustice, being exploited, or exploiting; and in which all have a gradually increasing basic level of material welfare before any individual lives in luxury.”
However, the campaign proved expensive, and while their leader devoted such resources, time and energy to foreign affairs, his critics in Tanzania argued that he overlooked domestic problems, and failed to apply the same observance of human right abuses. He seldom flinched from using a Preventive Detention Act that allowed him to lock up his opponents virtually at will.
Relations with Zanzibar, which had united with Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania with Nyerere as president, were always strained. Tanzania became ever more dependent upon foreign aid, and decision-making was paralysed by a ponderous bureaucracy. Nyerere was to admit that mistakes had been made, while his devotees pointed to developments – such as the spread of literacy and primary healthcare.
As a pan-Africanist, he could not be faulted for putting his country in the forefront of the frontline states against white minority rule in Africa. He took a principled stand at a great cost to his country, but his people never really minded. Tanzania became a home for exiled freedom-fighters who are now the rulers in a number of southern African states.
Many a time, Nyerere confounded those of us who thought of ourselves as being to his left by appropriating our political lexicon and social agenda. He never quite became a Marxist, but the former shepherd boy, whom we used to deride as “a good boy of the west” and who was viewed with suspicion by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, turned into a tactical ally when he started talking about class struggle and a classless society.
But his African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa only brought misery and economic degradation. Under the man who preached self-reliance, Tanzania depended on foreign aid more than any other African country. That was only one of his contradictions.
Nyerere commands respect for being one of the first post-colonial African leaders to hand over power voluntarily. He retired in 1985 after 23 years as president, admitting that development policies he so vigorously advocated had failed. His detractors would regard his stewardship of Tanzania to have been flawed by his single-minded adherence to a manifestly unworkable policy. Yet Nyerere is more likely to be remembered for having provided a moral leadership to Tanzania, and indeed Africa, when the continent was taking its first shaky steps after independence.
After 12 years in the US, Gary Younge is preparing to depart – as the country’s racial frictions seem certain to spark another summer of conflict
By Gary Younge
For the past couple of years the summers, like hurricanes, have had names. Not single names like Katrina or Floyd – but full names like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Like hurricanes, their arrival was both predictable and predicted, and yet somehow, when they landed, the effect was still shocking.
We do not yet know the name that will be attached to this particular season. He is still out there, playing Call of Duty, finding a way to feed his family or working to pay off his student loans. He (and it probably will be a he) has no idea that his days are numbered; and we have no idea what the number of those days will be.
The precise alchemy that makes one particular death politically totemic while others go unmourned beyond their families and communities is not quite clear. Video helps, but is not essential. Some footage of cops rolling up like death squads and effectively executing people who posed no real threat has barely pricked the popular imagination. When the authorities fail to heed community outrage, or substantively investigate, let alone discipline, the police, the situation can become explosive. An underlying, ongoing tension between authorities and those being policed has been a factor in some cases. So, we do not know quite why his death will capture the political imagination in a way that others will not.
But we do know, with gruesome certainty, that his number will come up – that one day he will be slain in cold blood by a policeman (once again it probably will be a man) who is supposed to protect him and his community. We know this because it is statistically inevitable and has historical precedent. We know this because we have seen it happen again and again. We know this because this is not just how America works; it is how America was built. Like a hurricane, we know it is coming – we just do not yet know where or when or how much damage it will do.
Summer is riot season. It’s when Watts, Newark and Detroit erupted in violence in the 1960s, sparked by callous policing. It’s when school is out, pool parties are on and domestic life, particularly in urban centres, is turned inside-out: from the living room to the stoop, from the couch to the street. It’s when tempers get short and resentments bubble up like molten asphalt. It’s when, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, deferred dreams explode.
This is not my desire; it is my prediction. You can feel it building with every new Facebook post, viral video and Twitter storm. You can hear it from conversations with strangers at post offices, liquor stores and coffee shops. It is an unpleasant prediction to make because, ultimately, these riots highlight a problem they cannot, in themselves, solve; and it is an easy one to make because, as one bystander in Baltimore put it when disturbances flared there earlier this year: “You can only put so much into a pressure cooker before it pop.”
This is the summer I will leave America, after 12 years as a foreign correspondent, and return to London. My decision to come back to Britain was prompted by banal, personal factors that have nothing to do with current events; if my aim was to escape aggressive policing and racial disadvantage, I would not be heading to Hackney.
But while the events of the last few years did not prompt the decision to come back, they do make me relieved that the decision had already been made. It is why I have not once had second thoughts. If I had to pick a summer to leave, this would be the one. Another season of black parents grieving, police chiefs explaining and clueless anchors opining. Another season when America has to be reminded that black lives matter because black deaths at the hands of the state have been accepted as routine for so long. A summer ripe for rage.
I arrived in New York just a few months before the Iraq war. Americans seemed either angry at the rest of the world, angry at each other, or both. The top five books on the New York Times bestseller list the month I started were: Bush at War (Bob Woodward’s hagiographic account of the post-9/11 White House); The Right Man (Bush’s former speechwriter relives his first year in the White House); Portrait of a Killer (Patricia Cornwell on Jack the Ripper); The Savage Nation (a rightwing radio talkshow host saves America from “the liberal assault on our borders, language and culture”); and Leadership (Republican former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s post 9/11 victory lap).
There has barely been a quiet moment since. First there was the jingoism of the Iraq war, then the re-election of George W Bush in 2004, Hurricane Katrina, disillusionment with the Iraq war, the “Minutemen” anti-immigration vigilantes, the huge pro-immigrant “¡Sí se puede!” protests, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, the economic crash, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Obama’s reelection and the current rise in anti-racist activism. Being a foreigner made all these phenomena intriguing. Politically and morally, I picked sides. But, when reporting, it was more like anthropology. I saw it as my mission to try and understand the US: why did poor white people vote against their economic interests? How did the descendants of immigrants become xenophobic? Why were people disappointed in Obama when he had promised so little? The search for the answer was illuminating, even when I never found it or didn’t like it.
But the cultural distance I enjoyed as a Briton in a foreign country felt like a blended veneer of invincibility and invisibility. I thought of myself less as a participant than an onlooker. While reporting from rural Mississippi in 2003, I stopped to ask directions at the house of an old white couple, and they threatened to shoot me. I thought this was funny. I got back into my car sharpish and drove off – but I never once thought they would actually shoot me. How crazy would that be? When I got home, I told my wife and brother-in-law, who are African American. Their parents grew up in the South under segregation; even today, my mother-in-law wouldn’t stop her car in Mississippi for anything but petrol. They didn’t think it was funny at all: what on earth did I think I was doing, stopping to ask old white folk in rural Mississippi for directions?
Yet, somewhere along the way, I became invested. That was partly about time: as I came to know people – rather than just interviewing them – I came to relate to the issues more intimately. When someone close to you struggles with chronic pain because they have no healthcare, has their kitchen window pierced by gunfire or cannot pay a visit to their home country because they are undocumented, your relationship to issues like health reform, gun control or immigration is transformed. Not because your views change but because knowing and understanding something simply does not provide the same intensity as having it in your life.
But my investment was primarily about circumstances. On the weekend in 2007 that Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, our son was born. Six years later, we had a daughter. For the most part I have kept my English accent. But my language relating to children is reflexively American: diapers, strollers, pacifiers, recess, candy and long pants. I have only ever been a parent here – a role for which my own upbringing in England provides no real reference point. One summer evening, a couple years after we moved to Chicago, our daughter was struggling to settle down and so my wife decided to take a short walk to the local supermarket to bob her to sleep in the carrier. On the way back there was shooting in the street and she had to seek shelter in a local barbershop. When the snow finally melted this year one discarded gun was found in the alley behind our local park and another showed up in the alley behind my son’s school. My days of being an onlooker were over. I was dealing with daycare, summer camps, schools, doctor’s visits, parks and other parents. The day we brought my son home, an article in the New York Times pointed out that in America “a black male who drops out of high school is 60 times more likely to find himself in prison than one with a bachelor’s degree”. Previously, I’d have found that interesting and troubling. Now it was personal. I had skin in the game. Black skin in a game where the odds are stacked against it.
Obama’s ascent, I was told by many and frequently during his campaign, would change these odds. Whenever I asked “How?” no one could say exactly. But his very presence, they insisted, would provide a marker for my son and all who look like him. I never believed that. First of all, one person cannot undo centuries of discrimination, no matter how much nominal power they have. Second, given the institutions into which Obama would be embedded – namely the Democratic party and the presidency – there would only ever be so much he could or would do. He was aspiring to sit atop a system awash with corporate donations in which congressional seats are openly gerrymandered and 41% of the upper chamber can block almost anything. He was the most progressive candidate viable for the presidency, which says a great deal, given the alternatives, but means very little, given what would be needed to significantly shift the dial on such issues as race and inequality.
Pointing this out amid the hoopla of his candidacy made you sound like Eeyore. I was delighted when he won. But somehow I could never be quite as delighted as some people felt I should have been. When Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary – in the first southern state to secede from the union, which sparked the civil war, where the Confederate flag still flies above the state capitol and a white supremacist recently gunned down nine parishioners at a black church – the crowds chanted “Race Doesn’t Matter”. (An odd rallying cry, since it was precisely because he was a black candidate that they were shouting it; it’s not like Hillary’s crowd would have shouted the same thing if she had won.)
I was delighted when Obama won. But somehow I could never be quite as delighted as some people felt I should have been. The symbolic advantages of Obama’s election were clear. For two years I pushed my son around in his stroller surrounded by a picture of a black man framed by the words “Hope” and “Change”. A year or so after Obama came to office, my son had a playdate with a four-year-old white friend who looked up from his Thomas the Tank Engine and told my son: “You’re black.” It was a reasonable thing for a child of that age to point out – he was noticing difference, not race. But when my son looked at me for a cue, I now had a new arrow in my quiver to deflect any potential awkwardness. “That’s right,” I said. “Just like the president.”
But the substantial benefits were elusive. Obama inherited an economic crisis that hurt African Americans more than any other community. The discrepancy between black and white employment and wealth grew during his first few years and has barely narrowed since. In 2010, I used this anecdote in a column by way of pointing out the limited symbolic value of having a black president. “True, it is something,” I wrote. “But when Thomas is safely back in the station and the moment is over, it is not very much. Because for all the white noise emanating from the Tea Party movement, it has been black Americans who have suffered most since Obama took office. Over the last 14 months the gap between my son’s life chances and his friend’s have been widening.”
This last statement was as undeniably true as it was apparently controversial. I had not claimed that my son was likely to do badly, simply that his odds for success were far worse than the kid he was playing with, and that they were further deteriorating. A study in 2014 found that a black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high-school dropout. “As the recession has dragged on,” the New York Times pointed out just a couple months before my son’s playdate, the disparity between black and white unemployment “has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field – in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.” But insisting that racism would have a material effect on my son’s life ruffled some readers’ feathers.
“Nonsense,” wrote one commenter. “Your middle-class status means his future will have more in common with his white friends than any poor black kid.” Another – a Guardian contributor, no less – also chimed in: “For you to claim shared victimhood on skin colour alone is highly disingenuous. Your son is highly likely to do OK, to say the least. He has most of the advantages in the world.”
Such responses betrayed complete ignorance about the lived experience of race in a country as segregated as the United States. Class does makes a big difference, of course: this is America. We have healthcare, jobs, university educations and a car; we live in a community with reasonable schools, supermarkets and restaurants. In short, we have resources and therefore we have options.
We do not, however, have the option not to be black. And in this time and this place that is no minor factor. That is not “claiming shared victimhood”, it is recognising a fact of life. Class offers a range of privileges; but it is not a sealant that protects you from everything else. If it was, rich women would never get raped and wealthy gay couples could marry all around the world.
To even try to have the kind of gilded black life to which these detractors alluded, we would have to do far more than just revel in our bank accounts and leverage our cultural capital. We would have to live in an area with few other black people, since black neighbourhoods are policed with insufficient respect for life or liberty; send our children to a school with few other black students, since majority-black schools are underfunded; tell them not to wear anything that would associate them with black culture, since doing so would make them more vulnerable to profiling; tell them not to mix with other black children, since they are likely to live in the very areas and go to the very schools from which we would be trying to escape; and not let the children go out after dark, since being young and black after sunset makes the police suspect that you have done or are about to do something.
The list could go on. None of this self-loathing behaviour would provide any guarantees, of course. Racism does what it says on the packet; it discriminates against people on the grounds of race. It can be as arbitrary in its choice of victim as it is systemic in its execution. And while it never works alone (but in concert with class, gender and a host of other rogue characters), it can operate independently. No one is going to be checking my bank account or professional status when they are looking at my kids.
Trayvon Martin was walking through a gated community when George Zimmerman pegged him for a thug and shot him dead. Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator, was in one of Charleston’s most impressive churches when Dylann Roof murdered him and eight others.
I have not only never met an African American who thought they could buy themselves the advantages of a white American; I have yet to meet one who thinks they can even buy themselves out of the disadvantages of being black. All you can do is limit the odds. And when one in three black boys born in 2001 is destined for the prison system, those odds are pretty bad. Having a black man in the White House has not changed that.
Most days, the park closest to us looks like Sesame Street. White, black and Vietnamese American kids climbing, swinging and sliding. Occasionally, particularly late on weekday afternoons, teenagers show up. Like adolescents the western world over, they are bored, broke, horny and lost. They don’t want to stay at home, but can’t afford to be anywhere that costs money, and so they come to the public space most approximate to their needs, where they squeeze into swings that are meant for smaller kids and joke, flirt and banter. Very occasionally they swear and get a little rowdy – but nothing that an adult could not deal with by simply asking them to keep the language down because there are little kids around. Oh, and in this park the teenagers are usually black.
Their presence certainly changes the mood. But the only time it ever really gets tense is when the police come. The better police chat with them, the worse ones interrogate them. Either way, the presence of armed, uniformed people in this children’s space is both unsettling and unnecessary. The smaller kids and those new to the park imagine something seriously wrong must have happened for the police to be there; the older ones (by which I mean those aged seven and over), and those who are already familiar with the drill just shrug: the cops are in our park again. It is difficult to tell which response is worse.
Once, when some adolescents were hanging out relatively quietly one afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a white woman. Her son was roughly the same age as mine, we both lived nearby and neither of our kids would have to cross a road to get to the park. We were discussing at what age we thought it would be appropriate to let our boys come by themselves. “The thing is, you just don’t know if it’s going to be quiet or if the junior gangbangers are going to be hanging around,” she said, gesturing to the youths on the swings.
I was stunned. Whenever I have written about police killings at least one reader reminds me that black people are most likely to be killed by black people. This is both true and irrelevant. First, because all Americans are overwhelmingly likely to be killed by assailants of their own race, so what some brand “black-on-black crime” should, more accurately, just be called crime. But also because black people are not, by dint of their melanin content, entrusted to protect and serve the public. The police are. Over the last decade I have reported from many impoverished neighbourhoods, populated by all races, where I have felt unsafe. That hasn’t made me fear black people or any other racial group; it has just made me loathe poverty and gun culture in general, since it is that toxic combination that both drives the crime and makes it lethal.
This woman and I were looking at the same kids but seeing quite different things.
“What makes you think they’re going to become gangbangers?” I asked. She shrugged. The conversation pretty much dried up after that.
There is a section of white society – a broad section that includes affable mothers who will speak to black strangers like me in the park – who understand black kids as an inherent threat. Beyond the segregated ghettos where few white people venture, the presence of black youth apparently marks not just the potential for trouble but the arrival of it. When George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, he didn’t see a 17-year-old boy walking home from the store. He saw someone “real suspicious”, “up to no good”, whom he assumed bore some responsibility for recent burglaries.
“Fucking punks,” he told the police, referring to Trayvon. “These assholes, they always get away.”
Indeed black children are often not even regarded as children at all. In Goose Creek, South Carolina, police demanded DNA samples from two middle school students after they were mistaken for a 32-year-old suspect. After the killing of Tamir Rice – the 12-year-old shot dead by police in Cleveland after someone reported him brandishing what they assumed was a “probably fake” gun – a police spokesman said it was his own fault. “Tamir Rice is in the wrong,” he said. “He’s menacing. He’s 5ft 7in, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” When testifying before the grand jury into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Darren Wilson described his assailant more like an animal than a 18-year-old: “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Even after Wilson shot Brown he continued to depict him as both physically superhuman and emotionally subhuman. “He was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
The evidence is not merely anecdotal. A study last year published in the American Psychological Association’s online Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that white Americans overestimated the age of black boys over the age of 10 by an average of four and a half years; white respondents also assumed that black children were more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” wrote Phillip Atiba Goff PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” My son is tall for his age; these are the things you worry about.
It wasn’t long before my wife and I began to notice the degree to which some white adults felt entitled to shout at black children – be it in the street, or on school trips – for infractions either minor or imagined.
Last summer, on the afternoon I arrived home from reporting on the disturbances after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a barbecue and music at the local park. I took the kids. The park has a water feature that shoots wet jets from the ground and sprays kids in fountains from all sides as they paddle around. The younger ones peel down to their underwear while the older ones just pile in whatever they have on. It was a scorching day and my son and several other kids were having a water fight – a tame affair with very little collateral damage for those not involved beyond the odd sprinkling. At one stage, while in hot pursuit of his main rival, my son splashed a woman on her leg. She yelled at him as though he’d hit her with a brick.
I’d seen the whole thing and ran over.
“What’s the problem?” I said.
“Look. He’s covered me in water,” she shouted.
I looked. She was barely wet. But even if he had …
“You’re standing in a children’s park, on a hot day, next to a water feature,” I said. “Deal with it. Just stop shouting at him.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do,” she barked.
“Now you’re shouting at me,” I said. “Just stop it.”
“Who the hell are you?” she yelled.
“I’m his dad that’s who.”
“You’re nobody, that’s who you are,” she bellowed. “Nobody.”
One of the first stories I covered on my arrival was the funeral of Mamie Till Mobley, the 81-year-old mother of the late Emmett Till. In 1955 Mamie sent her 14-year-old son, Emmett, from Chicago to rural Mississippi to spend his summer holiday with family. She packed him off with a warning: “If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past,” she told him, “do it willingly.”
Emmett didn’t follow her advice. While in the small town of Money, in the Delta region, he either said “Bye, baby” or wolf-whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. Three days later his body was fished out of the Tallahatchie river with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side.
Raising a black child in a racist society poses a very particular set of challenges. On the one hand, you want them to be proud and confident of who they are. On the other, you have to teach them that they are vulnerable precisely because of who they are, in the knowledge that awareness of that vulnerability just might save their life. We are trying to raise self-confident children for long lives, not hashtags for slaughter.
We are trying to raise self-confident children for long lives, not hashtags for slaughter
Explaining the complex historical and social forces that make such a dance necessary is not easy at the best of times. Making them comprehensible to a child is nigh impossible without gross simplifications and cutting corners. Once, during our 10-minute walk to daycare, my son asked if we could take another route. “Why?” I asked.
“Because that way they stop all the black boys,” he said.
He was right. Roughly twice a week we would pass young black men being frisked or arrested, usually on the way home. He was also four, and until that point I was not aware that he had even noticed. I tried to make him feel safe.
“Well don’t worry. You’re with me and they’re not going to stop us,” I told him.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because we haven’t done anything,” I said.
“What have they done?” he asked.
He had me. From then on we took another route.
When I interviewed Maya Angelou in 2002, she told me that the September 11 attacks of the previous year were understood differently by African Americans. “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America,” she said. “But black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.” It is that state of terror that has been laid bare these last few years.
The American polity and media episodically “discovers” this daily reality in much the same way that teenagers discover sex – urgently, earnestly, voraciously and carelessly, with great self-indulgence but precious little self-awareness. They have always been aware of it but somehow when confronted with it, it nonetheless takes them by surprise.
The week I arrived, in December 2002, the Senate minority leader, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, resigned from his leadership position after he said in a speech that America would have been a better place had the segregationist Strom Thurmond won the presidency in 1948. The mainstream media saw nothing outrageous in this – as if it was just the kind of thing a conservative southern senator might say. It took bloggers to make it a story. As I write, some southern states are debating whether to keep the Confederate flag flying on state grounds in various guises – as though it took nine people dying on their doorstep to understand its racist connotations.
It is as though the centuries-old narrative of racial inequality is too tiresome to acknowledge, except as a footnote, until it appears in dramatic fashion, as it did after Hurricane Katrina or the protests in Ferguson. At that point the bored become suddenly scandalised. In a nation that prides itself on always moving forward, the notion that they are “still dealing with this” feels like an affront to the national character. That’s why Obama’s candidacy had such a simple and uplifting appeal to so many Americans. As the radical academic and 1970s icon Angela Davis explained to me in 2007, it represented “a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change”.
This most recent episode of racial awakening has lasted longer than most. For the last couple of years the brutal banality of daily life for some people in this country has become visible and undeniable to those who have no immediate connection to it. But nothing new has happened. There has been no spike in police brutality. What’s new is that people are looking. And thanks to new technology (namely the democratisation of the ability to film and distribute), they have lots to look at. As a result, a significant section of white America is outraged at the sight of what it had previously chosen to ignore, while a dwindling but still sizeable and vocal few still refuse to believe their eyes.
* * *
I’ve never found it particularly useful to compare racisms – as though one manifestation might be better than another. Every society, regardless of its racial composition, has overlapping and interweaving hierarchies. Insisting on the superiority of one over another suggests there are racisms out there worth having – a race to the bottom with no moral centre.
In June 1998, as the public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence laid bare one of the more insidious examples of British racism, news arrived from Jasper, Texas, about the murder of James Byrd. Byrd, an African American, had been picked up by three men, one of whom he knew and two of whom were white supremacists. Instead of driving him home, they took him to a remote country road, beat him, urinated on him and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for more than a mile until his head came off. Then they went for a barbecue.
The next day, during an editorial meeting at the Guardian which featured a discussion of the Lawrence inquiry followed by the Byrd murder, one of my colleagues remarked, of Byrd’s killing: “Well at least we don’t do that here.”
“That will be of little comfort to Doreen and Neville Lawrence,” I thought.
I have more cousins in the US than in Britain. They are doing fine. At one stage I fully intended to immigrate here. While that plan no longer stands, it still doesn’t strike me as insane.
While I have been in America, I have not been shot at, arrested, imprisoned or otherwise seriously inconvenienced by the state. I do not live in the hollowed out, jobless zones of urban economic despair to which many African Americans have been abandoned. I have been shouted at in a park, taken different routes to school, and occasionally dealt with bigoted officials. (While driving through Mississippi to cover Katrina I approached a roadblock that all the other journalists had easily passed through, only to have a policeman pat the gun in his holster and turn me around). These experiences are aggravating. They are not life-threatening.
I am not Michael Brown. But then Michael Brown wasn’t Michael Brown before he was shot dead and had his body left on the street for four hours; Eric Garner was just a man trying to sell cigarettes in the street before he was choked to death in Staten Island; Tamir Rice was just a boisterous kid acting out in a park before a policeman leaped out of his squad car and shot him within seconds. Being shot dead by the police or anyone else is not the daily experience of black people in America.
But what became clear following the Department of Justice report into the Ferguson police force was just how extreme and commonplace these aggravations could be. To cite just a few examples: between 2007 to 2014, one woman in Ferguson was arrested twice, spent six days in jail and paid $550 as a result of one parking ticket for which she was originally charged $151. She tried to pay in smaller instalments – $25 or $50 a time – but the court refused to accept anything less than the full payment, which she could not afford. Seven years after the original infraction she still owed $541 – this was how the town raised its revenue. It was not a glitch in the system; it was the system.
Then there was the 14-year-old boy that the Ferguson police found in an abandoned building, who was chased down by a dog that bit his ankle and his left arm as he protected his face. The boy says officers kicked him in the head and then laughed about it after. The officers say they thought he was armed; he wasn’t. Department of Justice investigators found that every time a police dog in Ferguson bit someone, the victim was black.
Then there was the man pulled out of his house by the police after reports of an altercation inside. As they dragged him out he told them: “You don’t have a reason to lock me up.”
“Nigger, I can find something to lock you up on,” the officer told him.
“Good luck with that,” the man responded. The officer slammed the man’s face into a wall and he fell to the floor.
“Don’t pass out, motherfucker, because I’m not carrying you to my car,” the officer is claimed to have said.
This was the same month Brown was killed. Were it not for the disturbances following Brown’s death, there would have been no investigation – not only would we have heard nothing of these things but, because no light had been shone on them, the Ferguson police would be carrying on with the same level of impunity. This was a small midwestern suburb few had heard of – unremarkable in every way, which is precisely what makes the goings on there noteworthy. If it was happening there, then it could be happening anywhere.
It is exhausting. When the videos of brutality go viral I can’t watch them unless I have to write about them. I don’t need to be shocked – which is just as well because these videos emerge with such regularity that they cease to be shocking. Were it not for the thrill of seeing an unjaded younger generation reviving the best of the nation’s traditions of anti-racist resistance, I would be in despair.
The altercations in the park, the rerouted walks to school, the aggravations of daily life are the lower end of a continuum – a dull drumbeat that occasionally crescendos into violent confrontation and even social conflagration. As spring turns to summer the volume keeps ratcheting up.
“Terror,” the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes in his book Fear of Small Numbers, “is first of all the terror of the next attack.” The terrorism resides not just in the fact that it happens, but that one is braced for the possibility that it could happen to you at any moment. Seven children and teenagers are shot on an average day in the US. I have just finished writing a book in which I take a random day and interview the families and friends of those who perished. Ten young people died the day I chose. Eight were black. All of the black parents said they had assumed this could happen to their son.
As one bereaved dad told me: “You wouldn’t be doing your job as a father if you didn’t.”
Anthony Rodney was born to Edward and Pauline Rodney in Georgetown, Guyana on March 23, 1942. He developed into an intellectual and scholar and is recognized as one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant minds.
Rodney combined his scholarship with activism and became a voice for the under-represented and disenfranchised – this distinguished him from his academic colleagues. His interest in the struggles of the working class began at a young age with an introduction to politics by his father, and continued with his involvement in debating and study groups throughout his student years. His PhD thesis illustrated his duality as an intellectual and activist as he challenged the prevailing assumptions about African history and put forth his own ideas and models for analyzing the history of oppressed peoples. Influenced by the Black Power Movement in the U.S., third world revolutionaries and Marxist theory, Rodney began to actively challenge the status quo.
In 1968, while a UWI professor in Jamaica, he joined others to object to the socio-economic and political direction of the government. Unlike his counterparts, however, Rodney involved the working class, including the Rastafarians (one of Jamaica’s most marginalized groups) in this dialogue. His speeches and lectures to these groups were published as Grounding with My Brothers, and became central to the Caribbean Black Power Movement. Rodney’s activities attracted the Jamaican government’s attention and after attending the 1968 Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada he was banned from re-entering the country. This decision was to have profound repercussions, sparking widespread unrest in Kingston.
In 1974, Walter returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. But Rodney remained in Guyana, joined the newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance. Between 1974 and 1979, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He gave public and private talks all over the country that served to engender a new political consciousness in the country. During this period he developed his ideas on the self-emancipation of the working people, People’s Power, and multiracial democracy.
As the WPA gained popularity and momentum, the PNC began a campaign of harassment including police raids, house searches, and beatings. On July 11, 1979, Walter, together with seven others, was arrested following the burning down of two government offices. Rodney and four others (known as the “Referendum Five”) faced trumped-up charges of arson, but without proof and scrutiny from international supporters, the government was forced to drop these charges.
Rodney’s voice was not confined to Africa and the Caribbean but was also heard in the U.S. and Europe. In the early-mid 1970s, he participated in discussions and lectures with the African Heritage Studies Association at Howard University; the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA; the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University; and the State University of New York at Binghamton.
The persecution, however, continued: two party members were killed, and the government denied Rodney and others permission to travel. Despite this, Rodney continued his political work and attended Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in May 1980.
On Friday, June 13, 1980, Walter Anthony Rodney was assassinated by a bomb in Georgetown, Guyana. He was 38 years old.
In 1931, Malcolm’s father died in mysterious circumstances, run over by a streetcar. Although it was never proved, the suspicion remained that he had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The police recorded the death as suicide, thereby annulling Earl Little’s life insurance.
Left poverty-stricken, Malcolm’s mother struggled to make ends meet for her large family. The pressure took its toll and in 1937, six years after her husband’s death, she was committed to an asylum. The children were farmed out to various foster parents and homes. Malcolm went to school where a teacher asked the vulnerable Malcolm what he wanted to be. Malcolm answered, a lawyer. The teacher scoffed, told him to be realistic and recommended, instead, he become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he dropped out of school at the age of 15 and went to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.
From Boston, Malcolm moved to the Harlem district of New York City where he got a job as a shoeshine boy. Called “Detroit Red” for the reddish hint in his hair, he drifted into a life of petty crime, involving robbery and drug selling. He lived well off the proceeds but in 1946, following a failed robbery, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Whilst incarcerated he spent much of his time reading in the prison library, obtaining the education he felt was lacking in his life. He converted to Islam and became a member of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims. Founded by Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah, the Black Muslims rejected Christianity as a white man’s religion and preached separation of the races.
Having served six years, Malcolm was released from prison in 1952. He moved to Chicago and founded (or took over – resources differ on this point) the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which espoused racially controversial views about the natural superiority of blacks. Malcolm, having shed his “slave name”, advocated black separatism and the use of violence, if necessary, to achieve it. America’s blacks, he said, were in the midst of a revolution and there was “no such thing as a non-violent revolution”. Air time on national television brought him immediate fame, or notoriety. His preaching drew new converts and his charismatic style appealed to much of America’s black youth.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Describing himself as the “angriest black man in America”, Malcolm rejected Martin Luther King‘s non-confrontational approach and mocked King’s March on Washington (August 1963). Achieving integration through non-violence and, as Malcolm saw it, long-term suffering, would not progress the African American’s place in society. Instead, Malcolm preached independence, black power and black consciousness, a message that had widespread appeal. The Civil Rights Movement had, in Malcolm’s view, “begged the white man for freedom”, and begging for freedom did not, he continued, set you free. “The price of freedom is death”. (See clip below).
(The six foot, 3 inches tall, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr met just the once, pictured, in March 1964).
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
Elijah Muhammad, impressed by Malcolm’s undoubted abilities, named him his second-in-command. Although the two men argued over the direction of the organization, Malcolm saw Muhammad as a mentor and a spiritual guide, and perhaps even a father-figure. But Muhammad’s private life failed to match his public persona as a man beyond reproach. Malcolm was left feeling betrayed when he learnt that Muhammad had fathered six children with different women. Their relationship deteriorated further when, following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm said it was a case of “chickens coming to roost”. Malcolm was ordered to observe a 90-day period of silence. Refusing to comply, in March 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and founded his own Islamic group, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. In 1965 he formed the secular group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Malcolm embarked on a tour of Africa and the Middle East, paid a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, having changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. He returned to the US a more moderate man: “I recognize that anger can blind a man”, he later said.
Assassination of Malcolm X
Having left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X received numerous death threats. In 1964, Elijah Muhammad said that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”. Indeed, an edition of Muhammad Speaks that year featured a cartoon of Malcolm X’s decapitated head. On 14 February 1965, Malcolm’s family home in New York was firebombed. He firmly believed that those responsible were members of the Nation of Islam.
A week later, on 21 February, as he was about to deliver a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm was shot fifteen times and killed. He was three months short of his fortieth birthday. Three of Elijah Muhammad’s followers were later found guilty of the murder. The last of the three, Talmadge Hayer, having served 45 years in jail and having been refused parole sixteen times, was released from prison in 2010.
Elijah Muhammad, on hearing of Malcolm’s death, said, “Malcolm X got just what he preached… We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end”.
In 1958, Malcolm had married Betty Shabazz, who, like Malcolm, called herself ‘X’. They were to have six daughters, the youngest two, twins, born after Malcolm’s assassination. On 1 June 1997, Betty’s home was set on fire by her 12-year-old grandson, Malcolm Shabazz. Three weeks later, she died of her injuries. Shabazz, who spent four years in a juvenile detention centre, immediately expressed his remorse. Shabazz himself was murdered in Mexico City on 9 May 2013. He was 28.
Malcolm’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, dictated to Alex Haley and written over two years, was published soon after his death, and remains a cult hit.
Cuba: An African Odyssey is the fruit of fifteen years’ research and organizing on the part of Egyptian Jihan el Tahri. Treating three hot wars within the context of over “a quarter century plus one year, one month and one day” in the life of the larger Cold War.
Disguised in 1965, clean-shaved in a suit and thick-rim glasses, Che Guevara is another man — on shipping across Lake Tanganyika into the Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaïre — to bring revolutionary expertise to those fighting for the leftist MNC ideals of popular PM Patrice Lumumba, usurped and murdered by Col. Joseph Mobutu. Before his own failure, capture and murder, Che would take Bolivian guerrillas to task on “the reality of war. I emphasized the importance of a united command and discipline . . . of the party’s line.” Unable to inculcate military or ideological order, Guevara left Africa secretly after eight months.
So opens the film, followed by a middle section on Cuban aid to also-assassinated Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC movement for Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, separately independent in the wake of Lisbon’s 1974 Carnation Coup, the former as Guinea-Bissau. Speaking of the convoluted situation in, and worldwide concern with, Angola and Namibia — the last section in time but the documentary centerpiece — Fidel emphasizes that, contrary to capitalism’s imputing its own imperialistic ends to Cuba, “we have no selfish reasons.”
An ex-U.S. diplomat assesses that then as now we misread Cuba and the legitimate credit it deserves for bringing settlement to Angola’s alphabet soup of conflicting acronyms, armies and special interests from the Western and Eastern blocs as well as within the African continent. Governed after 1975 nationhood by the formerly Zambia-based liberation party MLPA, large, potentially rich Angola was plagued by warring factions, with South Africa’s “mandate” South West Africa/Namibia serving as a base for UNITA armed incursions (soon also supported by Washington, which as well funded yet another army in FNLA), as Pretoria simultaneously fought Namibia’s revolutionary SWAPO and maintained apartheid in its ex-German protectorate today touted for tourism as “quaint, but a land of stark beauty and riveting contradictions.”
Fidel was so joyfully embraced in Angola’s capital, Luanda, that his visit was extended into a three-week triumphal tour. Already suffering privation, and later itself to lose Soviet aid, his own island had given its lifeblood for emerging brother nations: the remains of ten thousand of Cuba’s fallen (many of them at Cuito Cuanavale, the greatest battle on the continent since El Alamein) were transported home for burial.
The legwork research here is impressive, even for those who question El Tahri’s hagiographic treatment. Protagonists’ motivations and actions are of course open to different interpretation, with interviewees on whatever side seemingly likeable, eloquent and sometimes surprisingly humorous about the past.
Back to the Motherland: Cubans in Africa
On October 14, 1975, as Angolan independence approached and the civil war tipped in favour of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South African armoured column Zulu crossed into Angola. Made up of white troops from the South African Defense Forces (SADF) assisted by several thousand black mercenaries, Zulu rolled over the MPLA’s few defences and started racing for the capital, Luanda. Joining Zulu came a second column, Foxbat, airlifted into the central Angolan town of Silva Porto—a gangster’s Shangri La and home to the warlord Jonas Savimbi and his murderous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Meanwhile, from the north came another anti-Communist guerrilla army, Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was saturated with CIA personnel, South African military advisors, and Zairian troops, plus some Portuguese and British soldiers of fortune.
This secret invasion code named “Operation Savanna” was just the culmination of an older U.S.-backed, Kissinger-approved program of covert action which had begun half a year earlier when it became clear that an exhausted Portugal was giving up on its colonial project and that the Marxist MPLA would win the civil war between itself and the two anti-Communist groups, UNITA and the FNLA. Formal decolonization was set for November 11, 1975, and the CIA/South African invasion was an attempt to steal Angola away from the MPLA before that legitimizing date.
Also on the ground were five hundred volunteer Cuban military advisors who had been training and fighting alongside the MPLA for the last two months, but many of this number were in the country’s detached northern oil-rich enclave, Cabinda. The speed and secrecy of the South African blitzkrieg stunned both the MPLA leadership and the Cubans. Less than three weeks after invading, Zulu was almost upon Luanda, yet the head of the Cuban military mission, Diaz Argüeselles, still did not grasp the magnitude of the situation.
A few days later, the Cubans and the MPLA leadership were disabused of their confusion when all the coastal highway towns south of Luanda had fallen to Zulu. Within hours it became clear to the MPLA and their Cuban comrades on the ground—and then to Fidel and his brother Raul Castro—that they must choose either to abandon Angola to the ravages of South Africa and its proxy warlords or send immediate reinforcements. After consulting with Raul and a few top aids, Fidel dispatched 430 members of the Special Forces and an artillery regiment. Most would go by boat arriving in about a week, but a vanguard detachment of 158 elite Cuban commandos and heavy weapons specialists dressed in civilian clothes boarded two passenger planes and took off for Angola.
Before they left Fidel met them on the tarmac. “He spoke most of all about the South African invasion,” recalled one veteran of the operation. “He said that some of the Cuban instructors had died, that it was a difficult situation, that we must stop the South Africans before they reached Luanda and that many of us would not return. He said that it was very hard for him to say this and not go with us.” Even more chilling were the final instructions: fight with the MPLA, if the MPLA lost the capital go to the hills and fight on, if the MPLA gave up—only then, if possible—the survivors should fall back to Zambia where Cuba had a new embassy.
After two stops for refuelling, the Special Forces touched down in Luanda under the cover of night and immediately raced to the nearby bluff-top village of Quifandongo from which the MPLA was guarding the capital with several hundred of its best troops, some artillery pieces and six Soviet-made rocket launchers. Just outside Quifandongo lay Holden Roberto’s FNLA, a host of 3,500 mounted on trucks, tanks, and mobile artillery, massing for their final assault on Luanda.
But here fate and the megalomaniacal hubris of the CIA’s pet, Roberto, intervened. As one of the South African veterans of the operation wrote: “Unlike Savimbi who…relied on his South African advisors’ professional knowledge, Roberto insisted on going his own way.” As high-flying South African bombers attempted to soften up the village, the attacking foreigners suggested a flanking manoeuvre but “Roberto shrugged off all such subterfuges in favour of an advance straight down what later became known as Road.’ ”
The FNLA forces—described by a South African veteran as a “hoard of partly trained…tribesmen…Portuguese mercenaries…[and] faint-hearted Zairians…” held together by a few SADF officers and CIA advisors—lined up on the road to attack as a convoy. Greeting them was an awful hail of Cuban controlled artillery. As one discouraged white advisor later wrote, “one by one the armoured cars were knocked out.” Mauled and panicked, the attackers scattered.
From there, half the Cubans turned south and ambushed Column Zulu. Put in check, the column tried an end run around the Cubans but was ambushed again. This time, caught on a long open stretch of road surrounded by impassable monsoon-soaked terrain, the South African tanks and trucks were smashed to pieces. From then on Zulu’s war was a fighting retreat home. By March 27, 1976, the last SADF tanks rolled back across the Namibian border where then defense minister, and future South African president, P. W. Botha watched and saluted through “a cloud of dust.”
News of South Africa’s humiliation in Angola swept the Bantustans electrifying and emboldening ANC activists and youth. A few months later the ghetto of Soweto exploded, marking the beginning of the end of apartheid.
Impressive as it may be, the Cuban adventure in Angola was only one piece of a truly audacious African foreign policy. Cuba was not a Soviet pawn in Angola or elsewhere. In fact, in the majority of these interventions the Cubans played a leading role, sometimes acting against the wishes of the Soviet Union. In Angola, for example, the MPLA had been requesting direct military intervention—troops—from both the USSR and the Cubans starting in early 1975. But these socialist states held off: Cuba for fear of antagonizing the United States; the USSR in the hope of achieving a new arms agreement.
When Cuba finally acted it did so without consulting the Soviets. And when the Russian “elder brothers” were presented with the fait accompli of Cuban troops duking it out with South African invaders, requests from Castro and the MPLA for military aid contained as much blackmail as they did supplication. What were the Russians to do—let the Cubans sink? Of course once the tide had turned, the independence date had come, and South Africa had finally been exposed in the western press as the aggressor, the USSR was happy to help out.
Cuba’s interventions were not always victorious. Che’s year in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo was a socialist Heart of Darkness. Che’s host, the dashing, seemingly committed Laurent Kabila turned out to be a soft, jet-setting fundraiser who frequented foreign capitals while his troops languished in the jungles around Lake Tanganyika. Che tried to turn things around but Kabila’s Simbas (meaning lions) preferred to lay low while a U.S.-backed army of white mercenaries supported by Cuban-American pilots had its way with the geographic heart of Africa. Likewise a leftist coup in the nearby French Congo turned out to be heavy on radical pronouncements but light on actual socialist forward motion. The Cuban mission there—to train a more left-leaning popular militia—ended after a right-wing coup.
The Cubans risked all for leaders they liked and respected while often suffering chilly relations with groups that might seem their natural allies. Che set the initial tone in most of these cases during his diplomatic barnstorming through Africa in late 1964 and early 1965. At times the connections and near misses seem counterintuitive. For example, Che offended and alienated the very Marxist, Cuban-oriented Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, but quickly bonded with the ideologically more eclectic, more social democratic, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau’s liberation movement. In later years this meant scant Cuban involvement in Mozambique and a huge military and medical assistance package for Cabral’s forces in Guinea Bissau.
“Freedom is not something that one people can bestow on another as a gift. Thy claim it as their own and none can keep it from them.”
Kwame Nkrumah’s father was a goldsmith and his mother a retail trader. Baptized a Roman Catholic, Nkrumah spent nine years at the Roman Catholic elementary school in nearby Half Assini. After graduation from Achimota College in 1930, he started his career as a teacher at Roman Catholic junior schools in Elmina and Axim and at a seminary.
Increasingly drawn to politics, Nkrumah decided to pursue further studies in the United States. He entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1935 and, after graduating in 1939, obtained master’s degrees from Lincoln and from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the literature of socialism, notably Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin, and of nationalism, especially Marcus Garvey, the black American leader of the 1920s. Eventually, Nkrumah came to describe himself as a “nondenominational Christian and a Marxist socialist.” He also immersed himself in political work, reorganizing and becoming president of the African Students’ Organization of the United States and Canada. He left the United States in May 1945 and went to England, where he organized the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester.
Meanwhile, in the Gold Coast, J.B. Danquah had formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to work for self-government by constitutional means. Invited to serve as the UGCC’s general secretary, Nkrumah returned home in late 1947. As general secretary, he addressed meetings throughout the Gold Coast and began to create a mass base for the new movement. When extensive riots occurred in February 1948, the British briefly arrested Nkrumah and other leaders of the UGCC.
When a split developed between the middle-class leaders of the UGCC and the more radical supporters of Nkrumah, he formed in June 1949 the new Convention Peoples’ Party (CPP), a mass-based party that was committed to a program of immediate self-government. In January 1950, Nkrumah initiated a campaign of “positive action,” involving nonviolent protests, strikes, and noncooperation with the British colonial authorities.
From prison to prime ministry
In 1947 the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was established, and Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast from London to become its secretary. This national movement was essentially middle-class in origin and conservative in its policies. Within two years, Nkrumah broke from this moderate organization and, together with like-minded radicals, formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP), which adopted the slogan “Self-Government Now.” It was supported by many segments of Gold Coast society that wished to see the end of British rule, including army veterans, small traders, and other nationalists.
Nkrumah’s protests were eventually successful. After the British jailed him in 1950 for political agitation, they allowed a new national constitution to be drafted, with elections to be held in February of 1951. Although still under arrest, Nkrumah became the continent’s first African-born prime minister. After winning the 1951 election, Nkrumah’s CPP went on to win subsequent elections in 1954 and 1956.
Nkrumah pressed for full independence, and on March 6, 1957, the Gold Coast became the first black African colony to be liberated from British rule. It merged with the former British Togoland to form Ghana. As the initial experiment in independent African democratic socialism, Ghana was subject to high expectations, and Nkrumah assumed a position of leadership among African as well as Western intellectuals and ideologues.
Pan Africanism and Foreign Policy
Nkrumah implemented an active foreign policy to bring Ghana from the periphery of world affairs to a more important role in the struggle for African liberation and unity. He was instrumental in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), underwriting preliminary conferences on African unity and developing personal ties with other African leaders. He balanced his ties with the West by participating in the Afro-Asian movement and strengthening his relations with the Soviet bloc.
By expanding the range and scope of Ghana’s international ties, Nkrumah hoped to break Ghana’s inherited dependency on external forces. In the early 1960s more than 60 ambassadors were placed in foreign capitals, and a special Bureau of African Affairs was created. Nkrumah’s explicitly global perspective was designed to bring about an improvement in conditions in all of Africa as well as in Ghana.
President of Ghana and afterward
The attempted assassination of Nkrumah at Kulugungu in August 1962—the first of several—led to his increasing seclusion from public life and to the growth of a personality cult, as well as to a massive buildup of the country’s internal security forces. Early in 1964 Ghana was officially designated a one-party state, with Nkrumah as life president of both nation and party. While the administration of the country passed increasingly into the hands of self-serving and corrupt party officials, Nkrumah busied himself with the ideological education of a new generation of black African political activists. Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Ghana worsened and shortages of foodstuffs and other goods became chronic. On Feb. 24, 1966, while Nkrumah was visiting Beijing, the army and police in Ghana seized power. Returning to West Africa, Nkrumah found asylum in Guinea, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died of cancer in Bucharest in 1972.
“Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity.”
Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent nation of the Congo, was born July 2, 1925 in Onalua in Kasai province of the Belgian Congo. With just a primary education, Lumumba emerged to become one of Africa’s most vocal critics of colonialism. Early in life, he developed interests in grassroots union activities and joined the Postal Union. As secretary-general of the union, Lumumba began publishing essays critical of Belgian colonial rule, and advocating independence and a unified centralized Congo. His writings appealed beyond ethnic and regional loyalties to a national constituency.
In 1955, Lumumba became regional leader of the Circle of Stanleyville and joined the Belgian Liberal Party. In 1956, he was arrested and charged with embezzling union funds and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Released after twelve months, Lumumba became sales director of a brewery in Leopoldville. To solidify his political base, in 1957 Lumumba helped found a broad-based organization that appealed beyond ethnic and regional loyalties—Movement National Congolais (MNC). The following year, he represented the MNC at the Pan-African conference in Accra, Ghana.
His relentless attacks on Belgian rule soon fractured the MNC, resulting in leadership split in July 1959. Undaunted, Lumumba insisted on complete dismantling of Belgian rule. In October 1959, he was arrested for allegedly inciting anti-colonial riots and sentenced to six months. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian government summoned a conference in Brussels to discuss the future of the Congo. Confronted by MNC threat of boycott, the government released Lumumba. At Brussels, Lumumba boldly condemned Belgian rule and advocated immediate independence. Convinced of the imminence of Congolese freedom, Belgium set aside June 30, 1960 as Independence Day.
The Movement National Congolais won the majority in the general election held in May, 1960, and Lumumba became Prime Minister of the Congo, with his political rival Joseph Kasavubu as President. Lumumba’s scathing denunciation of colonialism ruffled feathers not only in Belgium but also in the United States and Great Britain. Unfortunately, his tenure was brief and marred in crises. It began with the army revolt and secession in Katanga and Southern Kasai.
When the United Nations ignored his repeated appeals for intervention, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union. This move only strengthened western opposition to his regime. Using the crises as an excuse, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister. Though reinstated by the National Assembly, Lumumba was subsequently overthrown by Col. Joseph (later Sese Seko) Mobutu, and placed under house arrest. He made the fateful attempt to escape to Stanleyville where his supporter had gained control. He was apprehended by secessionist rebels and assassinated on January 18, 1961.
This heinous crime was a culmination of two inter-related assassination plots by American and Belgian governments, which used Congolese accomplices and a Belgian execution squad to carry out the deed. Ludo De Witte, the Belgian author of the best book on this crime, qualifies it as “the most important assassination of the 20th century”. The assassination’s historical importance lies in a multitude of factors, the most pertinent being the global context in which it took place, its impact on Congolese politics since then and Lumumba’s overall legacy as a nationalist leader.
For 130 years, the US and Belgium have played key roles in shaping Congo’s destiny. In April 1884, seven months before the Berlin Congress, the US became the first country in the world to recognise the claims of King Leopold II of the Belgians to the territories of the Congo Basin.
When the atrocities related to brutal economic exploitation in Leopold’s Congo Free State resulted in millions of fatalities, the US joined other world powers to force Belgium to take over the country as a regular colony. And it was during the colonial period that the US acquired a strategic stake in the enormous natural wealth of the Congo, following its use of the uranium from Congolese mines to manufacture the first atomic weapons, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.
The assassination took place at a time when the country had fallen under four separate governments: the central government in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville); a rival central government by Lumumba’s followers in Kisangani (then Stanleyville); and the secessionist regimes in the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and South Kasai. Since Lumumba’s physical elimination had removed what the west saw as the major threat to their interests in the Congo, internationally-led efforts were undertaken to restore the authority of the moderate and pro-western regime in Kinshasa over the entire country. These resulted in ending the Lumumbist regime in Kisangani in August 1961, the secession of South Kasai in September 1962, and the Katanga secession in January 1963.
Lumumba became a martyr and symbol of Congolese and African freedom. He is remembered today as one of only a handful of African leaders truly dedicated to national unity and genuine independence. In February 2002, responding to a Belgian Commission’s Report that implicated Belgium in Lumumba’s death, the Belgian government acknowledged “moral responsibility” and officially apologized. Lumumba remains an inspiration to African politicians. Several of the major political parties in the 2006 Presidential election in the Congo invoked Lumumba’s legacy.