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date: 24 September 2023

Revisiting the African Renaissancefree

Revisiting the African Renaissancefree

  • Sabelo J. Ndlovu-GatsheniSabelo J. Ndlovu-GatsheniDepartment of Development Studies, University of South Africa


The concept of the African Renaissance was popularized by Cheikh Anta Diop in the mid-1940s. But in 1906 Pixley ka Isaka Seme had introduced the idea of “regeneration” of Africa, while in 1937 Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria had engaged with the idea of a “renascent Africa,” both of which formed a strong background to the unfolding of the idea of African Renaissance. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa made it the hallmark of his continental politics in the 1990s. Consequently, in 1998 South Africa became a host to an international conference on the African Renaissance and by October 11, 1999, Mbeki officially opened the African Renaissance Institute in Pretoria in South Africa. Scholars such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o picked up the theme and defined the African Renaissance as a “re-membering” of a continent and a people who have suffered from “dismembering” effects of colonialism and “coloniality.” “Coloniality” names the underside of Euro-North American-centric modernity, which enabled mercantilism accompanied by the enslavement of African people. The reduction of African people into tradable commodities (thingification and dehumanization) and their shipment as cargo across the Transatlantic Ocean formed the root cause of the underdevelopment of Africa. The rise of a capitalist world economic system involved the forcible integration of Africa into the evolving nexus of a structurally asymmetrical world system with its shifting global orders. The physical colonial conquest was accompanied by genocides (physical liquidation of colonized people), epistemicides (subjugation of indigenous knowledges), linguicides (displacement of indigenous African languages and imposition of colonial languages), culturecides (physical separation of African people from their gods and cultures and the imposition of foreign religions and cultures), alienations (exiling African people from their languages, cultures, knowledges, and even from themselves), as well as material dispossessions. The African Renaissance emerged as an anti-colonial phenomenon opposed to colonialism and coloniality. As a vision of the future, the African Renaissance encapsulated a wide range of African initiatives such as Ethiopianism, Garveyism, Negritude, pan-Africanism, African nationalism, African humanism, African socialism, Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), the various African economic blueprints including the Lagos Plan of Action (LPA) and New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) as well as the regional integration economic formations such as the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) and the Southern Africa Economic Development Community (SADC), among many others. These liberatory initiatives have been framed by five waves of popular African movements/protests, namely: (a) the decolonization struggles of the 20th century that delivered “political decolonization”; (b) the struggles for economic decolonization that crystallized around the demands for NIEO; (c) the third wave of liberation of the 1980s and 1990s that deployed neoliberal democratic thought and discourses of human rights to fight against single-party and military dictatorships as well imposed austerity measures such as structural adjustment programs (SAPs); (d) the Afro-Arab Spring that commenced in 2011 in North Africa, leading to the fall some of the long-standing dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; and finally (e) the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movements (Fallism discourse of liberation) that emerged in 2015 in South Africa, pushing forward the unfinished business of epistemological decolonization.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
  • Post Modern/Critical Politics
  • World Politics


The concept of the African Renaissance was popularized by Cheikh Anta Diop in the mid-1940s. But in 1906 Pixley ka Isaka Seme had introduced the idea of “regeneration” of Africa, while in 1937 Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria had engaged with the idea of “renascent Africa,” both of which formed a strong background for the unfolding of the idea of the African Renaissance. By the 1990s, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa made the African Renaissance the hallmark of his continental politics. Consequently, in 1998 South Africa became a host to an international conference on the African Renaissance, and by October 11, 1999, Mbeki officially opened the African Renaissance Institute in Pretoria in South Africa. The 1999 international conference resulted in the publication of 30-chapter edited volume entitled African Renaissance: The New Struggle (Makgoba, 1999), with a foreword by President Thabo Mbeki.

This article creatively brings together historical, comparative, philosophical, as well as empirical reflections on the African Renaissance. Its entry point is Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s work entitled Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009) as it opens the canvas on the African Renaissance, contextualizing it perfectly into the broader African struggles against colonialism and imperialism as well as within the terrain of African initiatives to unite Africa and set afoot Afro-modernity. To deepen its conceptual and philosophical reflections, this study also draws from the emerging field of decolonial theory. Thus, it is ideal to begin this way: if colonialism and coloniality (a continuation of colonial-like relations after the dismantlement of direct colonialism) sought to “dismember” Africa for imperial strategic purposes, the African Renaissance and decoloniality seek to “re-member” Africans as part of the fulfillment of liberation (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2015a, 2015b). According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2009b, p. 4), dismemberment is a “colonial act,” a “practice of power, intended to pacify a populace, and a symbolic act, a performance of power intended to produce docile minds.” Dismemberment is also “An act of absolute social engineering, the continent’s dismemberment was simultaneously the foundation, fuel, and consequence of Europe’s capitalist modernity” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2009b, p. 5). Mapping, naming, and owning completed dismemberment under colonialism and coloniality. On the consequences of dismemberment, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2009b, p. 28) concluded that: “Dismembered from the land, from labour, from power, and from memory, the result is destruction of the base from which people launch themselves into the world.” Why African people find it very difficult to relaunch themselves into the world is because of the invasion of their mental universe by colonialism, which fundamentally “empty[s] their hard disk of previous memory, and download[s] into them a software of European memory” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2009b, p. 21).

This analysis invites us to reflect on what, fundamentally, is colonialism—a question that was posed by Aimé Césaire in 1955. A critical reflection on colonialism takes us to the two schools: the episodic and epic schools of colonialism. In the “episodic school of colonialism” the entire colonial experience is reduced to a mere “episode in African history” which did not fundamentally alter African course of history (see Ajayi, 1969). This episodic school of colonialism arose within nationalist historiography that was ranged against imperial/colonial historiography which denied the existence of African history before the arrival of Europeans in Africa (see Falola, 2001). The episodic school is countered by the “epic school of colonialism,” which underscored that colonialism and its current manifestations and operations as “coloniality” fundamentally and negatively affected African people on the continent as well as those in the diaspora (Césaire, 2000; Ekeh, 1983; Fanon, 1968; Mazrui, 1986; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013a, 2013b; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1986, 2009a, 2009b). If the episodic perspective regarded colonialism as an event, the epic perspective viewed it as a system and a social movement that transformed Africa in a fundamental way. Thus, during its very nascent unfolding, colonial modernity fragmented Africa into two, that is, continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora as it began the process of “dismembering” of the continent. This point is delivered more emphatically by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2009b, p. 5):

The dismemberment of Africa occurred in two stages. During the first of these, the African personhood was divided into two halves, the continent and its diaspora. African slaves, the central commodity in the mercantile phase of capitalism, formed the basis of the sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations in the Caribbean and American mainland. If we accept that the slave trade and plantation slavery provided the primary accumulation of capital that made Europe’s Industrial Revolution possible, we cannot escape the irony that the very needs of that Industrial Revolution—markets for finished goods, sources of raw materials, and strategic requirements in the defence of trade routes—led inexorably to the second stage of dismemberment of the continent.

This initial dismemberment was followed by the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which cartographically fragmented Africa into European spheres of influence and reconstituted it into European colonies. Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2009b, pp. 5–6) connected the two processes of dismemberment in these revealing words:

Just as the slave plantations were owned by various European powers, so post-Berlin Conference Africa was transformed into a series of colonial plantations owned by many of the same European powers. The requirements of the slave plantation demanded the physical removal of human resources from the continent to work on the land stolen from other subject peoples, mainly native Caribbeans and native Americans. The result was an additional dismemberment of the Diasporic African, who was now separated not only from his continent and his labour but also from his very sovereign being. The subsequent colonial plantations on the African continent have led to the same result: division of the African from his land, body, and mind. The land is taken away from its owner, and the owner is turned into a worker on the same land, thus losing control of his natural and human resources. [. . .] Whereas before he was his own subject, now he is subject to another.

It was indeed the feeling and reality of dismemberment which provoked the drive for the African Renaissance. In his books entitled Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009b) and Re-membering Africa (2009a), Ngugi wa Thiong’o correctly defined African Renaissance as a liberatory process of “re-membering” Africa after centuries of “dismemberment.” To Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2009b, p. 35), the African Renaissance is essentially an encapsulation of re-membering visions, that is, “the quest for wholeness, a quest that has underlain African struggles since the Atlantic slave trade.” He elaborated: “Though Ethiopianism and the like preceded these struggles, Garveyism and Pan-Africanism are the grandest secular visions for reconnecting the dismembered” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2009b, p. 35). Ngugi wa Thiong’o concluded that:

The African eagle can fly only with his re-membered wings. Re-membering Africa will bring about the flowering of the African renaissance; and Afro-modernity will play its role in the globe on the reciprocal egalitarian basis of give and take, ultimately realising the Garveyism vision of a common humanity of progress and achievement “that will wipe away the odour of prejudice, and elevate the human race to the height of real godly love and satisfaction.”

(Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2009b, p. 98)

If understood from this Ngugian perspective, the African Renaissance then emerged concurrently with the unfolding of Euro-North American-centric modernity and the colonial encounters that accompanied it, as a form of resistance as well as vision of liberation. At one level, as articulated by Marcus Garvey (1969, p. 127), the African Renaissance was expected to “wipe away the odour of prejudice, and elevate the human race to the height of real godly love and satisfaction.” The African Renaissance was also defined as a restorative initiative that was expected to rebuild black and African pride after centuries of inferiorization and dehumanization. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) led by Steve Bantu Biko was a restorative force—fighting to restore faith in black people’s capacity to successfully resist colonial and apartheid oppression while as the same time self-affirming black people as the makers of their own history. This point is delivered more clearly by Mabogo Percy More in his recent book entitled Biko: Philosophy, Identity and Liberation (2017, p. ix) where he posited that “in his struggle to offer innovative ways of perceiving, new ways of acting, new ways of thinking, indeed new ways of being-black, new ways of black ‘Somebodiness’ and new ways of escaping black ‘Nobodiness,’ Biko evolved a philosophy that went beyond philosophy itself.”

Besides the important task of freeing African subjectivity from coloniality, the African Renaissance was also expected to deliver unity among what was known as the “black race.” However, such works as Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992) and Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason (2017) highlighted how the idea of a “black race” emerged not only as a response to the racist discourse but was in fact a reproduction by victims of racism of the racist social classification of human beings. In his critique of the reproduction of race category by victims of racism, Appiah (1992, p. 20) posited that “If we are to escape from racism fully, and from the racialism it presupposes, we must seek other bases for Pan-African solidarity.” Indeed, over time, pan-Africanism as a leitmotif of the African Renaissance matured into a humanist and developmentalist discourse opposed to race as an organizing principle of society and the world.

It is not surprising that such scholars-cum-politicians as Pixley ka Isaka Seme of South Africa (1906), Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria (1937), Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal (1966), and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa (1996, 1997) were all committed to an African Renaissance as part of completing the liberatory struggle that can perhaps be correctly dated as far back as the Haitian Revolution of 1804 and the successful Ethiopian resistance to Italian colonial invasion at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Seme’s award-winning speech entitled “The Regeneration of Africa” (1906) envisioned the unity of the African people as necessary if they were to liberate Africa from colonialism and apartheid and set the continent on a recovery trajectory for the benefit of its sons and daughters. Seme expressed his pride in being an African within a global context where being black in general and African in particular was consigned to inferiority, and he prophesied about a risen African civilization imbued with spirituality and humanism that had been squandered by European rationality and secularism (see Kumalo, 2015; Netshitenzhe, 2013).

Azikiwe authored Renascent Africa (1968; originally published 1937) where, like Seme and Garvey, he not only expressed an idea of a new Africa but also his philosophy of black pride and self-reliance. Cheikh Anta Diop’s Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture and Development, 1946–1960 (1966) popularized the concept of the African Renaissance and emphasized the importance of anchoring African development to African history and African culture as well as the necessity of mobilizing Africans on the continent and the diaspora to take charge of inventing their own futures. Concretely, the early phase of the drive for the African Renaissance delivered such forces as the civil rights movements in America, the political decolonization of the Caribbean and Latin America territories, the political decolonization of Africa, and the rise of continental pan-Africanism that gave birth to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) (now the African Union [AU]).

The dismantlement of juridical apartheid settler colonialism in South Africa in 1994 not only marked the realization of Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of seeking political kingdom but also provided Africa with two influential leaders: Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, both of whom strongly believed in the African Renaissance as a restorative force. Soon after becoming the first black president of South Africa, Mandela consistently deployed a particularly progressive pedagogical nationalism that was not only vehemently opposed to racism but that always called on African people to rebuild Africa as a leading site of world civilization. In 1994, standing in Timbuktu (that site of African precolonial civilization), Mandela urged Africans to push forward with the African Renaissance in these words: “One epoch with its historic task has come to an end. Surely another must commence with its own challenges. Africa cries out for new birth. Carthage waits the restoration of its glory” (quoted in Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2009b, p. 130).

Mandela’s successor as president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, became one of the leading ideologues of the African Renaissance in the 21st century. His widely quoted speech of 1996 entitled “I am an African” underscored his resolve as an African leader to pursue the African Renaissance as part of a restoration of African people’s pride. To Mbeki, the African Renaissance was part of defining and adding content to the “African national democratic revolution” (Mbeki, 2015, p. ix). In mid-1997, Mbeki delivered a lengthy speech in the United States where he posited that “the African Renaissance is upon us” and elaborated:

This generation remains African and carries with it an historic pride which compels it to seek a place for Africans equal to all the other peoples of our common universe. It knows and is resolved that, to attain that objective, it must resist all tyranny, oppose all attempts to deny liberty by resort to demagogy, repulse the temptation to describe African life as the ability to live on charity, engage the fight to secure the emancipation of the African woman, and reassert the fundamental concept that we are our own liberators from oppression, from underdevelopment and poverty, from the perpetuation of an experience from slavery, to colonialism, to apartheid, to dependence on alms.

(Mbeki, 1997, p. 1)

At the intellectual level, the hosting of the African Renaissance International Conference from September 28 to 29, 1998, in South Africa, which culminated in the publication of an influential edited volume entitled African Renaissance: The New Struggle (Makgoba, 1999), formed an important milestone in the interrogation of the meanings, essence, and implications of the African Renaissance for South Africa and Africa. Various definitions of the African Renaissance emerged ranging from it being an “expression of democratization’s third wave; the mobilization of an identity politics; a campaign to alter local, national, and global principles of political governance, social interchange, and economic exchange; a defence of humanism; an appeal to re-imagine education; and a rallying cry to develop indigenous thought, public culture, and new forms of (post)national political discourse” (Doxtader, 2015, p. 175). Despite these wide-ranging interpretations, the AU declared 2013 to be the year of “Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance” and the AU’s Agenda 2063 is also predicated on a delivery of pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance. But to gain a deeper understanding of the African Renaissance it is vital to frame and situate it within the broader trajectories of African liberation struggles and African visions of their future.

The African Renaissance: Conceptual Framing

Contextualized within the broader trajectories of African liberation struggles, the African Renaissance as a “re-membering” vision is framed by five moments of contemporary African history and politics. The political decolonization of the 20th century, which Nkrumah expressed as the seeking of “the political kingdom,” formed the first moment. This struggle for political decolonization can be traced to as far back as the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) that produced the first “black republic” which emerged from the struggles of a people who were not only victims of racism but were said to be slaves by nature (Trouillot, 1995). Regarding the significance of the Haitian Revolution, Michael Neocosmos (2016, p. 78) distilled two implications: the opening up of “the universality of humanity, the truth of universal freedom (as opposed to freedom for some and not for others” and the laying out of “the universal of nationhood among African peoples (the national question) or the right to self-determination, as it became known in the 20th century).”

One can highlight the continuation of the struggles for political decolonization by taking into account the significance of William E. B. Dubois’s organization of Pan-African Congresses, which commenced in 1900 right up to 1945. These Pan-African Congresses were some of the concrete initiatives that took place; they took the form of Africans sitting down to contest and critique Eurocentric global initiatives that excluded Africa in the ordering and reordering of the modern world system (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2014). It was through the Pan-African Congresses that black people from the rest of the world spoke truth directly to colonial/imperial power and revealed the hypocrisies, conceits, and double standards within the modern world system and global orders. They spoke about all the inimical processes visited on black people such as enslavement, racism, labor exploitation, colonial violence, and violated rights, including the right to self-determination (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2014, pp. 23–24).

It was at the Fifth Pan-African Congress, held in Manchester in the United Kingdom in 1945, which was attended by African politicians from Africa such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, that a direct and emphatic call for an end to colonialism was made. Colonized African people were directly urged to unite and fight for decolonization (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2014, pp. 24–25). By 1958, Africa could afford to host the All Africa Pan-African Conference not only within the continent but in the independent African state of Ghana led by an African leader (Kwame Nkrumah), where those present rededicated themselves to the decolonization of the entire African continent. The same Nkrumah who coined the slogan of seeking a political kingdom as the first step in decolonization, was by 1965 articulating the problem of “neocolonialism,” which was making it hard for African leaders to translate the hard-won political decolonization into the desperately expected economic decolonization (see Nkrumah, 1965).

Prior to 1965, Nkrumah, who had emerged as the leading pan-African voice for immediate continental unity, had published Africa Must Unite (1963). It would seem that Nkrumah had noticed three key problems within the “political kingdom.” The first was the challenge of forging pan-ethnic national unity within the newly independent states. This challenge became known as “nation-building” and “state-making.” Its enormity was well captured by Liisa Laakso and Adebayo O. Olukoshi (1996, pp. 11–12):

However, at the heart of the modern nation-state project was the idea, flawed from the outset, of a tight correspondence between the nation and the state whereby each sovereign state was seen as a nation-state of people who shared a common language or culture .[. . .] This notion of the nation-state stood in direct contradiction to the reality that most states were, in fact, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious and that not all ethnic groups (however defined) were sufficiently large or powerful or even willing to achieve a state of their own.

In Africa Must Unite, one finds a Nkrumah who was worried about the crisis of internal unity within Ghana since attainment of political freedom and also about lack of substantive unity at the continental level. To the African leaders from the continent Nkrumah sold the gospel of continental unity as a destiny thrown at them and warned them that “To suggest that the time is not yet ripe for considering a political union of Africa is to evade facts and ignore realities in Africa today” (Nkrumah, 1963, p. 165). He elaborated:

The greatest danger at present facing Africa is neo-colonialism and its major instrument, balkanization. The latter term is particularly appropriate to describe the breaking up of Africa into small, weak states, since it arose from the action of great powers when they divided up the European part of the old Turkish Empire, and created a number of dependent and competing states in the Balkan Peninsula. The effect was to produce a political tinderbox which any spark could set alight.

(Nkrumah, 1963, p. 173)

To Nkrumah, the neocolonialists and the imperialists were ready to go “fishing in the muddy waters of communalism, tribalism and sectional interests, [and] endeavour to create fictions in national front, in order to achieve fragmentation” (Nkrumah, 1963, p. 173). Thus, the looming neocolonial strategy of “balkanization” of Africa and imperial intrusions through neocolonialism constituted two major challenges that had to be confronted and resolved. To Nkrumah, the creation of a political union of Africa was a necessity not an option. These challenges undercut both political decolonization and economic decolonization as essential bases for the African Renaissance.

Conceptually speaking, the African Renaissance is constituted by an amalgamation of political decolonization, economic decolonization, cultural decolonization, and epistemic decolonization. It is also clear that such initiatives as Ethiopianism, Garveyism, Negritude, pan-Africanism(s), African personality, Afrocentricity, consciencism, African humanism, African socialism(s), and BCM were all attempts to concretize the African Renaissance (Achebe, 1997, p. 179). Nkrumah’s (1964) concept of philosophical consciencism articulated the African Renaissance as embracing a synthesis of traditional Africa, Islamic Africa, and Euro-Christian Africa to produce a new ideology for the harmonious growth and development of society. This is how he put it:

The philosophy that must stand behind this social revolution is that which I have once referred to as philosophical consciencism: consciencism is the map in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African personality. The African personality is itself defined by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society. Philosophical consciencism is that philosophical standpoint which, taking its start from the present content of the African conscience indicates the way in which progress is forged out of the conflict in that conscience.

(Nkrumah, 1964, p. 79)

To African nationalist thinkers and theorists, the African Renaissance meant a paradigmatic shift from the state of being colonial subjects characterized by dehumanization, thingification, and depravity, and suffering under slavery, imperialism, colonialism, racial-colonial capitalism, apartheid, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment, toward another that is decolonial, marked by regained sovereign subjectivity and being in full charge of African futures. It is not surprising that such African leaders and theorists as Frantz Fanon, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, and Nelson Mandela emphasized the importance of rehumanizing the dehumanized as a central task of the African Renaissance. Kenneth Kaunda defined humanism as a “philosophy of life” and noted that colonialism “devalued man” (Kaunda & Morris, 1966, pp. 19–21). Kaunda and Morris posited that:

It was nationalism, of course, which restored our self-confidence, for it taught us what we could do together as men [and women], and only as men [and women]—at no stage in the freedom struggle had we the material power or military might of colonialists. It was humanity in revolt that won us freedom. [. . .] It was the triumph of a Man-centred society over a Power-centred society. This intense belief in the possibility of Man is a discovery which Africa appears to be making long after the West has discarded it.

(Kaunda & Morris, 1966, p. 21)

In his decolonial-nationalist “meditations on man,” Kaunda and Morris expressed their conviction that “only the recovery of a sense of the centrality of Man will get politics back on the right track” and posed the question: “How can we humanise our politics in Zambia so that the humblest and least endowed of our citizens occupies a central place in Government’s concerns?” (Kaunda & Morris, 1966, p. 41) The dominance of humanist nationalism resulted in various experimentations with African socialism, the most well-known example being that of the “ujamaa” (familyhood) of Tanzania under Julius Nyerere, which sought to provide an escape route from capitalism’s idea of happiness based on “exploitation of man by man” (Nyerere, 1967).

The search for an African Renaissance by African nationalists is further exemplified by such charters and declarations as the Freedom Charter (South Africa), Arusha Declaration (Tanzania), Common Man’s Charter (Uganda), and Mulugushi Declaration (Zambia). These charters and declarations were part of nationalist humanist imaginations of a better world, free from racism, exploitation, and oppression. If they did not eventually reflect the practical political practices of African leaders, partly because of the difficulties of setting afoot new humanism within a modern world that has remained resistant to deimperialization and genuine decolonization, we cannot ignore the efforts (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2016a).

The second moment that framed the fossilization of the African Renaissance is economic decolonization, which sought to deal with the emergent problem of “neocolonialism” (Nkrumah, 1965). The hosting of the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the increasing demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) marked the intensification of the struggles for the “economic” renaissance (see Gumede [2013] on the concept of economic renaissance). Vusi Gumede (2013, p. 436) understood an African economic renaissance to mean the ability of African people to “decide on the African economy and the economic system that works for them.” The Bandung Conference offered such a meeting to decide not only on the economic but also political system that would work for Africa and Asia (Wright, 1956). A 12-point economic cooperation agenda identified development as an urgent priority for Afro-Asian states. African and Asian leaders seemed to have realized that the development they urgently wanted could not be attained within a modern world system that was racially hierarchized and Euro-North American-centric. Thus, political decolonization needed to be expanded so as to grapple with a global system that remained asymmetrical in its power configuration. This is why the participants at the Bandung Conference were deeply troubled by their lack of participation in the international institutions that had been established to govern world affairs (Abdulgani, 1964).

One can safely argue that the Bandung Conference correctly identified “global coloniality” as a major hindrance to the achievement of development in Africa and Asia (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013b). Three objectives drove the Bandung spirit: namely non-alignment in the age of the Cold War; elimination of all forms of colonialism and racism; and, finally, modernization and economic development (Mayall, 1990). The idea of non-alignment spoke to an aspiration for a new international norm that gave smaller and less powerful states the right to develop and orchestrate an autonomous path to the future. The issue of equality of states was stressed, including rising concerns about the under-representation of African and Asian states on the United Nations Security Council. The Bandung spirit also articulated the problem of international economic injustices (Krasner, 1981). It laid a strong basis for the crystallization of a Third World coalition in the United Nations, which in 1964 constituted the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), which was formerly constituted at a summit in Algiers in 1971, was another forum used to push for autonomous economic development and sovereign political trajectory. NAM included Latin American states which had gained political independence far earlier than Asian and African colonies. The Latin American states had been active within the United Nations in pushing the agenda of reforming the international economic and political system. At the Cairo Economic Conference of 1962, the Afro-Asian and Latin American states had already pointed out that the more dangerous division of the world was the North–South divide, which is taking the form of the “haves” and the “have nots,” rather than the ideologically informed East–West divide that preoccupied the Western powers (Nesadurai, 2005, p. 12).

The resolutions of first NAM Summit held in Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1961 and the Cairo Summit of 1962 are credited for putting pressure of the United Nations to establish UNCTAD as an agency to address Third World development issues. The problem is that UNCTAD played a marginal role in global economic governance as the United States and other industrial powers rejected any role for the body in trade negotiations (Taylor, 2003). At the time of the launch of UNCTAD, the Latin American economist Raúl Prebisch was pushing forward the dependency thesis to explain the problem of development in the Third World. He was appointed UNCTAD’s first secretary general. Informed by dependency ideas, UNCTAD’s demands included greater access to industrial countries’ markets, greater self-reliance amongst the Third World countries, the right to nationalize assets, and democratization of all binding international decision-making based on the principle of “one-nation, one vote” (Gosovic, 1972).

These demands were informed by Prebisch’s decolonial diagnosis of Third World underdevelopment in terms of its structural dependency on a capitalist core that controlled all levers of international decision-making and profitable economic activity. The proposals were rejected by industrial powers. However, Third World leaders did not give up the fight for a reformed international system. The period from 1973 to 1980 was dominated by the demand for NIEO. It was following the oil crises of 1971 and 1973 that the Third World coalition united to push further for NIEO. They pushed for this through the G77—a coalition of developing countries. NIEO was informed by the dependency ideas which emphasized decolonization of global coloniality that favored the industrial powers and disadvantaged those countries that had emerged from colonialism. NIEO called for restructuring of global structural regimes informing unequal trade and other economic interactions (Cox, 1979, p. 257).

The more radical members of the G77 demanded restitution based on the notion that the industrialized powers owed something to the South as compensation for slavery and colonialism (Cox, 1979). In the spirit of NIEO, the African leaders adopted the African Declaration on Cooperation, Development and Economic Independence in 1973, which articulated Africa’s strategy for gradual disengagement from the world economy through the escalation of national and continental self-reliance. This was followed by The Revised Framework of the Principles for the Implementation of New International Economic Order in Africa of 1976. It was produced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and became the intellectual and theoretical foundation for the drafting of the Monrovia Strategy for the Economic Development of Africa of 1979. The Monrovia Declaration emphasized collective self-reliance and economic integration of African economies, investment in science and technology as the backbone of Africa’s development process, ensuring Africa’s self-reliance in food production, and a commitment to achieve modern African economies by the year 2000 (Baah, 2003).

The intensification of the African demand for NIEO was resisted by the industrial powers as part of communist conspiracy, as irrational, and as too revolutionary. Consequently, very little headway was made simply because the powerful and the dominant want to stay powerful and dominant. The little concession made was the adoption in 1975 of the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States at the United Nations General Assembly, which to a minor extent included “rights and duties of all states to aid the economic development of other states along the path chosen by its government” (Murphy, 2005). But the overall picture is that proposals and demands from the Global South suffered rejection by the powerful industrialized nations of Europe and North America. The lack of strong unity within the Third World coalition also contributed to the failure and collapse of NIEO. Samir Amin had this to say about the demise of NIEO:

So, in the end, the battle for the NIEO was lost. As well as the failure being noted, the causes have to be studied. Are they purely circumstantial (in the economic crisis)? Can they be attributed to “tactical errors” by the Third World (its own divisions and weaknesses)? Or do these circumstances and weaknesses show the impossibility of autocentric development at the periphery of capitalist system?

(Amin, 1990, pp. 56–57)

NIEO was soon eclipsed by the era of hegemonic neoliberalism that was ushered in by the Anglo-American leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s. But African leaders continued to try and forge ahead with African development initiatives even within a context dominated by a developing merchant system that carried imperiality and coloniality. This takes us to the third moment that framed the African Renaissance.

The third moment of the crystallization of the African Renaissance was the postcolonial struggles for popular democracy ranged against long-standing single-party and military dictatorships as well as the austerity measures imposed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the center of political and economic decolonization stood an elephant in the room, which Thandika Mkandawire (2011) termed the Truman version of development. This is an imperial-driven version of development cascading from the imperial/colonial idea of Europe and North America being entrusted by modern history with the task of developing the Third World in its image (Truman, 1949). At the center of the Truman version of development is what Fantu Cheru termed “the imperial project,” which is informed by geopolitical considerations and the Global North’s political and economic power calculations as well as a consistent rhetoric of humanitarianism that conceals coloniality (Cheru, 2009, pp. 275–278).

As Africans were pushing for African Renaissance it was inevitable for the Truman version of development to lock horns with the Bandung decolonial version of development cascading from the Bandung Conference of 1955. The Bandung version articulated development as liberation and a human right that has to be fought for by those who have been colonized (Mkandawire, 2011). What has sustained the hegemonic Truman version of development is the imperial “development merchant system” (DMS) driven by the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs). DMS embraced the financing of the implementation of exogenous development agenda in Africa (Adedeji, 2002, p. 4). What David Slater (2004, p. 223) termed “imperiality of knowledge” constituted by the “interweaving of geopolitical power, knowledge and subordinating representation of the other” is part of DMS. Effectively, DMS maintains coloniality long after the dismantlement of administrative colonialism.

A consortium of IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, international non-governmental organizations, and multinational corporations constituted DMS. DMS sustained and advanced a “Bretton Woods Paradigm” of development as part of a continuation of the Truman version (Therien, 1999, pp. 723–742). It is this reality that led the African scholar and activist Yash Tandon to write a book entitled Trade is War: The West’s War against the World (2015), where he posited that:

It is not war in the ordinary sense of the term—war with bombs and drones—but trade in the capitalist-imperial era is as lethal, and as much of a “weapon of mass destruction,” as bombs. Trade kills people; it drives people to poverty; it creates wealth at one end and poverty at another; it enriches the powerful food corporations at the cost of marginalising poor peasants, who then become economic refugees in their own countries or who (those who are able-bodied) attempt to leave their countries to look for employment in the rich countries of the West—across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, across the Mexican border with the USA, across the seas from South Asia to Australia.

(Tandon, 2015, p. 7)

The African Renaissance spirit has continued to enable Africans to craft counter-hegemonic development initiatives and strategies. These initiatives range from the very formation of the OAU in 1963; the demand for NIEO; the crafting of the African Declaration on Cooperation, Development and Economic Independence of 1973; the Revised Framework of the Principles for the Implementation of New International Economic Order in Africa of 1976; the Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa 1980; the African Priority Programme for Economic Recovery of 1986; the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programme for Social Economic Recovery and Transformation of 1989; the African Charter for Popular Participation for Development of 1990; the United Nations New Agenda for Development of Africa of 1991; right up to the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) of 2001 (Adesina, Graham, & Olukoshi, 2006).

The OAU, working closely with UNECA, continued to produce consciously inward-looking pan-African development plans which sought to articulate a comprehensive and unified strategy to reduce dependence on external powers. The plans were predicated on the decolonial philosophy of self-reliance and self-improvement. The Lagos Plan of Action (LPA) of 1980 emerged within this context. At the center of the plan was not complete delinking but strategic disengagement from those features of the international economic system that were keeping Africa dependent, underdeveloped, weak, and poor (Ikome, 2007). The LPA was a comprehensive initiative consisting of 13 chapters covering all sectors of the African economy and informed by detailed objectives that included alleviation of poverty among Africans, diversification of productive economic capabilities, internalization of forces of supply and demand, and mobilization of Africans for production. Just like the Bandung Conference, the LPA identified Africa’s development as structural and hindered by a hostile external environment. The LPA was informed by both dependency ideas and the spirit of pan-Africanism.

The LPA of action has been criticized for articulating a one-sided cause for the development crisis in Africa. It identified a hostile external environment without paying equal attention to internal problems, which are equally important in understanding the issues with African development. The emphasis on a hostile external environment led the LPA to focus too much on trade and ignore such internal constraints as the lack of serious commitment of African leadership to the development of the African continent and its people (Onimonde et al., 2004). Corruption and authoritarianism were not clearly identified as internal constraints to development. The LPA is said to have been conceived as a top-down project that ignored other important sectors capable of driving African development. More importantly, the LPA identified the problems and offered some solutions but without committing financial resources to these (Ikome, 2007). Crucially, the LPA document “demonstrated both a disturbing lack of imagination and a low level of consciousness of the character of the option of self-reliance” (Amin, 1990, p. 59).

But even if the LPA was an authentically African development initiative, it was destined to suffer from a lack of financial support and delegitimization by forces of coloniality. What Adedeji identified as a DMS worked actively to destabilize any African development initiative, so as to push an exogenous initiative that did not threaten the hegemony of the West. The LPA, despite its declared self-reliance paradigm and its robust criticism of the colonial and neocolonial heritage, “could not escape the conventional methodology closely associated with the conventional strategy of peripheral capitalist development” (Amin, 1990, p. 59). Amin posed the question:

Should development be conceived in accordance with the demand of the international order, or conversely, is it necessarily in conflict with it. Can the international order be transformed and “adjusted” to the priority demands for Third World development, or conversely can the latter only be the result of the reverse “adjustment”?

(Amin, 1990, p. 60)

It is important to realize that the LPA was launched in the midst of the rise of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the ascendance and consolidation of the neoliberal model of development informed by post-Keynesianism. This post-Keynesianism became known as the Washington Consensus that carried anti-state philosophies and strong belief in the free reign of markets, privatization, and deregulation. The Berg Report of 1981 introduced the philosophy and practice of structural adjustment programs (SAP). As a result of implementation of SAPs, African states lost their little remaining control over development policy. African development became driven from outside, with devastating consequences for the African people and their leaders. Thandika Mkandawire argued that:

For Africa the 1980s and 1990s was a period of wanton destruction of institutions and untrammelled experimentation with half-baked institutional ideas. The result was “unconstructive destruction” in its most institutionally debilitating form.

(Mkandawire, 2003, p. 10)

The consequences of SAPs included the removal of the state from driving development; exacerbation of internal inequalities and worsening poverty; rehabilitation of coloniality and loss of policy space by African leaders. Instead of the BWIs accepting responsibility for drawing Africa deeper into crisis through introduction of SAPs, the World Bank produced a 1989 document entitled “From Crisis to Sustainable Growth,” in which it blamed a lack of good governance and policy reform as the causes of economic crisis and a lack of development in Africa in the 1980s. In 1994 the World Bank produced another report entitled “Adjustment in Africa,” in which the issues of sound macroeconomic and structural management were defended as prerequisites for growth and poverty reduction in Africa. Lack of development and economic growth in Africa was explained in terms of poor policy choices by African leaders, inefficiency, and corruption. Structural barriers in the international political economy were not identified as a cause of underdevelopment. The Africa postcolonial state was identified as the major culprit inhibiting development in Africa (Fukuyama, 2004).

An African consensus that SAPs were a disaster for the development of the continent emerged. By late 1980s, through UNECA, an alternative to SAPs was being sought and these efforts culminated in the production and adoption of the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation of 1989. Through this, Africans rejected SAPs and offered well-reasoned arguments for the rejection (Tomori & Tomori, 2004). This African initiative was not taken seriously and its recommendations fell on deaf ears.

By the beginning of the 2000s, Africa, like the rest of the world, was experiencing a millennial spirit of renewal. This period witnessed the rise of the so-called new African leaders who were considered to be less corrupt and fully committed to the economic renewal of the continent. The new leaders committed themselves to enabling Africa to claim the 21st century as the African century for development. The African Renaissance received a new boost as President Mbeki of South Africa worked actively with like-minded leaders to deliver African development and political renewal. The common slogan was “African solutions to African problem” (Ferim, 2013). Valery Ferim (2013, p. 143) articulated the rational for “African solutions to Africa problems” in these words:

The principle of “African solutions to African problems” thus imply a resurgence of African renaissance and a zeal to combat the tyrannical forces of neo-colonialism. In addition, it indicates a commitment by African leaders to retake control of the continent and be instrumental in influencing the socio-political and economic affairs of the region. Also, African solutions to African problems is a recognition of the fact that African societies are different—their colonial history is unique, its societies heterogeneous, and its challenges daunting. Hence, there is (or at least there should be) an African model for development that is different from the Western path.

The flagship projects for the new leaders of Africa became the NEPAD that was adopted in 2002 and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Across the globe, there was a feeling of optimism that the 21st century would indeed be an African century where Africa would be allowed to drive its own development with the positive support of the developed countries of the North. This optimistic mood made some Africans oblivious of coloniality as an obstacle to African development. NEPAD was sold to African people as a silver bullet for a better future. Unlike the LPA, which focused mainly on external structural barriers as responsible to African development failures, NEPAD highlighted such factors as bad governance, corruption, and conflicts as responsible for African underdevelopment. African leaders committed themselves to resolving the internal bottlenecks through APRM and dedication to democratic governance. The drivers of NEPAD seemed to be convinced of the possibilities of mutual beneficial partnership between poor African countries and the industrialized and rich countries of the North.

The G8 pledged to fully support NEPAD. The question that developed in the minds of many progressive African scholars was why the G8 was openly supporting NEPAD when throughout the postcolonial period the industrialized countries from the North opposed African development initiatives. Is NEPAD not part of those spurious neocolonial partnerships that hide the realities of structural inequalities? Is NEPAD part of Africa’s indigenous/endogenous development agenda or is it a project cascading from the DMS but masquerading as an African development initiative? It would seem NEPAD falls neatly within the discourse of partnerships that commenced with such initiatives as the Lomé Conventions rather than the Bandung decolonial version of development. The Lomé Conventions were part of sustenance of coloniality long after the end of direct colonial administrations. Critiquing the whole notion of partnerships between Europe and Africa in general and economic partnership agreements (EPAs) in particular, Serges Djoyou Kamga (2014, p. 247) depicted them as another tool for the scramble for Africa and highlighted that they hindered the achievement of African regional integration.

Despite the fact that African leaders made commendable efforts toward institution building, including launching the Pan-African Parliament as part of concretization of the African Renaissance, there was still no agreement on the establishment of what became known as the United States of Africa (AU, 2006). African leaders fell back into the debates of the 1960s—whether this should be a gradualist or immediate process. At the Ninth Ordinary Session of the Assembly of AU Head of States and Government held at Accra in Ghana from July 1–3, 2007, they deliberated on the proposal to establish the “United States of Africa” with an appointed president, a central bank, and pan-African ministers. This proposal never took off. The then President of Libya Muammar Gaddafi pushed for an immediate declaration of the “United States of Africa.” The outcome was the Accra Declaration signed on July 3, 2007, which called for acceleration in the “economic and political integration of the African continent, including the formation of a Union Government for Africa with the ultimate objective of creating a United States of Africa” (AU, 2007). Nothing has happened since then to pursue this aspect of African Renaissance. The untimely exit of Mbeki from the political stage and the equally untimely assassination of Gaddafi compounded the trials and tribulations of the African Renaissance project. It became leaderless just like after the untimely removal of Nkrumah from power in 1966.

Suffice to say that, unfortunately, President Thabo Mbeki, who had emerged as the most able articulator of the African Renaissance, became embroiled in very complex politics in South Africa and increasingly lost popularity at home. His critics stated that he behaved like a philosopher king disconnected from the people and manifesting aloofness. Two of his interventions exacerbated his unpopularity (Glaser, 2010). The first was Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS policy under which he was accused of being an HIV/AIDS denialist within a context in which many people were succumbing to the virus and dying. The second was his “quiet diplomacy” approach, particularly with regards to the Zimbabwean crisis. He ended up being accused of protecting a dictator (President Robert Mugabe) who was said to be brazenly violating his people’s rights and trampling on democracy. This gave a bad name to the whole idea of “African solutions for African problems” as a leitmotif of the African Renaissance (Glaser, 2010). Mbeki was not even able to finish his second term of office as president of South Africa—he was recalled by his own political party (the ruling African National Congress). All these developments weighed heavily on the project of the African Renaissance, creating a nightmare situation.

Conclusions: From Afro-Arab Spring to Rhodes Must Fall

After a lull in the pan-African initiatives of the early 2000s, two major moments have taken place which cannot be ignored in any reflections on the African Renaissance. The first is the Afro-Arab Spring that broke out in 2011, targeting once again the lost-standing dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which had survived the second and third waves of democratization that engulfed sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The second is the outbreak of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movements in South Africa in 2015, demanding epistemological decolonization. Where does the African Renaissance sit within these two moments? Charles Villa-Vicencio, Erik Doxtader, and Ebrahim Moosa’s edited volume entitled The African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring: A Season of Rebirth? (2015) tried to link the “Afro-Arab Spring” with the African Renaissance, concluding that a mere change of “season” was not enough to amount to a renaissance—“Spring is a fragile season. It can be delayed by a hard winter and pre-empted by a fiery summer” (Doxtader, 2015, p. xxxii).

But in an extended foreword to the book, Thabo Mbeki reiterated the central objectives of the African Renaissance as that of creating the necessary space for the peoples of Africa to determine their destiny as well as build a democratic Africa. To him, the “Arab Reawakening” would be only be “a genuine renaissance if it is the product of the conscious activity of the African masses across their various racial, ethnic, class, gender, and other social divides” (Mbeki, 2015, p. ix). Mbeki outlined five benchmarks to be used to measure the quality of the “Afro-Arab Spring” as a renaissance: (a) a reassertion of the right of the African masses to determine their destiny and recover their democratic right to govern; (b) a resumption of the struggle for the victory of the national democratic revolution; (c) a rebellion against the abuse of power by ruling elites to enrich themselves at the expense of the people; (d) an affirmation of the determination of the African masses to ensure that the national wealth is used to end poverty and underdevelopment and to bridge the disparities in income, wealth, and opportunity; and finally (e) confirmation of the determination of the masses of the African people to achieve their human dignity and the commitment to rely on their native intelligence and labor to realize their all-round development (Mbeki, 2015, p. xi). Mbeki gave the “Afro-Arab Spring” the benefit of the doubt and hoped it would deliver substantive popular democratic revolution. However, the Afro-Arab Spring was hijacked by the military and the fundamentalist Islamic formations, which drained its popular democratic content and diluted its liberatory thrust.

What is intriguing is Mbeki’s fifth benchmark for the genuine African Renaissance, which emphasized reliance “on their native intelligence and labour to realize their all-round development.” This benchmark seems to speak to epistemic freedom as an essential prerequisite for the realization of genuine African Renaissance (see Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018). This links the Afro-Arab Spring with the RMF movements that broke out in 2015 and 2016 in Mbeki’s own country, South Africa, spearheaded by university students. The demand for cognitive justice which permeated these revolutionary student movements seems to speak to the need for an intellectual renaissance that deliberately invests in the building of necessary “native intelligence” in a country and a continent where epistemological decolonization has not yet been achieved (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018). What was sparked by the existence of a statue of the leading British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes at the center of the University of Cape Town (UCT) quickly morphed into Fees Must Fall, Outsourcing Must Fall, and many other demands (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2016b). The demands ranged from critical questioning of the neoliberal education in which knowledge is commodified; changing institutional cultures that are deemed to be racist, patriarchal, and sexist; decolonizing the curriculum which, the students argued, was Eurocentric and irrelevant; to agitating for an end to the exploitative “outsourcing” and casualization of workers (see Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2016b, 2018; Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Zondi, 2016).

Taken together, the Afro-Arab Spring and the RMF movements indicated that there was and still is a noticeable determination among African people, especially the youth and students, to exercise their “native intelligence” and agency to push for genuine African Renaissance. The two events not only connected the powerful and persuasive call for an African Renaissance that emerged at the end of the apartheid colonialism in the southern tip of the African continent (South Africa) in the 1990s and the popular revolts that rocked North Africa in 2011, but also revealed how South Africa, as the geopolitical site from which the African Renaissance call was made, is itself engulfed by revolutionary student movements demanding the completion of the decolonization struggle. It would seem that genuine African Renaissance won’t be achieved through elite pacts and declarations but through popular struggles for deimperialization, decolonization, and democratization.


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