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A Century of Black Life, History and Culture – Celebrating Black History Month 2015

By Dr Matlotleng Matlou1

20 February 2015


Garvey said “a people without knowledge of its past is like a tree without roots” and “we are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”. February and October are celebrated as Black History Month across various parts of the African Diaspora; whilst May commemorates African History Month by different African countries providing opportunities for Africans globally to reflect as a people. Unfortunately these celebrations are often disparate and undertaken separately without sufficient involvement of Africans collectively, which is unsurprising given their history. It is important to understand that having common identity and heritage is insufficient in unifying a people or defining them as a Diaspora. There must be consciousness pertaining to group identity which in itself will have different strands based on competing ideas of class, gender, religion, political affiliation, nationality, ethnicity etc. Importantly, the autochthonous development of Africans was and continues being derailed by foreign intervention. So how can commemorative months like those supra be utilised to restore African self-determination, self-reliance, dignity, unity and ensure that they play a pivotal role in global affairs? Reflecting on a century of Black life, history and culture requires us to go much further back in history to understand the past and its impact on the present in order to shape a future that is worth celebrating.

Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Nova – Out of Africa Always Something New2

Africa is the cradle of humanity, and civilisation, which subsequently migrated or diffused to other continents.  Africans have always been welcoming to foreigners and this spirit of Ubuntu has often been their downfall since they are then taken advantage of. The Greeks amongst others sucked at this fount of knowledge and today much of this is claimed by them with no reference to the African origins. In the 7th century Arabs who had arrived as visitors very soon colonised most of North Africa and they embarked upon enslaving Africans whom they shipped to various other parts of the world. Europeans who arrived initially seeking trade routes to Asia, found lands rich in natural resources and often more advanced than themselves. This era of unequal trade was planted then and exists up to today. Very soon the trade moved from commodities to enslavement of millions of Africans who were taken to the Americas to work on plantations. Africans were cruelly exploited and de-humanised; their cultures desecrated and so also their land soon. As Africans were utilised to develop other lands their continent became underdeveloped sucked of its intellectual, reproductive and labour resources, coupled with an injection of mass weapons of destruction, high levels of violence and divide and rule. Caucasians believed that it was their mission to civilise Africans and adventurers, business, religion etc were utilised to buttress the colonisation mission. All things African were now condemned and the European view point and culture elevated as supreme.  Racism was encouraged and Africans were placed at the bottom of the human ladder.

Africans resisted both on the continent and in the Diaspora through various means but were gradually defeated through superior military might, genocide, brutal human rights abuses, deceit, divide and rule, co-option of local elites, brain washing etc. Nevertheless during enslavement and colonialism Africans continued to resist and formed links across the continent and oceans, giving rise to Pan-Africanism. The British suffered one of their most humiliating colonial defeats in January 1789 at the hands of the Zulu army of King Cetshwayo during the Isandlwana Battle; and the French suffered similarly in the Haitian war of independence commencing in 1791 until 1804; whilst Maroon communities of Africans who resisted enslavement were established across various lands where they were found.

American independence was won from the British on the basis of “all men” (Anglo Saxon White Males) being born equal, yet, in reality this country founded on genocide and exploitation of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans by persons who had fled Europe because of persecution acted very differently.  A civil war was fought from 1861 to 1864 to finally abolish slavery but it would take another hundred years of blood, sweat and tears for the enactment of civil rights legislation recognising African Americans as equals. Slavery not only made Africans non-humans and chattel property; it virtually wiped out their glorious history and suggested that Caucasians had recused them from the state of nature.

Some of the leaders of past and contemporary era include the Egyptian Pharaohs; Queens Sheba, Yaa Asantewa and Nzinga; Emperor Shaka; Kings Sekhukhune, Moshoeshoe, Monomotapa; various Asantehenes, Wilmot Blyden; Paul Cuffy; Duse Mohammed; John Casely-Hayford; Booker T Washington; Harriet Truman; Amy and Marcus Garvey; Sylvester Williams; Kwame Nkrumah; Nmandi Azikiwe; Haile Selassie; Sekou Toure; Patrice Lumumba; Franz Fanon; Amilcar Cabral; Thomas Sankara; Julius Nyerere; Robert Sobukew; Steve Biko; Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela etc. Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association – African Communities League formed in 1914 campaigned for self-determination and economic  liberation of Africans globally, having six million members at its zenith by 1920, when its international convention issued a 54 point declaration on the Rights of the Negro. Five Pan-African congresses were held in Europe between 1900 to 1945 and the sixth one onward have been in Africa since 1958; there were gallant efforts through the United Nations amongst others, led initially by Ralph Bunche and African American for the decolonisation of Africa and the Diaspora was intimately involved in various African liberation struggles.

A century ago Africans across the globe were engaged in struggles for self-determination, racism, exploitation and equality. After centuries of enslavement by Arabs and Europeans, the natural resources of Africans were now being harnessed to develop other parts of the world, through colonialism that had been cemented during the 1884-1885 Kongo (Berlin) Conference attended by 13 European countries3  and United States that drew arbitrary lines across thousands of polities robbing them of their sovereignty and converting them into property of European countries. Eventually divided between Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Turkey; with Ethiopia and Liberia only remaining “independent”! For 60 years African subjugation and humiliation ensued until this obnoxious era was swept away after various liberation struggles, reaching its apogee in 1994 with the demise of the inhumane Apartheid system. The Saharawi Democratic Republic (under Moroccan control since the 1970s) and a few islands remain non-independent. However, lack of economic self-determination has also meant circumscribed independence at the political level and often bottom of the global ladder of positive indicators (human development; knowledge economies; and top for the negative ones (corruption; violence; . Africa was a pawn during the Cold War; for long periods had its policies driven by the global financial institutions and western governments; theatre for external induced conflict and costly arms race; suffered unfavourable terms of trade; had autocratic and selfish “leaders” etc.  Consequently, the 1960s to 1980s are often described as Africa’s los decades. The end of the Cold War; rise of Emerging Nations and a more multipolar world created vast opportunities and challenges for Africa. Unsurprisingly a democratisation wave, though not necessarily coupled with improved governance and human led development, swept across Africa from 1989, eventually reaching North Africa through the Arab Spring of 2011. In the 21st century, rising commodity demand and high prices fuelled a growth spurt in numerous countries; foreign investment rose dramatically and a new Emerging Nations led scramble ensued; the Economist magazine variously described Africa between 2000-2011: as the hopeless continent; Africa rising and hopeful continent!

Africa is an oxymoron: globally poorest in human development and richest in natural resources.  The stymieing of autochthonous development by foreigners over 15 centuries in alliance with local compradors is largely to blame. For example Africa has 12 percent of the world's oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, 80 to 90 percent of its chromium and platinum, 70 percent of coltan, 60 percent of its unused arable land, 17 percent of the world's forests, and 53 percent of the world's cocoa. Yet Transparency International’s 2014 Global Corruption Index on Africa is an indictment: out of 175 worldwide, 22 countries are amongst the most corrupt and only 4 are in the top 50. Global Financial Integrity indicates Africa lost over $1.3 trillion between 1970-2008 and over $500 billion in illicit financial flows between 2004 to 2012 (Nigeria and South Africa lost $157 and $122 billion respectively – highest  losers)to other parts of the world, more that combined foreign aid and investment! The AU calculates Africa loses $148 billion annually through corruption. Africa is plagued by high levels of poverty; millions are ravaged by pandemics like malaria (kills over 800,000 people annually), HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis; lack of food security; spiralling unemployment, especially amongst youth; inequality and violence mainly against females and inadequate and inappropriate education etc. Conflicts cost Africa over $300 billion; plus millions killed and maimed between the 1960s to 1990s.

African countries; Regional Economic Communities and the African Union (AU) together with international partners have developed numerous plans and programmes but fail to implement these sufficiently. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) developed the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action and 1991 African Economic Community which were hardly implemented by the time it transformed to the AU in 2002. The 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development and 2002 African Peer Review Mechanism are plodding along and some observers suggest they are in the Intensive Care Unit. The AU Commission under Dr Dlamini-Zuma is campaigning relentlessly for the Vision 2063, forty-eight years ahead rather than seeking to implement the myriad of plans already mentioned and others developed since 2002! With speculation that she may not return after her first term ends in 2017, will this grandiose plan on which vast resources are being spent also see premature death? New governments often discard ongoing programmes and establish their own, leading to loss of institutional memory, duplication, waste of resources and lack of continuity. Citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated and service delivery protests plus violence and destruction are rising. Governments retaliate with strong arm tactics and soon countries fall into a vicious cycle.

The situation of Diasporans is generally not much better than that of most Africans especially when human development indicators are disaggregated in the countries where many of them are minorities and even in ones where they are majorities and politically are in control. Socioeconomic indicators consistently place them at the bottom in comparison with other races. In 2010, the UN Human Development Index4  for the USA was 5.03, disaggregated for population groups: Asians (7.21), Caucasians (5.43), Latinos (4.05), Africans (3.81) and Native (3.55). USA Census 2010 annual income averages were: Caucasian ($110729), Asian ($69590), Hispanic ($7424) and Africans ($4955)5 ; African males incarcerated 6.5 times more than Caucasian counterparts; Africans higher in proportion compared to their population size in armed forces – numbers, death and injuries; unemployment of African twice that of Caucasians and they receive 75% less in wages for similar jobs; 8 African senators since 1870; since 2004, 5 Hispanic, mainly Cuban, senators already;  Africans have worst education, health, housing and other indicators of quality of life, so unsurprisingly their bottom position in USA unsurprising, even compared to recent migrants including those from the Motherland. The above picture plays out amongst Africans across the Diaspora although there are significant differences, especially in some Caribbean and Pacific countries where there are higher levels of human development. So if Africans globally are in the same situation, they cannot but unite in seeking to transform the shackles of history and utilise their resources to uplift themselves.

The Hypocrisy and Racism underpinning Reparations

In the African context the Diaspora of the enslavement era struggles to relate to their roots because of the time of estrangement; the weakening of links to their culture and dissolution of their culture and the largely successful work of the enslavers in creating a negative picture of Africa which has also been reinforced by the weak leadership and its underdevelopment. Of course the enslavers and the colonisers downplay their role in the sorry state that Africa and its Diaspora are in. Unlike other peoples who suffered similar genocide and exploitation, Africans and Diasporans have never been paid reparations. Germany which was a loser in the two 20th century European wars was forced to pay reparations to the victors and some victims; Japanese Americans interned during the European War of 1939-1945 or their heirs received $20,000 each; Native Americans have received large tracts of land stolen from them and other forms of compensation; Colombia received $25 million from the USA for its expropriated land utilised to build the Panama Canal; Japan apologised and paid various Asian nations vast sums of money for occupying them in the last century; and Inuit Eskimos received over 920,000 kilometres of their land from the Canadian government in 1992. In Australia and New Zealand similar programmes were undertaken for the Aborigines and Maoris.  

Africans fought for so called democracy on behalf of Europeans in their various conflicts but they were deemed not human enough to enjoy similar rights; nor did they receive apologies or reparations for their deprivation, plunder and genocide over the centuries. Their lots was as victims re was wanton destruction and stealing of their resources to develop other lands.  To add insult to injury, former slave owners were compensated after the abolition of this abominable practice; and Haiti was for decades forced to pay France, Spain and USA billions of dollars after it defeated these imperialists to win independence in 1804. Koutonin (2014)6  states that 14 former African French colonies are still subjected to the odious terms of a slavery and colonisation tax agreement signed upon independence requiring them to: save over 85% of their foreign reserves in the French central Bank; train their military and buy its equipment in France; give French corporate preference for contracts and exploitation of their natural resources etc. In the USA following slavery further suffering resulted from failure of the promise of forty acres and a mule to freed slaves; imposition of further oppression through the Black Code, convict leases, share cropping, peonage, Jim Crow practices, separate and unequal accommodation and education to the present era of government supported segregated housing and suburbs, mass incarceration, increased police brutality against African Americans especially males, concentrated poverty, red-lining, rolling back of the gains of affirmative action etc. In Latin America, Diasporans until very recently were unequal citizens and continue to suffer racial and other forms of discrimination.

In 1992, the OAU panel of Eminent Persons also comprising Diasporans was tasked with spearheading the reparations issue and its conference of 1993 in Nigeria developed a  Bill of Claims which covered amongst others: rent for expropriated lands over the past 500 years; compensation for material and social destruction of enslavement; back pay for work both underpaid and unpaid; indemnities for all wars and campaigns waged against Black people by enslavers; compensation for all lives lost during enslavement and colonisation; punitive damages for all defamation of the Black race; opportunity cost for loses of deprivation Africa has suffered from association with foreigners; and interest on all the above. In 1999, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission Conference in Accra, Ghana demanded that America and Europe pay $777 trillion compensation (Banjo 2009:509-528)7.  Arab enslavement of Africans was as damaging and more research must be concentrated on their heinous acts and they held equally responsible as reparations are sought. The gallant efforts of the Caribbean region in reviving the reparations debate with its 10 point plan recently is laudable and must be supported with similar calls across the Global African Nation. It is important that as part of the reparations process globally, Africans should themselves seek self-purification and introspection at the wrongs they themselves, especially the leaders, have committed against their own people; cultural values must be restored to revive identity, dignity as a socioeconomic foundation and self-driven growth of the Global African Nation; and unity of African peoples must be diligently embarked upon.

Arguments against reparations such as difficulties of delimiting recipients; who should pay; what form; that Africans also enslaved others are flimsy and smack of racism and arrogance. They never arise in respect of other peoples and Africans should reject them with the contempt they deserve. Of course the major challenge is the lack of unity of Africans on this vital issue. In the run up to the 2001 Durban UN Conference on Racism and Xenophobia then presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo led an anti-reparations drive in favour of foreign aid committed to their dream child NEPAD at $64 billion annually which has never materialised. Interesting at the naivety that leopards change their spots or were special rewards in the offing?

Genesis of Black History Month

Carter Godwin Woodson (19 December 1975 to 03 April 1950) an African American author, historian and journalist, established the Association for the Study of Negro (changed to Afro American in 1973 and now known as African American) Life and History in 1915 which explains the theme for this year. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926 between the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln! Since 1976 American presidents have proclaimed February Black History Month. It is celebrated in North America and Caribbean in this month and October in other parts so the Diaspora. The name African American links its people to the Motherland. Gives pride, identity and location. So as many Diasporans celebrate a Century of Black Life, History and Culture this will be linked their roots to the Motherland, understanding how they became perpetual exiles and seek to re-member; re-connect themselves with their people. No part of the Global African Nation can overcome its challenges individually, as other peoples and regions continuously show; Africans must not in another century be still at the bottom of the global ladder, divided and directionless.

African Union Sixth Region and Revival of Pan-Africanism

There is a lot we can learn from other Diasporas like the Chinese, Indian, Jews, Latin Americans etc which invest heavily at home; campaign for favourable policies; encourage inter-trade; are a substantial part of the tourism flows etc. Europeans who have migrated to Australia, New Zealand, North and South America continue the close ties with their Motherlands. Some countries have established Diaspora departments and ministries; diaspora bonds; automatic citizenship; diaspora days; teaching of their culture and history to Diasporans etc. There are growing cooperation efforts across Africa and its Diaspora but not fast, widespread and deep enough. In 2003, the Protocol on the Amendment of the Constitutive Act of the African Union was signed by various governments.

Its Article (3q) recognises the Diaspora as its 6th Region and it ….. invite(s) and encourage(s) the full participation of the Diaspora as an important part of our continent, in building of the African Union.” The Diaspora are “peoples of African descent and heritage living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and who remain committed to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.” Scandalously yet unsurprisingly 12 years later there are insufficient ratifications of the protocol to ensure that it comes into force. So this protocol requiring 36 ratifications to enter into force remains stuck at 258, since 2009. Some countries that have signed but not ratified the protocol, presently have small Diasporas or are in major conflicts with them. Many receive vast remittances (finance, investment, telecommunications, tourism, trade, and flow of ideas) from their Diaspora. African states recognise the massive benefits of the sixth region compared to the challenges, so it is arguable that other articles of the protocol are what are hampering the necessary ratifications.

Nevertheless, parallel endeavours to implement the sixth region concept have been underway. On 25 May 2012, after years of intense work across the world, the Global African Summit was held in South Africa, which should have added impetus to this important process of uniting Africans globally. However, African governments have not shown sufficient commitment to this cause. Summit ended with an 85 point declaration, covering cooperation in a wide array of political and socioeconomic fields. Furthermore, there were five major legacy projects – exchange of skilled workers; volunteers; remittances; entrepreneurship; and investment.  The AU is responsible for ensuring follow up on the implementation of the declaration through receipt of annual reports from relevant states and other social partners. Almost three years later it is unclear where matters stand on the legacy projects in particular and the declaration in general; let us hope the AU delivers on this important programme. Some of the initiatives like remittances, entrepreneurship and investment being mainly private sector driven have continued in spite of governments. The exchange of skilled workers and volunteers are likely to be slower because of the complexities involved. The vibrant Pan-Africanism of the 20th century that achieved so much in unit and self-determination must be revived.

We are in the middle of the UN Decade Celebrating People of African Descendant, which provides an important platform for raising the history of Africans, their contribution to human civilisation and their tribulations both at the hands of their own people and foreigners, issues of reparation and how the challenges of underdevelopment ned to be tackled. African people must seek to lift themselves by their bootstraps, whilst working with genuine international partners in this endeavour. Diasporans in Asia, Australia, Europe, the Americas, Middle East etc should work with other social partners in their regions for positive partnerships with Africa. These include initiatives like the Africa Europe Partnership; Africa Growth Opportunity Act; Africa India Forum; Africa Arab Summit; Africa Asia Strategic Partnership; Africa South America Summit; Forum for China Africa Cooperation and other platforms that Africa has with countries like Japan, South Korea, Turkey etc.


In many western countries Africans are minorities and discriminated against; in the USA where African Americans have the highest living standards of Africans globally they still face many socioeconomic challenges even where a black president is in his second term of office; in the Caribbean where they are in the majority the effects of globalisation mean that their socioeconomic rights are jeopardised by competition from foreign nationals who are able to muster greater resources or influence the ruling elites to favour them. Political independence has not been synonymous with socioeconomic liberation for most of Africa, where leaders have squandered the vast resources of their countries.  Africans globally continue to be victims of racism and exploitation. However, this situation can be over-turned as China has shown over the past 40 years. Other Emerging nations are similarly vigorously tackling their development challenges and doing this through massive investment in their populations. Africans have shown over the past few decades that indeed the even from low bases that they are capable: it requires vision, planning, dedicated implementation and discipline, even as new challenges arise. Africans must celebrate their achievements and heritage, especially in the face of constant racism, exploitation and denigration of Africans. This is not to suggest that they are oblivious to their challenges, rather this motivates the present generation to work even harder; take pride in their identity; become top achievers and ensure other peoples respect them even as they do the same because of their Ubuntu. All mediums should be utilised to showcase Africans across various sectors globally; knowing the oppressors will not. African culture, innovation, her heroes and sheroes intellectual prowess and perseverance of these first people should be referenced not only in this month but throughout the year. Indeed the words of Pliny about Africa continue to ring true centuries later.

1Dr Matlotleng Matlou is a Director at Excelsior Afrika Consulting, Tshwane and Fellow, Centre for Africa Studies, University of Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

2Statement by Pliny the Elder and Roman scholar, 23-79 AD.
3Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany,  Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway ( united between 1814 to 1905) and Turkey
4Measures educational attainment, life expectancy and quality of life, with 0 as lowest and 10 highest.
5The African American annual spending power of almost $2 trillion is more than that of many African nations globally.
6Mawuna. R. Koutonin. In Silicon Africa, January 2014.
7Adewale Banjo. (2009). The Rise of Global Africa and the Question of Reparations. In Teaching and Propagating African and Diaspora History and Culture (eds) T Babawale, A Alao, F ‘Omidire & T Onwumah. Concept Publications, Lagos.
8Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Togo.




February/March 2020








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