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Black History Month – whither civil rights in Africa and its Diaspora?

By Dr Matlotleng Matlou

Human rights are universal and inalienable, irrespective of origin, gender, class, race, culture or other status. Furthermore, they are interdependent and indivisible. All states have ratified at least one and 80 percent of them have ratified four or more international human rights. In spite of these obligations states have constantly violated the rights of individuals, groups and other states. Africans global have been victims of the greatest human rights abuses often by foreigners, and also by their own people. In 2014, the theme of Black History Month is Civil Rights in America and the question is how far has justice travelled for Diasporans and Africans globally? I argue that without respect for human rights there will be no sustainable development and global equality.

Africa’s greatest gift to the world must be its being the cradle of human civilisation. However, it has not always received gratitude, being invaded by amongst others first by the Phonecians about 3 thousand years ago followed by other groups like the Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Europeans.  This began the process of exploiting African knowledge, natural resources and its people to develop other lands, coupled with the development of racism to justice these barbaric acts.  Enslavement of Africans by Arabs and Europeans starting from the C7th and formally ending in the C19th coupled with massive exercises in erasing the contributions of Africans to human development and  treating them as sub-human and beasts of burden, laid the foundation for global racism and oppression of Africans in the Diaspora. This was later extended on the continent through colonial dissection and the structurally unequal socioeconomic relations created between Africa and the rest of the world even after so-called independence which continue to negatively impact on its sustainable development today.  

However, African people never stopped struggling and seeking means to self-determination and re-connecting familial bonds. The struggle by Diasporans against enslavement and for dignity and equality plus that of Africans against colonialism birthed the idea of pan-Africanism in the C19th and the need to liberate and reconnecting of Africans globally. Various pan-African congresses were held in England starting from 1900 to 1945, before relocating to Africa; the 8th one being held in South Africa in January 2014.

In the USA, the Emancipation Declaration abolishing slavery was issued in 1863 and followed by the first Civil Rights Act in 1866, after the civil war protecting the rights of African Americans which president Andrew vetoed twice and congress overrode him; that of 1875 which the Supreme Court over-turned in 1883, then 1957 and 1964. In other parts of the Diaspora slave revolts and liberation struggles led to the independence of Haiti in 1804 and various other Caribbean nations from the 1950s onward.  In Africa, Ethiopia and Liberia as independent nations served as guides for the continental liberation which started in 1922 with Egypt and reached an apogee with South Africa in 1994.

One hundred and fifty years after America’s independence with its founding creed that “all men are created equal” , Carter G Woodson an academic in 1926, established Black History Week to celebrate the history, challenges and achievements of African people in the United States of America, since his people were still not treated as full citizens. It would take many more decades of blood, sweat and tears to improve their conditions. Woodson chose February the birthday month of Fredrick Douglass the gallant African American freedom fighter and president Abraham Lincoln who abolished slavery to symbolise this week, which continued until 1976 then became a month-long event.  

Formally slavery and colonialism and most countries in the world have ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and numerous other human rights instruments, but the rights of Africans globally are not guaranteed. In many western countries they 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. It requires vision, planning, dedicated implementation and discipline, even as new challenges arise.

The African Union has laid the foundation through making the Diaspora its 6th region, now the hard work on ensuring that sustainable development for Africans globally occurs must be religiously undertaken. Numerous plans have been developed; now they must be implemented. However, the unity of Africa and Diaspora has to be more that a state-centric process. Civil society and other social partners must hold government to their obligations and commitments, for in unity there is strength.  African culture must be the centre our revival and seeking our rights individually and collectively. Of course we will borrow from other cultures as apropos. The Declaration of the 2012 Global Diaspora African Summit and Recommendations of the 2014 8th Pan-Africanist Congress are some of the guiding lights of the way forward for the African Renaissance. There must be regular reviews of challenges and progress and occasions such as 25 May with is African Liberation Day must be utilised to further entrench cooperation and solidarity within the global African family.

However, many within the African family ask what the form of this global African family will be? This is because we are torn between those who are continentalists, seeing Africans as those who are citizens of the geographical land mass, Africa and others who believe in the unity of African people (who are “historically, culturally-derived and related”) irrespective of where they are globally. Both these views have their own implications and will need to be carefully thought through with the necessary mechanisms put in place to make the most practical one or a combination of the two work. The 2015 Black History Month theme “A Century of Black Life, History and Culture” presents an opportunity for Diasporans and Africans to plan in advance how they can showcase their achievements over the past 100 years.

Dr Matlotleng Matlou is a Director of Excelsior Afrika Consulting, Tshwane and Research Fellow, Centre for Africa Studies, University of Free State, Mangaung, South Africa




February/March 2020

















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