African Diaspora in the 21st Century

African Diaspora in the 21st Century


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




African people, both in Africa and the African Diaspora, are capable

of scoring major victories, whatever the odds.




African Diaspora in the 21st Century

An Address by Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa

at the University of  West Indies Kingston Jamaica, 30 June 2003



Master of Ceremonies,

Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I was asked to speak about the African Diaspora in the 21st century. Because I did not know what this would entail, I did not say yes or no to this request. This gave me the space to speak about anything, provided I could claim it has something to do with the African Diaspora in the 21st century.  I trust you will accept this manner of proceeding.

Over the last few years, we have made bold to speak about an African Renaissance. We have also spoken of the need for us as Africans to ensure that the 21st becomes an African century. In reality, I stand here today to talk about what we might do together to accomplish these goals, understanding that when we speak of an African Renaissance, we speak of a rebirth that must encompass all Africans, both in Africa and the African Diaspora.

Since we are speaking at a university, we must also make the point that we are proceeding from the thesis advanced by a German philosopher of the 19th century, who said – all previous philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it. I believe that the African universities, both in Africa and in the Diaspora have a responsibility both to understand the world and to change it. 

What we must be about is changing the conditions that for many centuries have imposed on Africans everywhere the status of underlings.  Jamaica’s nearest neighbour to the east is Haiti. Next year, 2004, this Caribbean country will celebrate the bicentenary of its birth as the first black republic in the world. We, for our part, will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of our liberation from apartheid.  We have agreed with the Government of Haiti that, to the extent possible, we should work together to celebrate in an appropriate manner both anniversaries, informed by the fact that the victory of the African slaves in Haiti in 1804 is directly linked to the victory of the African oppressed  in South Africa in 1994.

In our capacity as the current chair of the African Union, we have also put the matter of the celebration of the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution to the African Union, in the hope that all Africa can join in these celebrations.

The historians at the University of the West Indies will be better informed about the story of the great struggles waged by the African slaves of Haiti to free themselves from slavery and colonialism. In this regard, I would like to pay tribute to the outstanding West Indian historian, C.L.R. James, for his seminal work The Black Jacobins.  In particular, the historians at the University will be familiar with the direct linkages between the American, the French, and the Haitian revolutions. But I dare say that our people in general, whether in Africa or the African Diaspora, will be most knowledgeable about the American and French revolutions, and least informed about the Haitian revolution.

And I know this as a matter of fact that very few of our people in South Africa know the inspiring story of the struggles of the African slaves of Haiti, which resulted in the defeat of mighty France and its emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.  We are firmly of the view that we should use the occasion of the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution to inspire especially our youth to understand the capacity of the African masses in Africa and the Diaspora to change their social conditions.

The telling of the story of the Haitian revolution should communicate the message to all our people, that the African people, both in Africa and the African Diaspora, are capable of scoring major victories, whatever the odds.  It must instill the confidence among the African masses and their leadership that we need, so that we act as our own liberators from poverty, underdevelopment, and marginalisation, extricating ourselves from the paradigm that ineluctably positions us as dependents on the charity of others.

When we tell the story of the Haitian revolution, we should not end with the glorious victory of 1804. We should also speak about what happened afterwards, about what has happened since the African Diaspora gave all Africans everywhere the great gift of the first black republic of Haiti.  In this regard, we have to contend with the fact that whereas the American and French revolutions succeeded to create the conditions for the development of the American and French people, Haiti has not experienced similar development. Indeed, she has been subject to the very opposite of development.

As Africans, in Africa and the African Diaspora, we have to answer the question as to why there has been this divergence of experience in the aftermath of revolutions as interconnected as were the American, French and Haitian revolutions. In answering this question, we may also be able to answer the question as to why, in many respects, the African condition, certainly in sub-Saharan Africa, has been worsening over a number of years, despite the fact that we now exist as black republics, as Haiti has done for two hundred years.

Because they could not have known any better, given the times during which they lived, some of the great military leaders of the Haitian revolution, such as Henry Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, awarded themselves titles as kings and emperors. This was understandable.  But very near the close of the 20th century, we still saw the emergence of new African feudal lords, such as Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, who proclaimed himself emperor and renamed the republic an empire.  Perhaps instead of treating this episode as a matter of derision and dismissive comment, we should ask ourselves whether Bokassa was not, in fact, giving a more precise and honest form to the content of his rule as leader of the Central African Republic.

It may very well be that many of us are projecting ourselves as presidents and prime ministers, with the assumptions about democracy that attach to these posts, whereas, in practice, we are little more than feudal lords who rule by decree over our kingdoms or principalities.  I am suggesting that as we encourage the African masses in Africa and the African Diaspora, especially the youth, to study the revolution of Haiti after the victory of 1804, we would enable them the better to understand their own national conditions. This would empower them to respond more effectively to the challenges of the African Renaissance.  Entangled within the story of Haiti are many matters relevant to the challenges we have to meet. These include issues of race, class, gender, culture and social consciousness, governance, globalisation and global imbalances in economic and other matters, and the effect of the preponderance of the major powers, possibilities for South-South cooperation and so on.

Accordingly, I would request the University of the West Indies, acting together with its counterparts in Haiti, to take measures to ensure that the story of the Haitian revolution and its aftermath is  told to as many of the African masses as possible, both in Africa and the Diaspora.  This will require material that can be conveyed in printed form, through radio, television and the Internet. It will require material that can be put on stage or otherwise presented through film or other dramatic presentation.

What I am pleading for is that we should so profile the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution that it catches the attention of the masses of our people, leading them to seek to understand what other fellow Africans managed to do in Haiti, two hundred years ago.  I am asking that we use the unique occasion of the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution to speak to ourselves as Africans, wherever we may be, treating this great victory scored by the African Diaspora as truly the possession of all Africans, including those in Africa.

What I am further pleading for is that we as political leaders, together with the African intelligentsia in Africa and the African Diaspora, should use the occasion of this bicentenary to interrogate our own experiences after the Haitian revolution to understand the complexities of that history and set ourselves the task of dealing with the challenges of the future based on our learning.  I am pleading that we should use the occasion of this bicentenary to raise the level of consciousness of the African masses about the tasks of the African Renaissance, and mobilise them to act for change to advance their interests.

It may be that there will be some who will say that political activism is not the task of scholarship, that such activism compromises the search for the truth by those whose profession is to expand the frontiers of knowledge.  To these I would again say that the African condition does not permit an African intelligentsia that merely interprets the world, while doing nothing to change it.

Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora are today confronted by a world of financial, investment, and trade regimes which unfairly favour the developed world and which prevents them from improving their quality of life. Skewed investment patterns, unfair trading systems, and a gross imbalance in terms of access to productive capital continue to undermine development efforts in the African and developing world. 

At the moment, Africa is the only continent where poverty is on the rise.  Over 40% of the people of sub-Saharan Africa live below the international poverty line of US$1 a day.  Africa’s share of world trade has plummeted, accounting for less than 2%. More than 140 million young Africans are illiterate, and Africa is the only continent where the number of children out of school is rising.  Africans in both the Diaspora and the continent have entered the 21st century still confronted by the hard realities of entrenched poverty, general underdevelopment, death from curable diseases, illiteracy, international marginalisation, and little prospects for rates of growth and development that will close the gap between themselves and the rich countries.

One only has to take a look at Harlem in the US, the ghettoes in cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Sao Paolo, and the squalid slums in the cities of Europe, to see the desperate conditions that define the lives of Africans everywhere.  However, I would also say that, certainly in Africa, we are seeing perhaps the beginning of a determined response to this situation, with the continent working to find practical ways to advance towards its renaissance.  Last year, we established the African Union (AU), which is our purpose-built African continental vehicle to deal with the challenges we face, including the historic objective to advance in a more determined manner towards African unity.

Yet, even in this endeavour, we are reminded of our close linkages with the part of the world within which you reside. Indeed the stirrings and fermentation of the notions of decolonisation and freedom on the African continent were significantly inspired by the courageous pioneers of African freedom in the Diaspora.  It was in the year 1900 when the Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams initiated the first Pan-African conference, in London. That conference was seminal to the political and philosophical movement of Pan-Africanism throughout the world, the catalyst that has ultimately led to the formation of the African Union, at the beginning of the 21st century.

The 1945 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England which featured anti-colonial thinkers and activists such as George Padmore and W.E.B. Du Bois, again impacted on the young African freedom fighters and intellectuals such as Kwame Nkrumah, and gave sustenance to the struggles which finally saw the realisation of the process of African independence and freedom that started with the liberation of Ghana.

African freedom from the bondage of colonialism, together with the freedom of Africans in the western hemisphere evoke names such as Marcus Garvey, Theophilus Sholes, Paul Bogle, Norman Washington Manley, Alexander Bustamante, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, C.L.R. James, and many more.  This unity of the founding fathers, even as they had to traverse the seas, was born of the realisation that as one people with one history we are bound by the same future. It was the realisation that unless closer links were forged to work towards our betterment, we would be failing African posterity on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in an unpardonable manner.

And yet long after the demise of slavery and colonialism, the lives of Africans and their descendents are still blighted by a plethora of challenges not unrelated to the past whose imprints the present bears. As I tried to suggest earlier, we should, together, try to answer the question – what went wrong in Haiti! I am certain that if we answer this question honestly, it will help us to answer the question – what went wrong in the aftermath of our victories over colonialism and the crudest forms of racial discrimination.  Shared oppression in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa at the end of the 19th century, took some of the foremost thinkers and activists for the emancipation of Africans everywhere to London, to participate in the 1st Pan-African Congress.

As you will remember, it was at this congress that W.E.B, Du Bois made the prophetic statement – the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line! Then, the African intelligentsia united in the search for ways and means by which to confront this problem.

Perhaps the time has come for the African intelligentsia in the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa to come together again, this time to make the statement – the problem of the Africans in the 21st century is the problem of poverty, underdevelopment, and marginalisation – and together search for ways and means by which to confront this problem.

As each one of us works to discover these ways and means, operating within our national and regional boundaries, we are confronted by the reality that those who have, do not hesitate to tell us the have-nots what to do to extricate ourselves from poverty, underdevelopment, and marginalisation. However, we all know that if the African slaves of Haiti had asked the slave masters what they needed to do to secure their liberation, they would never have secured their emancipation.

Perhaps the first determination we must make together, and borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare, is that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings. We should then come to a common resolve that we have it in our power to change our condition, as did the African slaves of Haiti.

The dawn of the 21st century, an era that sees the intensification of the process of globalisation with all its attendant ills to the marginalised sections of humanity, including us the Africans, must inspire us into an active mode to determine, define, and shape our collective future with clarity of vision.  Quite clearly, we need unity in our thinking and unity in our actions. We need a united movement of Africans on the continent and the Diaspora to bring us together to confront our common challenges. Acting as atomised entities, we will not be able to achieve the successes we have to score. We have come to the Caribbean to join in the celebrations of the 30th Anniversary of Caricom and convey a message of solidarity from the African Union, which is barely a year old, having evolved out of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Both organisations represent the outcome of the correct determination that Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora have made, that it is only when we are united that we will advance our cause.

I believe that the next step we will have to take is actively and consciously to share experiences with regard to the task of promoting the unity on which Caricom and the AU are focused. We would do this to assist one another to ensure that both organisations succeed in the tasks they have set themselves.

I further believe that we must also arrive at a common conclusion with regard to the critically important matter of determining who or what our enemy is. I am convinced that the conclusion cannot be avoided that the deepest structural fault in global society and the global economy is the poverty in which millions of Africans in Africa and the Diaspora are immersed.  Immanent within the process of globalisation is the inherent tendency towards the further widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. By definition and in reality, that process is also characterised by the accelerated integration of the countries of the world, with some being more equal than others.

From this it follows that we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us outside the processes that shape the contemporary world. But, equally important, it also follows that we cannot depend on the dominant global system spontaneously to solve our problems.

Thus we come back to the point we made earlier, that we must be our own liberators from poverty, underdevelopment, and marginalisation. Nobody will do this for us, even as they may be able to help us to achieve this goal, provided that they act with us, in partnership with us, to implement what we would have decided needs to be done to free us from poverty, underdevelopment, and marginalisation.

Following the example of Caricom, the African continent has elaborated its own development program, NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Fundamental to its conceptualisation and implementation are the features that: * we must ourselves determine what is wrong in our societies and what we want done to correct these wrongs; * we must design any program of action arising out of this determination, ourselves; * we must implement this program within the context of a social partnership in each of our countries, bringing together government, business, trade unions, and civil society; * we must further act in partnership as African countries, informed by the need to ensure balanced and mutually beneficial development; * we must, in the first instance, depend on our own resources for the elaboration and implementation of our program of action; and, finally, * we must enter into a partnership with the rest of the world for the implementation of what we have decided.

We are still at the beginning of these historic processes and know that we should not expect easy victories. Nevertheless we can make bold to say that not only has a beginning been made, but that a good beginning has been made.

The question we have yet to pose and answer together is what practically must we do to effect a real and meaningful partnership between Caricom and the African Union and its development program, NEPAD. I trust that our participation in the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Caricom will take us even one step forward towards finding an answer to this question.  Again, I do not believe that it will be easy to determine what needs to be done. But it would equally be wrong and undesirable to come to the conclusion that nothing can be done. Something must be done, in our collective interest as Africans. 

Similarly, having made the common determination that we are confronted by the structural fault in global society and the global economy to which we have referred, we must act in unity to correct this fault. This relates to a whole range of matters including the democratisation of the multilateral system, and ensuring that the ACP-EU and the WTO negotiations produce results that are in our favour, in favour of our efforts to eradicate poverty and overcome the scourge of underdevelopment.

More fundamentally, central among the objectives we have to pursue together, is the transfer of productive resources from the rich to the poor, to give us the means to achieve development. This cannot happen in a situation in which we continue to carry an intolerable debt burden and are subjected to terms of trade that continuously move against us.  During the Second World War the British naval garrison in Singapore was fortified to repulse any attack from the sea. But the Japanese invaders came overland by bicycle and attacked the British from the rear.  Similarly, the rich cannot insulate themselves from the billions of the world’s poor. We too will place ourselves in the midst of the rich, having arrived not on formidable battleships, but by bicycle and on foot.

Common sense would seem to dictate that the problem of poverty is not a problem of the poor only. And because we are poor, it is our common responsibility to ensure that those who are rich hear our voices. We also have a responsibility to ensure that developments in modern technology, together with the uni-polar world of today, do not turn, once again, Africans and their descendents into superfluous beings, dispensable and without meaningful impact on the course of human evolution. The exigencies of survival compel all Africans, in the motherland and in the Diaspora, to re-think our position, to move ahead in unison in the face of these rapidly changing times.

We should seize with vigour, the lessons and legacy of Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the organisation he helped found, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which taught us self-reliance, hard work, and confidence as virtues we can use to navigate a vast, cold, and turbulent ocean. We have declared this century the African century knowing the challenges that face our continent as it strives to clamber out of this chasm of despair, into which it has been cast by the disheartening history of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, and economic exploitation and marginalisation. Clearly, this movement towards the renaissance of Africa belongs also to you. Without your meaningful involvement and participation the African century cannot come to be, nor can it be complete.  We need to take a leaf out of the book of Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, and George Padmore, in whose vision there were no borders nor barriers to re-connections and co-operation between and amongst Africans across the Atlantic.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Back to Africa call greatly aroused consciousness in the Diaspora about their unbreakable linkages with their African brothers and sisters. In a globalised world, there are many ways in which Garvey’s call may be realised. The question that arises is: what can institutions of knowledge such as this University do to assist with the achievement of the objective of empowering Africans, both in Africa and in Diaspora, to meet these challenges? What can we do to empower our people with scientific and technical knowledge in this information society era? What engineering, marketing, and information technology skills can we impart to each other to ensure our survival and development?

What political roles can we collectively play in the international arena – including but not limited to, the Commonwealth, United Nations, and Non-Aligned Movement – to elevate our agenda, the African agenda, in its complexity, to the top of global priorities?

Should we not consider exchange program between our countries, between the institutions of higher learning, between our businesspeople, from people to people to ensure that from each other we acquire valuable skills and participate meaningfully in the renewal of African societies?

We are all sons and daughters of Africa; we dare not lose sight of this transcendental fact. We should always remember, whether we reside in Africa physically or spiritually, that Africa is our beginning and the world is our ending.  We are not simply at the mercy of the circumstances that presently define our future. On the contrary, collectively we are at work at the foundry of knowledge, which must both engender and determine the outline of this future.

There is no doubt, that Africans are experiencing a rebirth. As Africans, fortified by the experiences on the continent and in the Diaspora, we are undergoing a thoroughgoing process of re-inventing ourselves, of reclaiming our glorious past, of using that which is good and best for our development.  Let us also rediscover those long hidden links, which have always bound us together, and use them in the new context, which faces us both on the continent and the Diaspora.  We are forging new links within the continent and across the seas with Africans in the Diaspora and with our development partners, to create a new continent driven by the imperatives of development and modernization. Today, the situation calls for us to recognize our common interests in a globalized world and to collectively fight for these in multilateral forums.

The poet, William E. Henley, in his poem “Invictus,” speaks for all of us when he says:



Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud,

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll;

I am the Master of my Fate;

I am the Captain of my Soul.

I thank you.

Issued by The Presidency    30 June 2003

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update 6 May 2010




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