Radical Engagement: an interview with Issa Shivji

An interview with Issa Shivji

ROAPE: Firstly, could you briefly tell me what was your role in the Review and in what context?

Issa Shivji: A good number of comrades who started ROAPE, then called RAPE, were from Dar es Salaam or had passed through Dar es Salaam. We had participated together in intellectual and ideological struggles on the University of Dar es Salaam Campus. I was a student in law from 1967-1970 and then a young faculty member in the Faculty of Law.

I did not have a direct role in the founding of ROAPE but was closely connected with the founders and we often exchanged notes. I remember that I encouraged my students who had done brilliant work on the post-Mwongozo working class struggles to send their papers to ROAPE which were published. Similarly, reporting and analysis of the struggle of students in the late seventies was also published in ROAPE. In that sense, ROAPE played an important role in disseminating intellectual work and struggles across the continent and to progressive audiences outside Africa.

ROAPE: How would you assess the contribution of ROAPE in the last forty year? Considering the powerful and clarion appeal to action, practice and radical analysis in the first issue.

IS: The Editorial in the first issue was undoubtedly a clarion call for concrete analysis of concrete conditions for concrete action. It came from the womb of the struggles from which the founders had come. In hindsight, it was perhaps ambitious, even naïve, but, then, sounded real, feasible and an honest illustration of theoretical praxis. I didn’t see anything wrong with it then or now.  It also unabashedly proclaimed that the Journal will not be eclectic nor pander to bourgeois intellectual fashions; rather it will be guided by Marxist theory – certainly not in any dogmatic or “partisan” fashion – yet maintaining a class stand and outlook of the working people.

But a Journal based in Europe, unconnected with real-life social struggles on the ground in any direct way, obviously could not consistently do what it set out to do. Over a period of time, it did become and has become a left academic journal, broadly progressive, nonetheless eclectic in the content of articles it publishes. This is not to say that it has not made a worthwhile contribution. The Journal carried fine analytical pieces bearing directly or indirectly on struggles. In its debating and reporting pages it gave exposure to accounts of struggles which helped in forging solidarities and mutual support.  I doubt though if it has, or even, could participate fully in the ideological debates taking place on the continent, say, for example, in the 1980s.

ROAPE: ROAPE covered both the development of structural adjustment and the economic crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s, but also the resistance to it. In this period the radical liberation movements of the 1970s became marginalised, under multiple and ultimately irresistible pressures. How would you chart the developments in African political-economy since the journal was founded? To what extent is such a project for transformation relevant today?

IS: To answer your last question first: yes, because the “project of transformation”, as you call it, does not ever become irrelevant! But I chuckled on reading that phrase of yours: in the 1960s and 1970s we would have called it by its true name, ‘Revolution’, not as a project, but real life struggles of the working masses. It seems to me that much of the language and vocabulary – imperialism, revolution, liberation, etc. – became “profane” words with the onslaught of neo-liberal ideology on the right, and post-modernism on the left. Some of that vocabulary is still lingering on ….

I guess I have partly answered the first part of the question. Under neo-liberalism, radical political economy also went out of the window – instead many of us, radical intellectuals, were swallowed up by human rights, policy analysis, poverty reduction, etc on the theoretical/ideological plane, and by NGO-type activism on the terrain of practice and struggle.  During this period any analysis grounded in a rigorous theoretical framework even in the academia was dismissed by neo-liberals as irrelevant and star-gazing while by some post-modernists as mega-narratives that had overstayed their usefulness.

On the whole, though, as neo-liberalism teeters towards its end, methods of radical political economy, albeit, of course, in a more creative fashion, are coming back. I think the younger generation is groping for answers and mainstream bourgeois economics and political prescriptions do not give them answers. It is the bigger picture they want to understand. By definition, mainstream bourgeois theories in the era of financial capitalism are incapacitated from dealing with the bigger picture. The ideologists of the financial oligarchy have so much ideologised the bigger picture that their theoreticians have become prisoners of their own ideology.

ROAPE: What is the project of radical political economy on the continent in 2016? How should ROAPE and its contributors and supporters engage with such a project?

IS: The answer to this will be too prescriptive, perhaps presumptuous and self-indulgent. Like others, I am trying to find my feet in the new, post-liberal environment and that can only be done in real life struggles, not in theoretical speculation.

ROAPE: What should the relationship, in a publication like ROAPE, be between academic analysis and study and activist engagement?

IS: Hunh! Aren’t you already positing a dichotomy, (between academic analysis and practical social struggles), which should be problematic for a radical perspective? It would sound cliché for me to say that academic analysis itself is, or should be, an activist engagement and activist engagement should flow from it.

ROAPE: Is it still feasible to envisage a project, as ROAPE did in the 1970s, of radical, continental transformation and a pan-African socialist future?

IS: Why not? Just as we have not seen the predicted “end of history”, we have not witnessed the “disappearance of imperialism”. African liberation and working people’s emancipation is very much on the agenda and so long as that is the case revolution is very much on the cards. One who thinks revolution is not feasible is not a revolutionary. When, how, where of course are questions at a different level. Those are not the kind of questions that you and me can truthfully answer in an interview, or in ROAPE, for that matter.

ROAPE: ROAPE.net, based in South Africa, is an attempt develop an online platform that can reach a new audience, including a large one in Africa who may not have access to the print issue. How do you envisage this initiative developing?

IS: I believe it is a good initiative. Perhaps it should move in the direction of a debating forum. We need to bring on board a lot of issues both of the theoretical and practical kind. My hope is that people involved on the ground would be attracted and would participate and share their experiences.  

Issa Shivji taught for years at the University of Dar es Salaam, Public law Department, and has written more than twenty books on Pan-Africanism, political economy, socialism and radical change in Africa. He is a longstanding member of ROAPE.



  1. Yes, at the time the technology to actually produce RAPE! was with typewriters and galley proofs. If you have some of the first issues, you’ll see lots of typos which changed as our skills improved. We did all this from our ‘front room’ in Rottingdean, Sussex to start off with, then moved to an underground room in UJAMAA Bookshop in Sheffield. The biggest joy was hearing from the Librarian at the University of Dar es Salaam. Shivji wanted to use our journal for teaching but as issues disappeared as soon as they arrived, could we please send more. We sent more, wrapped in plain brown paper and as soon as they arrived, they were put under lock and key. In exchange, we got some lovely sisal mats and kitenge. The struggle is not yet over. JB


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