Resistance in Africa: a workshop for activist-scholars

In an introduction to a special issue in ROAPE (free to access – see link below), based on our workshop in Johannesburg, Peter Dwyer argues that a radical academic journal must provide activists with a platform to get their stories and experience to a much wider audience. In the context of the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19, and an emerging global movement, this is more urgent than ever.  

By Peter Dwyer

In the editorial below, written in late November 2019, I tried to emphasise several points. Firstly, that the role of activists and the organisations and networks in which they are embedded are still much under-researched and under-valued in African studies. This journal is no exception. What activists do or do not do matters fundamentally to their lives, the lives of those amongst whom they live and work and those that rule over them. Secondly, when the shit next hits the fan, it will be these types of people we met in the workshops who will be the first to respond. Or they will be connected to others who will be ‘doing something about it’. Thirdly, a radical academic journal must, at a minimum, help activists use it and to provide a platform for them to get their stories and experience to a much wider audience.

Tragically all of which has been underscored by the public health and economic crisis created by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in the global ‘great lockdown’ from mid-March 2020. As the ruling classes of the world, particularly in China, Europe and North America, put capitalism into a self-induced coma, the fall out for everyone, but particularly the popular classes in the majority countries of the world continue to be unparalleled and immense. The immediate consequences of, what the Nigerian activist Femi Aborisade referred to as ‘the copy and paste’ lockdown, have been captured by several of the activists in the ROAPE webinar Africa and the Pandemic: Clampdown, Survival and Resistance. It is not surprising that the epicentres of the pandemic mirror the key networks and centres for capitalist exploitation in Africa: Nigeria and South Africa. We also know that women will be disproportionately affected and will face a triple whammy: less access to health care, pushed out of the informal sector where they make up the bulk of the labour force and exposed to an even greater risk of gender based violence.

As the crises continues to unravel, we must never forget that it does so across a continent that has experienced the highest number of ‘cut and paste’ structural adjustment programmes in the world that have so damaged the continent, and particularly its public health systems, over the last 35 years. Despite steady economic growth in the early part of this century, since the last global economic crisis in 2008, the recovery has been fitful and highly uneven as the continent struggles to reach the pre-crisis levels of economic growth with all its gendered dynamics. As we reach the second half of 2020, it is still too early to tell what the exact fall out and the longer-term impacts of the crises will be. But at a general level the sudden and dramatic drop in commodity prices, capital flight, falls in remittances and the disruption to global supply chains do not bode well. Neither does the looming, monumental, North American and European fiscal and debt crisis that will blow freezing cold economic headwinds across the continent. As African governments begin to grapple with the drop-in income and fiscal uncertainty this will inevitably create, they will be tempted to pass the costs on to those who can least afford it most, the African popular classes.

What we do know is that activists and independent organisations of the people we met have been the first to offer support and solidarity and resist the worst excesses of the great lockdown. From nurses protesting at the lack of protective equipment in Kenya  to strikes by miners in Congo for more danger money . In all the countries from which the activists to this workshop came from, with the exception of Egypt, the trade unions, community organisations, HIV-AIDS groups, student and other activist circles they are involved with, have all stepped in to support, defend and organise others. The least we can do is to show them solidarity through continuing to provide a space for them at and we plan to follow this up with a series of reports from the front-line where they are active.


EDITORIAL: Reflecting on resistance and transformation in Africa: a workshop for movements and activist-scholars


Our decision to launch the Connections initiative in 2016 was based largely on a strongly held belief by some of the editorial working group (EWG) that the journal had in some sense ‘lost its way’ and needed to reconnect with comrades and make new connections. We were under no illusions that this would be an easy, but if the journal were to stay true to a key part of its historic mission, it was essential we tried.

South Africa was the third of the interconnected workshops (see here and here and here). We worked with local partners who have a history of working with activists and focusing their research on labour and other grassroots organisations. South Africa was also important because it was home to one of the biggest and greatest mass-based liberation movements of the twentieth century, a movement that gave the world some of the most famous moments and activists in political history. The ‘new South Africa’ was the last major African country to be formally liberated from colonialism: its peoples and the movements they had created carried the dreams of hundreds of millions of Africans and the hopes of pan-Africanism and socialism, both of which had been the lifeblood of many African liberation movements. As was evident in all the workshops, these are ideas that still inspire African activists and movements today.

Workshop format

Using the feedback from previous workshops, a lot of time was spent agreeing the structure, content and participants. Approximately 85% of participants and speakers were from Africa and each panel attempted to have a majority of activist speakers (see the programme of the workshop here). The South African planning committee was very aware of the importance of race and gender, and they shared a commitment with ROAPE to use the workshop as a platform for younger activists and activist-scholars. The presence and contributions of younger activists from organisations and networks in Burkina Faso and South Africa, together with some of the inspiring new generation of East African activists that we met in Dar, were testament to this.

It may seem obvious to some to state that people matter. Activists matter. Yet the trials and tribulations of the lives and struggles of activists and organisations and the communities where they live and work, are still largely absent from most Africanist journals and media. It is important to recognise their role as the permanent persuaders trying to bring about social and political change. This is why we centred the workshop around them. To listen to them. Something most academics are not very good at.

The themes discussed in the workshop were in line with the remit of the journal –  radical political economy, the actions of the state, global corporates or large landowners. The ruling class and the actions of the popular classes are affected by and affect the types of people who attended. It is near impossible to genuinely reflect the vibrancy of such a workshop: the solidarity, the spirit and yes the sadness and bitter frustrations expressed by activists. This is why we also recorded them and conducted short video interviews. Janet Bujra captures the essence of the three workshops in her introduction to the brief film about them by Robert Coren and Leo Zeilig.

Emergent themes, issues and debates

These people want change now, as do the new, young, global organisations and movements such as Extinction Rebellion, the school climate strikes and now the extraordinary Black Lives Matter movement. We learned in the workshops that African and other histories tell us that things don’t always change so quickly. Yet the environmental and social catastrophe that a new generation of young, global activists urge us to prioritise tells us we don’t have much time. In this way, all these activists are part of an ongoing grand historical struggle over control of what they see as their rightful lands, their own individual and collective labour, and all our futures and the very existence of people and planet. But time is no longer on our side. While individuals come and go these activists are a living legacy of struggles and movements that continue to defend gains and press for more. Even if some of the ideas and movements have changed, they re-form and focus on new issues. In this way, although the workshops were in English, everyone shared a vocabulary of struggle that transcended our language differences: ‘comrade’, ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’, ‘workers’ and ‘our community’, ‘farmers’ and ‘shack-dwellers’. This is a common language of struggle and activism to which everyone nods respectfully or raises a wary eyebrow as they listen to each other speak. Although this differentiates these activists from some of those with whom they struggle or represent (who some referred to as ‘the masses’), we are also interested in such activists because we can all learn from them, their lives, stories and places.

This suggests that we all know ‘who we are’ and that we can rely on each other through the shared language, commitment and politics of liberation, socialism, pan-Africanism etc. However, the role and reliability of intellectuals and other activist-scholars has been a theme that has emerged at every workshop, most notably in Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg. No surprise then that in the final session, a key activist from Kenya urged others not to trust academics because while they may document the lives of activists, they do not advance their cause as a result.

In a workshop dedicated to resistance, perhaps it was not surprising that the question of organisation became one of the key debates. This debate is not imposed from ‘outside’ the movement by academics or ‘ideologues’ but emerges organically as a tactical and strategic question for activists and movements. Dinga Sikwebu sparked much debate about organisations and resistance and questioning what he argued was the obsession with what he called ‘party-ism’ in South Africa and, based on his observations at the workshop, other parts of Africa (see interviews with activists at the workshop here). His key question was whether it is still useful to see political parties as a vehicle for genuine emancipation. After all, political parties are a Western concept that emerged at a particular time in Europe, and when thinking about what form is best suited to build and support resistance, African activists should not ignore how these parties evolved and the different forms they have taken and continue to take. Tafadzwa Choto drew on her experiences in Zimbabwe and southern Africa to argue that it is not the party form as such that is the problem, but the way in which parties are built, often from the top down by a bureaucratic leadership and not controlled from below by ordinary members. This results in a form of bourgeois politics (both left and right versions) that ends up, as in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, in implementing capitalist and neoliberal policies. As such she welcomed the recent setting up of a workers’ party in South Africa (for the videos of each session in the workshop click here).


There are too many lessons to mention, too difficult to capture, because some have no place or seem out of place in an academic journal. Some are simply too short-lived, and social science and rigorous research often like to work on facts and data, precise terminology and polite language.

Activists stories reveal ongoing personal and collective change: be that the notable increase in confidence since the 2011 uprisings of many women in Egypt, who now publicly scorn or scoff at unwarranted attention; or the lessons from starting a new union in Senegal or South Africa. Of course, some learning is very painful, and physically and psychologically damaging, as was made very clear by activists talking about the real consequences of defeat in Egypt or Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe, or in South Africa, at Marikana.

What also came out clearly from all of the panels and contributions, and in the interviews with activists, is the importance of grounding ideas and debates in local struggles. But also, that activists must always be open to listening and engaging, even if disagreeing with others from across the continent and beyond. That is, we should always seek, even if it is not possible at times, to go beyond the smallness of our own struggles, be it a rural land occupation or a protest against nationwide cuts in fuel or food subsidies. This is also important because, as we have noted elsewhere in previous issues, this journal has never uncritically bought into the hype and bluster of ‘Africa rising’. African countries have been a huge experimental playground for structural rupture for decades. We, and the participants, see no reason to believe that those who attempt to manage and promote capitalism, in whatever form, have cured the recurring historical challenges of booms and slumps or crises of overproduction and profitability. Africa, with its growing and youthful population, its abundant natural resources and ‘market potentials’, will always be susceptible, if unevenly, to further plunder, land grabs, extractivism and exploitation of lands and peoples.

Consequently, when the disrupters from Washington, central government or the mining corporations come their way, as they have and they will, it is clear and reassuring to know that ‘the people’ will ‘know someone who knows someone’ who can help – someone who will encourage them to ‘give it a go’, call that meeting or just say no! An older revolutionary perhaps, a retired trade unionist, or the mother of a student? That person will probably be someone linked to communities, like Napoleon in Marikana, networks of women like Fatou and Koradji in Senegal and Chad, the friends of youth in Burkina Faso, or the sisters of a fish-seller in Morocco. Nobody knows, and they won’t know until after that step has been taken, after that stand has been made – and that’s when we in academia might find out what is going on.

What’s next?

In April 2019, participants from previous workshops have since organised several other meetings one of which was a dialogue for activists and researchers in East and Southern Africa. In October 2019, another brought together existing activists and activist-scholars and key people from an earlier generation of activism to critically evaluate the lessons of success and failure of previous movements, largely in West Africa (in January 2020 another similar workshop took place in Tunisia). As some activists made very clear across all the workshops, what an academic journal based in the UK can do very practically ‘on the ground’ for these activists and movements is severely limited. Although we are aware of that, we did not make that clear enough or soon enough to some participants, especially those who had never heard of ROAPE. Managing expectations is important.

Secondly, we still think it is very important to provide spaces like for activists to write their stories, and, if needed, to help them write their stories, letting them know they are not alone. A common point in all workshops was the value of an activist’s contribution and of hearing more from other activists who are like them. They want people like them to be given more time to speak and less given to scholar-activists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and others. Is this something than that can be facilitated at any future workshops? Or should we be more modest, and provide space for activists in the form of short articles, blogs and vlogs at Yet challenges remain. We were sternly reminded that if we ask someone to write a blog, will we pay their bus fare to the nearest library?

No matter what concepts, words or slogans we and others use when writing and analysing what seem like endless and momentous challenges that face the popular classes across the continent, someone somewhere has to do something about those challenges. That people continue to do so can be seen in the magnificent revolts that are sweeping the world as we write (see some of the coverage has provided in recent years). There is hope.

It is very likely that it is people like the ones we met in this and the other workshops who are the making of the current revolts. It is they who constantly stand out from the crowd. It is they who call that meeting, send that text, and write that pamphlet. It is they who try to motivate others to attend, to gather and to strike. It is they who do the endless, thankless, and sometimes very dangerous work of bringing others together. The humdrum, bread-and-butter work of activism is not often exciting or glorious, but without it we are all, literally, finished. Nothing else matters. The urgency of the global climate crisis that is upon us testifies to this. The urgency of the need to act now was captured at this workshop by Tina Mafanga, a young activist from Tanzania:

This is our time to be fully committed within the struggle, so I would just like to tell them, especially the young comrades, that we are not the future, we are the current, it’s now that we have to really, really engage with the struggle, it’s now that we need to really work towards the change that we want to see within our societies. We need to drive this revolutionary agenda and walk the talk of the revolution by really practising it within the ground. We do not need to wait for the future for us to start engaging because we are the current. (Interview, 2019)

We are delighted to introduce the special issue in the journal (available until the end of August) which includes contributions from some the participants and activists at the workshop in Johannesburg. Grasian Mkodzongi discusses struggles over land in post-apartheid Africa; Beesan Kasaab writes about the lessons from Egypt’s great revolution in 2011; Didier Kiendrebeogo and Mohamed Traore describe their activism in the Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse of Burkina Faso, while labour struggles in Zimbabwe are discussed by Naome Chakanya and a powerful account of the meeting is provided by Njuki Githethwa.

Please access all of the content of the special issue here.

Each live presentation and the panel presentations and discussions were livestreamed on Facebook and can be found here.

Peter Dwyer is a member of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group and works in the department of Global Sustainable Development at the School for Cross-Faculty Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.

Featured Photograph: French troops used submachine guns, grenades and armoured cars to crush an uprising in Djibouti as protestors fought against continued colonial rule (23 March 1967).  


  1. For those of us who – for various reasons beyond our control – were unable to participate as we had intended in this series of workshops, Peter Dwyer’s introduction and commentary on this, the third of the workshops, held in South Africa, where RoAPE has always had a particular involvement and about which contributors to RoAPE have frequently written over the years, is very welcome. It sounds as though the gatherings and the workshops themselves were lively and illuminating, and that the mix of participants was stimulating. I look forward to reading the contributions now made available with interest.

    But the important point made by Dwyer here is that a radical academic journal and website should make space available for reports and commentaries by activists attempting not just to understand African realities but to change them in a progressive direction. This is, in my view, what the RoAPE website is partly about – organizing opportunities and providing a platform for comrades as well as an opportunity for colleagues to work together, to express themselves and to bring news from ‘the field’, and thereby ensure that theory and practice are combined as far as is possible.

    I did wonder for a while about the distinction Dwyer makes between political activists and radical academics, having always believed in the role of ‘the organic intellectual’ who combines theory and practice, and having tried myself to combine both, in what I wrote and what I did; but I now accept that, for myself at least, the opportunities to engage as an activist in the way one must do to be effective, are limited, and that for many colleagues the same is the case, whether by intent or by force of circumstance, and therefore I value all the more the publication and dissemination of these reports and commentaries provided by comrades and colleagues who are more actively engaged.


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