The Rise of Black Lives Matter Movement

The Rise of Black Lives Matter Movement: Some Lessons for the (Africanist) Left

ROAPE’s Tunde Zack-Williams discusses the extraordinary Black Lives Matter movement in the context of African studies and the radical left. For those of us who work, research and study in the narrow discipline of ‘African studies’, including in ROAPE, we need to break down the disciplinary barriers between continents and people – we make a number of relevant key texts from our archive available below the blogpost.

By Tunde Zack-Williams

In an article published in ROAPE in 1995 entitled, ‘African Development and African Diaspora: Separate Concerns’? I questioned the disciplinary gulf between development studies, which had almost completely ignored questions of race and cultural identity, on the one hand, and diasporic studies which tend to focus on cultural and racial links with Africa to the exclusion of questions of political economy. The article was also critical of perspectives which ignored the heterogeneity and variety of African cultures and experiences, whether for purposes of creating a caricatured colonial subject or for asserting an undifferentiated unity between Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora. I argued for an understanding of both the uniqueness and the commonality of African experiences on both sides of the Atlantic. I also called for an overdue dialogue between the concerns of African diasporic cultural studies and those of development theory in Africa itself.[1]

In what follows, I want to draw attention to the fact that attempts to come to terms with contemporary African dynamics, away from African diasporas, is actually counter-productive, if we want to understand how the diasporas work and how they yearn for ‘the home land’. Already, there is evidence of the vital role of remittances in African economic activities. In many African countries, remittances play a crucial role in government expenditure, as well as providing a catalyst for financial markets and the monetary policies of many governments, by removing credit constraints on the poor and improving the allocation of capital. The remittances transferred by migrant workers constitute a major source of foreign exchange for governments and relief for relatives who are often non-earners.

Yet, African studies in Britain, for example, continues to be insulated from diasporan concerns, reflecting the contrasting histories of both disciplines. Remittances are not the only contributions that diasporan Africans make to the development of the African continent. Whilst issues of class, gender, and regional inequality have informed debates and policies on development, as a rule development studies has carefully avoided a direct focus on ‘race’ and racism (with few exceptions). Instead, it has focused spatially in an unproblematic way on nation states, thought to be ‘developing’ or ‘undeveloping.’

To exacerbate the situation, the link between the historical legacy of colonialism and the condition of the black diaspora was soon abandoned by those who inherited the mantle of the discipline of the sociology of race relations- a potential locus of the study of diasporan concerns. Nonetheless, there was a common thread running through these two disciplines: the ‘universalist quest’. In the case of the new sociology of race relations it was premised on ‘assimilation’ and adjustment within black communities; in the case of development studies it was premised on a unilinear path to modernisation, i.e. Westernisation. Now, central to the analysis of both disciplines is the role of migration: internal rural-urban migration in one, and international migration in the other. It is the new sociology of race relations which borrowed from development studies its key theoretical tools for explaining migration, namely the push-pull, and bright light theories. These were soon incorporated into the explanatory paradigm of black migration to the metropolis. However, in plainer language Ambalavaner Sivanandan warned that concepts such as push–pull factors tell us very little since they do not take a holistic view of the world economy. Furthermore, he pointed out: ‘we (black people) are here because you (colonialists) were over there (in the colonies) first’.[2]

Now, Sivanandan, who was born in Sri Lanka, was a leading figure in the anti-racist struggle in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s and always described himself as Black. He related the above statement in a lecture, when he explained that this reply was by ‘an Asian’ worker, who was asked ‘why he chose to come to Britain?’ The respondent then replied: ‘Please Sir, because you (Britain) were over there first (in Pakistan as the colonial power) that’s why we are now here’. He described himself and his heritage as black, a nomenclature that can no longer be used to describe an Asian comrade in an anti-racist struggle, due to what Tariq Modood has referred to ‘political blackness’, i.e describing an Asia comrade as black, when indeed, the form of address was designed to define people of African heritage.[3] This idea of political blackness Modood argued had ‘provided activists and thinkers with a new way of understanding and organising around the notion of shared, non-white experience, identity and politics.’ This strategy had been used by other scholars and activists, such as Stuart Hall, Salman Rushdie and the Southhall Black Sisters.

One wonders how this changing position would have impacted on workers’ solidarity on the shop floor. Would the famous Grunwick strike of 1976-78 over trade union recognition have secured such solidarity of workers and activists? This strike, which was one of the longest industrial disputes at the time, was fought by women strikers, who were supported by large sections of the trade union movement. The dispute cannot be dissociated from the broad front of support by other trade unionists, other workers, students and the local communities the women came from.

One effect of the success of the changes discussed by Modood was to put a dampener on workers’ solidarity in the face of growing attacks on wages and the right to strike with the strong anti-trade union legislation of the Thatcher government (coming to power in May 1979) aiming to put an end to ‘Wild Cat Strikes’. For the working class, the industrial schism following the end of what Modood called ‘political blackness,’ was to weaken solidarity, with the result that groups and individuals can be easily dealt with by agents of the oppressive state apparatus. It is clear that colonialism was built on stereotypes of the ‘native’ and the African experience was the most pernicious. Presumably, this is why many took offense to the ‘B’ word (for ‘their’ people), which presumably was associated with the ‘N’ word – who would not want to extricate a people from such insolence?

However, most Black people remain voiceless, with their daily lives riddled with stereotypes, innuendos and ridicules – ‘we who have invented nothing’, as Aimé Césaire sarcastically put it. It is this kind of harassment Black people face in Britain and in the US, as Afua Hirsch has pointed out in The Guardian, ‘the racism that killed George Floyd was built in Britain’. As she observed, ‘what black people are experiencing the world over is a system that finds their bodies expendable by design’. She continues: ‘African Americans told us this when they lost Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Chinedu Okobi, Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Alton Sterling, Philando Catile and so many more’. Quoting the great Maya Angelou, Hirsch pointed out that: ‘…blacks have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.’ Now, this is not a case of ‘Yankee exceptionalism’, for as The Guardian noted, ‘the UK is not innocent’: Jimmy Mubenga, according to the same newspaper, died when he was pinned to the ground by a security guard trying to deport him in October 2010. He has not been the only victim of this kind of homicide in the hands of agents of the state who should have protected them from harm. Other victims include, to name as few, Aseta Simms, Christopher Adler, Sheku Bayoh, Sean Rigg, and Mark Duggan.

The most recent assault on the African community was the Tory government’s decision to deport some members of the African-Caribbean community (known as the Windrush generation) who could not produce valid documents to certify their right to live in Britain.  Since most of these people had lived in the country for more than 50 years, many could not locate their documents to justify their right to be in the country, and they were deported to countries not visited in decades, causing them serious social and financial disruption.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of three Minneapolis Police officers who pinned him down on the ground with a knee on his neck for almost nine minutes outraged many people in Britain of all ethnic groups. For members of the Black community, Floyd’s death reminded them of similar experiences with their encounter with the police in the UK.

BLM is an international human rights movement originating from within the black community in the US through campaigning against violence, racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequalities in the criminal justice system towards Black people. BLM, which is opened to all races and is Black-led consists of over 150 organisations and is also active in the US elections and in ensuring that the family of George Floyd receive their just due. The clarion call of the organisation is to build a country (and indeed a world) where Black peoples’ lives matter in every aspect of society, including the workplace just like any other group. For those of us who work, research and study in the narrow discipline of ‘African studies’, including in ROAPE, we need to break down the disciplinary barriers between continents and people as urgently as ‘decolonising’ the curriculum.

Black Lives Matter! Let’s say it aloud!

Tunde Zack-Williams is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Lancashire. His books include Tributors, Supporters and Merchant Capital: Mining & Underdevelopment in Sierra Leone (1995); The Quest for Sustainable Peace: The 2007 Sierra Leone Elections (2008); Africa Beyond the Post-Colonial: Politics & Socio-Cultural Identities (with Ola Uduku) (2004); Africa in Crisis: New Challenges & Possibilities (2002). He is an editor of the Review of African Political Economy.

Further reading on Black Consciousness in South Africa; African studies and the diaspora; Karl Marx’s debt to people of African descent in Capital from ROAPE’s archive (free access to the full articles): 

Biko Agozino (2014) ‘The Africana paradigm in Capital: the debts of Karl Marx to people of African descent’, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 41, 2014 – Issue 140.

Alfred Zack-Williams (1995) ‘Development and Diaspora: Separate Concerns?’, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 22, 1995 – Issue 65.

Archie Mafeje (1978) ‘Soweto and its aftermath’, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 5, 1978 – Issue 11.

Ruth First (1978) ‘After Soweto: a response’, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 5, 1978 -Issue 11.

L. Mqotsi (1979) ‘After Soweto: another response’, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 6, 1979 – Issue 14.

Featured Photograph: Black Lives Matter mural being painted on a street of Charlotte, North Carolina (9 June 2020).


[1] See Zack-Williams, A. (1995), ‘Development and Diaspora: Separate Concerns? ROAPE, 1995, No.65:349-358, 1995, for an attempt to address these concerns. See also S. Howe, Afrocentricism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, Verso, London & New York, 1998.

[2] Sivanandan, A. (1991) Setting the Context for Change, Curriculum Development Project Steering Group, Council of Social Work Education, London.

[3] T. Modood, ‘Inequality, Identity, Belonging,’ Conference Briefing, 1-2 November 2018


  1. Many thanks and congratulates to Tunde on a timely and insightful intervention. I’d like to add two points:

    1. Workers at Grunwicks were not victorious. In the end they were let down by the TUC, including, as I recall Jack Dromey. Workers, and often their unions, frequently played a progressive role on questions of equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s, but there were generally debates and divisions within the movement, which we should not elide.
    2. For me, the big question about BLM is why, even in South Africa, did the life of one black man in the US attract more attention than the killing of black people on the continent? At the time of his killing at least 7 people had been killed by security forces under the lockdown, and there have been more since. Of course, on the left, we mobilised around the killing of George Floyd and tried to link it with South African killings, specifically that of Collins Khosa, but there wasn’t widespread resonance? I don’t know the answer to my question. Maybe it’s partly to do with the way that police brutality is normalised in SA, as in other African countries. Actually, there wasn’t an outpouring of solidarity after the Marikana Massacre. Perhaps, also, there is something about the way that a particular event can focus and express sentiments that have been building for a long period of time.

  2. Kate Alexander wonders why the killing of George Flloyd prompted a world-wide response has crystallised as a movement (BLM) and shows some sign of lasting at least a few months. I also have thought about this.

    I recall the self-immolation of the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, which triggered a movement leading to the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship a month later and initiated what came to be referred to as the ‘Arab Spring.’ In his discussion of this sequence of events, Habib Ayeb (in his blog for the RoAPE website last year) suggested that this was an extreme event which could not be ignored, singularly brutal and dramatic; it scared, made for anxiety and disquiet, and posed stark questions. Setting ones-self on fire is not the same as being choked to death by an apparently unconcerned police officer; but both were singular, stark, brutal, horrific and, in an important sense unavoidable.

    I suggest that these two have something in common with other iconic incidents, in which the focus on a singular individual is ‘captured’ (usually visually) in a singular image – just as Kim Phuc, caught in a moment of desperation after being burned by napalm in 1972, encapsulated the terror of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and the photo of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong prisoner demonstrated the direct violence of the US and South Vietnamese military towards even helpless prisoners of war.

    These were the unpredictable triggers for mass emotional response, and such ‘triggers’ can only have a wider social and political impact if they connect to a broader underlying trend or flow – as Shakespeare well understood and expressed in Julius Caesar (‘there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to victory…) – and if the flood of emotion can be channelled and organized. It is for those who want to promote revolutionary change, in attitudes and in behaviour, to be able to recognise these ‘straws’ that may, as it were, ‘break the camel’s back’, and literally make the most of them. With social media this may be easier than before, as ‘trending’ can have rapid and widespread repercussions.

    As for Zack-William’s piece, I agree wholeheartedly that we need to break down conventional disciplinary and other conventional barriers to address the realities of a world in which such limited frameworks and perspectives are inadequate and outmoded

  3. Maybe the South African equivalent is the killing of Hector Pieterson at the start of the Soweto Uprising. The image of Jayaben Desai at Grunwick is similar perhaps. Suggests people can identify with an individual better than a group. Probably something in this, but there can also be responses to massacres – this is important in Rosa Luxemburg’s theorisation of the mass strike, and I can think of other examples. Suggests context also matters (excuse the hackneyed formulation).

  4. Gavin,

    I do think that NUM – with its relationship to Cyril, the SACP etc – is part of the answer. However, NUMSA, despite different politics, went along with a consensus resolution at the COSATU congress just after the massacre, which is interesting in relation to Tunde’s piece, because at Grunwick Scargill’s NUM defused a really powerful mass picket to maintain unity with the TUC leadership. I remember doing a meeting with NUMSA shop stewards just after the massacre. There’s no doubt they were shaken, and a bit fearful the state might unleash deadly force on them one day. We also discussed muti, which revealed (to me) a cultural divide between mineworkers/rural/poorly educated and metalworkers/urban/educated. It’s not that NUMSA members are like Marx’s ‘labour aristocrats’, they are not, but workers experience exploitation in different ways and carry different kinds of baggage. Rather than regarding solidarity action as a norm, or at least an expectation, we should regard it as context specific and something that has to be led. I don’t want to suggest there was no solidarity action after Marikana. Malema did an amazing job going from one mine to another persuading miners (especially on gold) to engage in wildcat action in support of the Marikana R12,500, or similar. This has never been documented to best of my knowledge.

    But, all this misses the point. This is not just a South African story. In several countries around Africa, the state has been ruthless, sometimes barbaric, in implementing lockdowns, and there’s no flicker of Black Lives Matter, except as an echo of what happened to George Floyd and the amazing demonstrations that followed in the US, UK and elsewhere.



  5. This is a great discussion and one that can’t really be captured as quickly in journals and hence one of the reasons we set up ROAPE.NET. It is great that we can capture such discussions under the original articles that spark them as the comments are then here for us all as a resource and we can add to it until another article is generated by the discussion. In such rapidly shifting times, the immediacy of a digital space is really helpful and initially more useful than a journal.
    Thanks everyone!


  6. Dear Peter/All:

    This is a great thread, to which I’d like to respectfully contribute as follows:

    I think Professor Zack-Williams’ original post, while helpful overall, may have glossed over two, maybe three, questions that I think are extremely important.

    The first is the question of how we, as scholars, should react to social movements or groups advocating for change in general. The question is far from redundant, considering how quickly social movements evolve in response to both internal and external stimuli. What kind of attitude can we maintain without jeopardizing the critical distance that is a desideratum of our work, and one that we are always going to need in order to have a proper understanding of group dynamics that will deepen our insight as scholars? I don’t know if there are easy or fixed answers to this, since the question itself begs matters of context that we can’t anticipate or know in advance, but the question is pertinent all the same.

    The second question, arising from the first, is how we react to BLM as a particular social movement, and here I am even less uncertain, and I would say that at the very least BLM has work to do before it should earn our solidarity. For one thing, as a man and family man, I worry at the explicitly anti-nuclear family and seemingly anti-male ethos of BLM. Take this sentence from its “What We Believe” for instance: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” One of the many things that make me uneasy about this sentence is the glaring omission of men/males. Could it be an oversight, after all, there is an explicit reference to “mothers”? I really don’t know, but I am definitely not comfortable aligning myself with a group that, on this evidence, does not see men as part of the network of “care” that it is willing to commit itself to. And, if I may ask, why do we need to “disrupt” the nuclear family in order to attain the just and noble political goals that BLM is apparently committed to? I really don’t know, and I would want someone to explain. The next sentence after the one I just quoted says: “We foster a queer-affirming network.” To which I say, fine. But why is it impossible to preserve the nuclear family and affirm the humanity of our queer colleagues and compatriots at the same time?

    I am the head of a nuclear family. I don’t want it disrupted. More to the point, I’d resist, as any reasonable person would be expected to, any attempt to “disrupt” it. How do I square my commitment to my family and BLM’s apparent determination to destabilize it?

    The questions I am asking are especially pertinent in an American context, where, across the ideological divide, there is a consensus that the disruption of family life is one of the main drivers of male black criminality and black poverty. Where, then, is the sense in seeking to disrupt something that apparently works for all racial groups, and one whose travails across the black community are a matter for concern?

    Finally: I don’t think the slogan Black Lives Matter travels well in Africa, where Western racial categories are not only meaningless, but may be misleading as a matter of fact. The key problem in Africa, one that Professor Alexander’s contribution gestured at, is the fact that the worth of the individual as a rights bearing person, deserving of dignity and respect, remains a foreign concept. This is one of the many reasons why the state in Africa, several decades after independence, remains a killing machine, exterminating the lives of its citizens with an impunity that borders on, yes, barbarism. We need as scholars of Africa to tackle this frontally, otherwise we will be doing ordinary people across the continent, whose voices and concerns continue to be missing in all of this, a great disservice. The main problem in Africa is that African lives do NOT matter, and this is not something we can continue to blame on outsiders. The persistence of various forms of lawfare and state-sanctioned violence in most of Africa is a frontal challenge to all of us in terms of the intellectual equipment with which we do our analysis and out understanding of the countries or regions of Africa that we study.

    I have more to say, but I know we all have things to do. The long and short of my rant is that we should hold our horses in terms of expressing solidarity with BLM. What we should do, on the contrary, is subject it to critical scrutiny, ask questions of it, and ask ourselves whether its ideas and slogans map on to everyday realities in Africa. Right now, I am dubious.

    Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this important thread.



  7. Dear all,

    I am grateful for our colleague Professor Obadare’s intervention, as I think it raises some difficult questions for us all. In that spirit, here are my own, immediate reactions to the conversation so far.

    First, I would agree that maintaining critical distance from movements is important, particularly with BLM. My concerns are somewhat different from Professor Obadare, but also relevant. I am especially unhappy about the ease with which multinational corporations like Amazon have co-opted the BLM message, encouraged by activists, whilst continuing to crush union organisers among their own workers. The fact that the movement has buoyed the career of corporate consultants and other entrepreneurial “thought leaders”, like Robin DiAngelo, who seek to profit from book sales and expensive antibias training, is another important worry. Finally, the obvious pandering by a range of centrist politicians, who pay lip service to the movement, whilst taking no real actions, is grating to say the least. These are not necessarily the fault of BLM activists, but the drift towards empty, neo-liberal diversity-based solutions is a disheartening development.

    Next, I think it is important to think about the nature of BLM as a movement. There has been some controversy around statements found on websites that use the BLM name, both in the US and the UK, but I would argue that it does not exist as a centralised movement, that has clear principles or objectives. The diffuse and global nature of the recent protests, together with the adoption of the slogan Black Lives Matter by a range of organisations, from radical activists to corporate PR executives, makes it difficult to see it as representing much beyond the general agreement that black people should not be murdered by the police. Indeed, it is far from clear what gives the BLM UK website the authority to represent the movement nationally, beyond the fact that they registered the domain name first. The fact that the websites do not represent the movement helps to explain why centrist politicians can claim to support it, whilst clearly opposing many of the policies endorsed by BLM activists.

    The points on the family and social issues are particularly interesting, because they point to what I see as wider tensions opening up on the left. My own (perhaps generous) understanding of BLM, is that it seeks to disrupt the nuclear family as a patriarchal institution that constrains women (and some men). Thus I am less worried about this aspect than our colleague. However, I am aware that this the nuclear family is important to many of our religious colleagues, as it plays a key role in biblical teachings, which is a key point of tension with those of us who are more secular. I am also wary of the narrative of black family decline as an explanation of poverty in the US, as this has been used by the right as a way of blaming black people, particularly single mothers, for their problems. This narrative has also played into arguments about poverty driven by culture or the feminisation of young black men, which I see as especially harmful in their policy implications(see for instance work of Lawrence Mead, the mastermind behind “workfare”). However, there are many in the African American community who have expressed concern about the issue of the family, so it seems like a mistake to dismiss them outright, when evincing concern for black lives.

    The fact that I disagree with Professor Obadare is symptomatic of a wider issue which I see, particularly among those of us in the African diaspora. Many Africans, whilst they may be steadfast in their struggles against authoritarian states on the continent, could be considered socially conservative by the standards of Western leftists. A commitment to the family, indeed to a family headed by a man, is seen not as right wing, but as common sense in many parts of Africa. Moreover, as the Western left is increasingly keen to emphasise the importance of female activists and leaders and the struggles of queer people, some African activists may become uncomfortable, particularly by the spoken, or implied, relegation of men to, at best, a supportive role. Indeed, in my own work with social movements in Zimbabwe, there was a tension between feminist activists and the wider movement to challenge the authoritarian government, especially over whether or not men should be included in efforts to address issues around gender. Ultimately, these divergences on cultural issues are emerging as an important divide that could become destructive in the future. The fact that activists in the West see many of these issues as settled is a problem, as it obscures these divides that exist on the left, as well as between left and right.

    Finally, I share our colleague’s concern about Western slogans travelling to Africa but am more optimistic about their potential. He is correct that concern for Black lives has a very different meaning in Africa to in the West, and that the main perpetrators of violence are African governments, often led by those who claim the mantle of anticolonial leadership. This does not mean that race does not play a part in understanding the struggles of African people, but that it cannot be understood through the same frameworks as those developed by African Americans. Whilst the struggles of black people in the mid-20th century may have looked very similar across the globe, they have diverged in significant ways during the 21st. However, there are clearly still resonances which should not be ignored. #ZimbabweLivesMatter is currently trending across Twitter, as Zimbabwean activists weather another onslaught of violence by their militarised elite. This follows a wave of social movements five years ago, sparked by the formation of Occupy Africa Unity Square in Harare. I am sure other examples can be found across the continent, demonstrating the importance of these global symbols of rebellion in inspiring new generations of activists.

    I don’t necessarily have any answers to the questions that have been raised, especially those around tensions on the left, by I think it is important that we have these conversations and continue to engage productively. To that end, I am grateful to Professor Obadare in particular, for inspiring these thoughts.


    Farai Chipato

    Reviews Editor

    Review of African Political Economy

  8. A further twist.

    Tomorrow (Sat 5 Sept) in Jo’burg, we have the funeral of Nathaniel Julius, the Down’s syndrome kid, killed by cops. There was some discussion in the C19PC Community Organising Working, of which I am part, about the slogan for the banner. #BlackLivesMatter was a problem, because contemporary usage excludes ‘coloureds’ and Nathaniel is coloured. #ColouredLivesMatter is a conservative reaction. #AllLivesMatter had support, but rejected because of the debate in the US and UK. I thought we should go for #NathanielsLifeMattered because it might get picked out in international media. While some people thought this was focussing on one life above many others killed by the cops under lockdown, we eventually settled for a hashtag that is trending: #JusticeforNathanielJulius.

    Much depends on context it seems.

    Asivikelane! an isiZulu word conveying ‘I protect you, you protect me’ has become our main slogan. This concretisation of ‘solidarity’ has worked particularly well in relation to wearing of masks. Mask wearing has been a big problem in the townships, especially among unemployed youth, and we have tried to respond with a public education campaign that has met with some success.


  9. I am taken aback but should not be by the ZA political discussion, and one event that brought it to the fore. It tells me much that I would prefer not to know. But I am heartened by the positive way in which Peter and his comrades responded to the racial dilemma. We nevertheless still need to think a step backwards: if ‘Coloured lives matter’ is ‘conservative’, and Nathan Julius was not ‘black’. What was he?

    Let us contextualise it historically. Historical contexts (plural) matter – but people make them and define them.

    The Black Consciousness movement defined ‘black’ to include Africans, Coloureds, and Indians. That was what it turned on and was an important element in its successes. Unity Movement (originally Non European Unity Movement) had a similar perspective in this respect. The SACP was non-racial from its foundation in 1918. So was the Liberal Party. The ANC was limited to Africans until 1969. From 1954, maybe 1956, it was a constituent of the ‘multi-racial’ Congress Alliance. Then non-Africans could become members at Morogoro in 1969. The Pan-Africanist Congress, and Robert Sobukwe, did not exclude whites (e.g. Patrick Duncan) or Coloureds or Indians – whatever message they seemed to give out. UDF had a multiplicity of constituents, but was certainly not racial. Umkhonto definitely included Coloured, whites, and Indians. All of these are complex and contextual but not because ZA is exceptional. [Acknowledgement for making the above clear to me. RW Johnson !]

    So where is ‘politics’ now? ‘Class’ has disappeared from the political discourse, except among unions (?some) and labour-oriented intellectuals (who are becoming super-annuated ?). The contending left/ progressive movements contested over ‘class’ after and before WW II: and for very strong and historical reasons. Class politics had a strong base, as we know, among mineworkers, and also in Rand townships, school-teachers (Transkei and `Western Cape), and everywhere government imposed a ‘betterment’ scheme (from Tembuland to Central Kenya…. We know these and much more – but would they be central themes in a ‘decolonized syllabus’?

    Class, as was quite predictable, has since 1990 become ever more visible and less talked about. Is the discourse of ‘race’ displacing it (cf the history of the National Party) Or is it ‘status’ (Weber again). It certainly looks like it – that is what the political-economic-social elites have in common.

    BEE has placed ‘race’ (and a masculine style) in the middle of politics. My view of politics is first look for generation, and then at social mobility’. Add 2+2=BEE (compare the Nation Party cabinet in 1948)

    But it is even now more profitable to align with the ANC than BEE. The ANC is playing race politics with the categories defined by the Population Registration Act. Racial representativity in employment on a national level, for example, excludes Coloureds from jobs (and the ANC from Coloured votes) in the Western Cape and is intended to do so.

    Some simple demography: Coloureds are the 3rd largest ethnic group in ZA, after Zulu and Xhosa. Most Coloureds speak Afrikaans as a 1st language; they are a majority of Afrikaans speakers. So is Afrikaans the ‘language of the oppressors’?

    Coloureds are not ‘mixed-race’ except in the sense that we all are. They are not in social or legal terms the equivalent to mesticos. In 1798, there were 14.000 Khoi, 24,000 slaves (from memory) of 61,000 in the Cape Colony, where most Coloured families came from. They were rarely the descendants of white settlers and Africans. A significant proportion of the ‘oldest Cape families’ included slaves and ‘free blacks’ among their ancestors/descendants. ‘Coloureds’ is the term generally used today by Coloureds, and with reference to them in both English and Afrikaans. [I am not trying to show off – it obviously matters what people are called and call themselves,]

  10. Comrades,

    Thanks for airing these really helpful reflections on the ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement fits into progressive politics. It was enlightening to see how different settings and different positionality bring out a variety of tensions and concerns. But is also raises the question of whether we ask progressive movements to do too many things simultaneously, and in the process weaken their capacity for constructive mobilization and change. In talking about Black Lives Matter, it’s worth thinking about how context also matters in shaping a progressive anti-racist message.

    Kate’s account of the debates about the slogan for Nathaniel Julius is a perfect example. In South Africa, Black Lives Matter poses problems because Nathaniel Julius was coloured. In the US, there would be no issue — mixed race people are sociologically classified as Black if there is any known Black ancestry (though the opposite is clearly true for Native American ancestry!). As Ebenezer noted, the Black Lives Matter message, as literally interpreted, loses meaning in many non-settler African societies, and tends to merge with the All Lives Matter message, which in the US and UK context is non-progressive.

    But is this really the point? As Zack pointed out in his blog, progressive movements used to make a point of transgressing these fine racial definitions through ‘political blackness’ in which Asians and other visible minorities would call themselves Black as a means of mobilizing conversations and movements about the unjust experiences of being non-white. A Black identity was used to unite people around political issues, rather than divide them around racial and sociological distinctions. In some ways, the Black Lives Matter campaign has taken this a step further in the US, since many white Americans on the left look at what happened to George Floyd and realize that killing unarmed Black people is not just an issue about race, it’s an issue about the police. If they can do that to a young unarmed Black man with impunity, they can do it to my son as well, or to me — as they are now learning the hard way in clashes between protesters of all colours and the police and Border Patrol Units. The objective of Black Lives Matter, as many have noted, is inclusive, rather than exclusive: not only Black Lives Matter, but Black Lives Matter too — because all lives are supposed to matter.

    In the non-settler African context, I agree that it takes a different inflection, but there are already many progressive currents that go beyond solidarity with American Blacks. An article some month ago in Premium Times by Abdulbasit Kassim ( reflects on ‘silenced history’ in Nigeria, and urges new reflection on the ways in which locally celebrated historical figures played a role in the TransAtlantic slave trade. Kassim asks whether statues of particularly brutal Nigerian slave traders turned national icons should also fall. This gets back to Ebenezer’s concern in the African context about the need for a focus on human rights and the nature of leadership– but it comes through the Black Lives Matter campaign, not in opposition to it.

    I hope these reflections are not too far behind the curve, but I see an opportunity to engage with Black Lives Matter as a movement for progressive reflection and mobilization around racial injustice, rather than as something that focuses our attention on being or not being Black. It means different things in different places because the issues and allies against racial injustice are different, and that’s fine. When the objective is uniting people around a progressive agenda, it can be useful to keep the boundaries loose and more contextual.

    I think ROAPE, through discussion and engagement with debates emerging from various African contexts, can play a useful role in supporting the progressive energy of the Black Lives Matter campaign as it moves back across the Atlantic, highlighting new inflections and discussions as it takes root in particular contexts, and reflecting on where it is, or isn’t, an effective means of advancing the struggle against the forces of racial injustice.

    Thanks, Kate (M.)

  11. Thanks to everyone for this thoughtful discussion on BLM and progressive politics in different contexts. Special appreciation to Kate Meager for your eloquent analysis. I agree with your position, that the discourse used will vary in different contexts. What is important is to recognise and respect what they mean, and have space like ROAPE for an open discussion.

    In solidarity,


  12. We should not be surprised that #BlackLivesMatter does not travel too well. Afterall, the meaning of racial and ethnic terminology is also historically determined (boring!). I wonder, though, if going down on a bended knee is different? We’ve tried that a few times and it works quite nicely (except for older folk with creaky knees). Maybe it’s come to signify opposition to police brutality and a recognition of this as a global phenomenon. Be interesting to know about experiences elsewhere. Fists probably travel better and its great to see them in a multitude of colours. Lots of scope for comparative papers and continental collaborations (musing, not volunteering).

    Kate A

  13. Sorry for hogging this fascinating space, especially as there are other comrades on this list who could be responding from SA.

    In response to Gavin, class and race are very much alive, even if meanings have altered. A few examples:

    1. There was a debate within the C19PC about what we meant by mobilising the w/c. One group identified the term with employed workers, but those coming from a community/unemployed background won the argument for a broader definition. This is an old issue and the debate that will go on.
    2. Returning to #BlackLivesMatter, I saw a placard at the big funeral on Saturday that read #BrownLivesMatters. I guess ‘brown’ is an advance on ‘coloured’.
    3. Today, the EFF is out picketing Clicks pharmacy stores, complaining about a racist advertisement for a particular hair product. Of course Clicks are in the wrong, but I wish the EFF had been as active in dealing with job losses, hunger, public education etc. In practice, they prefer race to class.
    4. In quant research I’ve been doing, class (in the sense of income) and race are turning out to be key predictors of almost everything, and there’s an overlap between the two in terms of the distinction between suburb and townships. Attitudes towards schools re-opening were completely different among the poor and relatively well off; whites are experiencing more distress than black people; there is still a high level of mask wearing in the suburbs and a disturbingly low one in the townships.


  14. Thanks to Tunde for this reflexive blog and especially for the further readings. I am very pleased to see my more recent article being listed along with the classic essay by Mafaje on the SOWETO Students’ Uprising and the response from Ruth First from the 1970s.

    I think that a lot of the questions being raised for Tunde in the comments section were also raised and answered by Ruth First. The idea that scholars should maintain a critical distance from social movements is a bourgeois notion that is alien to the scholar-activism which informs the work in critical and centered Africana Studies and other critical disciplines. I believe that this is a challenge that Tunde is posing to us – the need to be more actively organic in our intellectual roles by transforming our institutional settings while also engaging with the social movements around us as activists and not simply as careerists. Why should African Studies and Africana Studies continue to struggle for scarce resources instead of coming together as a unified field for the study of the continent and the global presence of the people?

    Ruth First critiqued Mafaje in a related sense by questioning the ‘mechanical’ statement that what was going on in South Africa was only class struggles and not also struggles against racism, and against sexism by extension. This is the evidence that Stuart Hall abstracted from Harold Wolpe on ‘Capitalism and Cheap Labor Power in South Africa’ to theorize race-class-gender articulation.

    Given such an advancement of knowledge from Cultural Studies about the intersectionality of race-class-gender oppression and resistance, no African should feel threatened as a ‘male head of a nuclear family’ when BLM demands an end to gender oppression within the family, along with an end to racism and an end to imperialism; no African should pretend that racism is absent from Africa when ethnicity is often more deadly in genocidal killings in Africa compared to racist killings in recent times; and Africans should realize that racism-sexism-imperialism constitute problems for all, including for white people, as Ruth First demonstrated by being an activist against all oppressions in comradeship with Africans. That is why white people are also involved in BLM protests because white supremacy, sexism and imperialism are threats to all.


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