Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 81: ACAS Thirty Years On

On Scholar Activism (1988)

February 2009

I remember vividly a conversation with the late FRELIMO President Samora Machel in my garden in Dar es Salaam in 1972. I had done a variety of odd-jobs for the Mozambican liberation movement during the seven years of my teaching tenure in Tanzania and a few weeks earlier Machel had arranged for me to accompany FRELIMO guerrillas on a trip into the liberated areas of Tete province. Now he had com to bid me and my family goodbye as we packed to leave Tanzania.

“You have now seen something of our struggle”, he said. “But for most Canadians their knowledge of it is at point zero. You must try to do something about that when you return home.” It was not an order exactly, yet I could literally feel his will galvanizing me into action, communicating to me personally the kind of drive and purpose I have seen him communicate to Mozambicans, singly and in large gatherings, both before and since that day. It was no accident that on my return to Canada I would soon find myself working with others to launch the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies, TCLPAC (which, as the since renamed Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa, TCLSAC, celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 1987). No accident, either, that this kind of experience was to have a profound impact on my scientific work.

Like so many other “activist scholars concerned with Africa”, I thus discovered my vocation for political work around African issues — and, in my case, specifically around Southern African issues — in Africa itself. And certainly, “in the last decade (or so)”, those of us who have followed this path have been privileged to accompany a remarkable upsurge of popular assertion in the region — the overthrow of the Portuguese colonial presence, the downfall of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, the revitalization of the resistance movement in South Africa. Self-evidently, the struggle for liberation which we now seek both to interpret and to facilitate is at a very different level than it was in the dark days of the 1960s when South Africa’s first Emergency crushed hopes for significant changes for a decade and reduced the anti-apartheid constituency in western countries to a debilitating posture of mere moralizing about a seemingly static situation.

Of course, the situation in Southern Africa remains framed by the larger development crisis in Africa as a whole: no-one can now pretend, if ever they did, to have any very ready answers to the problems which confront the continent. More immediately, the regional conjuncture is marked by the continuing vitality of the apartheid state itself. This is a state contested in new ways — in ways that the more recent and on-going Emergency can only forestall although not, this time, crush — but it is strong nonetheless. Strong enough, unfortunately, to smash by means of its destabilization strategy the high hopes that accompanied Samora Machel and his colleagues into power in 1975. And strong enough, at least in the short-run, to stalemate the euphoria and the momentum which characterized the South African resistance movement’s advances of the period 1984 to 1986. No-one can doubt that there is unfinished business in Southern Africa and if, as is obvious, the main protagonists of renewed advance must be Southern Africans themselves, there is also more than enough unfinished business for “activist scholars” to be getting on with.

But what is our “business”? We should not underestimate the extent to which it is, in fact, scholarship, scholarship shaped by our activism and our commitment to the struggle in Southern Africa, but scholarship nonetheless. Not that we need apologize for twinning the terms “activism” and “scholarship”. Quite the contrary, since scholarly preoccupations — the questions asked — do not spring spontaneously from the data but are themselves shaped by an on-going process of “ideological class struggle”. As it happens, there are few fields of scholarly endeavour where radical intellectual work has had such a profound impact as in African Studies. This is precisely because an impressive level of engagement has encouraged as many “Africanists” as it has to ask the hard and searching questions that a more conservative and passive scholarship would obscure.

Engagement can only take us so far, of course. Once those “hard and searching questions” have been posed, adequate answers to them can only be found by doing full justice to the highest scholarly-cum-scientific canons — in elaborating arguments, pursuing data and weighing evidence. Needless to say, there will always be the danger of shaping our analyses to fit our preconceptions. We must work to keep each other honest as we continue to walk the tightrope of understanding regarding Southern Africa: scrutinizing carefully the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the various post-colonial and socialist projects in the region, for example, while never losing sight of the broader context of South African destabilization, the crippling impact of which so profoundly blights all development efforts there; evaluating the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the resistance movement in South Africa itself while never losing sight of the shifting mix of repression and pseudo-reform which defines the powerful drag of apartheid state and racial capital upon the drive for liberation.

Let me emphasize that something more than mere intellectual honesty for its own sake is at stake here. Analytical rigor is actually of direct and profound importance to the anti-apartheid movement itself. For an anti-apartheid movement built on mere enthusiasm and apolitical moralizing cannot easily survive the cruel vicissitudes inevitable in so difficult a struggle as the one for Southern Africa; those who stay the course, experience attests, are those who are least naive. Of course, the most salient voice itemizing those vicissitudes must be that of Southern Africans themselves. Yet the analyses we have produced as “scholar-activists” have, in western countries, percolated usefully through the profession, through the anti-apartheid movement broadly-defined and even into the public arena, where – rather against the odds and without overstating the case –we can at least presume to assert (with Brecht) that “our rulers would have slept more comfortably without us”!

Engagement and scholarship, then. But a warning: militant sentiments manifested exclusively in the privacy of one’s own study are unlikely to sustain themselves or to retain their relevance. At the very least we must be better publicists, forcing the pace of the percolation process just referred to by self-consciously developing, each and every one of us, additional kinds of communications skills crafted to reach a wider range of potential audiences. Even more importantly, we must sustain our involvement, alongside others approaching the Southern Africa issue from different angles and different life experiences, within the anti-apartheid movement itself.

This is essential, as I have suggested, because activism — including such apparent “shit-work” as licking stamps and pounding the pavements! — is not merely good for the scholar’s soul but also for his or her brain. Self-evidently such activity is equally important for its more immediate and tangible impact on the struggle itself. Certainly, those of us who have been involved in the sanctions campaign — on-campus or off — have been active on a key front for both weakening the South African regime over time and for expanding the anti-apartheid constituency. At least as crucial, and rather less developed as an action front, is the building of direct support for the beleaguered progressive governments of Southern Africa (Angola and Mozambique, in particular) and for the progressive movements for change in South Africa and Namibia (the ANC-UDF-COSATU alliance and SWAPO, in particular).

Such support work for liberation is in many ways even more difficult to carry out than sanctions-related activity. Several factors produce a much less responsive and united audience for it in North America. There is, in the first instance, the prevailing 1980s’ atmosphere of Reagan/Thatcher-style global red-baiting and, linked to it, the promiscuous use in public discussion of the emotive charge of “terrorism”. There is the sincere but too often misleading, selective and overly comfortable predilection for “non-violence”. And there are the tensions and confusions still generated within the anti-apartheid movement itself by the manipulation of oversimplified “black consciousness” formulations. Yet in light of the intransigence of the South African regime and the consequent inevitability of escalating conflict, there will be an even greater necessity in future to support the on-going popular struggle — including armed struggle — in South Africa. We must, as activists and as scholars, move to comprehend and seek to legitimate that struggle even more successfully than we have done to date.

I began this brief note by invoking the name of Samora Machel, so important in shaping my own commitment and that of many others touched by the Mozambican experience. Let me close by invoking another name, that of Ruth First, friend and former colleague at the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, and a formidable exemplar of the “activist-scholar” role if ever there was one. Her substantial contributions to both the hands-on struggle in South Africa and to progressive Africanist scholarship are well known. But note something else. She was assassinated in 1982 when, as Director of Research at the university’s Center of African Studies, she was using her formidable skills to design research and training programs extremely helpful to the Mozambican development effort. Moreover, only days before her death she had helped host a meeting of scholars drawn from all of the Frontline States of Southern Africa, a meeting designed to coordinate and focus research efforts the better to service the region-wide struggle against South African hegemony. There seems little doubt that her success in thus putting scholarship at the service of the Southern African revolution was the chief reason why the South Africans felt compelled to kill her.

Of course, few of us are as close to the front-line, either physically or spiritually, as was Ruth First –n or are we ever likely to be quite so dramatically at risk. Yet the urgency of the present situation in Southern Africa surely dictates that he attempt to be as committed as she was — and even that we be prepared to take a few risks. In short, her spirit is something that, as aspirant “scholar-activists”, we must seek to emulate.

Originally published in ACAS 10 years On – Now, ACAS Bulletin 23 (1988), pp. 35-40.

Reprinted in ACAS Bulletin 81