I recently returned from a workshop at the University of Pretoria, organised as part of the project The Comparative History of Political Engagement in Western and African Societies led by a team at the University of Sheffield. As well as enjoying a very hospitable welcome, I also had a very stimulating series of discussions, which have given me much food for thought about further extension of the debate on ‘revolution’ in the modern world.
While recent events have made us focus attention on ‘bottom-up’ revolutionary upheavals, the role of spontaneous interactions and technology in popular mobilizations, and the general question of ‘crowds’ and their agency, a closer look at African examples reminds us that ‘top-down’ modes of revolutionary activism also continue to have a strong role to play.
Henning Melber offered us an excellent overview of the extent to which African liberation movements into the present continue to use the rhetoric of liberation as closure, of the achievement of a sort of ‘end of history’ through the movement’s leadership, and necessarily alongside that, the closing-off of possibilities for dissent. Such movements demonstrate simultaneous abilities to use, for example, laws established in the colonial period to repress opposition, and rhetoric that brands such opposition as neo-imperialist conspiracy.
Lloyd Sachikonye observed how electoral processes in ‘liberated’ African nations were routinely undermined by violence, over 80% of which came from ruling parties and their affiliated organisations, and Brian Raftopoulos offered a vivid case-study of the steady destruction of an autonomous labour movement in Zimbabwe through its subordination to the demands of a ‘National Democratic Revolution’, that was in practice technocratic and authoritarian – and prejudiced against urban workers in general through its political powerbase in land-hungry war-veterans.
David Anderson presented chilling evidence of the example that systematic persecution of Mau Mau soldiers by the British authorities in the 1950s gave to the essentially anti-Mau Mau governments of independent Kenya. Torture and shameless violence continued to mark politics throughout the late twentieth century. This included the astonishing story of Nyayo House, an office-block in Nairobi, completed in 1984, and later exposed as having purpose-built torture-chambers in a sixth-level sub-basement.
Like many African conflicts, that in Kenya tangled the concept of ‘national’ identity within colonial boundaries with that of ethnicity, and lived senses of community. Baz Lecocq showed us how in Mali the ‘black’ Mande ethnic leadership took the post-independence lead in defining the supposedly egalitarian features of their agricultural traditions as Malian national identity, while treating the ‘white’ Tuareg of the north of the country as a deviant, lazy, backward-looking feudal remnant. Policies of forced settlement alongside continual cultural humiliations were a systematic effort at cultural delegitimisation, and at the heart of a movement towards open revolt from the Tuareg as socio-economic conditions worsened towards the end of the century.
Finally on Africa, Emma Hunter offered a stimulating series of questions about how, outside mechanisms of overt violence, different mechanisms of public engagement could work with and across post-colonial governments. The tensions that result are illustrated in the history of Tanzania’s Ujamaa under Julius Nyerere – despite governmental claims, Swahili did not provide the common language to overcome tribal divisions, and movements to ‘villagization’ cut coercively across claims about cooperation and consultation. Nonetheless, organs including the press remained open as routes of dissent, even if having to tread a careful line of framing loyalty.
What, for me, was most striking about all of these analyses was the extent to which parallels with the French revolutionary experience could so easily be made. It would be trite to rehearse these here, ‘as if’ the earlier merely fed unmediated into the later, but the discussions in and around these papers clearly showed that there is a wider comparison, and structural analysis, to be made. The various models of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ revolutionary mobilization have clearly had a recurrent influence across the centuries of modernity – and indeed are a substantial constituent of ‘modernity’ as a concept itself. A global perspective shows us that we never did reach the ‘end of history’ so vaunted a generation ago, and for historians, there is much more reflection to be done on the cycles of hope and dread packaged as ‘revolutionary’ progress.