In attendance at Dakar’s World Social Forum (WSF), the Kenyan scholar Firoze Manji gives us his thoughts on the renaissance of popular movements in Africa. The editor of Pambazuka News, he is very critical of the ‘aid industry’, an industry which hampers Africans’ recovery of their continent, made rotten with corruption and the pillaging of natural resources.

BASTA!: What are the features of Africa’s civil society?

FIROZE MANJI: In Africa there have historically been two types of civil society, those that have collaborated with the colonial power and those which have opposed it. Today we face the same situation: there are those who associate with the aid industry – who draw benefits from it and who use the language of development – and there are those who talk about emancipation. There are, of course, many nuances between these two groups, between those who work with a charitable developmental vision and those who work towards the emancipation of Africans. In general, local organisations, trade unions and peasants’ movements – in light of their direct interest in their own freedom – have a very different dynamic to those who participate in the aid industry.

BASTA!: Are the big NGOs (non-governmental organisations) harmful towards Africa?

FIROZE MANJI: Let’s not talk about their motivations, which are often good. The question is not about evaluating their intentions, but rather the actual consequences of their actions. In a political context where people are oppressed, a humanitarian organisation does nothing but soften the situation, rather than addressing the problem. If you look at this from a historical perspective, a number of NGOs unconsciously participate in a situation involving oppression. Here you can see similarities with occupied France. Some people, albeit with good intentions, objectively participated in the Vichy regime. Between active collaboration and resistance, a large spectre of possibilities exists. We find the same situation in Africa today.

Who will change the world, African citizens or paternalist organisations? And according to whose interests? Let’s make a parallel with the feminist movement. It was born because women used their own tools of struggle. They didn’t call upon men to resolve the problem on their behalf. It’s similar for Africans. We can’t depend on others. Farmers and workers must be capable of organising themselves. When you look at the extraordinary range of natural resources in Africa, one of the richest continents in the world, why does it house the poorest population? Our role, as members of civil society who have had the benefit of an education, is to challenge this situation.

BASTA!: Will development aid be stopped?!

FIROZE MANJI: I have become anti-development. This wasn’t the case before. Let’s have an analogy: did those enslaved need to develop themselves, or to be free? I think that we need emancipation, not development. This concept was created at the beginning of the 1950s in a report by the US State Department. It was invented as a counterpoint to socialist influences and their popularity. This was done consciously. To speak of development is apolitical. We need to re-politicise the question of poverty.

BASTA!: If there are slaves, who are the masters?

FIROZE MANJI: We are dealing with an imperialist system, a new form of colonialism. These last 20 years we have faced a major change: the financialisation of capitalism. Now, nobody can do anything without capital. Finance controls each and every sector of society. It is time to ask who are these masters. To ask this question 10 years ago would mean you’d be treated as crazy. Today, it’s become a legitimate question. There are different interpretations, but nobody in Africa proclaims that we are independent anymore, not even the ruling class.

BASTA!: At the time of independence, all the sectors of African civil society were well-organised. Why have these organisations been swept aside?

FIROZE MANJI: At the heart of the newly independent states, the new ruling classes declared themselves solely in charge of development. In Kenya for example, peasants’ organisations were closed and integrated within the political parties, as happened with the women’s movements. Then the political parties themselves were closed in order to have nothing but the state party. Immediately after Kenya’s independence (1963), a great many important liberation figures were imprisoned, exiled or killed, such as Patrice Lumumba in Congo and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso. Each time a leader had the courage to rebel, Europe and the United States forced them to back down. We then came to know an empty period until the mid-1990s, when people began to resist and organise themselves again. Today in Kenya, spaces for discussion and debate are not lacking. It’s vibrant, alive and a general trend, including in Europe.

BASTA!: Does this spell a renaissance in both political consciousness and mobilisations alike?

FIROZE MANJI: People are asking questions more and more, and protesting. In the United Kingdom, people are asking why more money is always given to the banks, while hospitals and schools close. The number of people engaged in analysis and critical perspectives is growing greatly. Something new has appeared, and you see a resurgence in action. Of course, activism is not enough. The problem we have in Kenya is that capitalism is perceived, despite everything, as the only alternative.

We’re trying, therefore, to improve things. Capitalism is terrifying in itself. The facts speak for themselves: enormous land-grabbing, unemployment, impoverishment, rising infant mortality, rising food prices… In less than 10 years, more than half of the population will live around cities, trying to survive. The current questions change nothing, but they’re a good start!

BASTA!: Do new technologies play a role in the emergence of new social movements?

FIROZE MANJI: Of course, new technologies allow us communication and organisation, but let’s not forget that it is people who do it. Look at Tunisia: you hear that the revolution was caused by Twitter – this can’t be serious! Pens were also used as a means of information and mobilisation. Does this mean that pens caused the revolution? This illustrates a tendency towards technological determinism, towards hi-tech fetishism. We imagine that mobile phones, SMS (short message service), Twitter and Facebook have a power. This type of discussion tends to underestimate the role of those who use them. In Tunisia, protesting in the road called for a lot of courage. A protestor who embraces a soldier, as is seen in a photo, is not produced by technology. It’s thought that this can resolve everything, but a third of Africans have one and there hasn’t been revolution everywhere.

BASTA!: To give power back to the citizen, you talk about democratisation rather than democracy. Which is to say…?

FIROZE MANJI: Take for example agriculture: the bulk of what’s produced in Africa goes to feed Europe, multinationals and supermarkets. In Kenya we produce millions of flowers. Every day, they leave for Amsterdam. The amount of water used and the chemical products involved destroy our environment. While this goes on, populations have difficulty gaining access to water and food. The countryside ought to be used to produce food!

The question is, who decides this? Could we democratise decisions around what is produced, how it is produced and for whom? There is no procedure, no decision-making structure; there’s not even a debate around this, but simply an elite who decides and decrees what to do. Who should decide about what to grow and how to grow it? Agricultural production needs to be democratised.

The same thing happens with industrial production. Look at the unbelievable African natural resources; why don’t African benefit from them? I talked about this with some Venezuelan people. They told us their power of negotiation lies in their production of oil. In Africa, we’ve got oil, so why don’t we have this power of negotiation? This is essentially a political question. I think that Latin America is a dozen years ahead of us. Structural adjustment policies began there two decades ago. I think that in Africa a popular movement will rise up from this from 2020. Chávez is not an exception; he is the product of his history, of a movement for emancipation, like Lula. The question is, how can we ourselves politicise this process? It’s not easy; there’s no technical solution. Workers and farmers need to become organised. This takes time. The positive thing is that this point is now discussed; this wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

BASTA!: The crisis of confidence towards the capitalist system is a starting point. But if the best is possible, so too is the worst, as we see in the xenophobic actions spreading in Europe…

FIROZE MANJI: This could go in any direction. Following the 1929 crisis, a crisis of confidence swept across Europe, and Germany was a part of this, in the bad sense. The crisis of confidence is a necessary part of the process, but it’s not enough. With the discrediting of Stalinism, the concept of socialism is not longer attractive, and we therefore have to create a new ideology, of new aspirations. If this isn’t produced, we’ll enter into a very dangerous phase. Without a viable alternative, anybody could take advantage. This is a situation which is both terrifying and full of hope at the same time.

Firoze Manji is editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News. This interview was originally published by Basta! Interview conducted by Ivan du Roy and Jennifer Austruy, in cooperation with Politis. Translated from the French by Alex Free.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.