By Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa
As we commemorate through a month-long programme that historic day in Addis Ababa when Africa leaders gathered to establish the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) let us not lose sight of the significance of those times. Africans were seized with the establishment of independent states in the post World War II wave of decolonisation. Kwame Nkrumah, speaking on this historic occasion said: “African union now. There is no time to waste. We must unite now or perish. I am confident that by our concerted effort and determination, we shall lay here the foundations for a continental Union of African States.”
He proceeded to elaborate on the reasons for Union: “But just as we understood that the shaping of our national destinies required of each of us our political independence and bent all our strength to this attainment, so we must recognise that our economic independence resides in our African union and requires the same concentration upon the political achievement….African unity is, above all, a political kingdom which can only be gained by political means. The social and economic development of Africa will come only within the political kingdom, not the other way round.”
His words, embodying the spirit of those times, still resonate across the decades as the organisation was formed in 1963 to articulate the aspirations of African people and to liberate them from colonialism.
The OAU was founded by independent nations and it was the realisation of a dream that had taken root at the turn of the century. The quest for African unity had been echoed by those who had gone before him like Marcus Mosiah Garvey, W.E. Du Bois and Sylvester Henry Williams alongside many other leaders of the Pan Africanist movement, including our own founding leaders of the South African Native National Congress in 1912.
Pan Africanism began as a movement to liberate black people from colonialism and slavery. But it also advocated the unity of all black people in the world in the face of segregation and racism. Intellectuals from the African Diaspora also played a pivotal role in convening a number of Pan-Africanist Congresses to fight for the freedom and self-determination of Africa.
At the 5th Pan Africanist Congress held in Manchester, attended by representatives from Africa such as Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah, this conference affirmed “the right of all colonial peoples to control their own destiny” and for all colonies to “be free from foreign imperialist control, be it political or economic”.
It inspired African leaders present to be at the forefront of anti-colonial struggle in their countries. Kwame Nkrumah was also tasked with the responsibility to champion the course of African unity.
Ghana was one of the first African countries to gain independence and embraced the challenge with open arms. It put together resources to bring about the winds of change for independence in Africa. The country convened under the leadership of Nkrumah the first All African People’s Conference in 1958. Nkrumah used the conference to challenge independent states and leaders present to help free other countries that had not gained their independence.
It is through the efforts of selfless leaders like Nkrumah that all African states are today independent. South Africa was among the last countries to gain independence in 1994 and immediately become a member of the OAU. With freedom from political bondage, the African Union (AU) shifted its focus to promote peace, security and stability on the continent.
It took heed of the wise words of Nkrumah who said the “struggle against colonialism does not end with the attainment of national independence.”
The organisation is now at the forefront to ensure economic emancipation and socio-economic development in Africa. It leads the promotion of regional and market integration that will see the lowering of transport costs, enable the free movement of goods, services and people and encourage the optimisation of resources.
South Africa has also played its part in building the continent and continues to support operations and implementation of AU plans. We are the host of the Pan African Parliament and hosted the African Union summit last year where African leaders discussed ways in which we can work together to achieve the objectives of Africa's Agenda 2063 vision. We remain seized together with other African states in promoting democracy, human rights and good governance.
President Jacob Zuma was this year appointed chairperson of the Africa Union High Level Panel tasked with facilitating talks to quell the volatile situation in Burundi. He also led the five-heads of state delegation to Burundi in February to meet opposing parties and urged them to work together towards finding a lasting solution to the crisis and was the mediator of the 2000 peace agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war.
These achievements of the AU and its leadership on the continent continue every day to build the foundation for the struggle for self-determination. The story of Africa’s quest for unity should be told and retold. The month of May gives us an opportunity to reflect on progress we have made since then and what still needs to be done.
It is through these stories and our accomplishments that we can inspire the new generation to take the baton just like Nkrumah did and unite all Africans towards a common destiny. Ours is quest for political unity and economic independence and a struggle against racism; and through a festival of ideas this month and a celebration of cuisine, music, literature, visual arts and culture we are taking further steps to realise the dream of Nkrumah and many others - that Africa must unite.