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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In Search of African Alternatives: Rethinking Chachage’s Legacy

It is exactly two years now since Professor Chachage passed away. So many things have passed since then. However, his legacy lives on in our minds and hearts. In a significant way he has become the (intellectual) conscience of our society.

As the history of ‘the making of a legend’ teaches us it is quite easy to lose sight of what iconic personalities really said and stood for. In our quest to immortalize the great women and men of our times it is easy to end up conflating myths and reality. Yes, we can end up wearing commoditized Che Guevara T-shirts without even thinking twice of how Che was actually opposed to capitalist commodification. We can indeed end up not knowing for sure whether Karl Marx really said “all I know is that I am not a Marxist”. Thus we need to guard ourselves against blindly mythologizing Chachage as we reflect on who he was/is and what he really stood/stand for.

In this memoir, which can by no means do justice to Chachage, I attempt to offer a brief narrative of his intellectual trajectory. Of particular interest is how far he has gone in searching for African alternatives on the way we theorize/think and practice/act on matters of importance to our society. In the spirit of academic honesty which he subscribed to, let us let him speak for himself on how consistent or/and contradictory he was in his search for the knowledge-cum-truth that will liberate us from colonial mentality and neo-colonial dependency.

Probably the best place to start is in his first novel, Sudi ya Yohana. Here we see Chachage, then an undergraduate student at the University of Dar-es-Salaam (UDSM), attempting to come up with a tragedy that aims to provide “object lessons and a new level of ethics in a new society that we are building” Of course, writing in 1981, here he was referring to building Ujamaa and Self-Reliance. However, he was not writing as a brainwashed idealist or ideologue of Ujamaa. In as much as he believed in Ujamaa he was conscious enough to see through its rhetoric and thus portray how it had been hijacked by the ruling class. For instance, he portrays how Ujamaa villagization was used by the ruling elites to acquire large chunks of land. He also portrays how the workers movement was co-opted in the name of Ujamaa and Unity.

It is quite clear that working at the Tanzania Publishing House (TPH) prior to his university years provided Chachage with a base for accessing a lot of local revolutionary literatures. This were the times when TPH had the revolutionary audacity to publish books such as Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Issa Shivji’s Class Struggles in Tanzania and ‘Lucas Khamisi’s’ Imperialism Today: A Contribution to the University of Dar-es-Salaam Debate. Being a voracious reader that he was, having devoured the voluminous writings of the likes of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-tung during his high school and national service years, Chachage must have eagerly embraced the challenge to make sense of what The Intellectuals at the Hill were debating about our state in the international context.

By the time he joined the Hill as a student in 1979 Chachage was already well versed in the texts of the times. Naturally, in 1981 he became a member of the editorial board of Maji Maji, the successor youth journal of the then banned Cheche at UDSM. A cursory look at what he wrote then reveals that this period crystallized Chachage’s social consciousness and radicalized him into a class analyst. This is a self-confessed Marxist Chachage who could write about The Housing Problem in Tanzania and Urban Classes in Tanzania. However, this was not the 1970s of radical (African) scholarship that put modernization and developmentalist theorists to task – the very pundits who are now back in action with pro-poor policy prescriptions on growth and poverty reduction in the context of our so-called economy of affection as if it is not an economy of affectation as one of their critics put it. This was the so-called lost decade in Africa. Reflecting on these precarious times two decades later in his keynote speech on Intellectuals and Africa Renewal, Chachage had this to say:

My intellectual growth, if I can say that, took place in the midst of the heat of the emergence of the New Right and the triumph of neo-liberalism world-wide, whose icons were Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the [then] current Roman Catholic Pope. It was a movement whose hallmark was the rolling back of the state as a development and social provisioning body and the cutting of funding for social service – including education and knowledge production. While still a student, even the fundamental objectives of the universities as academic institutions – scientific enquiry, pursuit of knowledge and the search of the whole truth (the consequences of that notwithstanding, without fear of the powers that be) in the interest of social transformation and human emancipation – were being relegated to the background. This undertaken in the name of certain notions of relevance; national (read state) interests, development needs, job market requirements, ‘man power’ creation, etc. These are aspects which tended to reduce institutions of higher learning into mere government think-tanks and suppliers of high-level ‘manpower’ (women were forgotten) to the government and the private sector.
It is not surprising then that Chachage made it his lifelong intellectual mission to struggle against Margaret Thatcher’s TINA i.e. ‘There is No Alternative’. Way back in the 1980s he realized that even our celebrated brand of African Socialism and its rhetoric of Self-Reliance was masquerading as a non-western alternative. He thus devoted his PhD study to the examination of Socialist Ideology and the Reality in Tanzania. The study revealed that the views of the nationalists who took power after independence were “based on partial knowledge of African societies (a knowledge which picked from African societies only those elements which were acceptable by the West) hence “they did not contradict westernality, despite their radical denial of Western values.” As such the state entrenched capitalist relations and disarmed the resisting masses in the name of the protection of the interests of the so-called uncaptured peasantry who, purportedly, need to be modernised. No wonder prior to his death the ailing Chachage mustered his remaining intellectual energy to prepare a publishable manuscript so that those who are eager to use Ujamaa as a backdrop for formulating truly African alternatives can pick a leaf from his analyses encapsulated in this conclusion of his PhD study:

African Civilization and African Socialism were partly generated as an answer to European prejudice: it was an attempt to show the being-in-the world of the African. It was not an attempt on the part of the educated to become organic thinkers of the masses; but to attain universal recognition. It is in this respect that it became part of developmentalism which like all modernization thinking looks down upon ordinary people as incapable of their own emancipation.

Isn’t our mindset still focused on ‘capacity building’ programs for the people, nay, ‘the poor’, as if they don’t know who they are and what they need? Despite his bold quest for African alternatives Chachage belonged to Shivji’s group of “some of us who adopted radical approaches, albeit still within Western traditions.” Yes, some, if not all, of us are still trapped in this Euro-American worldview. The likes of Chachages have deconstructed the limiting western forms of thought and practice that has been superimposed on Africa and Africans. We cannot afford to stop were Chachage left us. The onus is on us to move a step further and reconstruct our own independent Pan-African modes of thinking and living.

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