African Activists in a Decolonising World: The Making of an Anticolonial Culture, 1952–1966 (Cambridge University Press, 2023)
‘The trick of the colonist is to isolate colonial territories from the rest of the world’. This was Abu Mayanja’s 1958 message to students at Makerere University College, Kampala, from which he had been expelled some years previously. Mayanja had recently formed an influential pan-African collective in London, toured India under the sponsorship of a CIA-funded cultural organisation, fled from a spiritual retreat in Switzerland, and been arrested by the colonial state for bringing a radical newsletter into Uganda from Cairo (see chapters 2 and 3).
My recently published book, African Activists in a Decolonising World: The Making of an Anticolonial Culture, 1952–1966, argues that trajectories like Mayanja’s are crucial for interrogating what we mean when we talk about global anticolonialism in the context decolonisation after the Second World War – and for assessing where its limits lie. The book is, to quote the introduction, ‘an intellectual history of unrewarding transnational activism and a social history of the ephemera it produced’, piecing together the work and thought of a generational cohort of activists from the region that covers present-day Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and mainland Tanzania.
When I began research for this project, some excellent scholarship had brought the globality of anticolonialism to the fore, showing that connections between decolonising countries – at the diplomatic level and the intellectual-cultural level alike – made a fundamental difference to how the politics of independence functioned and how liberation was imagined. This allowed a shift in perspective for understanding the formal end of European empires. Previously, the dynamic that had interested historians most was the manifestation and contestation of anticolonial nationalism, both in specific local contexts and in the international setting of the Cold War and UN. Instead, scholars were now asking how leaders refused Cold War categories to act as a non-aligned ‘Third World’, how intellectuals constructed critiques of colonialism as they travelled across continents, how organisers built and publicised solidarity campaigns through conferences, and how sympathetic states offered patronage to liberation movements. These discussions were characterised by particular spatial and thematic emphases, notably focusing on states prominent in the Non-Aligned Movement like India or Algeria, landmark conferences in Bandung or Accra, intellectual currents running through colonial metropoles and across the Black Atlantic, and external support for armed struggle.
But I arrived at this conversation with initial research findings that didn’t echo these geographies and themes. I was tracing a cluster of activists (Mayanja among them) who formed the Committee of African Organisations in London in 1958 – an organisation that appears in chapters 3 and 5 of the book. East and Central African activists were central to this group, but they were largely unrepresented in the emerging scholarship: their countries’ ostensibly non-violent campaigns, which brought flag independence to the region in the early 1960s, were assumed to be relatively insular. Moreover, it quickly became clear to me that this London base was relatively marginal to the broader assemblage of cities, events, organisations, and personalities that defined their activism, as students, exiles and political representatives.
What began as an effort to integrate these activists, and their respective contexts ‘at home’, into the new global history of anticolonialism and decolonisation, soon moved to a more important question: what do these individuals tell us about this terrain of activism and moment of historical change that we cannot see from elsewhere?
Answering this question took me in a particular methodological direction. Individual activists led me to the archives of organisations with whom they corresponded, socialised, published pamphlets, organised meetings, and sometimes argued. These often overlooked collections – from pressure groups like the Union for Democratic Control or the International Union for Socialist Youth – provided the bulk of my source base, in conversation with state and party archives in East and Central Arica and the UK, personal collections, interviews, and memoirs. I read these documents with attention not only to the intellectual and political worldviews they represented (these were eclectic, even when just one activist was concerned) but rather the practices they exposed – collating information, travelling, meeting, writing, communicating, publicising – and especially the assumptions that underwrote these practices. This amounted to a microspatial approach, as I explain in the introduction.
What emerged – and what I present over the course of the book chapters – was a generational cohort of educated men with a broadly shared (albeit periodically shifting) set of beliefs about how to do effective anticolonial work – this is what I call an anticolonial culture. This anticolonial culture formed in dialogue with the everyday experience of carrying out this work, first in different parts of East and Central Africa, then in cities including Delhi, Cairo, Accra, London, and Vienna. One prominent facet of this everyday experience was frustration. In the mid-1950s these activists placed a significant hopes both in their own, male, regional-generational significance, and in the possibility that freely circulating information would shift ‘world public opinion’ in favour of swift decolonisation. Yet the work of moving people and paper objects through colonial border regimes proved challenging, even if you could find the resources or patronage to publish and mobilise. The various publics that these activists evoked often proved elusive, powerless, or apathetic.
So, to return to the question posed: what do these activists and their work tell us about the nature of global anticolonial activism? First, prominence in the diplomacy of non-alignment, the hosting of large conferences, armed struggle, or a government in exile are not the only ways to measure the ‘global’ in anticolonial activism. For the activists in my book, coming from countries still under colonial rule in the 1950s, formal international channels (including UN hearings) were typically inaccessible. The patronage of new statesmen like Gamal Abdel Nasser or Kwame Nkrumah could also not be relied on – indeed these activists approached hubs of activity in Cairo and Accra with caution. The ‘low-key’ and non-state-based organisations, publications, and meetings that they instead relied on were characteristic of this period – as scholars in the Afro-Asian Networks Research Collective have also recognised – and these can be usefully understood via individual trajectories.
Second, the region, as in the specific version of East and Central Africa that the book works with, was critical to how these activists engaged with anticolonialism abroad and the ambition of a global movement. Regional institutions and politics (as chapter 1 explains) pushed them to think in comparative terms – within the region, with the settler colonies at its edges, and with the rest of the decolonising world. This cohort continued to evoke this region when abroad, for reasons I explain in the book. A final lesson from these activists is that Cold War alignment has limited explanatory value for understanding anticolonial solidarity. Mayanja and his contemporaries worked with organisations across the political spectrum, with great diversity even among those that proposed a ‘third way’.
These interventions and the methodology that supported them will, I hope, make the book a thought-provoking read for scholars and students of Africa’s global history, of the Cold War and decolonisation, and of activism from the mid-twentieth century to the present.