The struggle against free-market capitalism is usually seen as a progressive movement. It is often influenced by Marxist thought and an anti-capitalist ideology.
This struggle is predominately economic; to gain economic independence and to assert African power by refusing to be passive.
There is no doubt that international capital seeks new markets in Africa and to exploit its resources and people. It is without doubt that the exploiting nations use the exportation of their culture in an attempt to carry their ideas and values. The USA’s promotion of contemporary art and jazz within the old Soviet Union explicitly had these aims.
However, part of this anti-globalisation struggle includes another group whose aims are very different. They see the struggle as being primarily about culture. They use the same arguments and language as the radicals, but they are not revolutionaries. Their language of liberation, of African independence and opposition to aid, seeks not to liberate but to constrain. They seek to ossify culture and to maintain the status quo. They are social conservatives.
My distinction between the economic and cultural is crude because aspects of culture and economics matter in varying degrees to both groupings but hopefully it is helpful in broadly distinguishing between the two trends.
Like the American Right which labelled every criticism of American foreign policy as Anti-American, the social conservatives label values that do not conform to their conservative ideals as un-African.
We can see this trend most clearly around the current debate on homosexuality in Ghana. Denying that this behaviour has been a consistent part of their culture, the conservatives attempt to represent it as something alien. And because it is alien it must be resisted to preserve a notion of African-ness.
Another common example is their attacks on women’s fashion – short skirts and hair styles. They vilify that which offends their moral sensibilities determining it as foreign and outside of a their perceived monolithic African culture. Traditional dress may have the same short skirts and even nudity but this is conveniently forgotten in following their agenda.
They depict ‘The West’ as a degenerate society which is falling apart as a way of reinforcing cultural rigidity in their own society.
There is something uncomfortably xenophobic about the labelling of ‘bad’ things as Western, often a euphemism for White. It stereotypes entire nations as uniform and degenerate whilst attempting to preserve an illusion of African purity by ignoring different problems inherent within African culture.
Some African leaders have risen on the tide of revolution, then quickly used these fear techniques to entrench their leadership and give justification to it.
Ironically, when it comes to traditional religion, social conservatives may condemn it showing the inconsistency of their position.
A problem with the debate is that it presumes that outside influences come in with the same meaning and use-value, whereas it seems to me that they become “Africanised” and assimilated into the wider culture. It also assumes that the importation of ideas and artefacts is, per se, an expression of cultural domination. The debate itself may give the illusion that societies have control over this whereas I’m not sure whether this can be the case any longer. The fetishisation of America culture is not really about America: it’s about a concept in which wealth is apparently available to all.
With the urbanisation of traditional cultures, the mechanisms for preserving tradition and preventing cultural transgressions are being destroyed. The values the conservatives despise are often a result not the cause of this breakdown.
As cross-fertilisation has already taken place it is hard to see how we can turn back. There may well be a discussion to be had around which aspects of outside influences may be helpful and which values should be preserved. But who is involved in this discussion, how does it takes place and how much control is it possible to have over implementing its decisions?
But equally, the arguments of the social conservatives might also recognise this. It may not be about turning back the clock but of rallying people around their power base, creating uniformity through hostility to the rest of the (evil) world and about creating consensus through fear and allegiance to ideas around African-ness – a closing of the ranks and a way of defining themselves against the rest of the world.
After writing this I came across this video of Wole Soyinka which I felt touched on some of the issues I was attempting to articulate: