Friday, October 22, 2010

Basil Davidson: A Revolutionary Spirit

Basil Davidson joined the ancestors on 9 July 2010 at the age of 95. I want to add my voice to those who salute his passion for peace, justice and a world free of racism.

I met Basil Davidson in 1989 when he was a visiting Professor at Northwestern University, Evanston. He had been invited to be a visiting scholar by John Hunwick, then the director of the Program of African Studies. I was at the same time a visiting scholar at the Program of African Studies. I had completed my article on the ‘Military Defeat of the South Africans in Angola’. I was aware from my research work on Angola that Davidson was particularly close to the history of the struggles of the Angolan peoples, and had read of his work on the liberated areas when Angola was still occupied. He had spent years working closely with the principal liberation force, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and had written a sympathetic book, ‘In The Eye of the Storm: Angola's People’, after spending months in the liberated zones of Eastern Angola. This book carried the image of the Angolan woman armed with a weapon and carrying a child on her back. It was an image that was to send a concrete message about the centrality of women in the liberation struggles of Africa.

At that time the fascists who were in control of Portugal colonised Angola with the assistance of the United States and apartheid South Africa. The counter-insurgency operatives of the Portuguese secret police were bent on the destruction of the MPLA as a force for liberation in Africa. Basil Davidson made sterling contributions to the liberation of Africa; he worked closely with Amilcar Cabral and wrote an important book, ‘The liberation of GuinĂ©: Aspects of an African Revolution’.

Davidson had been working as a serious historian of African history and revolution for three decades before I met him. In his life he had written more than 30 books on Africa and had presented a wonderful eight-part television series, ‘Africa: A Voyage of Discovery’. I had used this series in teaching and it was a joy to be actually grounding with Basil Davidson as he recalled his detailed knowledge of the countryside of Angola. We spent hours discussing the implications of the changed military and political situation for Southern Africa.

At that time the corporate media was still trumpeting the misinformation that the negotiations for the independence of Namibia emanated from the diplomatic and political work of Chester Crocker and the United States. White supremacist ideas were so ingrained in the western reporting on Africa that it was unthinkable that the unfolding process at that moment came from the decisive defeat of the South African Defense Forces (SADF). Younger readers may not be aware that at that time South Africa had a nuclear capability and had become so desperate that the president of South Africa, P.W. Botha, flew to the scene of the battle deep inside Angola to arbitrate a dispute among the general staff of the SADF over whether South Africa should use nuclear weapons in this battle. The force of the global anti-apartheid movement at that historical moment tipped the balance for the forces fighting for freedom.

Basil Davidson spent his life fighting for freedom and was associated with all the major struggles for freedom in Africa and in Europe. The world now knows from the obituary by Victoria Brittain that from 1969 to 1985 he was a vice-president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain. He produced an important series about his African journey for the New Statesman, and then wrote a book about the crimes of apartheid.

Basil Davidson encouraged me to go to Angola in order to get the book out about Cuito Cuanavale. I had to go to sit at the confluence of the two rivers, Cuito and the Cuanavale, to draw from the people of Angola, the rivers and the environment. As a seasoned freedom fighter who had worked with those in the African freedom struggles, Davidson was very aware of the fractal worldview that Africa had – to be understood in its totality, one could not separate humans from animals, water and the wider environment.

I did travel to Cuito Cuanavale in 1992 and did go to the two rivers. I had been optimistic in 1988 that with the military defeat of the Boers in Angola, peace would break out in that society. That was not to be. Jonas Savimbi spread so much destruction across that society that Davidson must have been aware of these destructive tendencies, and hence his designation of Angolans to be in the eye of the storm.


Our discussions about the anti-racist struggles in Africa inevitably led to a discussion on racism in the United States and the role of academic institutions in the reproduction of social Darwinism and racial hierarchy.

In these discussions I drew attention to the politics of space in Chicago and we agreed to go on a tour of the racial polarisation and apartheid conditions of Chicago. I drove Basil Davidson from the cocooned community of Evanston through the Lakeshore past the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago to the South side of Chicago, and to see how one section of the far South had been hollowed out by de-Industrialisation.

We crisscrossed through to the South Side and across the skyway to Gary, Indiana. Doubling back through to old discarded factories around the Calumet River, we saw the environmental destruction and waste before our eyes. After driving through this South side of Chicago, we stopped in at the home of my in-laws at the West Side of Chicago at Wallerr Ave.

On our way back to Evanston, Davidson remarked on the apartheid conditions of Chicago and thanked me for inviting him home to spend time away from the rarified atmosphere of the segregated Evanston community of intellectuals. Davidson remarked that he had been travelling to the United States since 1952 and had not been brought face to face with the kind of conditions that he saw on the South Side of Chicago.

When I communicated with elder Eusi Kwayana about the passing of Basil, he informed me that when Basil Davidson visited Guyana in 1965, he had sought him out in the village of Buxton to find out the conditions of the political struggles for social justice in Guyana. This was the person who was opposed to oppression everywhere.

It was this Basil Davidson I remembered as I read in the news of his passing in early July. Davidson was committed to Pan-Africanism and revolution. He had understood the importance of memory and worked hard to challenge the dominant narrative of the British mainstream academics on the history of Africa. He was not formally trained, which was probably a good thing because he was not writing to gain favour in an academic environment by seeking to rise on the ladder of British academia. This was perhaps the reason he wrote to educate and not for promotion in the academy. His books were excellent historical tracts that are widely used in all parts of the Pan-African world. Davidson’s work is probably better known than the big names of those who came from the Oxbridge enterprise of colonial cover up.

He was close to the forces of decolonisation and was known in the fifties and sixties by those associated with Kwame Nkrumah, C.L.R. James and George Padmore. This came out very clearly in his foreword to one of the most important books on Pan-Africanism by Vincent B. Thompson, ‘Africa and Unity: The Evolution of Pan Africanism’. Over the years I became a close friend and associate of V.B. Thompson and he shared with me the early collaboration with Basil Davidson. Davidson raised certain pertinent questions in his foreword to the book and in the epilogue. Vincent B. Thompson returned to these questions with a challenge to African intellectuals to work for the transformation of Africa. After writing on the contribution of Basil Davidson to the struggles for independence in Ghana and the betrayal of that project by Anglophile intellectuals and politicians, Vincent B. Thompson was using Basil Davidson’s commitment to the struggles in Africa as an example that young intellectuals should follow. V. B. Thompson decried the so-called ‘objectivity’ in bourgeois scholarship that covered up colonial crimes of forced labour and genocide.


Basil Davidson was associated with the strong anti-slavery and anti-racist tradition in Europe, going back to humanists such as E.D. Morel who had exposed the crimes of King Leopold II in the Congo. Davidson’s work on forced labour in Angola followed the traditions of Henry Nevinson who had travelled to Angola in 1904 and 1905 to expose the criminal and slave-like conditions in that Portuguese colony.

While millions now know of the heroism of E. D. Morel because of the work of Adam Hochschild, very few know that the conditions described in ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ emanated from practices that were borrowed from Angola. Nevison had published a compilation of his observations in a small book in 1906, ‘A Modern Slavery’. Despite the fact that slavery was supposed to have been abolished in the 19th century, the conditions that Nevison observed in Portuguese West Africa was that the system of ‘contract labour’ was no different from slavery and that Africans were exposed to lifelong servitude.

After the First World War, the colonial powers were shamed into creating the International Labor Organization (ILO) to defend the rights of workers. Throughout the period of the capitalist depression 1929-1933 the ILO campaigned aggressively against forced labour and inhuman conditions. Yet, fifty years after Nevison exposed the ‘contract labor’ conditions in Angola, in 1954 Basil Davidson witnessed the very same conditions in that country. He wrote about these conditions for popular magazines to reach the European working classes, and published his findings in a small book, ‘The African Awakening’.

It was this kind of brutal exploitation that had inspired the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to add the ‘Party of Labor’ to its name MPLA (PT) when it was fighting for independence. Today, the leaders of the MPLA conduct business as though they have forgotten that history of forced labour. To ingratiate themselves with the Western exploiters, the hegemonic section of the MPLA has dropped the PT from its name. After the decisive victory over the Savimbi forces, the MPLA have now bought into the 21st century version of exploitation that is called neoliberalism. Most of the workers and peasants in Angola wonder if the struggles and the hundreds of thousands killed were for the kind of enrichment of a few which is now so evident in Luanda. From Angola to Guinea, the traditions of freedom have been shattered by social forces whose vision of liberation has resulted in self-enrichment. Some have gone so far as to turn Guinea and Cape Verde into international transit points for narcotic trafficking.

Basil Davidson lived long enough to see the limitations of nationalism. Nearly twenty years ago, he began to warn of the dangers of the nationalists and how they wielded power. The reversals of the gains of liberation in Africa have been so painful that Davidson has seen some of his closest friends incarcerated in Eritrea. The same pain would have been there in the case of the reversals in Zimbabwe. In the video series, ‘Africa: A Voyage of Discovery’, Basil Davidson had been as scathing of Cecil Rhodes as he was of fulsome praise of the leadership of the Zimbabwe liberation struggle under Zanu PF. There is one very long scene in the 5th episode on ‘The Bible and the Gun’ where Davidson accompanied Nathan Shamuyarira to his old school. I know this scene well because I use this video in teaching about the relationship between militarism and religion in the subjugation of Africans. Basil Davidson lived to see that the same conditions of mining and exploitation of workers in diamond mines had come to Zimbabwe and that the conditions of the working miners in the Marange diamond mines were no significantly different from the conditions of those who worked in the diamond mines in Kimberly in the 19th century.


We remember Basil Davidson because his scholarship was dedicated to making a break with the old colonial relations. Davidson was not awed by major powers and he remained an independent intellectual and a decent human being. Younger Africans need to pick up his books and follow his exposure of forced labour and exploitation so that we can continue the long battle to create free humans in emancipated societies.

The one line that I always remember form his video series is when he called the Nile a vast library. Are we reading from this library today?

Basil Davidson symbolised a paradigm shift from the biased, white supremacist Western intellectual tradition of his time. He stood for an intellectual tradition of truth-telling, challenging the racist Western anthropologist-imperialist alliance that dominates the academy in Western societies. Davidson was a foremost ambassador of Ubuntu, who transcended the colour of his skin and linked his humanity with that of the dehumanised and oppressed African whose rich history/civilisation had been denied by the dominant Western intellectual enterprise. History and Africa will always remember Davidson, not just for being a Pan-Africanist and prolific revolutionary scholar, but also for being a humanist.

Basil Risbridger Davidson, a revolutionary spirit, born 9 November 1914, joined the ancestors on 9 July 2010.