Dear Friends and comrades We are going through trying times. Humanity is on trial. This is the time when the worst and the best in us comes out in ways that we could not have imagined in normal times. We are used to saying ‘the personal is political’. Now the ‘social is personal’, so much so that the personal takes precedence, the social disappears. “Me first”, “my (family) first” overwhelms the ‘us’.
These are the times when ‘keep sane’, ‘stay sane’ become words of affection. Yet what is at stake is our humanity itself. We don’t say ‘be human’, ‘stay human’ for human is social and social is a distant second. Social is moral. Sanity is rational. And we are all children of Enlightenment rationality. Chickens of capitalist modernity are coming home to roost.
But all is not bleak. It never is for we are humans and do not have the hide of a buffalo to be unaffected by human suffering. So, health workers are in the front line fighting the pandemic. Cuban doctors travel over the seas to save the lives of fellow human beings while putting their own lives in danger. Chinese send shiploads of medical kits to Italy and Iran in the people’s war (truly a peoples’ war) against COVID-19 (while Trump tightens the screws of sanctions against Iran and the EU mulls over financial instruments that would secure its loans to a fellow EU member.) Humanity is not so bereft of humanness. No, it is not.
Nyerere rhetorically asks in his article Usawa wa Binadamu (Human Equality) what is it that makes us all equal when we are so unequal in every respect. His answer: it is our humanness.
Human beings are equal in their humanity. Juma and Mwajuma do not differ in their humanity. In all other matters, Juma and Mwajuma are not equal, but in their humanity, they do not differ an iota. Neither you, nor me, nor anybody else, nor God can make Juma to be more of a human being than Mwajuma or Mwajuma to be more of a human being than Juma. God can do what you and me and our fellow beings cannot do – God can create Juma and can make Mwajuma to be a different creature better or worse than a human being, but God cannot make Juma or Mwajuma to be better or worse human beings than other human beings; God can neither reduce nor increase their humanity.
Nyerere’s equality is human equality (moral). Enlightenment’s equality is legal equality (rational).
Why am I saying all this? I’m saying it because in such times of crisis that our Enlightenment values, which inform the age of (capitalist) modernity, so starkly reveal themselves in all their nakedness. And they are barbaric to the core! Will this pandemic teach us that humanity is crying out for a new civilisation, a civilisation whose centre is the human being, a social being with innate humanity, not an individual subject of the capitalist state who oozes out barbarity, greed and selfishness from every pore. People before property, maybe, sums it all, perhaps not sufficiently to drive our souls – nonetheless a good approximation to lead us on.
As I read all your messages of love and warmth, of hope and solidarity, I cannot stop reflecting on how capitalist barbarity has destroyed our humanity yet how our underlying humanness is kicking in and that is what makes life. The fight against C19 is as much a class struggle as any, perhaps fiercer, as Firoze says. The pandemic is knocking on the doors of the continent. The ravages of five centuries of capitalist barbarity and its sycophant accomplices has left us most vulnerable. (In Tanzania we have been made doubly vulnerable as floods are devastating some regions and rendering people shelterless.) I shudder to think what will be the consequences. But we must continue to hope and struggle as long as we live.
And in the name of struggle and solidarity, let us shout and scream:
** Cancel all African debts; ** Send air loads of testing kits and medical supplies **And you African rulers divert funds from your grandiose projects and your filthy salaries and perks to feed our people in quarantine – without the humongous feeding schemes, lockdown is not possible and without lockdown it will be impossible to control transmission.
In solidarity and struggle as always and now
Prof. Issa G. Shivji is an author and academic, one of Africa's leading experts on law and development and former Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Research Chair in Pan-African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam.