Julius Nyerere: ‘The Anti-Colonial Struggle Is a Struggle for Human Dignity’

Julius Nyerere died on this day in 1999. In May 1960, he wrote for Tribune about the future of the anti-colonial struggle – and about the need for a socialist politics to achieve dignity for all.

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In 1960, a year before Tanganyika—later to become the Tanzanian mainland—finally achieved independence from British imperial rule, African socialist leader and future Tanzanian prime minister Julius Nyerere wrote in Tribune about the future of African nationalism.

In his article, he outlined the incompatibility of the principle of equality with colonial subjugation, celebrated the power of mass movements, and argued that the future independent African nations would take a socialist approach to achieve their goals of equality and dignity for all.

To mark the anniversary of his death, we republish his work.

‘This Awakening of the Human Spirit Cannot Be Undone’

The nationalist movements of Africa have their origins in the struggle against colonial domination – against government by a foreign power. This has led to the anti-colonial struggle in Africa being compared to the American War of Independence. But there are very important differences between the two situations which will almost certainly lead to very different developments in the future.

In America the struggle was fundamentally between two branches of the same social group, each of which accorded the other respect and social equality. In Africa the anti-colonial struggle is essentially a struggle for human dignity.

The contending forces are not opposing ruling classes, one of which is tired of being ruled by the other. The anti-colonial forces in Africa are the people of Africa. They are struggling for the dignity of the common man and woman.

Independence for the country is an essential element in this because human equality is incompatible with the rule of one group by representatives of another. But once independence is attained, the nationalist organisations, composed of the common people, remain the dominant force in society.

Because they draw their strength from the organisation of ordinary men and women they will have to go on to express the consciousness of human dignity and a quality in every aspect of the social, economic and political organisation of the country. The fullest development of the human spirit must be the motivating force in their future actions.

Theoretically, it is possible that the nationalist movements may degenerate into organisations controlled by a ruling clique, which uses the masses and ignores their real needs and desires. All the nationalist movements are led by privileged people—that is people who have had the privilege of education—for in Africa this is still a facility enjoyed by few, who are thus in a very advantageous position in relation to their fellow countrymen.

But although uneducated, the African people are not sheep, nor are they likely to accept any notion of their own inferiority. One inevitable element of the organisation of the African people in the struggle for independence has been the infusion of a consciousness of human dignity and the building up of individual as well as collective expectations.

This awakening of the human spirit has been accomplished, and it cannot be undone by anyone. Although there may be setbacks as a result of the prevailing ignorance of the forms of modern society, this fundamental success of the nationalist movement is the greatest possible safeguard against undemocratic tendencies within the nationalist organisations or outside them.

This does not mean that the institutions and forms of democracy in Africa will be the same as those existing in Britain or America, nor that there will necessarily be two main parties competing against each other for the votes of the people.

The notion that democracy requires the existence of an organised Opposition to the Government of the day is false. Democracy requires only freedom for such an Opposition, not the existence of it.

In the newly independent countries it is most unlikely that there will be a two-party system for many years. The nationalist movements are going to be very powerful indeed: they will control the Government, and organise local development in the economic and social sphere without there being any effective challenge to them from within – and any challenge from outside will only strengthen them.

The development of a one-party Government will in fact be the inevitable result of both the recent history and the environmental conditions. It will be a long time before any issues arise in the new countries on which it will be possible to build a real opposition organisation. This will eventually happen, and it will be brought about by a split in the nationalist organisations.

There is no alternative way in which it can happen because the nationalist organisations are not real political parties in the Western sense; they are coalitions for national purposes. The first of these purposes is political independence. The second is nation building.

In the process of gaining the first objective, the nationalist movement of necessity prepares itself, and the people, for the second. Their triumph in the first releases both the energy and the motivation for the struggle against poverty, disease and ignorance.

‘The Revolutionary Political Force Must Create a Social Revolution’

A man has a sense of dignity when he feels that fundamentally he is the equal of anyone else on earth. The independence of his country and his own role in achieving it enables him this psychological freedom, even if in practice his freedom is impaired because he is hungry, his body is rotten with disease or his mind stagnant with ignorance.

All these things are part of the same struggle, for the movement which has campaigned for political freedom will most likely be the one through which people will attack these conditions of social and economic deprivation. As there was no division between the people about the question of independence, so there must be no division about the necessity of an organised attack against the economic and social conditions which restrict the practical expression of the human dignity implied by that independence.

Of course such overt social unity has its dangers, and the danger lies not in the absence of an artificial opposition organisation, but in the possible exclusion of the Eccentric, the one who does not conform to the social norms. It is by the existence of and allowance for the ‘odd man out’ that states newly independent could then be judged to be democratic.

He must not only be able to live without any constraint on his personal freedom. He must be able to contribute to society through his work. The all-pervading nationalism must be able to incorporate and allow the man who deliberately sits apart from its institutions. This will not always be easy, since the overriding purpose of Organisation must be the strengthening of the national consciousness against divisive forces—reactionary and individualistic—which could prevent an effective attack on old ossifying social and economic dyes.

The consciousness of common manhood, of unity, exists. But so do many of the old maxims which emphasise the differences between groups within the society. This is an undesirable situation. In the past incompatible elements within human society have been able to work themselves out over time and eventually a solution has evolved.

But such slow evolution is not a practicable position in Africa today. The nationalist elements which are largely responsible for the existence of national feeling must consolidate their position in this project if they are to be successful in their next tasks.

This they can only do by revolutionising social attitudes. Deliberately organising themselves and their Government to weaken feelings of tribal exclusiveness, and to strengthen and create forces and institutions that will knit the people of the country more closely together. The revolutionary political force must create a social revolution.

‘Wealth for the Community, Not Profit for the Individual’

The nationalist movements must also create an economic revolution, and this is a sphere which they enter for the first time when they have achieved political success. This is the twentieth century; every day Africans see evidence of the material wealth of the old nations. They now know it is not necessary for half their children to die in infancy, for people to be hungry, to exist in squalor.

After independence, it is expected that these things will change, and change quickly. The changes cannot be left to happen incidentally, as side-products of the accumulation of great wealth in individual hands. They must be made to happen; they must be planned for and worked for.

The economy must be organised so that these changes are the main purpose and product of economic activity. Wealth for the community, not profit for the individual, must be the dominant motive.

This means that the new nationalist Governments will be essentially Socialist in outlook and actions. They will act deliberately to create and channel wealth, not stand aside holding the ring while individuals or groups compete for private profit.

This does not mean that there will be no place for private enterprise, nor that the chief activity of these Governments will be the nationalisation of economic undertakings. As Mr. Norman Manley of Jamaica once said, you cannot nationalise nothing.

The job of the Governments will be to encourage and create economic activities of all types, but at the same time to ensure that these use the resources of the country for the benefit of the country and its people.

It will also be the job, and the opportunity, of the nationalist Governments to harness those energies which have so far been devoted to the struggle for independence, and use them in the struggle against poverty. This it can do through the existing national movement.

Both the local branch of the organisation and the local government authority can and must be the bodies through which the people change their own lives. For economic development does not mean just the creation of big factories, of hydro-electric power stations, and arterial roads.

It means new houses for the people, drains, markets, increased agricultural production, and all these things can only be done by the people.

The nationalist organisation in a country can be the focal point of revolutionary change in that country. That is its challenge and its future.

Parts of this transcription were estimated due to damage to the original copy.

Thanks to Owen Dowling for transcription.

About the Author

Julius Nyerere (1922-1999) was a pan-African socialist and the first president of the independent state of Tanzania.