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A Life of Critical Engagement: An Interview of Issa Shivji by Sabatho Nyamsenda

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017
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Issa Shivji is one of the great public intellectuals of postcolonial Africa. He was a law student (1967-1970) at the University of Dar es Salaam, growing up amidst distinguished leftist scholars such as sociologists Giovanni Arrighi, Immanuel Wallerstein and John Saul. These scholars came from all over the world, attracted to the formative intellectual ferment at the university. Even as a precocious student, Shivji began to challenge the socialist policies of the Ujamaa regime of Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania. During this early period he wrote such celebrated and widely-debated works as The Silent Class Struggle that drew attention to the social forces that were politically (un)represented in the new postcolonies of Africa. After receiving degrees from the London School of Economics and the University of Dar es Salaam, he took up a post in the Faculty of Law which he never left until retiring in 2006. During that time he became a public figure devoted to land reform and constitutional law. He survived political turbulence despite his outspoken commentaries on the turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s as well as the corporatization of the university. In 2008 he was awarded the Julius Nyerere Chair in Pan-African Studies with the express purpose of restoring the university as a center of public debate. Professor Shivji has inspired many younger academics, such as the political science lecturer, Sabatho Nyamsenda, who conducted this interview. He was also an active participant in the ISA’s World Congress in Durban, South Africa (2006).

SN: Your association with the University of Dar es Salaam (also known as Mlimani, or the Hill) started in 1967 as a law student, and after graduating you joined the law faculty at the same university – a position that you held for 36 years. Why did you decide to remain at the University while most of your progressive colleagues joined other institutions?

IS: True, many of my comrades joined other institutions including the National Service Office, the Party and even the army. In hindsight, it may sound a bit naïve, but the truth is that it was a collective decision of comrades as to who would be most effective where. Comrades thought, and I agreed, that I should remain at the University to do progressive intellectual and ideological work.

The University did provide relative space for progressive ideas to flourish, a terrain where progressive intellectual camaraderie could be created and sustained. At the time, the overall nationalist commitment combined with the deeper intellectual understanding of the imperialist system helped to cultivate radical young scholars, many of whom ended up as teachers in secondary schools thus further fertilizing progressive thought and practice.

I have never regretted spending the whole of my working life at the Hill.

SN: In your Accumulation in an African Periphery you divide the post-colonial experience of African countries, and Tanzania in particular, into three phases: the nationalist phase (1960s and 1970s), the critical phase (1980s) and the neoliberal phase (1990s to the present). How did these changes affect Mlimani?

IS: Universities exist in a social environment and they are obviously affected by changes in that environment. The decade of the eighties was an extremely critical period for our country as, indeed, it was for the rest of Africa. Universities were starved of resources while at the same time being exposed to an incessant ideological and intellectual onslaught of neo-liberal prescriptions. Many of our colleagues left for universities in Southern Africa – Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and later South Africa and Namibia.

But some stuck it out, including many young radical scholars who had imbibed progressive ideas during the first two decades of revolutionary nationalist fervor. They continued to do some very good work. For example, they led the intellectual side of the “great” constitutional debate in 1983-4 articulating anti-authoritarian and anti-statist positions. Of course, there were different tendencies, those seeing liberal democracy, human rights, multi-party as the ultimate goal and therefore demanding essentially reformist reforms. Then a minority tendency saw the struggle for democracy as a school for independent class actions; they called for revolutionary reforms. To give one example: The reformists would demand immediate institution of the multi-party system while revolutionaries would demand, first, a separation of the party and the state, and second, a protracted national debate taking stock of the post-independence period and chart out and build a new national consensus.

In the transition from the nationalist to the neo-liberal period, the Hill was still a hotbed of debates and ideological struggles. These fizzled out during the third phase government as neo-liberalism consolidated itself in the country and vocationalization and corporatization of the University gained momentum.

SN: In 2008, you were appointed the first incumbent of the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies, known as Kigoda in Kiswahili. Soon after you were installed, you were quoted saying it was “an honor” for you “to keep Nyerere’s legacy alive.” Which legacy were you referring to, given the fact that the Nyerere you describe in your writings is vehemently opposed to Marxism and struggles from below?

IS: Nyerere was a radical nationalist. He was a progressive Pan-Africanist and broadly anti-imperialist. To be sure, his anti-imperialism was not grounded in radical political economy, as was Nkrumah’s. Yet, his pro-people stance was consistent; his anti-imperialist position supportable and his nationalism progressive.

In comparison to the neo-liberal political class that succeeded him, and mindful of the havoc that this class has created in our society, woe unto any progressive, even a Marxist, who wouldn’t want to recall Nyerere’s legacy and deploy it as an ideological resource in the struggle against the current rapacious phase of capitalism.

Nyerere was not a Marxist and he didn’t disguise himself as one. Marx himself when confronted with vulgar Marxism exclaimed: “I am not a Marxist!”

As a head of state, it is true he came out against struggles from below. But does that mean that a progressive person should not celebrate Nyerere’s progressive legacy and draw lessons from its contradictory character? My friend, a Marxist is not a purist; s/he is political!

SN: What do you mean by the “contradictory character” of Nyerere’s legacy?

IS: I can do no better than give an anecdote about Mwalimu himself. A few months after he had thrown out students from the Hill for demonstrating against the state in 1978, he visited the campus. One student was courageous enough to ask him something to the effect: “Mwalimu, you talk about democracy but when we demonstrated in the interest of democracy you sent the FFU [Field Force Unit] to beat us up!”

Mwalimu stared at him, and then replied: “What did you expect? I am head of state; I preside over the institution which wields the monopoly of violence. If you cause chaos in the streets, of course I’d send in the FFU. But does that mean you shouldn’t fight for democracy? Democracy is never given on a silver platter!” [not his exact words]

And we all clapped. Mwalimu could have his cake and eat it!

SN: The Iranian revolutionary intellectual Ali Shariati once dubbed universities “invincible fortified fortresses,” whose main task is to produce intellectual slaves for the corporate world. Did the Kigoda, the Pan-African Studies Program, manage to open the gates of the Mlimani “fortress,” and link its intellectuals with the masses? If yes, how?

IS: It would be foolish for me to claim that Kigoda managed to open the gates of the university “fortress.” In Althusserian terms, universities are part of the ideological state apparatus. The dominant intellectuals there are undoubtedly producers and conveyors of dominant knowledge, which forms the basis of dominant ideologies.

But by the very nature of the process of production of knowledge, there is bound to be a clash of ideas. This allows some space for outlooks other than dominant ones. Nonetheless, such spaces should not be taken for granted. They have their limits and, in critical times, even those spaces are suppressed. It is a struggle to claim and reclaim on a continuous basis those progressive spaces. And like all struggles, these intellectual struggles also require imagination as to their forms and methods.

This is all that Kigoda attempted to do; nothing more. Perhaps it managed to cause some intellectual fervor; perhaps it managed to gain some credibility with young intellectuals and the people; perhaps it managed to excavate progressive archives of the Hill. Even that had limits, and those limits began to show towards the end of my term.

One can only do so much within the given circumstances. I think it was E.H. Carr, following Plekhanov and before him Marx, who said that while individuals make history, they do not choose the circumstances in which they do so.

SN: Nyerere once warned the oppressed against using money as their weapon. Yet, funding seems to have become central to intellectual projects nowadays. No work is done without money. Even the most progressive organizations have found it inevitable to kneel before the capitalist agencies in search of money. How did Kigoda run its activities?

IS: Yes, money, and donor money at that, has become the motor driving intellectual projects. Kigoda undoubtedly faced the problem of funding, but it established certain principles right at the outset. First, all administrative expenses, including the salaries of the Chair and his assistant, would come from the regular University budget. Second, Kigoda would avoid taking money from foreign donors. Third, whatever funding is given by domestic public institutions or friendly African intellectual organizations should be without strings attached. And, finally, the agenda and the activities of Kigoda would be set strictly by the Kigoda collective.

It was not easy but by keeping our budget modest, relying heavily on voluntary work and spending with a lot of prudence, we managed.

SN: Now that you have retired from the university, what are the projects you are planning to undertake?

IS: While still at the University, with two colleagues, Professor Saida Yahya-Othman and Dr. Ng’wanza Kamata, I embarked on the project to write a definitive biography of Mwalimu Nyerere supported by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology. We have now more or less completed our research – if you can ever complete a research of this kind – and have now started the process of writing.

One of the important outcomes of that project is the establishment of the Nyerere Resource Centre (NRC). The Centre will have a documentation room where all the material we collected will be stored and made available to researchers. Around the Centre we will organize activities with a view to providing a platform for strategic thinking, debates and discussions. We hope to begin activities this year. It is my hope that NRC will become a hub for reflecting on many burning issues facing the country and the continent.

I feel that the neo-liberal, NGOism and consultancy culture with their emphasis on policy – more “action,” little thought – and prescriptive prognosis has taken a toll on our intellectual thinking, the result of which is that we have abdicated analyzing and understanding the world. We cannot fight for a better world without understanding the world better. For that, we need to take a longer view of history. Hopefully, the Centre will contribute towards reviving the culture of holistic, long-term thinking.

This article first appeared in Global Dialogue, June 2015, Volume 5, Issue 1, Newsletter of the International Sociological Association.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 April 2017 19:29
Sabatho Nyamsenda

Faculty member of the University of Dar es Salaam. He is currently pursuing a Phd in Social Studies at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Kampala, Uganda.

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