Dumisani Kumalo: A Pan Africanist with a strategic vision

27 January 2019 - 00:00 By Sydney Mufamadi
Sydney Mufamadi pays tribute to an old friend and comrade
Sydney Mufamadi pays tribute to an old friend and comrade
Image: Supplied

On January 20, Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, or DSK as he was known to some, died at the age of 71. He has joined the company of such legends as Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Peter Abrahams and WEB Du Bois who attended the Pan African Congress held in Manchester, England, between October 15 and 19 in 1945, two years before his birth.

That congress stands for all posterity as the event that heralded the stirring of resolve among African people to take charge of their future. It was guided by a vision antithetical to that of the 1895 Berlin Treaty, which dismembered the African continent and parcelled out the loot to European invaders.

By promulgating a nationalism that was multiscalar in its horizon, the call of 1945 embodied a vision canonised by Enoch Mankayi Sontonga when in 1897 he composed a prayerful Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. The chorus has since mutated into a warrior cry and become part of the anthems of a significant number of African nations.

Fittingly, the government and the people of SA honoured DSK for a life dedicated to the cause of African freedom.

While he was alive, he rose to the duty and the responsibility of his time. He responded to the call to proselytise in the name of Africans at home and in the diaspora. He is one of those whose work helped to generate transnational activism against apartheid.

He succeeded in his work because his activism was not haphazard. It had a base in a strategic vision. When he was in exile in the US, he took US citizenship so as to be able to operate at the intersection of popular and elite mobilisation.

This seemingly individual choice had the effect of deepening the process of the work of embedding truly humanist norms into the work of the solidarity movement. It became a movement which did not stop at making noise but one that provided material support to the cause whose justness it fully embraced.

In those difficult days, he hosted leaders of the liberation movement as well as trade unionists who had gone to meet their counterparts in the US labour movement.

The South African democratic breakthrough came at a time when the world order was in the throes of an authority crisis. Buoyed by Cold War triumphalism, US unipolarity was seeking to entrench itself as the hegemonic totem of world affairs.

We knew then that the world could become a better place if we harnessed our national diplomatic statecraft to the task of making the post-Cold War era one of multipolar authority.

We refused to worship in the monotheistic church that relies only on the scriptures written on stones that come from Western mountains.

We welcomed the message of the hegemonic narrative insofar as it promised that the tide of globalisation would lift all boats.

We insisted that care must be taken to ensure that the world order and the conduct of world affairs must not continue to deliver unshared affluence. Proceeding from these organising principles, normative diversity should be seen as a strength to be deployed when discharging the responsibility of building a better world.

In DSK, SA had a deployee who was equal to the task. His unwavering loyalty to the Pan African agenda caused immense discomfort among the griots of the untenable status quo. We crossed swords with the Americans and the British because we tried to dissuade them from invading Iraq, the folly of which course of action they could only understand in hindsight.

Our principled stand has undoubtedly contributed to the seismic shifts in the global map. We now live in a world where neoliberal monotheism no longer holds a winning hand. The stage is open for pluri-vocal discourses to be aired and be heard. This is the legacy DSK leaves for the world to inherit.

By positioning SA the way he did at the UN Security Council, DSK gave traction to the agenda of renewing progressive sovereign activism. He put on the floor of the UN system a benchmark of performance that has reverberations of study for policymakers throughout the global South.


This is particularly compelling in view of the many challenges we continue to face on the terrain of multilateral diplomacy. In the midst of all the chaos we see - centralised authoritarianism existing side by side with economic progress; the trade war the US is trying to start - that it has become increasingly necessary for practitioners to develop the means for understanding complexity.

Who knows, one day we may again be confronted with a choice between endorsing Nato's proposed muscular intervention in Libya and privileging the AU's traditional diplomacy.

The correct choice may seem obvious to many, but decontextualised readings can also create an unwitting Judas Iscariot.

Mtungwa! Mbulase Odl'umuntu emyenga ngendaba! Donda Weziziba! (praise song)

• Mufamadi is an academic at the University of Johannesburg and a former cabinet minister

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