A few months ago Professor Mammo Muchie, a Senior Research Fellow at Tshwane University of Technology gave an intellectually stimulating online public lecture to a global audience of African descent intentionally provoking a much needed debate on an issue regarding why Africans must adopt Ethiopianism as one of the highways towards unshackling lingering colonial mentalities and their offshoots.
Professor Muchie, a Pan- Africanist to the bone posed some few questions like how many of us Africans know that Ethiopianism was a fore bearer of Pan- Africanism? In fact, that it is the foundation for both Pan- Africanism and African Renaissance? He reminded his audience that it is imperative that in order to meet the challenges of the unfinished business of achieving African unity-which in today’s world are more subtle and insidious than the challenges that were faced during slavery, colonialism, and apartheid- Africa should look back and retrieve the ideals and ethos of Ethiopianism.
In this piece I fully concur with this scholar as I have found that it is inarguable that as a result of a routine failure to prevent others from continuing to dominate and control Africa by various means, the continent is today still not fully removed from coloniality, therefore there cannot be any better moment than today’s trying times to bring back the discursive arsenals developed during the early African struggles of resistance under the rubric of Ethiopianism. It is indeed true that the powerful narratives that were evolved around Ethiopianism are of such significance that they continue to inform the debates on the current quest for African unity and renaissance.
Professor Mammo Muchie traces the early signs of Ethiopianism to the 16th century, when slaves in America found solace in the promise of a homeland in the empire of Ethiopia in the Nile region. The references of Ethiopia in the bible provided them with an ideology that they could use for their spiritual, political and cultural uplifting. They borrowed from Psalm 68:31 “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall stretch her hands unto god” This verse, Prof Muchie reasons, was interpreted as pointing to the end of the “curse” of a black race- an end to the alienation of Africa from god. Thus came into being the movement of Ethiopianism as a method of winning Africa for Christ and a fore runner for Africa for Africans movement and the subsequent philosophies to develop African unity to confront imperialist powers.
According to undated versions of Dread History the verse gave rise to what scholars termed a “biblically- rooted pan- African hermeneutic” that later became a widely used source of inspiration and legitimization to inspire Africans to continue the struggle against colonial domination. To put it more succinctly, in both America and Southern Africa, the Ethiopianism movement was firstly a reaction to the discrimination in ecclesiastical administration and the outright marginalization of black clergymen for no other reason than the colour of their skin. It was an unwritten law by white missionary churches not to ordain black clergymen and the mere fact that this discrimination took place in locations as far apart as America and South Africa over a long period of time is proof that it was more systemic practice than a symptom of sporadic racism.
Therefore as a result of this ungodly discrimination, Professor Muchie traces the arrival of the movement of anti- racist theology, which the white authorities and deeply threatened white supremacists in South Africa described as “pernicious Ethiopian propaganda” and therefore legislated to ban it. But that did not stop Ethiopianism from spreading and soon blacks started to desert white churches. He points out a notable withdrawal from the white churches in Southern Africa when Nehemiah Tile, a minister who rose to prominence as an accomplished preacher in Thembuland, seceded from the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1884- a hundred years after the first black church was established by Richard Allen in America. Nehemiah Tile’s move was the first salvo heralding a new history of Ethiopianism in Africa and a significant milestone in the history of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. And there was also Reverend Mangena Mokone’s Ethiopian church of South Africa, which set up after resigning from Wesleyan Methodist Church and quickly established alliances with American black churches that shared a similar history of discrimination and has passed through a similar route to independence.
From Professor Muchie’s lecture I can safely say that Ethiopianism was truly an all- African movement; it was not a phenomenon confined only to Southern African region or African diaspora in America. Marcus Garvey extensively used the Ethiopian discourse in the thinking that was later known as Garveyism. It was recited in the speeches for the motion to establish the South African Native National Congress; the precursor of the ANC. Furthermore, the pan-African newsletter- New African attests that Ethiopianism was a movement that fuelled the anti- colonial struggle in Eastern and Western Africa too. Jomo Kenyatta, certainly inspired by the movement is quoted as saying that Ethiopianism was the most popular religious sect. As late as the dying years of colonialism, Ethiopianism was in full operation, which Professor Muchie says is evidenced by the establishment of the Kenyan Church of Christ in 1957, withdrawing from the Anglican sect in the same fashion as the rest of the Ethiopian churches.
Ethiopianism continued to animate the anti- colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, even in the 1970’s and 1980s. The significance of its philosophy continues to inspire historians and scholars to this day. New African Magazine posits that the essence of Ethiopianism was articulated by one of the founders of the Ethiopian churches as being a movement aimed at “planting a self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating African church which would produce a truly African type of Christianity suited to the genius and needs of the race and not a black copy of any European church”.
In my own view, these ideals, in their political dimensions, are the ideals that Africa has not yet realized and is still struggling to achieve. It is to be truly reckoned that Ethiopianism has become even more relevant in the current context of seeking to realize Africa’s full agency, self-worth, dignity and pride in the 21st century, i.e. Pan- Africanism and African Renaissance. Even the theme of the jubilee of the OAU-AU (2013), strongly resonated with the ethos of Ethiopianism. Without doubt Ethiopianism offers the requisite explanation that would put flesh on the bare bones of African Renaissance concept. What former South African president Thabo Mbeki defined as African Renaissance is very much what Ethiopianists were demanding. As crisply described by some historians like Mutero Chirenge, Ethiopianism “became a generic term to describe a whole range of the black man’s efforts to improve his religious, educational and political experience”.
As a parting shot, Professor Mammo Muchie reminds us that for Africans to know where they are going, they have to comprehend the difficult journey of where they come from as everything in life can be moved but memory. The historical memory of Ethiopianism and its resistance is a great start of exploring why Africans should have united yesterday. Let’s build on this powerful Ethiopianist bedrock.
*Solly Rakgomo is an Educator, social commentator, politics and security analyst.