Ujamaa: Economics and African Values

Eric Williams’s monumental work Capitalism and Slavery captures the synergistic links between the rise of modern capitalism and white racism. In it, Williams argues that racism, as an ideological framework that argued for and sought to concretize in the realm of social relations the subordination of Africans and the superordination of Europeans, emerged as a necessary by-product of the system of chattel slavery. Williams’s analysis thus shows that racism cannot be delinked from capitalism, and that from this vantage point, the struggle against racism must also necessarily entail a struggle against the malformations of capitalism.

In Kawaida Theory (the body of ideas that spawned both the Nguzo Saba and Kwanzaa), there are seven areas of culture. These are: “history, religion (ethics and spirituality), social organization, economic organization, political organization, creative production, and ethos” (Karenga 1997, 10). Of these, economic organization, offers valuable lessons pertaining to the form and character of our liberation struggle, and is directly related to the principle of Ujamaa, “Cooperative Economics”.

There are two dimensions to be discussed here. First, it is critical that we control the economics of our communities. This means that we must produce, distribute, and consume goods and services produced by ourselves for ourselves. No sovereign people, nor any people aspiring to sovereignty, can attain such a status so long as they remain dependent on another for their basic, day-to-day necessities.

Second, it is necessary that our economic institutions do not reproduce the malformations of the dominant society—that is extreme forms of stratification and dispossession. Ours must be a humanizing system, that is a system that respects the rights and dignity of people over that of capital, profit, and greed, and that seeks to enable people to achieve their maximum development. And as an African people, such systems must also be Africanizing, that is that they must facilitate our process of cultural reclamation and renewal, and reflect the African value system.

This latter point takes us to the root of the word ujamaa itself, which is jamaa. Jamaa translates into English as “family”. Ujamaa translates as “familyhood”, and denotes a collective interest or concern. This is part of why the word ujamaa has been employed to refer to socialism—an economic system emphasizing shared resources and shared profit in the interest of all. This was not due to a reliance on the ideas of any European theorist, but due to the values inherent in the economic systems of traditional African society, which entailed concerns about the collective welfare, the greater good. Thus, while the pursuit of profit was welcomed and envouraged, the values of compassion and generosity were also enforced. Such a sentiment is born out in the ancestral wisdom which states, “Ubepari ni unyama,” which translates as “Capitalism [exploitation] is animalistic”, that is, savage. A just economy, must enhance our humanity, not negate it.

 

References

Karenga, Maulana. 1997. Kawaida Theory: A Communitarian African Philosophy. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.

Williams, Eric. 1994. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

 

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