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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ali Mazrui, RIP

Just learned that Ali Mazrui died on October 12 via the NYT. Ali Mazrui drew strong opinions. As a child of Uganda's Ambassador to the UN my parents threw a lot of diplomatic parties. At these events, even as a child, I knew that when the name Mazrui was mentioned two things would happen: 1) the discussion would grow animated pro and con and 2) his name would be pronounced in hushed tones. As a kid I was fascinated by the name and the man who could make such formidable African intellectuals a little afraid.

Mazrui is often remembered for his own strong opinions. He should also be remembered for his context. As a professor at Makerrere in Kampala, he was the leader of the first wave of postcolonial intellectuals. His BBC -- then PBS -- special was, like Cosmos and I, Claudius, must-see-TV in our household in the 1970s. His thought must be viewed through the prism of young, fragile African countries coming out of the historical humiliation of colonialism. It is as easy for right wing hacks to find glowing praise for Qaddafi from Mazrui as it is to find glowing praise for Cuba's Fidel Castro from Nelson Mandela. It is not as easy to see that praise as coming from the perspective of someone who has not had good historical relations with the West. It is easy to find pro-communist statements from Mazrui -- he was not a capitalist -- but consider that almost every single postcolonial college graduate in Africa in the late sixties and early seventies was at least a Fabian socialist and probably had communist leanings.

The pendulum swings. Colonialism is a distant memory; startup founders are the new rock stars. Six of the ten fastest growing economies are from what was once called "the Dark Continent." What are we to make of Ali Mazrui now? The last two paragraphs of his NYT obit say it best:

"In editing 'The Africans' for American television, Professor Mazrui deleted his description of Karl Marx as 'the last of the great Jewish prophets' because producers feared it might be taken as anti-Semitic.
"In Britain, where the line was used, he had worried that Marxists might be offended by the reference to Marx as a prophet.
“'My life,' he once said, 'is one long debate.'"
It was indeed. Rest in peace, Ali Mazrui.

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