The African Traditional Society

The foundation of African Socialism, Nyerere argues, is not the class struggle, but the traditional African institution of the extended family. It was a result of his socialisation in the family that the African acquired that attitude of mind which predisposed him towards socialism. With minor variations and exceptions, particularly where domestic slavery existed, “African family life was everywhere based on certain practices and attitudes which together meant basic equality, freedom and unity”. It was these principles, Nyerere says, that “virtually excluded the idea that one member of the extended family could kill another or steal from another – it was not any special African human virtue”. The family was so organised that everyone felt secure; the poor and the rich. There was no need for individual preoccupation with security against accidents or old age. Should a natural catastrophe befall the community, it would affect all the members and not the rich or poor alone. Security and hospitality were, therefore, major pillars of the traditional African society.

” …. nobody starved, whether for food or human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member. This was socialism. This is socialism.”

Every member of the community had an obligation to work. The only people who were dependent on society – those who did not work at all – were the children, the aged and the sick. It was a society in which there was no place for the “idler and the loiterer”. Everyone was a worker, not a worker in the sense contrary to employer, but in the sense that all able-bodied people worked. The specialised sense of the word “worker” meaning “employee” as opposed to “employer” reflects a capitalist attitude of mind which was introduced into Africa by colonialism, says Nyerere. Does this mean that the traditional African society was an economy of full employment, with every able-bodied person employed? If this is the case, then how can we account for the generally low level of economic development in Africa?

Nyerere’s answer is that the employer-employee relationship is fundamentally an exploitative one. The former, by trying to squeeze as much labour from the latter in order to maximise his own profit is in effect using his superior economic position – a position held by virtue of possession of wealth – as a means to this end. But the traditional African never desired wealth for the purpose of dominating others, says Nyerere. And it was because of this absence of desire in the African to dominate, that there were no African millionaires in the traditional African society. It was not because there was not enough wealth “to create a few”, but because the society was so structured that “there was hardly any room for parasites”. The millionaire is a genus of the species parasite.

Furthermore, the traditional economy was not geared for surplus production, and hence there was no room for substantial economic development normally associated with countries that do plan for surplus production. Such a need was not ‘felt’ in the traditional African society. And the ethos of the society, Nyerere tells us, was not of acquisitiveness, but that of egalitarianism and of sharing. The major pre-occupation of the traditional society was not rapid economic development or material abundance, but self-sufficiency.

Hence in order to bring about rapid economic development today, which the modern African states must in order to survive, new methods and techniques of production and distribution must be adopted. But they must be based on African traditions. Capitalism is not the appropriate method, not only because of its underlying ethos of inequality and its historical connection with colonialism and racism in Africa, but because it is basically un-African. Yet the problem, and the one uppermost in Nyerere’s mind, still remains: can economic development be brought about in the absence of an atmosphere conducive to personal gain, material or otherwise – and can the growth of such an atmosphere itself be avoided? In the tradition-oriented society, the African had no desire for materiel possession, nor was he predisposed to out-do his neighbours; because, firstly, his neighbours were no different materially or in style of life from him, and secondly, the whole ethos of the society militated against individual material possession and ostentatious consumption. But today the African traditional life is being steadily worn away. How then can classless, egalitarian Ujamaa meet the challenge of modernisation which is inherently non-egalitarian and, indeed, relies on personal ambitions and achievements for success? Nyerere is acutely aware of these problems. As presently constituted, he asserts, the African society is not conducive to the kind of society Ujamaa calls for, and this is not because people are “evil or selfish”, but simply because they are a product of their circumstances. What needs changing, therefore, are these circumstances.

Nyerere argues that the other basic pillar of African traditional life was the “joint ownership of basic property” – land. Personal property did exist and was accepted, but this took a “second place in the order of things”. It was the family property that mattered both to the family as much as to the individual. No member of the family starved so that another could accumulate personal property. And because it was family property, all had a right to share in its use. So strong was the concept of sharing that even in relation to private property there developed an expectation of use in case of need.

These two traditional African elements – the obligation to work and the communality of basic property – Nyerere asserts, reinforce the third element: that of mutual respect and obligation which in turn generates the distinct African generosity and hospitality. In describing the essence of the traditional African society, Nyerere invokes an old Swahili saying: “Mgeni siku mbili, siku ya tatu mpe jembe”. (Treat your guest as a guest for two days; on the third day give him a hoe). In actual fact, Nyerere comments, “The guest was likely to ask for a hoe even before his host had to give him one, for he knew what was expected of him and would have been ashamed to remain idle any longer”.

Nyerere further asserts that there were no classes in the traditional African society. In fact, Nyerere argues:

“I doubt if the equivalent for the word ‘class’ exists in any indigenous African language; for language describes the ideas of those who speak it, and the idea of class or caste was non-existent in African society.”

There was of course authority to maintain the unity of the society, but it was not absolute. It had its checks and balances, and was acceptable only because it had certain responsibilities to fulfil. The authority was not based on any class structure; the society was not divided into rulers and ruled. The authority was basically the “first among equals”. Nostalgically recalling the past, Nyerere adds: “The Elders sit under the Big Tree and talk until they agree”.