A Thinkavist Manifesto

The Rwanda genocide unfolded at the same time as the elections marking the transition to a post-apartheid South Africa—during the first half of 1994.

At a meeting of African intellectuals called in Arusha later that year to reflect on the lessons of Rwanda, I pointed out that if we had been told a decade earlier that there would be reconciliation in one country and genocide in another, none of us could have been expected to identify the locations correctly—for the simple reason that 1984 was the year of reconciliation in Rwanda and repression in the townships of South Africa.

Indeed, as subsequent events showed, there was nothing inevitable about either genocide in Rwanda or reconciliation in South Africa.

I’m only a few pages into Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviours and Survivors, but I’m immensely enjoying it already. Even the footnotes (see above) are interesting.

The book is Mamdani’s broadside against the tide of Darfur advocacy movements in the US. The academic in me loves Mamdani’s basic point: politics, like life, is complex. Boiling the Darfur conflict down to a slogan and popular campaign is at best naive, and is probably doing a disservice to peace and stability itself.

Mamdani suggests a different credo for activists:

In contrast to those that suggest that we act the minute the whistle blows, I suggest that, even before the whistle blows, we ceaselessly try to know the world in which we live—and act.

Even if we must act on imperfect knowledge, we must never act as if knowing is no longer relevant.

‘Thinknactivist’ seems a little too plodding a term. I’ll call it the Thinkavist Manifesto.

Here’s the problem: these Thinkavists exist (probably even in the Save Darfur movement) and a good many agitate and educate daily (see blogs here and here).

The problem as I see it: simple messages, credos for action, and the call to “save” Africans will always mobilize more attention and enthusiasm than “Well, on the one hand…”. Are we Thinkavists doomed to obscurity by our monotony and evenhandedness?

7 thoughts on “A Thinkavist Manifesto

  1. I have just finished reading it. I would take issue with a few points in the introduction and conclusion, but the historical section is fascinating and his basic take on the ICC and the Save Darfur coalition is probably sound – which is rather depressing.

    Kate Allen, Amnesty UK's director, has weighed into the poverty and human rights debate, incidentally:


  2. Sigh. Yes, thinkavists are doomed.

    Haven't read the book yet, but it's waiting for me when I get home. Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. I have not read the book, but at the risk of sounding like a stodgy, obselete academic, may I suggest that this dilemma is not unique to activism but rather represents a central challenge to human societies in the postmodern era? It seems to be that this is the same fundamental problem we face in every aspect of politics, domestic or international. In a world where the polis depend on constant stimulation, and collective attention spans are short, how do we have public debates about the complex, intricate issues that modern societies face? To me, it is very clear that our current institutions, including both the media and governmental/regulatory institutions, are not up to the task.

    Nearly all the political issues we face are becoming increasingly more complex, but clever slogans and strong personalities control the terms of the debate and determine how and when people are mobilized to action. On every issue there are people who agitate and who want to engage in substantive debate about the details of the probelm and the potential solutions, but these are not the people who generally control the mobilization of the masses nor who direct the media spectacle. This is the challenge of being a "Thinker" in today's world.

    An article over at openDemocracy recently discussed this issue in the broader context of politics and democracy:


  4. To follow up on Babur.. and throw down the gauntlet a bit to the thinkavists

    I am an undergrad student who was formerly a strong member of the "save __ (darfur, congo, rape victims whatever)" club. I'm currently transitioning out of badvocacy to thinkavism (I hope).

    The save ___ groups are made of incredibly caring people that see suffering and are moved by a humanitarian impulse to act (perhaps not their leaders but thats a different matter). This is an incredibly good thing, it suggests that there is hope for humanity and that trying to make the world a better place is not a futile activity.

    Becoming a thinkavist takes A LOT of work. I'm currently getting paid full time as a research assistant to read lots of articles for the prof I'm working under and am hopefully becoming a thinkavist in the process (annnnd I might take the odd break to read this blog/ wronging rights which helps to!). Its taken 4 weeks of reading articles 40 hours a week to start to wrap my head around the complexities of deciding to act.

    Which brings me to my point:

    Not every joe, jane and harry that sees suffering in Darfur/Congo/Uganda has the time to research the multitude of issues that surround development. They are juggling kids, careers, a non-arts microbiology or science degree, and, unlinke the development folks, don't have 40 hours a week to develop a knowledge base or familiarity with theory/ issues that allows them to analyze development as critically as we would like.

    These are good people who see suffering, feel bad and want to help (which usually means what can I do with my $20 right now, or, what booth do you need me to sit at for 5 hours a week).

    This is where thinkavists come in – this is where us geeks (ahem thinkavists) need to put time and energy into figuring out a way to reach out to the save darfurs, angelina jolies, high school kids, soccer moms and whoever else and find a way to capture this caring impulse and transform it into action that is beneficial for people affected by conflict, disease, disaster etc.

    Ever since high school I've been trying to figure out I can do, what my country can do, what people I know can do to reach out to people who don't enjoy the rights and priveledges that I do.

    It wasn't until I started working for an established academic institution that I was able to learn about all of the resources that enable you to think .."well on the other hand.."

    So here's my point: learn who wants to "save" africa and figure out how to engage them on their terms; how to convey the ideas that you are wrestling with in concise and accessible language

    ideas are important – so climb out of the ivory tower and figure out how to share them

  5. I just started to read the book as well, and what struct me is that if he was consistent in his criticism he would have been strongly opposed to the anti-Apartheid movement in the United States, which is what the Save Darfur movement models itself upon. After all, the anti-Apartheid movement simplified conflict in South Africa into black versus white, ignored the complicated divisions on both sides, ignored violence committed by MK and the PAC and was fundamentally interventionist in a way that Mamdani would have seen as imperialist.

    I’ve only started to skim the book but calling Prendergast a neo-con is a cheapshot no matter whether you agree with him or not, and saying that the anti-GOS movement is an outgrowth of the war on terror ignores the significant ways in which the GOS alliance with the American government gave it protection. I may be reacting to the slivers of the book which are polemical rather than analytical but I’m not finding it as appealing at first glance. (Am also having trouble figuring out how to incorporate the book in a freshman genocide class since it’s very discursive, any ideas?)

  6. My concern is how does one prevent thinkavists from being coopted by donothingism. During the conflicts in both Bosnia and Rwanda I heard US govt officials saying neither side has their hands entirely clear so nobody should do anything. And they were right about the first point, but that ignored the fact that the majority of the violence against civilians was coming from one side. Similarly, I remember conservatives telling me something similar when I was young and fiercely opposed to the Apartheid government in South Africa. They said that anti-Apartheid forces had done bad things, and the best thing to do was to not back either side.

    Arguing that the complexity of the situation means that nobody should act ends up privileging the status quo, it’s not a morally neutral stance.