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"A Logo Should Tell a Story": The Symbols of Pan-Africanism

January 11, 2017


The threat of commoditization – the process by which commodities lose their singularity and are then regarded in the eyes of consumers as undifferentiated from other similar brands – poses a constant challenge to manufacturers of goods and brings many of them to hire the services of brand designers. They hope that by rebranding their goods, customers will perceive them as unique and somehow better, and as a result will choose their brand over others.


Designers, in return, deploy sophisticated branding strategies. “A logo should tell a story,” is one common piece of advice. If a logo “tells a story” smartly, and conveys that “special something” that makes one brand worthier of attention than others, then perhaps customers will identify with the product and be willing to purchase it.


But for historians, anthropologists, and other students of culture, a symbol always tells a story. This is not a story meant to arouse an affective response in potential consumers, but rather a story grounded in the understanding that a symbol is always a result of a certain setting or context.


The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC)


The symbol chosen to represent the quintessential political message of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) portrays the African continent over a green background, with a yellow or golden star placed somewhere in the sub-region of West Africa – perhaps Ghana, Togo, or Benin – sending beams of light to the rest of the black continent. During apartheid (1948-1994), the PAC was a South African liberation movement dedicated to overthrowing the oppressive and racist white minority regime in South Africa.



But a question soon arises: Why would a political movement dedicated to the replacement of a South African regime choose to label itself through a visual representation of the entire continent of Africa, with the centerpiece golden star placed far away from the borders of the southern African state? Before contemplating the logo’s iconography, a consideration of the color scheme can assist with the unearthing of the immediate political context from which the PAC emerged.


The Breakaway


The PAC was formally launched in 1959, after a group of “Africanists” led by Robert Sobukwe (1924-1978) broke away from the African National Congress (ANC), the leading black opposition group to the apartheid regime in South Africa. The “Africanists” and the movement they founded, the PAC, advocated an exclusive black nationalism: they opposed the ANC’s cooperation with non-black movements, especially the strong alliance forged between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), with its large proportion of white members. While the ANC preached a vision of “multi-racialism,” guaranteeing political rights to all national groups in a future South Africa, the PAC denied recognition of any group conceived on racial lines. They emphasized a social division based on the asymmetric relations between the indigenous black population of South Africa and the oppressive class composed of descendants of white colonialists.


The strong rivalry between the PAC and ANC could not, however, erase their common political origin. The PAC was an off-shoot of the older and well-established ANC, and this fact left its trace on one striking visual component of both movements’ logos – their color scheme: black, green and gold. The ANC’s proclaimed rationale for this choice of colors is that the “black symbolizes the people of South Africa […] The green represents the land […] The gold represents the mineral and other natural wealth of South Africa.”[1] Land robbery, economic exploitation and the blackness of the people of Africa, are all explicit themes in the PAC manifesto as well.


Ghana’s independence


The gold star which appears on the PAC logo represents Ghana, the first independent African state to gain independence from the European colonial powers.[2]

After it declared independence from Britain in 1957, Ghana enjoyed immense international prestige, especially in anti-colonial circles in Africa and among various black Civil Rights, and later Black Power, U.S. based activists. Ghana became a symbol of a successful anti-colonial struggle and through the political ideology of its first prime-minister and president, Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), it also advocated the Pan-African idea of the “United States of Africa.” This idea promoted the creation of a continental African state that would have the power to overcome the “balkanization” of Africa and the threat of neo-colonialism due to economic dependence on Western capital.


But Ghana did not only represent ideas that the PAC found appealing; it assisted both the PAC and other African liberation movements materially. Political refugees could receive asylum in Ghana, which also provided African liberation movements with economic aid and military training. Soon after its establishment, the PAC sent official representatives to Ghana, and after the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa (1960) that was followed by the outlawing of all black opposition movements, political exiles from both the ANC and PAC found refuge from South African persecution in Ghana.


The PAC could effectively convey their own political ideals by positioning the shining star over Ghana’s geographical location on the cartographic representation of Africa. By borrowing from Ghana’s prestige and symbolic capital as the first independent post-colonial African state and its leadership’s advocacy of Pan-African ideals, the PAC communicated a strong anti-apartheid and Pan-Africanist message to the local South African audience.


A Pan-African Color Scheme: Version #1


The star that appears on the PAC logo points to Ghana not only through its location but also because of its iconography. The star is a dominant feature in the Ghanaian flag; a star appears in the center of the flag, over a background composed of three horizontal stripes: red, gold and green. The PAC star evoked the Ghanaian ideal by its resemblance to the five-pointed star appearing on the Ghanaian flag.


The color-scheme in Ghana’s flag, however, is different to that of the PAC. The ANC, founded in 1912, long before Ghana gained independence, had opted for green, gold and black, while the Ghanaians chose green, gold and red. These latter colors were drawn from the flag of the Ethiopian Empire, which was the only African country to avoid colonization [3]. This fact lent Ethiopia a great deal of prestige and authority for post-colonial African states, such as Ghana, whose independence conveyed a strong anti-colonial message. By adopting the Ethiopian color scheme, Ghana communicated its primary claim to fame: being the first independent post-colonial African state.


Flags of Ghana and the Ethiopian Empire


Ghana was not the only country to adopt these colors, many African countries followed suit after gaining independence, inspired by the Ethiopian and Ghanaian model. These colors found their way to African diaspora-based movements as well. The central place devoted to Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia (reigned between 1930-1974), in the originally Jamaican Rastafari religion, is exemplified in the red, gold and green colors that compose their flag.



From top left and clockwise: Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon, Togo, Congo-Brazzaville.






A Pan-African Color Scheme: Version #2


In spite of demeaning allegations made in popular culture regarding African American’s lack of a flag of their own, political initiatives commenced in the early twentieth century that would change this. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), the Jamaican born Pan-African leader and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), preached ‘Back to Africa’ to the black masses who formed what is probably the largest Pan-African movement in history. In 1920 the UNIA officially adopted a flag. In a ’Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World’ published by the organization, it was proclaimed “[t]hat the colors, Red, Black and Green, be the colors of the Negro race.” Garvey would make a direct reference to an early 20th century musical hit: “In song and mimicry they have said, ‘Every race has a flag but the coon.’ How true! Aye! But that was said of us […] years ago. They can't say it now...”[4]



The UNIA flag exceeded its function as a symbolic representation of the UNIA, and became identified with the Pan-African movement in general, especially in the context of American black nationalism. But it has also influenced the color scheme of the flags of African states, such as Malawi, Kenya and Libya.


 Flags of Malawi, Kenya, Libya



The Black Star Line (1919-1922)


Back to Ghana’s five-pointed black star. In 1919 Marcus Garvey incorporated the Black Star Line (BSL), and utilized the UNIA conventions to sell BSL shares to enthusiasts. The BSL promoted two major components of the UNIA ideology – economic self-reliance and the “Back to Africa” ideal – by facilitating the transportation of goods, and eventually diasporic Africans back to their African homeland. Kwame Nkrumah, who was highly influenced by Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism, decided to use the black star in Ghana’s national flag to convey his Pan-African vision. 



 A Transnational Story   


Pan-Africanism’s history is deeply transnational. Tracking the origins of the flags, symbols, colors and logos of seemingly distant African liberation movements, African states, and diaspora-based Pan-African movements, displays a complex intersection of political ideas and movements. Political movements from Southern Africa could symbolize their political goals by visually referencing Ghana. Ghana’s flag, in turn, drew inspiration from Ethiopia, but at the same time from the UNIA, an American based African American mass movement. For the UNIA, Africa was a political ideal; and for some African countries, the UNIA colors conveyed an inspiring and appropriate message for their own national agendas. The African diaspora originated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Africans were moved, against their will and in inhumane conditions, across the Atlantic. The circulation of symbols that I have explored begins to tell a more optimistic story of trans-Atlantic movement that restores agency to the descendants of the enslaved.



[1] http://www.anc.org.za/kids/anc-logo-colours-and-flag

[2] http://pac.org.za/2008-constitution/

[3] Except for a brief period of Italian colonization (1936-1941). Liberia can arguably be added to this category.

[4] Marcus Garvey, “Honorable Marcus Garvey, Gifted Man of Vision, Sets Out In Unanswerable Terms the Reasons Why Negroes Must Build in Africa,” Negro World 22, no. 6 (March 19, 1927).

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