Old and new African diaspora networks: intersections, distinctions and strategies

Conference concept note

20 – 21 May 2020


Animated discussions, vibrant debates and strategic policies around diaspora and migrations are as wide-ranging as they are historical and contested. This reflects heterogeneity in concept and practice attendant to past migrations and underlined by the current surge in the global circulation of people. No less evocative are issues around people of African descent dispersed around the world as concerns their direct and indirect connections with the mother continent. Estimates are that the African diaspora stands at 140 million people[i] but this figure might be higher given recent migrations out of the continent, estimated at 17 million in 2017[ii]. These numbers have significant implications for “Africans in diaspora-diaspora and Africa” from multiple viewpoints: political, socio-cultural and economic.   

Literature and studies on the African diaspora are as expansive as the pragmatic leverage of the phenomenon. However, we identify emerging gaps, perhaps even distinctions, with regards to the practices, experiences and the worldviews of past and present African migrations and their connection to the homeland. It is with this in mind that the “old and new African diaspora” conference is being planned for 20-21 May 2020 at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), Johannesburg, South Africa.

The conference builds on the May 2019 symposium held at Wits University as partnership of the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) and the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network (ARDN). The 2019 conference was broad in nature as it was convened in alignment with the African Union’s “Year of Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons”. Narrowing focus onto past and present African diaspora, the May 2020 conference is being organised as a multiple partnership bringing together ACSUS and ARDN, the African Studies Centre at Michigan State University, the Africa Institute at the America Jewish Council and the Institute for African Studies at the George Washington University.


The key objective is to bring together scholars and intellectuals from the African diaspora to offer perspectives on old and new diaspora from various theoretical, conceptual and disciplinary perspectives as a means of generating new knowledge that can inform not only scholarship but also policy, civil society and business.

We expect that our understanding of old and new diaspora will be broadened and deepened by bringing together scholars from the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese speaking regions of the African diaspora.

A side event will convened for a more strategic discussion on the collaboration of universities, think tanks and supra-national organisations in pursuing African diaspora research and public engagement.    


In training focus on old and new African diaspora, a potential starting point is that heightened movement of people globally has complicated the definition of the term “diaspora”[iii]. The conventional definition of diaspora as “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland” is no longer encompassing enough. As such, no clear consensus exists on what constitutes diaspora much less African diaspora. Thus, the contestations on the conceptualisation of “diaspora” are fundamental to the understanding of “African diaspora”. More importantly, the notions of “old” and “new” African diaspora, equally contested, constitute a novel approach to making sense of the African diaspora in the twenty first century.

The notion of Africans in diaspora and the diaspora and Africa[iv] is a collective, tied together with tangible and aspirational pan-African interests. This pan-Africanism forged in unity in diversity on the basis of geographical, cultural, political and economic diversities. Old and new diaspora is a mostly time-bound category that constitutes one but certainly not the only form of diversity.

A key distinction is one of ancestry. Old diaspora are direct descendants of enslaved African people forced into the diaspora while the new diaspora are African immigrants born in Africa who have migrated voluntary[v]. From this duration, longevity and permanency point of view, old diaspora can be considered those permanently settled in their countries of immigration while the new diaspora are either temporarily or recently settled in “host” countries. Permanency suggests that old diaspora are nearly-irreversibly rooted in the countries of immigration, excepting returnees. New diaspora on the other hand have strong ties in their countries of emigration to which they may ultimately return if they don’t already travel there from time to time.

The new diaspora may be seen as a phenomenon that started emerging after the independence of African countries with many Africans seeking education and livelihoods particularly in the Americas and Europe. Indeed, barring exceptions, old diaspora have only their countries of immigration as their legal citizenship states while new diaspora may be living on visas, be out of legal status or have dual citizenship. In terms of age, old diaspora may be taken as those more than 35 years of age and the new diaspora as those less than 35 years old. This last distinction would in fact flatten the old and new categories in such a way that only age counts, rather than ancestry factors.

Between these areas of confluence and divergence, there are many issues that speak to past, current and future status of “global Africa”. The question is: what are the missing links? To address this question with old and new diaspora as the overarching theme, the conference will be structured into sub-thematic inquisitions. Below are the snapshots of the sub-themes.       

History: How can we understand the history of the African diaspora in the world of the 21st century?

Pan-Africanism: Are the political and cultural ties between old and new diaspora including matters of identity waning or strengthening?

Policy and strategy: What roles do the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 have in African diaspora matters? How are global, regional, national and local diaspora policies being formulated and executed?

Economics: What is the corporate, trade and investments dimension of African diasporic issues?    

Organisational issues: Which are the African diaspora organisations and associations and what are their objectives and approaches?  

Country case studies: Which knowledge – policy, academic, practice – is emerging from African diasporic countries and from the continent?

Brain drain versus brain gain:  What are the trends in intellectual flows or “brain circulation” in the African diaspora and the African continent?

Comparative analyses: How does the African diaspora compare with other diaspora such as Chinese, Israeli/Jews, Indian, etc.?

Perceptions: What are the attitudes of old and new African diaspora towards each other and towards Africa and African countries?




[iv] See Akyeampong, E. 2000. Africans in the diaspora: The diaspora and Africa, African Affairs (2000), 99, 183-215

[v] See Manguvo, A. 2018. Old and New Diasporic African People in Contemporary USA: Tracing the Relational Journey, Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.12, no.6, November 2018