/ 26 August 2011

Taking dignity and democracy seriously

Taking Dignity And Democracy Seriously

In a recent graduation speech, Saleem Badat, the vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, called on graduates to put their knowledge and expertise to work “for the benefit of society at large” through “ethical conduct, impeccable integrity, visionary endeavour, selfless public service and commitment to people and responsibilities”.

Yet, has it paradoxically become more difficult to be an oppositional critical humanist in the post-apartheid academy?

I ask because during the 1980s some quite amazing intellectual spaces opened up in the universities, often related in one way to the social movements, the trade union movements and so on, in the struggles against apartheid. After 1994, the problem seemed one of practice and policy, leading to policy units trumping the development of more reflective units of academic study.

Additionally, the logic of the university within neoliberal global processes (as well as the economistic authoritarianism of budget cuts) has furthered a hierarchy where an elite can still afford to study in the humanities with guarantees of future employment while those who can afford a university education are in practical career-oriented preprofessional study, often with humanities as a broad-based but very much a second-rate, often under-resourced “general education” requirement.

Questions are reduced to how to fully realise market mechanisms. Entrepreneurship (social, political, economic and psychological), we are told, is the most rational and equitable model. Yet, at the same time, South Africa is becoming a society where increasingly, Badat added, “crass materialism, corruption, tenderpreneurship and unbridled accumulation, often of the most primitive kinds, run rampant”.

South Africa remains an intensely political society marked by constant rebellions and revolts that quickly take on political discourses related to the shortcoming of the society as a whole.

But what has happened to the fundamental questions and discussions about creating a new society? Away from the noise of what might be considered policy talk or the election discourse of improving service delivery, questions continue to be asked in exactly the places that Frantz Fanon would expect.

At a meeting last month in Pietermaritzburg, Ntombifuthi Shandu from the Rural Network remarked that life has become more difficult since the end of apartheid. Reflecting on the brutality of some of those who rule, she wondered whether “we are led by people who were damaged by the struggle during apartheid”. The remark immediately reminded me of Fanon’s case notes in The Wretched of the Earth.

Fanon understood that the struggle for “true liberation” also bred pathologies and psychological disorders, as well as traumas and stresses created by extreme situations, that would have to be addressed through sociotherapy. But Shandu’s comments also reminded me of Fanon writing with “pain in his heart” about a politics based on resentment that simply takes the place and attitudes of the coloniser.

Rather than building a culture of discussion (and democracy) there exists in the nationalist party, he argues, a “sclerosis” that leads to a “brutality of thought”. Of course, today it would not be hard to read Fanon’s essay “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” as a critique of post-apartheid South Africa, but Shandu’s point also insightfully expressed Fanon’s concern that hatred, resentment and revenge, feelings often encouraged during the struggle for short-term ends, cannot sustain liberation nor create liberated beings.

What is absolutely essential, Fanon concludes, is the force of the intellect, the creation of new dimensions for men and women. And just as the colonised understand the “thinking” of the colonial regime, the formerly colonised are quick to understand postcolonial political reality.

For Fanon, the problem for university-trained intellectuals is the lack of appreciation of the thinking that takes place among those excluded from the new dispensation — the poor, the landless, the unemployed — but who have never given up on the idea of freedom.

This speaks to Badat’s concern about the relevance of humanities to university education, which must help, as far as possible, to keep alive and encourage public debate of intellectual and theoretical questions and, at the same time, remain free of narrow political or policy paradigms, whether they be state or global, including a critical distance from such discourses as “development” and “human rights”.

Fanon argues that violence is unending as long as the brutality of colonialism, with all its dehumanising practices, continues in the independence phase. Violence, Fanon argues, is structural and takes place at many levels; it entersthe individual’s pores and follows them home; it is internalised and constantly reproducing dehumanisation.

Fanon’s concern about continued brutality is connected to his notion of decolonisation as a restructuring of consciousness. This is where a discussion of the role of critical humanities, or perhaps better, a decolonial humanities, must begin and must be connected to a larger project of a decolonial education.

Fanon insists that such a change in consciousness will not be completed quickly and certainly cannot be completed through a few slogans and marketing campaigns. It has a material basis but also takes patience and time to recentre the psyches fragmentedby colonialism and oppression and to instil into people that they and not some demiurge will fashion the new society.

A decolonial humanities takes the people’s questions about freedom, democracy and dignity seriously as it relates to Fanon’s insistence that everything needs to be rethought, and that all should be involved in imagining the future. Liberation and invention, not reduced to human output and balance sheets, need both
commitment and autonomy.

Developing a decolonial humanities cannot therefore be understood as a return to elite liberal project or refashioned as a market or Africanised notion of humanities in service to the entrepreneurial fields (such as providing an ethics for business students). It must be socially engaged and critical (in the sense of not being frightened of its conclusions), seeking to get to the root of any problem.

Committed to overcoming alienation and oppression, in Fanon’s sense, a decolonial humanities must include discussions about the nature of society and thus help to unlock human capacities and powers to consciously remake the world. It requires a democratic inclusiveness, accountability and equality as well as an atmosphere of questioning, criticism (freedom in terms of a liberated perspective) and openness where all are encouraged to participate in thinking.

Fanon’s notion of rethinking everything, in other words, cannot be subject to any external evaluation or funding agency. Serious research is an open-ended and democratic project. Outcomes cannot be anticipated in advance nor measured against some or other technocratic schema. This new era of rethinking must begin with a thorough accounting of the past 17 years — the post-apartheid period — and must begin with a rejection of the mindset that reduces intellectual work to a study, even if critical, of policy outcomes.

Theory must be taken seriously as something to be engaged with and produced as well as used in South Africa. In other words, Fanon’s demand at the conclusion of The Wretched of the Earth that independence really means working out “new concepts” in the very geographic spaces of independence must be taken very seriously.

Nigel C Gibson is based at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. His most recent book is Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as a sponsored supplement by Rhodes University