No country for brilliant thinkers

Philosopher Mabogo More was recently awarded the Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association. The award committee chairperson, Lewis R Gordon, calls him “probably the most frequently cited philosopher living in South Africa today”. So why is he almost unknown in the country?

The philosopher’s den cum-study-cum-living area simultaneously conjures order and chaos. The bookshelf behind his desk is lined with mostly existential philosophy tracts in logical order, so that he easily pulls out tomes by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and African-American philosopher Leonard Harris to chart his intellectual trajectory. His desk is covered in open, upended books alongside strewn academic papers, evoking his widely referenced, re-interpretive papers and essays.

Mabogo Percy More’s compact double-storey maisonette is in Pinetown, outside Durban. Born in 1946, the greying More, in shorts and cornrowed dreadlocks, is the picture of vitality, looking as though he had time-travelled 25 years back.

Since 1981, the two-time associate professor (at the then University of the North, Turfloop, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN) has published regularly, contributing cogent works to the canon of Africana, writing on anything from ubuntu and psychosexual racism to Locating Frantz Fanon in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

A raconteur, More speaks as though he’s channelling an oral tradition. He taps the wooden table frequently, as though he’s soundtracking a rap, the inflections of his brisk, raspy tone chaperoning his words.

For More, a scholar on race, it figures that it was a fellow South African philosopher who would suggest that baby rape was becoming a cultural phenomenon “under the black population”. Louise Mabille, who at the time was lecturing at the University of Pretoria, published her comments in an August 2013 edition of Praag, a website run by right-wing race apologist Dan Roodt.

“African-American philosopher Leonard Harris once wrote a paper arguing that the Ku Klux Klan was even less of a racist organisation than philosophy departments in the US,” says More. “He went into detail showing that all African-American philosophers were not hired in philosophy departments in the country. They were hired in African-American studies because the American philosophy circle refuses to have black folks in there.”

Visibly invisible
Ditto here in South Africa. “I once went to a philosophy conference in Potchefstroom in 1977,” says More. “Nobody spoke to me about philosophy. They were asking me, ‘Hey, what do you think is going to happen?’ This was after the June 16 uprisings. The philosophical circles would not insult me overtly, but I’d be so visibly invisible at one time or invisibly visible at another time.”

More, a Turfloop alumni and a former classmate of the late South African Students Organisation (Saso) organiser Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, estimates that there are perhaps 10 black philosophy lecturers in the country out of a field of about 300. Probably only one of these is a black woman, he says.

In “Philosophy in South Africa Under and After Apartheid” in A Companion to African Philosophy, More writes: “Both philosophical traditions, the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental, therefore, in varying degrees, may have been used to provide justification for racial and cultural discrimination before official apartheid … and during the apartheid years …

“The two journals of philosophy in this country – obviously under white control and editorship – until recently, hardly published a single piece on African philosophy during their long history.

“The obvious reasons are, first, the European construction of the African as the absolute Other, and, second, the constructed … self-conception of philosophy itself. Africa and the Africans supposedly lack what both the European and philosophy share: rationality.”

Academic journey
More’s own trail within the academy began in 1969, while studying towards a BA degree in philosophy and history. Martinique-born philosopher and author Frantz Fanon’s texts The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin White Masks were the era’s scriptures. These were being smuggled out of the university’s library and circulated by then assistant librarian and later government minister S’bu Ndebele.

More says Turfloop was filled with Afrikaner nationalist lecturers whose other job was to monitor the black students. “When there were protests, we’d see them donning army gear. Some only had honours degrees and were made professors, having published nothing.”

After completing his honours degree, More was offered a junior lecturing post because “I was regarded as a nonproblematic black”.

Tendayi Sithole, a lecturer at Unisa, says coming across More’s work was a seminal moment in his academic career. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

He later pursued his master’s degree through Unisa, writing his thesis about pacifism as a way of exploring the Fanonian notion of therapeutic violence. “You couldn’t say violence was right or you would go straight to jail,” he says. “But the point is Steve Biko [who was heavily influenced by Fanon] was not a pacifist. He only claimed nonviolence to try setting his comrades free [Biko appeared as a witness in 1976 in a Black People’s Convention/Saso trial under the Terrorism Act].

“Biko at a personal level didn’t take any nonsense – he beat up security policemen twice. He even took one policeman’s tooth out … Maybe that explains why he was killed with his hands tied behind him because he wouldn’t let them touch him.”

US scholarship
It was a scholarship to Indiana University in 1981 that catapulted More into the world of Africana existential philosophy. In his paper Black Consciousness Intellectual Tradition, More draws on Lucius Outlaw, the progenitor of the term, to explain Africana existential philosophy as “agendas, norms, and practices that are the result of the effort to forge and articulate new identities and life-agendas by which to survive and to flourish in the limiting situations of racialised oppression.”

Lewis R Gordon, a professor of philosophy and Africana studies at the University of Connecticut and the chairperson of the Caribbean Philosophy Association’s award committee, says More’s travels to the United States coincided with “an explosion of African-American and Afro-Caribbean philosophy”, a moment that saw the emergence of a young Cornel West and, in 1984, the publishing of the seminal book edited by Leonard Harris, Philosophy Born of Struggle: Afro-American Philosophy from 1917.

“I got back into Turfloop and realised we were not doing anything and the more I stayed there, the more I became unmarketable,” he says.

In the 1980s and 1990s, More journeyed abroad intermittently, with fellowships at Birmingham University, the University of Illinois and Harvard University (in the mid-1990s). In 1990, he took up a post as a lecturer at the then University of Durban-Westville. “It was liberating in the sense that it was the only university and department of philosophy that was dealing with social and political issues,” he remembers. “That’s when I really unleashed on racism.”

Speak to people who have encountered More and you get heartfelt testimonies to his generosity.

Realm of philosophy
Tendayi Sithole, a senior lecturer at Unisa’s department of political sciences, considered himself something of a reactionary before coming across More’s work.

“I first came across the chapter “Biko as Existential Philosopher” in the book Biko Lives in 2008,” says Sithole from his book-filled flat in western Johannesburg.

“For me it was a huge contradiction because I never thought of Biko as a philosopher at all, and then to think of him as an African existentialist philosopher? To me, he was always an ‘icon’, an ‘activist’, a ‘hero’. More forced Biko into the realm of philosophy. So when I did my master’s in 2011, comparing the columns of [Xolela] Mangcu, [Andile] Mngxitama and Sipho Seepe, I sent my [dissertation] to him [More] and I was privileged that he provided me with feedback.”

Luntu Hlatshwayo, who studied modern political thought and political philosophy in context under More, says: “It became clear to me that Biko is relevant organically. White kids now are not specifically taught to have racial biases, but it’s the way they see the world that produces that. They may see that their domestic and the petrol attendant are black, so they start to imagine black people as their servants or not smart. He had narratives around what he taught and encouraged us to tell our own.”

Others such as archivist Mwelela Cele, who works at the Biko Centre in King William’s Town, remember initiatives More was involved in, such as the Frantz Fanon lecture series. Cele says Mahmood Mamdani’s talk on the Rwandan genocide was astounding – based on his book When Victims Become Killers.

Now that campus life is behind him, More speaks energetically of his plans. He’s writing an autobiography that is already 100 pages deep. There is an upcoming book on “Biko, philosophy and identity” to be finished, there are plans to publish his PhD thesis on Sartre and racism, and he wants to organise black philosophers to put out a book on Fanon and post-apartheid South Africa.

Lordwish Sethole, a friend who has known him since his Turfloop days, believes More would perhaps have achieved greater recognition had he stayed and fought to transform Turfloop with the crop of black lecturers in the 1980s – because even as he carved a singular legacy at UKZN, he never quite escaped apartheid’s caste system.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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