With reality putting a damper on post-colonial optimism, we need to forge a new hope
In 1950 Aimé Césaire, the great Martinican poet, published Discourse on Colonialism, an incendiary pamphlet. Written on the edge of a new world, it’s a furious, brilliant, rushing polemic full of ideas chiselled into bright relief by an extraordinary writer. “Europe,” he declares at the outset, “is indefensible.”
Césaire rips away the myths fabricated by colonialism to shroud its horrors. He compels his readers to face these horrors: torture, rape, mutilation and murder. Fascism is a matter of “the boomerang effect” – the savagery first visited on the colonised has returned to Europe.
At the same time his writing, like a lot of anticolonial thought, is marked by a fundamental optimism about a new world to come. This optimism, frequently more metaphysical than political, was also often present in South Africa. There were profound differences between thinkers such as Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko, but they all shared a real optimism about a new world to come.
For Seme, writing in 1906, on the eve of the Bambatha Rebellion: “The most essential departure of this new civilisation is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic – indeed, a regeneration moral and eternal!”
But for more than a generation the enthusiasms of the anticolonial writers – sustained into the 1950s and 1960s – and, in particular, their confident proclamations about the future have seemed naive and passé to many.
Much of the writing produced within the melancholy of post-colonial disappointment is characterised by an overwhelming sense of rot and stasis. There is often a sense of an irrecoverable descent into the swamp of the relentlessly petty and dishonest.
Corruption, authoritarianism and sadistic expressions of power sometimes appear as constituent features of a world that must, nonetheless, be inhabited. Complicity sometimes appears as an inescapable cost of doing what one must do for one’s own family.
This sense of pessimism and resignation is not unfamiliar to us. Jacob Zuma or Hlaudi Motsoeneng would not be out of place in something written by Ayi Kwei Armah, Jamaica Kincaid or Salman Rushdie. As time passes, the bitter comedy of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow increasingly seems less magical and more realist.
We have reached the point where the language of crisis is ubiquitous. Mass unemployment, the systemic failures with regard to housing and education, as well as political violence, are increasingly described in terms of crisis.
“The crisis,” Antonio Gramsci wrote in a fascist prison, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
We’re accumulating morbid symptoms at a dizzying velocity – a bucket of water and a rubber tube in the local police station, an assassin’s bullet hurtling out of the night, the serious intent behind the farce at the SABC, and new excesses in the subordination of the state to private interests. It goes on and on.
At the same time, a new generation of young people have announced their own declarations of refusal against the enduring power of colonial modes of oppression and exclusion. But it has often sought to locate itself as a commitment to complete the project inaugurated by the great anticolonial thinkers, and the movements with which they are associated.
In this context the work left by writers such as Césaire can seem more like a starting point for a new sequence of militancy than a relic from a world well lost. It can acquire an aura of contemporary urgency.
The reason the writing that has to come out of post-colonial disappointment seems out of time and uninteresting to some, and older anticolonial writers seem contemporary to others, is the fact that our society is simultaneously part colony and part post-colony.
It is not unusual for critique to focus solely or largely on one dimension of this complex reality. And the pathologies of one aspect of this situation are often misused to mask or justify the other. From the occupation of urban land to unrest on campuses, the ANC relentlessly misrepresents critique as merely the most visible manifestation of hidden and sinister conspiracies aimed at restoring the old order.
At the same time, a sole focus on Zuma and corruption to explain our problems removes the enduringly colonial features of our society – from how we allocate urban land to how we design university curricula – from critical scrutiny.
In 1959 Robert Sobukwe noted his opposition to what he called “the fashionable doctrine of South African exceptionalism”. If we take this seriously in the present, we can’t assume that our future will differ from that of post-colonial societies elsewhere in Africa – or across the Global South.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, anticolonialism has won major victories and has simultaneously been complicit in new forms of authoritarianism, exploitation and exclusion. From Mexico to India, new vectors of domination, and new lines of exclusion, are producing increasingly brutal societies.
If we take the fate of the post-colony seriously, it would be a mistake to assume that the modes of power and predation that Zuma is building in the ruling party and the state are a trivial distraction from our real problems, or merely some sort of epiphenomena of unfinished business with white supremacy.
Taking some measure of the distance between soaring anticolonial hopes and bitter post-colonial realities means, among other things, that we have to ask why anticolonial commitment in the 1950s and 1960s only went so far and why optimism and possibility could not be sustained.
From Césaire it is clear that even the most brilliant denunciation of oppression does not, in itself, constitute an equally brilliant elaboration of positive programme. In Discourse on Colonialism he offered the Soviet Union as a model of a new society. Of course, six years later, after the Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest, he wrote a brilliant and eloquent letter of resignation from the French Communist Party. Yet the fact remains that in this classic anticolonial text written in good faith, Césaire offered a grossly authoritarian and oppressive society as an alternative.
History offers no alibi for an easy optimism about what may lie beyond the current crisis. And history is not to be trifled with. In some respects, there were more political possibilities in the formerly colonised world during the moment of decolonisation, including the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in 1955 and the global youth-driven rebellion in 1968.
Today – from Haiti to Greece and across Latin America – attempts to develop progressive alternatives to some of the worst excesses of the predatory economic arrangements that continue to produce immiseration on a vast scale have been smashed or contained. In countries such as Russia, Turkey and India, reactionary and authoritarian forms of nationalism have made emancipatory projects almost impossible.
Zuma’s ANC is committed to using authoritarian means to contain our crisis rather than democratic means to resolve it. This includes attempts to win consent as well as direct coercion. As we have recently seen at the SABC, nationalism can be misused to cloak what the youth, borrowing from Jamaican slang, like to call “fuckery”.
A lot of anticolonial thought, like a lot of Marxism – and also liberalism, entwined as it always is with colonial ideas about movement towards what it imagines to be modern and universal – assumes that history has a direction and that it is towards progress. But this isn’t how the world works.
If we are going to be able to take the pathologies of the colonial and the post-colonial dimensions of our society seriously, to develop a capacity for stereoscopic vision and to be able to act effectively in accordance with that vision, we’ll need to think hard about how to develop the political forces capable of this.
If we are to have any realistic hope of attaining a democratic rather than an authoritarian resolution of our crisis, genuinely popular and democratic forces will be required.
It will not do, as Frantz Fanon warned, to “come down into the common paths of real life” with formulas that are “sterile in the extreme” – and this must include forms of political optimism that are, ultimately, metaphysical.
An emancipatory politics able to simultaneously confront the colonial and post-colonial features of our society would have to be rooted in the more limited but more real forms of optimism, anchored in people’s resilience, striving and struggle.
Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana