‘If we don’t rehabilitate reason, we will not be able to fix our broken world’

(Mail & Guardian)

(Mail & Guardian)

Achille Mbembe is the first African scholar to win the prestigious Gerda Henkel Prize. During a recent visit to Düsseldorf, he was interviewed by historian Andreas Eckert. Their conversation ranged from the current state of South African politics and student radicalism to Europe’s anti-immigration policies. 

South Africa has been your home for many years.
When you went there (in 2000), it was still a country full of hope. At the end of apartheid, the project of a rainbow nation was seen to open up to a happy future. There was, of course, Nelson Mandela, full of wisdom and generosity, who made all other politicians in the world look parochial. You also wrote about South Africa as a creative laboratory, as a place where a new form of humanism and co-operation was tested. But now most of the news we get from South Africa is bad news. We mainly hear about crisis and corruption. We hear about a failed ANC. We hear about many frustrated people. We hear about a land reform programme that might lead the country into violent conflicts. So would you still stick to your idea of South Africa as a creative laboratory that could pave the way for many other African regions and the rest of the world to a more humane future?

Yes, I still believe in the potential universality of the South African experiment. Race and the structures of white supremacy having been such corrosive and yet determining features of the modern world, South Africa is arguably the one place on Earth with the best chance of radically undoing the extraordinary damage they inflicted upon a huge portion of humanity.

South Africa could objectively become a paradigmatic instantiation of the entanglement of our world. For this to happen, the utopian resources present in its history must be harnessed and must serve as a basis for a radical critique and remaking of the present. This requires a powerful intellectual and cultural reorientation as well as new images of thought and praxis.

As we speak, the country is unfortunately at great risk of finding itself in an intellectual and cultural cul-de-sac, unable to conjure up new imaginaries for itself, for Africa and the world. This atrophy of the mind worries me the most.

For instance, I profoundly disagree with those who confuse radical and future-oriented politics with the continuous invocation of blood or burning. There can be no sustained project of freedom without a voluntary renunciation of the law of blood. Radical politics is about attending to the foundational debt we owe each other, the debt of life, the recognition of which is the first step and only road to genuine restitution, reparation and the possibility of a world in common. That is what I believe.

More than ever, these ideas have value not only for South Africa, but for our common world and for the politics of a future planet. I wish South Africa was confident enough to fully embrace the spark of universality written in its difficult history. That is what brought some of us to its shores and that is what keeps some of us here, entices us to build from here and to think from this place about Africa and our world.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to South Africa. At times I have been deeply frustrated by its provincialism, its small-mindedness, its hostility and shame in relation to blacks from elsewhere;the pipe dream it still nurtures of not being part of Africa. But I wouldn’t be who I have become without South Africa. As a citizen of Africa and its diaspora, my nationality is African and I do not consider myself a “foreigner” here. Nor do I see my fate and South Africa’s as separated.

But when you are confronted with students at the university, black students who still feel disprivileged, who still believe much of apartheid is still in place, what do you tell them? Do you tell them what you just told us?

Yes I do and very often it lands me in trouble. I presume it doesn’t sound strident enough in this age of expediency. Yet if we cared enough to look beyond our self-enforced mental borders and into the rest of the continent, a few things would become clearer.

For instance, to achieve meaningful change in the aftermath of colonial domination, we need to nurture strong institutions. When institutions inherited from the past are weakened or destroyed rather than genuinely transformed, the poorer in our midst usually pay the heaviest of prices.

To deeply change our predicament, we need to build vast coalitions because where we fail to do so, ethnic strife usually prevails.

We need to assemble diverse capabilities and learn how to intervene at multiple scales simultaneously. Demonising, vilifying and scapegoating opponents and those we disagree with, or calling for their blood, literally or figuratively, is not particularly “radical”. Visceral politics is but a form of witchcraft thinking.

It’s different of course to talk to an audience in Düsseldorf and be confronted with this kind of criticism in South Africa. People are frustrated. Is there any way even to reach the majority of young people who also now think Mandela made many mistakes? What kind of dialogue is possible for an intellectual like you?

A peculiar feature of the South African public sphere is the roughness of its debates. This is because everybody feels passionate about what is at stake. South Africans deeply care about their country, if not about the rest of Africa or the world at large. In relation to so-called young radicals, who are indeed impatient and no longer willing to wait, the dialogue can be quite brutal. Why? Because we have to take them seriously and argue with them without paternalism or complacency.

As a result, the attitude I have adopted is respectful and sympathetic but critical. I am not a “comrade”. Nor do I aspire to become one. I do interact with lots of so-called young radicals. Some may criticise my positions and yet, they regularly come to see me. They know that I am not here to please anybody. I am not seeking recognition, legitimacy or acceptance. I also interact with the rest of society, people in government and political parties, foundations, business and finance; as well as entrepreneurs, university officials, taxi drivers, African professionals here, but also in the rest of the continent and abroad.

Because of the kind of intellectual work I have accomplished, I am in a position strong enough to disagree openly with those who pretend that South Africa today is exactly what colonial Algeria used to be under French rule. From such a position, it is also easy to dismiss the politics of kinship and blood in all its forms or to unapologetically condemn the burning of libraries as a means to contest Western knowledge regimes.

Finally, one cannot be in favour of decolonisation and at the same time indulge in xenophobia or see no connection whatsoever between his or her plight and that of black students coming from the rest of the continent.

If indeed it is true that a lot remains to be done, it is also true that a lot has changed in South Africa since the late 1990s. I have seen deep transformations in a place such as Johannesburg where I have been living for the last 20 years. It is simply not true that things never change. One must be either profoundly myopic, cynical or hopelessly shortsighted to believe that everything is always a repetition of what happened before. At the same time, it is simply not true that everybody who came before us got it wrong and the real struggle only starts with us. Cynicism can be seductive especially when it masquerades as militancy, and dogmatism is a consequence of our inability to see and recognise novelty or the emergent where it is the least expected.

All of this having been said, we must urgently attend to the clamour for the kind of meaningful change younger generations are asking for. After all, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. Racism has still not entirely disappeared. Violence against women is still a feature of everyday life. Too many poor black people are unemployable and simply do not have a stake in the future of the country. Although located on the African continent, South Africa still does not seem to understand what its “Africanity” consists of. Making sure that every South African has a stake in the present and the future of this country won’t happen without a meaningful fight, without deep reforms in terms of access to property, including land, electricity, education, housing, healthcare and water.

But to call for a meaningful fight and for constitutive antagonism is not the same as advocating a politics of kinship and blood or even bloodshed itself. There is no choice but to deepen democracy, to recognise our entanglement with Africa and the world. Anything else is quasi-suicidal.

In 2015 at the height of what in Europe was called “the refugee crisis”, one country had more asylum seekers than the whole of Europe and that country was South Africa. More than one million people applied for asylum in that year alone, mostly from Zimbabwe. On the other hand, I hear more and more people talking about, and being afraid of, the prospect of half of Africa attempting to come to Europe. Such is the case with a recent book by Stephen Smith, a former journalist of Libération and Le Monde, and who is now teaching in the United States. The title of the book is La Ruée vers l’Europe:La Jeune Afrique en Route pour le Vieux Continent(The Rush towards Europe: The Young African en Route to the Old Continent). Politicians like this book very much. Among other things, Smith makes the point that in 30 years, between one fifth and one quarter of Europe’s population will be of African origin. So there is this whole idea that a wave of Africans is coming here and the kind of logical answer seems to be that we have to find restrictions. In your own work, you very much emphasise the virtues of mobility and you call for a world in which everyone can move freely. What do you do with a book such as Smith’s? You can of course ignore it, but the fact is that many people are very nervous and very concerned about refugees and about migration.

Oh no, no, no, no … I too would surely be worried should somebody come here and tell me that one fifth or one quarter of Europeans were on the way to recolonise Africa. I would have a point. But as far as I know, Africa has never colonised Europe and is not about to start now.

What would you tell Stephen Smith?

We are clearly not on the same page. I am worried about Europe’s anti-immigration policies because their ultimate goal is to turn Africa into a huge Bantustan. He is worried about myths and phantasms. As far as the question of borders and migration is concerned, facts unfortunately no longer seem to matter. And yet facts exist. It is true that of all the regions of the world, Africa is one that has not entirely completed its demographic transition.

There are objective reasons for this, and they are known by any serious historical demographers. We lost millions of people during the centuries of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades. Colonialism, its endless wars, its political economy and its epidemiological and ecological consequences killed many.

By the end of the 21st century, Africa will have finally compensated for what it lost during those early centuries. It will have more younger people than any other region of the planet. Not all of them will be running away to Europe. We simply need to open the continent to itself and engineer a new historical cycle of repeopling it.

As we speak, this colossal landmass of 30-million square kilometres can still house more people. In fact, Africa is arguably the last portion of the Earth that can still sustain huge human migrations. As we speak, most migrants in Africa do not dream about going to Europe. They are moving from one African country to another African country. Same for the refugees, those fleeing wars, disasters and catastrophes. So, let’s stop peddling the myth according to which Europe is besieged by refugees and migrants.

Pretty soon, Europe will become the biggest reservoir of older people on Earth. Many right-wingand white supremacist forces in the world are seized by the fear of what they call “the great replacement”, a conspiracy theory that might trigger racist and anti-immigration policies at a planetary scale.

But such policies are simply not sustainable. Because even if Europe wanted to hermetically close its doors, it is simply too late to do so now. Maybe this should have been done long ago and yet, as we know, Europe then was busy colonising other lands and one can’t really close one’s doors while forcefully plundering other people’s lands.

Whatever the case, were Europe genuinely determined to close itself off from the rest of the world or from Africa, the consequences would be colossal, of almost a genocidal proportion. Europe would have to implement deadly policies, which by the way are already experimented with in those laboratories the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert have become.

According to various figures, something like 34000 people have already lost their lives over the last few years trying to cross the Mediterranean;this is without counting those who have met their end in the Sahara desert or those who are the subject of new forms of enslavement and capture in lawless places such as Libya, where Europe is funding militias and encouraging them to capture would-be-African migrants, to detain them in makeshift camps or to sell them into slavery.

The choice is therefore clear. It is between cynically embracing the full consequences of a creeping para-genocide, or imagining together different ways of reorganising the world and redistributing the planet among all its inhabitants, humans and non-humans. Indeed a key issue of the 21st century will be the management of human mobility. The concept of human mobility is a bit more than what has been dubbed in Europe “the migration crisis” or the “refugee crisis”.

Human mobility is a key dimension of the big, planetary shifts that are going on. They include migrancy of course, but they also have to do with many other factors propelled by the technological acceleration, the speed with which our world is moving, the unleashing of all kinds of predatory forces, the rise of bio- and high-tech racism, the deteriorating conditions of life on Earth, not to mention the impending ecological catastrophe.

All of this obliges us to re-imagine the very idea of the “in-common”.

But I also have to say this:we cannot speak about migration without addressing Europe’s presence and actions in the rest of the world. Europe and North America can’t possibly go about destroying other people’s living environments, extracting their oil, gas, fish, timber, diamonds and gold, shipping it all home, leaving nothing behind, brutalising them, turning their cities into rubble, bringing to an end the possibilities of life in faraway places, and expect those affected by such upheavals to survive in the midst of the ruins.

Europe and America’s violence abroad is a key reason why people are forced to run away from places where they were born and raised, but which have become uninhabitable. And I doubt building walls around one’s nation-state is the most intelligent way of resolving the many crises we have contributed to fomenting around the world.

So, instead of peddling myths and inflaming dark passions and hysteria, we should take seriously the question of the future world, reactivate our critical faculties and rehabilitate reason because if we do not rehabilitate reason, we will not be able to repair the world or learn how to share the planet.

A point Smith makes which is often debated in connection with refugees or migrants is demographic change and especially demographic growth. But here again this is a very tricky issue because Smith accuses many scholars of shying away from this issue for political reasons. Of course we all know this idea of the population bomb which was spoken about in the 1960s. It already referred to the idea that the population outside Europe was growing too fast. It is true that, let’s say, Africanists didn’t sufficiently discuss demographic growth in Africa for ethical reasons or because these discussions would lead to some nasty solutions or should this problem be completely disconnected from the refugee debate?

No, no, no, no. That’s not true. In fact, over the last 50 years, a huge part of the research on Africa has been centred, directly or indirectly, around the dialectics of people and resources, people and health, people and their environment, people and the state, people and the infrastructures of life. Demographyin this sense has been understood from a very broad perspective. So, Smith is not right.

More importantly, Africa needs to speak about migration and circulation with her own voice and from the point of view of her own continental interests. Smith does not speak for Africa. We cannot confuse the debate on African futures with Smith’s fears of a great exodus.

As far as Africa in her own right is concerned, we do not have to attend to anyone’s fears. We have to take care of ourselves. It’s not necessarily that there are too many people in Africa. In fact, entire regions in the continent are objectively underpopulated. Others are overpopulated. We cannot embrace the “too many people” logic. If, to start with, we believe that there are too many people, what this implies is that there are some people who shouldn’t be there in the first instance. If indeed this is the case, then what should we do with “surplus people”? Are they “superfluous”? So, we have to be mindful of the dreadful and necropolitical implications of the discourse about “too many people”.

This having been said, there are real questions of upliftment from poverty, of wealth creation and redistribution. To address them efficiently, we need to open Africa to herself. Africa is a colossal continent. There is room in it for all, for every single one of her many sons and daughters, including those in the diaspora. We cannot turn this portion of the Earth into a double prison, where people cannot move outside and they cannot move inside. We have to turn Africa into a vast space of circulation for her own people.

So the key, if Europe is really keen to contribute positively to resolving the great issue of our century, which is the question of human mobility — the key is not for Europe to spend money building camps and prisons in Libya and in its own midst. Europe should put money into, for instance, the harmonisation of identity registers in the continent, the gradual dismantling of thousands of internal borders in the continent, the rational intensification of movements in the continent, massive investments in upgrading roads, building transcontinental railways and highways, consolidating water and river navigation.

That’s how the future will be brought back. Nobody will want to leave or end in a place where they know nobody and they are not welcome.

Achille Mbembe is research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Andreas Eckert is chair of African history at Humboldt University in Berlin

Achille Mbembe

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