/ 14 January 2020

Reconsider the decolonisation project

Graphic Edu Decolonise Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

I recently edited a special issue for a journal on sexuality, capitalism and Africa. It was based on the topic that served as the Centre for Phenomenology in South Africa’s 5th Annual International Conference, which took place in Johannesburg in June 2018. There are several reasons we chose this as our theme for a special issue and conference, not least of which is the exorbitant value that has accrued to the idea of “decolonisation” in the past five years. 

Everything must be decolonised today, from knowledge to the classroom to the orgasm. This call for transformation has been part of political culture since 2015 with the Must Fall campaigns in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Its targets include, among other things, racism and sexism, the survival of the colonial past in the present in various guises, and the underrepresentation of black minority groups in leadership positions. 

It has been a central topic in the work of Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel since the 1980s, that of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak in the 1960s and, before that, that of Franz Fanon. It is only recently that it has entered mainstream philosophy. It has also recently found its way on the agenda of government policies on education, at least in South Africa, and on the mission statement of universities and professional bodies and associations. 

Clarity and precision on what it means to decolonise has been sacrificed in favour of this unconditional imperative (“everything must be decolonised”). The underlying and troubling assumption seems to be that the injustices of the past that survive in the present are immediately transparent to everyone and that what is therefore required is not reflection but, rather, remedial action without further delay.

The superficial application of the idea of “decolonisation” is not the least of what is troubling. Speaking in reference to what I have witnessed in the past few years, tertiary education in South Africa has made decolonisation an integral part of its system, but the effect (if not the intent) has been to pacify middle- and lower middle-class black students aware of their grim future owing to increasing unemployment, and who already feel alienated from society. These students have heard stories

about apartheid from their parents and extended family who lived through the terror. But the environment they live in does not reflect this past. 

Apart from the Apartheid Museum, there are precious few things in Johannesburg that reflect these stories (other cities have even fewer tokens of remembrance). In Wilhelm Dilthey’s terms, the life — or historical context — of the young we teach at university has scarcely been objectified in works and institutions. 

Robbed of hope and of a tangible future, they are equally robbed of an objective relation with their past. And if that is not enough, they are being misled by the government and its policies that promise transformation but that, in reality, lead to nothing but cosmetic changes. 

In the last analysis, the academic institution, which is run today by the managerial class, pushes for the decolonisation of the university on paper or as a matter of policy. But in reality, it is not the students who are its beneficiaries. It is the managerial class and the university as a corporation and site for the reproduction of capital. 

Let me cite an example in support of this view. It shows how the identity politics currently in vogue at university feeds the latter’s corporate interests. 

The political culture that has developed in the past five years in the South African university is dominated by an identity politics that boils down to the idea that, for example, if you’re black and do philosophy, you ought to be doing work on African philosophy. This mentality is policed by students and staff alike. I once heard a philosophy student say to another, “Why are you working on Nietzsche? You’re African.” 

This identity politics has opened the door to opportunisms of every kind. Anyone who publishes on African philosophy (say) is encouraged by the academic institution to set herself up as an expert to draw hordes of students to apply for graduate degrees, which increases the university’s revenue. Whether it is African philosophy, African law, African medicine, Afro-centredness is today one of the most profitable assets for a department or faculty to advertise as having. In addition to drawing students, it draws government funds. This, in turn, plays into the hands of the managerial class that runs the show. It contributes to sustaining the pay gap between this class, on the one hand, and, on the other, the academic, administrative, and the cleaning personnel. (In this age of so-called decolonisation, the same South African university pays a cleaner annual salary of R38 000 and a vice-chancellor an annual salary of up to R4-million.) 

Identity politics tallies with the neoliberal university. 

Decolonisation understood broadly as a critique of coloniality and liberalism has been part of continental philosophy at least since Kant, Hegel, and Marx. It has recently drawn the attention of analytic philosophy and been dealt with under the title of “epistemic injustice”, its main focus being the injustice that consists in depriving someone of rational agency and the exclusion of knowledges deemed minoritarian by reference to the canons of the Western tradition. 

It is a new area. It has not yet confronted the insights of Nietzsche and Foucault (or, for that matter, those of the Frankfurt school) on the connection between rationality and power. It is under the impression that one becomes free (one decolonises) by becoming a rational agent, instead of — what is far more probable — one becomes economically useful and politically obedient by having one’s behaviour shaped by the norms of reason. 

It is an area also prejudiced by its exclusive focus on knowledge as a positive or desirable value, which makes it unable to appreciate the significance of trauma and memory when talking about colonial injustice and its survival in the present.

It is for these and other reasons that we have sought to provide a historically focused starting point to discuss decolonisation. We believe that a share of the experience and trauma of colonialism lies at the intersection of these three realities — sexuality, capitalism and Africa.

The sexualisation of the black body, which goes hand in hand with its enslavement; “Africa”, which names here not necessarily or not only a geographical region, an ethnicity or race, but the devalued “other” of the West, which is to say, the weakest point in the system that can potentially shatter or reverse it; capitalism, not only during the age of empire in the 19th century but, before, at the time of the birth of the nation state in the 16th and 17th centuries. These are some of the conditions that have contributed to the colonial arrangement, the transatlantic slave trade, the near-total decimation of the indigenous populations of the United States and Australia, events that are difficult and painful to remember, but necessary nonetheless, at least insofar as we want to confront the legacy of colonialism that haunts this century.

Rafael Winkler is a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg