Decoloniality: The sense and the nonsense

by Sunday News Online | Sunday, Jun 17, 2018 | 264 views
Kwame Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah

Cetshwayo Mabhena

As a philosophy of liberation and an extended family of political and intellectual theories decoloniality cannot escape the problematics of the dialectic between ideas and their praxis, thoughts and their practical implementation.

The dialectic between theory and practice has troubled philosophy for centuries. In their luxurious closets in private libraries and lofty ivory towers of the academy philosophers and theorists have conceptualised and articulated lofty ideas.

Some ideas have been recognised and celebrated for their sheer beauty and others have been noted for their formidable power. Beautiful ideas are those that are rendered in poetry and novel articulation that displays their sophistication and philosophical flavour. Powerful ideas are those that have the ideological and epistemic stamina to change the world and transform life for the better.

Great are those ideas that hold both beauty and power. Frequently beautiful ideas collapse under the weight of their beauty and have nothing to offer beyond the sound of their poetry and the rhythm of their reason. Some powerful ideas become heavy and boring and explode out of the gravity of their power.

For that reason, the greatest of theorists and philosophers have been those that have managed to accompany the power of their ideas with some beauty of expression and articulation. Some powerful ideas that lack beauty have lived and died without being noticed because they have been mundane and boring.

Some beautiful ideas have also been born and have died without being noticed as such because they are too beautiful to be taken seriously; they have been enjoyed for their entertainment value and then left to expire and die of old age because new beautiful ideas continue being born every day.

Worldwide, Marxism became both a beautiful and powerful idea of the 19th Century and its derivative ideology, communism, arrested the imagination of both its followers and opponents.

The articulate prose of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the powerful vision of society that lived under the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was too persuasive and compelling, beautiful and powerful.

Karl Max

Karl Max

Similarly, African nationalism and Pan-Africanism were once beautiful and powerful ideas of the 19th Century. Nationalism with its visions of African nations that were united inside them created fierce patriotic passions that drove men and women to kill and die fighting settler colonialism. Sacrificial African liberation struggles were the result of the power of nationalism and the patriotism it generated among the people and their nations.

Pan-Africanism as a philosophy of African unity created the forceful vision of an African political and economic paradise of oneness and common cause. Such Pan-Africanists as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere were also fire-eating orators that accompanied the idea of a united Africa with the beauty of language and expression, and among Pan-Africanists were novelists and poets that created beautiful works of art and literature in celebration and valorisation of Africa and Africans.

Whenever power meets beauty in ideas, those ideas become forceful and durable and can morph into the status of religion.

Those who believe in the ideas become passionate zealots and fanatics that are prepared to give life and limb to the cause.
It is for that reason that the most beautiful and powerful philosophies produce their own fundamentalists and extremists; those who get intoxicated by the ideas and begin to do everything to ensure that those who do not embrace the ideas do not exist.

It is powerful ideas, among theories, philosophies and religions, that produce fanatics, extremists and fundamentalists.

With all its beauty and ideological enchantment, communism stumbled and fell. It became an idea that was too good to be true. Good for it, China has managed to play the capitalist game while keeping communist values and that classic gamesmanship seems to have worked. China has played the game of the present world system, economically and politically, while keeping to its national sovereignty and integrity.

Pan-Africanism died in everything except in name. African presidents continued singing African unity but could not submit their control of nations to an African government that would rule over the continent and form a United States of Africa.

In other words, nativism triumphed over Pan-Africanism and Nkrumah with his idea of a United States of Africa was dismissed as an African tyrant who wanted to be the president of Africa. Some great ideas die because of the impossibility or difficulty of their implementation.

To graduate an idea from theory to practice is a monumental enterprise that has killed many an idea whose time had come.

The beauty and power of an idea can come to naught if there is no power of understanding, and creativity of implementation.
Decoloniality in theory and practice.

Serious about decolonising their university some administrators of the Durban University of Technology in South Africa invited Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and myself to present keynote addresses on the practicalisation of the philosophy of decoloniality in the university.

A whole symposium was convened for the decolonial critical encounter, on the 12th of June 2018. Decoloniality is a philosophy of liberation that has learnt from the failures and some successes of philosophies and ideologies of earlier centuries.

It is a collective of theories that have also matured from the pitfalls and underside of theories of the past. Gatsheni and myself were equipped with that awareness of how the power and the beauty of a philosophy have to form a trinity with the rigour of implementation for their success to be secured.

Over time, most decolonial scholars and activists have learnt that opponents of decoloniality in the university and the state are easier to deal with than those believers of the theory that are misinformed or have misunderstood its meaning.

Worse are the opportunists that just enjoy the fashionability of the philosophy and love to use its diction and vocabulary to try and build an image as trendy intellectuals. For that reason, the Symposium at DUT was to be a festival of teaching and learning, exchange and conversation.

Some Questions and Answers

Some enthusiasts honestly and earnestly believe that decoloniality means a return to the pre-colonial past and a total retreat from modernity. Others mistake decoloniality for nativism and racism that will lead to an expulsion of all white skinned people and others that have enjoyed the privileges and benefits of coloniality.

Others still envision decoloniality to be a philosophy that will soon ensure that such practices as African witchcraft and the voodoo of the Global South will soon be in the university syllabi and curricular. And there is that one serious academic who earnestly and honestly believes that decoloniality means that blacks in the university will now no longer necessarily need to work hard.

To be decolonial is mistaken for rejecting university work such as publishing book chapters, books and journal articles in peer reviewed outlets. To be decolonial is mistaken for anti-intellectualism and anti-academicism. The decolonial scholar, otherwise, is that fellow who is in the university to be anti-university, oppose everything and do nothing productive in the name of decoloniality, or to move around calling out “coloniality,” shouting against systemic and structural oppression, challenging neo-liberalism but really doing nothing about it. And worse, doing nothing to check his ignorances and limits.

The diction and vocabulary of the philosophy of decoloniality is thrown around to enchant admirers and scare opponents, even if it is really not understood and has degenerated into the very opposite of decoloniality as a philosophy of liberation.

This misuse and abuse of philosophies, theories and ideologies is what exactly happened to Marxism, Nationalism and Pan-Africanism in the Global South. Edward Said warned about “travelling theory” that starts as a grand and liberatory vision but in its long travel in the world accumulates rust and dust and at the end it becomes what exactly it is not, is turned around to become its very opposite.

Some understandings of decoloniality that one encounters in the university and outside are true descriptions of coloniality itself. There is this type of academic and activist who sincerely thinks that since Eurocentricism has had such hegemony in the world for so many centuries the time has come for Afrocentricism to enjoy its own hegemony.

The result is the replacement of Eurocentric fundamentalism with Afrocentric fundamentalism which absolutely has nothing to do with decoloniality and liberation but everything to do with revenge and the same colonial remove and replace logic.

Decoloniality does not, as a philosophy of liberation, gesture towards a return to the pre-colonial past or a retreat from modernity. In actuality, from Fanon and other decolonists, decoloniality claims the ownership of and share in modernity for people of the Global South, the best of modernity belongs to us too. Western people cannot boast of prosperity and advanced modernity without reminding us of the resources and labour of our enslaved ancestors that built their success; modernity is ours too and we speak of modernities, not modernity.

Decoloniality does not mean that previously oppressed and presently oppressed blacks now do not have to do academic and intellectual work, instead the best decolonial philosophers and theorists, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni as an example, are rigorous scholars that embody academic quality and produce leading works.

Fulfilling racist stereotypes of Africans as superstitious witches and primitive is not decoloniality but essentialism.

Decoloniality as a philosophy of liberation aspires for a world where the oppressor and oppressed binary is destroyed and universe of liberated human beings is brought to reality. A decolonised university is that where the diversity of human beings and of different knowledges has found a home. It is a university where many languages and cultures find critical expression.

It is not a site of fundamentalist revenge and primitive hatred or is it a triumphalist ideology used by aspiring academic and intellectual snobs to impress admirers and shout down opponents. Above it all, decoloniality is a growing and moving philosophy and political practice.

The theorisation and application of decoloniality might be undisciplinary but it is rigorous and quality.

Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena is a founder member of Africa Decolonial Research Network (ADERN). He writes from Esselin Street in Sunnyside, Pretoria: decoloniality2016@gmail.com

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