Politics of liberation: Decolonising ideologies of history

31 Dec, 2017 - 01:12 0 Views

The Sunday News

Cetshwayo Mabhena

THOSE who control the history of the world and the various interpretations of its narratives are the same people that essentially rule the world. The Euro-American version of world history has powerfully and imperially been made the ruling and dominant version of world history, but it is not the only one or is it the correct version. Decolonial philosophers and historians in Africa and Latin America, that is the Global South, are busy employing decolonial research towards disputing and overturning the way in which world history has been presented.

So far what is called world history is ironically and unfortunately the history of Europe and America in the world. Argentinean philosopher of liberation and liberation theologian, Enrique Domingo Ambrosini Dussel, for instance, argues that the Global South will not achieve true politics of liberation if it relies on versions and interpretations of history that are handed down by Euro-American historians and philosophers, hence the need for what he calls “a critical world history” that decolonially disputes and overturns Euro-American historiography.

Euro-American narratives of history tend to be infected with political ideologies of Empire that deprive countries and peoples of the Global South of their agency in the world, and these narratives must be debunked and a decolonial narrative of world history that recognises the humanity and power of the peoples of the Global South should be erected, institutionalised into education systems of the Global South, otherwise peoples of the South will remain colonial subjects that imagine their future in terms of the vision and dictates of Empire.

In short, to look at the world and life, using the ideological spectacles of the imperialist, coloniser, and dominator will continue to give us an image of the world and of ourselves that is disempowering and colonising. Thinking with Enrique Dussel and other decolonial philosophers and historians, I seek in today’s column to highlight some of the dominant ideologies of history that limit our politics of liberation in the Global South, some of these ideologies have been so normalised and naturalised in our education systems and the media to the extent that we take them to be gospels that are cast in stone when they are false narratives of Empire that need to be disputed and overturned.

Hellenocentrism as an imperial ideology of history

Students of the Global South are taught that history, power and wisdom in the world started in Greece and marched through other phases until the present dominance of the USA that started in 1945. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza calls this historical narrative the Athens to Washington myth, because it is loaded with political falsehoods. In his careful archival research, Enrique Dussel dethrones this narrative. For instance, the now world famous myth that democracy describes the rule by demos, the people, which is supposed to be a Greek concept is false. Dussel proves that demos came from the village politics of ancient Egypt and was usurped and exported to Greece by philosophers that came from Greece to learn from the wise men and women of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Phoenicia in the Bronze Age. So, democracy, as we understand it to be what Europe and America are teaching us, is actually a system of politics and governance that originated in Africa and other parts in the South.

Westernisation and the Western ego

Wherever they have stolen resources, from gold to knowledge itself from other parts of the world, the westerners do not acknowledge it but tend to always deny and distort the history of what they possess. The many philosophers and scientists that came from ancient Greece to ancient Egypt as students were in 1493 exiled to Italy after the Turks conquered Athens.

As knowledgeable and skilled exiles, the Greek became the intellectual and industrial capital of Italy. Dussel insists that some of the telling wisdoms of philosophers such as Niccolo Machiavelli among many others have their roots in the many different wisdoms of Africa that the Greeks siphoned and took to Europe. For that reason, part of decolonising history and knowledge is claiming back the ownership of philosophy and science that the Euro-American world siphoned, like minerals and other resources, from Africa and the lager Global South.

The industrial and epistemic prosperity of the West is largely based on intellectual and material resources that were siphoned from Africa and Latin America. That peoples of the South always needed to be civilised and developed by the West is a modernist and colonial fable, a falsification of history.

In their cultural imperialism and coca-colonisation of the world, westerners carry themselves with an ego and an Empire attitude that is however, based on false historical foundations, the Italian Renaissance among other objects of European pride benefited from influences of African knowledges.

We normally understand Eurocentricism as the way in which, politically, economically and culturally, Europe has powerfully sought to make itself the centre of the world, and Europeans have pretended to be the original copy of what a human being is, making blacks and others poor imitations of the real thing. Another way in which Eurocentricism has worked has been to ignore the knowledges, inventions and cultural achievements of Egypt, Mali, Mesopotamia, the Chinese Empire, Hindustan and Islam.

Orientalism, that is bias against Asians, and Afropessimism, which is prejudice against Africans, are important ways in which Eurocentricism as a historical and political ideology has rendered our politics of liberation disabled and impotent. This is where such decolonial ideologies as Afrocentricism come in, where Africans must stand tall and claim their political, historical and economic place under the sun, we are Africans, blacks and not imitations of Europeans or aspiring Americans.

Time and the periodification of history

In the Global South we live and work according to calendars and maps that have been handed down to us, it is not easy to abandon these schemata, we are trapped in them, but we need to question and know them well, and where they come from. World history, for instance is categorised under Ancient, Middle Ages and the Modern Age.

This is just a way Europeans have classified their history and world history; there are many possible ways in which history can be declassified and classified. Precolonial, colonial and post-colonial have been Afrocentric ways of classifying and periodising history, except that postcolonial suggests the lie that colonialism ever ended in the Global South.


Africans and Latin Americans are taught to have faith in constitutions, institutions and processes of governance. That can be good. Traditional religions are called superstitions, traditional authorities and cultural practices are called primitive paganism that must not come near politics and leadership of countries.

Yet Europeans and Americans, as exemplified even in Thomas Hobbes in his influential, Leviathan, book (the third and fourth part) extols the divine right of leaders and religious political authority. Euro-American politics instrumentalises Christianity, yet Empire pressurises the states and peoples of the South to secularise politics and power.

For example, peoples of Swaziland, Lesotho and others are told to abandon monarchs because they are primitive forms of leadership yet the British will go to war when told to abolish their queendom.

Coloniality of knowledge

When peoples of the South read history and philosophy, even science, as rendered from the West, they should do so with a critical decolonial attitude because Empire always has what John Pilger called “hidden agendas.” It is not exactly a decolonial thing to do to boycott the reading and study of Euro-American books, but it is decoloniality to interpret them from the geo-politics and body-politics of the South.

All reading is good, but critical attitude and decolonial interpretation makes the difference between the coloniality and decoloniality of knowledge. That is what Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni means when he argues that Africa must seek epistemic freedom, the freedom to know the right things and know them right.

From modernity to modernities

The presentation of Africa as that one dark place in the world and the rendition of Africans as those other problems people of the world should be challenged. The West is prosperous industrially, politically and culturally mainly because of the minerals from colonial Africa, the free labour of slaves in the plantations and the cheap raw materials that continue to be looted from Africa to the West.

The West owes Africa prosperity and Africa is therefore part of Western modernity, not by charity but by justice and ethics. There is no one modern world but many modernities in the world, the role of Africans in developing the world should not be silenced or ignored, for this to happen, Africans must make their claims under the sun and not carry themselves as objects but as full subjects and citizens of the world.

The politics of liberation in the Global South entail debunking colonial and slavish ideologies of history and politics, overturning imperialist historiography.

Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from South Africa: [email protected]

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