Reconsider your ‘Reconsideration of the Decolonisation Project’: A Reply to Rafael Winkler
By Jonathan Chimakonam
Eburu ozu onye ọzọ, ọdị ka ebu ukwu nkụ. (When ‘An-Other’ man’s corpse is carried shoulder-high by ragged job men, folks who live in luxury treat it like a mere bunch of firewood) —Igbo Proverb
In his piece titled “Reconsider the decolonisation project” published in the Mail and Guardian of January 14 2020, Rafael Winkler tried to persuade us to abandon decolonial programmes. Here, I want to persuade him to reconsider his stance by not only pointing to some of the weaknesses in his arguments but by shedding light on some of the peculiar circumstances that justify and necessitate decolonial programmes.
Winkler, Thomas Nagel would enthuse, does not know what it is like to be a bat. He can, for all eternity, speculate that the South African students are merely acting on impulse from the “stories” which their “parents” and “extended family” told them about apartheid. He can imagine that the environment in which today’s South African students live in does not reflect the apartheid past. He can even conclude that the South African students are “robbed of an objective relation with their past.” Such a simplistic understanding of the condition of the Native South Africans, who have felt the sword of an ungodly history from edge to edge; such a discourteous, highbrow analysis of the economic circumstances of the South African student; such philosophical counselling to those who bore the brunt of apartheid to have an “objective relation” with it, makes one cringe away. Should anyone who paid the iron price of apartheid be asked to have an “objective relation[ship]” with it?
And because Winkler does not know what it is like to be a Native South African, he can afford to dismiss decolonisation wryly as a “remedial action,” or that it is, gleefully, something that can apply to “the orgasm” as he did. In reading Winkler’s piece, one easily understands why it is possible for a monk to visit a labour camp without seeing the suffering of those caged in it. In times like this, the words of Naom Chomsky come alive, “[R]esponsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege, and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility.” Philosophy is nothing without responsibility! It is not responsible (even in philosophy’s speculative standard and the use of unbridled poetic license) to suggest that because the government of South Africa is not excelling in dismantling the economic legacies of apartheid, or that the managerial class running the universities are profiting from the promotion of decolonial programmes means that decolonisation is superficial. Or, that the government policies on decolonisation of education, the universities curriculum decolonisation programmes, policies of professional bodies and associations and, indeed, every other well-meaning decolonial programme, including African philosophy is “superficial”. It simply does not follow.
I will tell Winkler what is superficial! A decolonisation programme in South Africa is not a remedial action, that is, it is not about handing chocolates to cry babies while their hardworking peers manage sweets. It is not about changing the rules of the game such that underlings would be able to post an average performance. It is not even about bringing the goalposts closer for the spoilt kid to be able to score a goal. These, my friend, are a superficial treatment of well-meaning decolonial programmes in South Africa.
Here are some of what decolonisation entails: Decolonisation is not merely a critique of coloniality; it is one done from the perspective of otherness. Decolonisation is logical, in the sense that our framework for reasoning is not the only one, so, others are free to develop new ones. It is methodological, in the sense that our approach to studying reality might not be the preference of all peoples, in all places and at all times, so, others are free to formulate new ones that work best for them. It is recognition, tolerance and accommodation of otherness because knowledge is not exhausted in our preferred episteme. It is the understanding that universality is accounted for by the particulars. It is allowing a thousand flowers to bloom. It is a sentence that makes complete sense but without a full stop.
One cannot know the relevance of decolonial programmes if he thought that the sky was always blue. That is what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of the single story”. I do not frown at Winkler’s position. I sympathise with him as a victim of the single story! He enjoins us to think of decolonisation as a programme that can aid the South African students to become “economically useful and politically obedient by having” their “behaviours shaped by the norms of reason”. But I ask Winkler, whose norms? Decolonisation is a creative struggle against the hegemony of the single story. It is obviously difficult for one to see the need for decolonial programmes if they did not see the danger of the single story. The perduring intellectual climate or the lopsided cultural statusquo which Winkler defends is not only bad for the normalised or the residualised; it is bad for the self-anointed norm, and most certainly, it is bad for the progress of human civilisation.
Without denying the possibility of politicisation or even the abuse of decolonisation by some misfits in some quarters (a point made abundantly by Winkler which I agree with), there is no ‘reasonable reason’ that warrants some of the brow-scratching conclusions Winkler reached. Policies and policy-makers are not necessarily symmetrical. Winkler produced some reasons in the guises of political culture, identity politics, government irresponsibility, mercantilist university management, etc., on the bases of which he juiced down the relevance of decolonisation, but none warrants throwing baby alongside the bathwater. Bad apples abound in every system and hardly is there any programme without fault. Caricaturing decolonisation as he did by referring to it as “the so-called” points not only to Winkler’s insensitivity to the condition of the South African otherness but to a possible lack of adequate understanding of the conditions of life in a society that affords people like him a legion of goods. It is important in commenting on sensitive issues such as the need or otherwise of decolonisation in South Africa that we avoid recourse to assumption where there is a paucity of real-life experiences.
“It has often been observed”, said Gordon Hunnings, “that whereas the truths of philosophy turn out to be trivial tautologies, it is the errors of philosophy that are intrusive”. In the very first paragraph, Winkler draws attention to a special issue of a journal he edited which concerns the idea of decolonisation. A theme is chosen, according to him, to highlight the “exorbitant value” that has accrued to the concept in the “last five years.” It turns out that this bogus claim that the value of decolonisation is exorbitant wets the appetite of the reader for nothing. As Winkler makes no effort to substantiate his claim in the second paragraph. One might even think that he would come around to it at some point in the essay, but he never did, except for a few other poorly supported claims.
The second paragraph begins with a fancy statement intended to ridicule than to inform. For example, Winkler claims that advocates of decolonisation want everything to be decolonised, including orgasm. That sense of casualness, when addressing a serious issue, could be costly. The result readily manifested in the next sentence as he switched from ‘decolonisation’ to ‘transformation,’ two different concepts, discussed by the author as if they meant the same thing. Winkler’s over-confidence on the subject of decolonisation has become his hubris in that paragraph.
By the third paragraph, Winkler seems to have lost his mojo. The reader cannot tell whether he is still talking about decolonisation or his newly introduced concept of transformation. He admits that his now ‘lost’ concept features in the works of Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel. He even proudly included a list of continental philosophers some of whom are notorious for their racist or misogynistic views or both. Winkler did not deem it important to highlight what those thinkers said, after all, he had declared in paragraph one that decolonisation (assuming he was still talking about it) had accrued exorbitant value down the years. What seems to bother him is that the African student is not engaging with a host of western scholars and schools of thought on the connection between “rationality and power.”
In paragraph four, Winkler makes a bold and unsupported claim that what the government of South Africa, universities and professional bodies mean by decolonisation is neither clear nor precise. He jumps into this conclusion without disclosing any apparent policy confusions and incoherencies. How? On what basis? I guess we will never know. Winkler brushes forward to provide a wild presupposition that the assumption out there is that “reflection” is not needed “but, rather, remedial action without further delay.” One wonders to whom he attributes this assumption.
In paragraph five, he claims that the intention for introducing decolonisation in the tertiary institution was 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.” Let us assume for the sake of argument that Winkler is telepathic, just how decolonisation can answer to the so-called grim future and unemployment is hardly clear. He obviously wanted to criticise the wisdom behind the idea, but this was done without regard to logic. Then, as if he had hurriedly forgotten his story of grim future, unemployment and alienation, he states, “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 (emphasis mine).” But, those students can still see high electric fences, economically segregated neighbourhoods, attack dogs, shanties, matchbox houses and so forth which were some of the legacies of apartheid, needless to repeat that “grim future, unemployment and alienation” of today’s South Africa were the main features of apartheid. How can he say that the environment has changed for those students? Which South Africa is Winkler writing about?
I could go on to dissect Winkler’s essay further, but it seems better to spend my last few words urging Winkler to reconsider his reconsideration of the decolonisation project. That we have a pair of strong wings to fly does not mean everyone has them in their garage. Privilege should teach us some humility. That we have two strong legs to run does not mean that those who need some help are unfair burdens. Ability should teach us some responsibility. Perhaps, in the euphoria of our accomplishments, we should all take a step back and ask most sincerely, all things considered, whether we would be standing so close to the sun if we weren’t in the east.
Winkler claims that today’s South African environment does not reflect the apartheid past. In his words, “Apart from the Apartheid Museum, there are precious few things in Johannesburg that reflect these stories (other cities have even fewer tokens of remembrance).” Really! If Winkler sincerely wishes to see, he could drive down to Soweto. He should drive through its streets to view the matchbox houses. He should drive around the country, through its suburbs and villages to view the shanties. He should step out of his car to meet the occupants of the matchbox houses and residents of the shanty settlements. He should drive through almost every city in South Africa today to see that even though the formerly segregated areas are shrinking, they are still there nonetheless. He should check the poverty, disease and the life expectancy statistics and the vast percentage discrepancy of different races in the same country. He should open his eyes to see that the legacies of apartheid are dying hard everywhere. Or perhaps, Winkler should visit Orania in the Northern Cape, an Afrikaner-only town where native South Africans are not allowed in. What about the high electric fences and the attack dogs one finds at Melville in Johannesburg or Arcadia in Pretoria? Etc., Should I go on?
Winkler seems embittered that some African students nowadays want to study African philosophy; the question for him is, so what? Without supporting the racialisation of philosophy, one must understand the sort of intellectual climate that necessitated the thinking that an African should not study Nietzsche. That thinking and Winkler would agree with me, was created by an academic culture that residualises Africa intellectual history. Guess what? That culture that marginalises and subjugates Africa has now created a new consciousness in the marginalised peoples of Africa to find meaning and value in their own intellectual accumulations. What is wrong with Africans studying African philosophers where Europeans would rather avoid including them in the curriculum? So, for Winkler, only knowing Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Foucault, or the ideas of the Frankfurt school is knowing the one true philosophy. Knowing Wiredu, Asouzu, Momoh, Ramose, Oruka, Gyekye, or the ideas of the Calabar school does not count. It is precisely this type of mindset popular amongst some teachers in South African institutions that is the cause of the “MustFall” movements and constitutes part of the ground for not only justifying but necessitating decolonisation of the nation’s system of education and schools’ curricula. The anonymous Igbo philosophers of the complementary system of thought were clearly correct in their rumination that “When ‘An-Other’ man’s corpse is carried shoulder-high by ragged job men, folks who live in luxury treat it like a mere bunch of firewood!” Those whose kernels were cracked for them by benevolent spirits, the Igbo say, ought to learn the virtue of being considerate to others.
—– Jonathan O Chimakonam is a senior lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of Pretoria.