Decolonization, Decoloniality and the Future of African Studies

January 17, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

As discussions of the decolonization of academia gain momentum, Duncan Omanga interviews Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, research professor and director for scholarship in the Department of Leadership and Transformation in the Principal and Vice-Chancellor’s Office at the University of South Africa.

These are extracts from a longer (3,000 word) piece published on the SSRC blog. If you have time, we urge to read the full article.

Can you clarify what coloniality and colonization mean on the one hand, and on the other, how we, as scholars, differentiate them from decolonization and decoloniality?

When we speak about colonization, we might speak of it as an event—that is in terms of people (colonists) coming, conquering, and dominating other people at a particular moment, and administering people colonially, until the colonized fight and push them back. This definition of colonization can be dated, in terms of when it started and when it came to an end.

However, colonization institutes colonialism. A very complex power structure that transforms a people’s way of life, colonialism is the invention of asymmetrical and colonial intersubjective relations between colonizer (citizen) and colonized (subject); and it economically institutes dispossession and transfers of economic resources from those who are indigenous to those who are conquering and foreign. It claims to be a civilizing project, as it hides its sinister motives. The project also creates institutions and structures of power that sustain colonizer-colonized relations of exploitation, domination, and repression.

Even when you push back colonization as a physical process (the physical empire), colonialism as a power structure continues, because it invades the mental universe of a people, destabilizing them from what they used to know, into knowing what is brought in by colonialism, and it then commits “crimes” such as epistemicide (where you kill and displace pre-existing knowledges), linguicide (killing and displacing the languages of a people and imposing your own), culturecide (where you kill or replace the cultures of a people).

“If you remove colonialism physically without removing it epistemically, it will not disappear.”

This also has implications for the opposite, because colonization and colonialism provoke nationalist anticolonialism and decolonization.

The concepts of coloniality and decoloniality emerged from the Latin American “Modernity/Coloniality” Project with such thinkers as Anibal Quijano, Walter D. Mignolo, Ramon Grosfoguel, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Maria Lugones, and many others returning to research on Euromodernity and its consequences for the Global South. Coloniality became identified as the constitutive underside of Euromodernity and decoloniality as a necessary liberation struggle.

The concepts of coloniality and decoloniality gained momentum after the end of the Cold War and the loss of appeal of twentieth-century Marxism. There was and ideological vacuum, with Francis Fukuyama speaking in Hegelian terms of  the“end of history and the last man” and Samuel Huntington speaking in culturalist terms of “a clash of civilizations.” The question of colonialism and imperialism was being ignored.

Building on the long-standing African radical decolonial tradition represented by such giants as Fanon, Nkrumah, Steve Biko, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ibekwe Chinweizu, and drawing also from Latin American ideas of coloniality and decoloniality, I felt it necessary to rearticulate the struggles for decolonization and their necessity for twenty-first-century liberation, culminating in Empire, Global Coloniality and African Subjectivity and Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa: Myths of Decolonization.

In your work you talk about three concepts of coloniality—coloniality of power, coloniality of knowledge, and coloniality of being. What is the implication of all these to African studies and the study of Africa?

The units of analysis—power, knowledge, and being—are conceptual gifts from the Latin American “Modernity/Coloniality” Project and I find them to be very useful, with profound implications for African studies.

The dominant epistemologies, which for lack of a better term we may call “northern epistemologies,” have reached a visible crisis. The crisis manifests itself in what the Boaventura de Sousa Santos terms the incapacity to generate new critical nouns. For instance, if you have a noun like “development,” you can no longer generate any other, you are just proceeding by adding adjectives such as “alternative,” “rural,” “popular,” or “international” development. The same could be said of “democracy” or any other concept, and that is a sign that an epistemology is exhausted, when it can no longer generate new nouns.

What are the implication of this crisis for African studies? It means that we cannot continue to draw concepts from the Northern epistemologies, which are exhausted. We need to look for concepts from the epistemologies of the Global South. These are still generative of new concepts and nouns.

“There is a white gaze embedded in development itself. My point is that we cannot run away from the race question. Race […] has been the organizing principle of the hierarchization of people, hierarchization of knowledge, and constructions of power structures.”

Zimbabwean scholar Simukai Chigudu recently gave a paper at an African studies conference titled “Blind-Spots; Or Is It Ethical for White People to Study Africa?” He argued that African studies is founded on Western epistemologies and dominated by non-African voices disengaged and distant from the realities of Africa. As we debate the epistemic decolonization of African studies, do you see a risk of the entire project getting muddled in racial politics?

Racism is a reality. It is a reality embedded in knowledge. There is a white gaze embedded in development itself. Race, in the unfolding of Euromodernity, has been the organizing principle of the hierarchization of people, hierarchization of knowledge, and constructions of power structures. There is no way we can run away from it. It needs to be confronted head on. But, when it comes to who has to research, write, and publish on African studies, the field cannot be ring-fenced by the very problematic of race itself.

African studies is a vast intellectual field encompassing studies of empires, African diasporas (both old and new), and continental Africans. What is necessary is to liberate African studies from the prison of “area studies” and the resilient and invisible white gaze. The marginality of African scholars and Black scholars in African studies is a consequence of an uneven intellectual division of labor in the existing, so-called global economy of knowledge cascading from global coloniality itself. This global coloniality impinges on research resources and endowments, and determines which publications matter. It is also determinant of academic appointments and criteria of evaluation. These are the problems.

Is there a danger of decolonization becoming a mere trend or another academic buzzword?

Decolonization has to remain a revolutionary term with theoretical and practical value. If it is immediately embraced by everyone and it’s easily on the lips of everyone, there is a danger it might transform into a buzzword and a metaphor.

There was a time when many academics never wanted to hear about the term, especially where I am based in South Africa, and were comfortable with terms such as “transformation” and “Africanization.” Nowadays, everyone runs with decolonization. And, once that happens, it means people are appropriating it to mean other things which it is not. It then loses its revolutionary potential, and it becomes part of reformism—just another way to be seen as progressive. But the issue is that the decolonization expressed by your lips differs from the decolonization that comes from within, as a revolutionary concept that speaks about rehumanization—which is a fundamental planetary project.

What and who are the biggest impediments to the realization of the aspirations of decolonization?

The greatest impediments to decolonization are the very people who are supposed to lead the decolonial struggle because they are products of colonization. They will need to first liberate themselves before they can do anything. It becomes a lifelong relearning process. The leading academic voices on decolonization are also products of westernized universities, which taught them to think in a particular way. What they are engaged in is self-unlearning and there is, therefore, the need to unlearn and then to relearn.

And the pitfalls of falling into what we are trying to change are always there. We also need to be honest and say we are products of these processes and structures of power that we are fighting to change. And the potential for contradictions and ambivalences are endemic to the exercise, and we must not fear confronting them. Despite the contradictions being inevitable, we must still act and fight.

Duncan Omanga is program officer for both the African Peacebuilding Network and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is research professor and director for scholarship in the Department of Leadership and Transformation in the Principal and Vice-Chancellor’s Office at the University of South Africa. His latest major publications are The Decolonial Mandela: Peace, Justice and the Politics of Life (Berghahn Books, 2016); Decolonizing the University, Knowledge Systems and Disciplines in Africa, coedited with Siphamandla Zondi (Carolina Academic Press, 2016); and Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization (Routledge, 2018). He previously headed the Archie Mafeje Research Institute for Applied Social Policy at the University of South Africa. He has published extensively on decolonization.