Decolonization, Decoloniality, and the Future of African Studies: A Conversation with Dr. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni

Duncan Omanga

At the sidelines of the recently concluded African Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting held in Boston (November 21–23, 2019), Prof. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a prominent voice on the debate on decolonization, had a conversation with Duncan Omanga, program officer for the African Peacebuilding Network and the Next Generation Social Sciences program, on the future of African studies in the context of ongoing discussions on decolonizing the discipline, and centering more voices from the Global South in the study of 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.

Thanks, Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni, for this opportunity to converse on the important issue of decolonization, one of the most consequential subjects in the study of Africa today. You have previously published influential work on coloniality, decolonization, knowledge, and the epistemologies of the Global South. Can you clarify what coloniality and colonization mean on one hand, and on the other, how we, as scholars, differentiate this from decolonization and decoloniality?

Indeed, there is a lot of interest on questions of coloniality, colonization, colonialism, decolonization, and decoloniality, and these are not new questions. I prefer to talk about them in terms of resurgences and insurgencies of radical African decolonial thought and radical Black tradition, to borrow a term from Cedric Robinson. These radical influences have put pressure on us to clarify colonization, colonialism, coloniality, decolonization, and decoloniality.

First of all, let’s begin with colonization. We need to be clear that, 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,1 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 as a metaphysical process and as an epistemic project, 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.”In 1965 Kwame Nkrumah introduced the concept of “neocolonialism” to name the continuation of exploitative economic relations long after attainment of political independence (the sought-after political kingdom). Later, Walter Rodney articulated how Europe underdeveloped Africa, and this intervention also underscored the continuation of exploitative relations, which made it possible for development to materialize in the Global North and maldevelopment to ensue in the Global South. And to reverse such a process, carrying a gun is not sufficient. It requires dealing with the consciousness, the psyche, because colonialism is internalized and routinized. Frantz Fanon warned us that colonialists are not satisfied by mere physical domination, but they go on to destroy the colonized’s history, making the colonizer’s history the colonized’s, with the consequence of making the latter lose confidence in one’s language, one’s names, one’s cultures, one’s histories. This takes me to the argument of the Indian psychologist Ashis Nandy, who posits that colonialism operates like an intimate enemy; it sits within you, like a parasite. He suggests that perhaps something that starts in people’s minds must end in their minds in the first instance.2 In other words, if you remove colonialism physically without removing it epistemically, it will not disappear. So that is where the issue of difference between colonialism and colonization needs to be pitched. Yet, it also has implications for the opposite, because colonization and colonialism provoke nationalist anticolonialism and decolonization.

Decolonization needs to be understood in its phases. What became known as “primary resistance” movements—such as the Maji Maji in Eastern Africa (1905–1907) and Ndebele-Shona Uprisings in Southern African region (1896–1897)—formed the basis for future nationalist-anticolonial struggles, with the Mau-Mau Uprising (1952–1960) occupying an intermediate position. What is well-known is twentieth-century decolonization, which the historian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza depicted as the “proudest moment in African history.”3 Basically, the educated African native elites—westernized elites who wanted to replace white elites—played a leading role, and their project included taking over the institutions and the state left by the colonizers. Their change agenda was, however, undercut by the resilient and immanent logics of colonialism, which consistently and persistently diluted decolonization. Strategically speaking, Nkrumah’s injunction to seeking the political kingdom first in the hope that all other things will be added unto it was correct, but with hindsight, we have never seen it happen that way. By 1965, Nkrumah was speaking of neocolonialism as a global threat to genuine decolonization. A people can gain territorial independence but not gain economic, epistemic, or cultural independence.

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 aimed at freeing the world from global coloniality (transhistorical expansion of colonial domination and the perpetuation of its effects in contemporary times). 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 “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.4

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.5

In your work you talk about three concepts of coloniality—coloniality of power, coloniality of knowledge, and coloniality of being—some of which you’ve already alluded to. But, 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. There is a lot regarding these concepts’ implications for African studies. First, scholars have to rethink African studies within the context of the broader global coloniality of knowledge. The state of knowledge at the moment is in a state of uncertainty. There is concern over whether the knowledge that brought us to the present is able to take us to the future. That uncertainty presents itself both as an opportunity and a challenge in the sense that we have to think of other knowledges and other concepts that will then reanimate knowledge and make it relevant and valuable. And the issue being that 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. Also, if you think from the Global South, you think from the majority world. What does it mean to think from a majority world, as opposed to thinking from a minority world? It means that we are taking the totality of the human experience and thinking from it. We can therefore ask, what are the advantages thereof? It means that thinking from the Global South allows us to pose new questions in the mold of “rethinking thinking” itself. There is a clear epistemic implication, if one thinks from the Global South, not as a geography, but as an epistemic site of resistance to colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and environmental terrorism. Immediately, the Cartesian dualism of “mind and body” is called into question.

“Methodology, if not subjected to decolonial interrogation, carries the dirty history of colonialism and racism.”Epistemologically, and even pedagogically, what does it mean for African studies to learn in a “noncolonial way”? A noncolonial way underscores that all human beings were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems and recognizes the various and diverse ways of knowing, which restores epistemic freedom and cognitive justice. Then there are methodological implications when a noncolonial way of doing research is set afoot, which avoids the extractive approach and anchors subject-to-subject relationships, as opposed to “subject-object” relationships shot through by the invisible “white gaze” of the other. Bear in mind that methodology itself has been a tool of epistemic domination and responsible for cognitive injustices. Methodology, if not subjected to decolonial interrogation, carries the dirty history of colonialism and racism. To decolonize methodology itself means we have to think deeply about ethics; we must think about subject-to-subject relationship method, not the object-subject relationship; you must think of a nonextractive methodology. You need to unlearn that one geographical space in the world cannot be teacher of the world. And then relearn, that all human beings are born to valid and legitimate knowledge. At the decenter of unlearning is also the important process of de-bourgeoisefication of knowledge.

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?”6 He argued that African studies is founded on Western epistemologies and dominated by voices disengaged and distant from the realities of Africa. These blind spots have sometimes led to evasion, misrepresentation, and self-deception. At the core of his argument was a searing critique of the role of what we might generally classify as non-African scholars, in the epistemological development of the field. 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. It is embedded in power configurations and dynamics. Race in the knowledge domain authorizes comparative studies with Europe as the template, and others being measured against. Remember, it was race that was mobilized and deployed in the very processes of social classification of people and their corresponding imagined differential ontological densities. There emerged the very colonization of being human into “human” and “subhuman.” Those who were denied humanity automatically were denied epistemic virtue. I dealt with this issue extensively in my latest book.7 There is a white gaze embedded in development itself. My point is that we cannot run away from the race question. 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 “areas 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.

This takes me to the 2018 ASA presidential lecture, where Jean Allman8 gave a lecture titled “#HerskovitsMustFall? A Meditation on Whiteness, African Studies, and the Unfinished Business of 1968.” Allman’s lecture chronicled the historical and continuing marginalization of Black scholars in African Studies and revealed how the field became dominated by white men. After giving the same lecture in Edinburgh, someone asked, “Now that the problem appears to have been defined, what should be done?” As far as I can recall, Allman said she did not know what could be done. My question is, is there a danger of decolonization becoming a mere trend or another academic buzzword?

Indeed, there is that risk. 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.

“Coloniality, as other scholars have correctly termed it, is a death project. Decolonization is what I call a theory of life.”We cannot play with the word to mean anything and nothing at the end of the day. Through decolonization we must deal with the human question—the ontological question, the patriarchal question, the power question, the racial question, and the corporatization question. All these are part and parcel of the baggage of colonialism. There is a need to decentering, so that other lives come also to the center and the very idea of the center then disappears. Coloniality, as other scholars have correctly termed it, is a death project. Decolonization is what I call a theory of life.9 Embedded in decolonization are colonial wounds crying out for healing. Decolonization encapsulates potentialities and possibilities of creating another world.

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.

The other issue is this: colonial global matrices of power are not resting to allow decolonization to take place. This system always devises methods of reinvention, by appropriating the antisystemic forces pushing them back, into itself, so that it gives the system a new lease of life. The problem of the decolonization of the 1960s was that we wanted to be part of the (European) game (sometimes called Africanization or inclusion into the system without fundamental change). The decolonization of the twenty-first century is to question the rules of the game, not to be part of it. We need to get it right this time. The additive approach (in curricula, or of Global South names in reading lists, or other) is a shallow approach to decolonization. It legitimizes the structure. We need to change the structure itself.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Banner photo credit: Desmond Bowles/Flickr

avatarDuncan Omanga is program officer for the African Peacebuilding Network and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program. He is an alumnus of the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, where he completed a doctoral degree in media studies. His research probed how international terrorism was framed in the local press in Kenya, and how this fed into perceptions of legitimacy and recognition. Omanga was formerly a senior lecturer and head of the department of media and publishing studies at Moi University, Eldoret (Kenya). He received an African Peacebuilding Network Individual Research Grant in 2014 and was the 2015–2016 visiting fellow at the Centre for African Studies at University of Cambridge. He has experience in teaching and supervision across the East African region.