African intellectuals: An absent presence in politics

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

THE ongoing turmoil and chaos in South African universities, the cries for new decolonisation and liberation must jolt the liberation movements in Africa to new reflections about coloniality and Empire.

The sight of burning buildings, buses in flames, bleeding priests and skirmishes between stone throwing students and gun totting police officers invokes memories of the Soweto uprisings of 1976, the Sharpeville Massacres of 1960, and the recent Marikana catastrophe of 2012 where more than 40 poor South Africans lost their lives.

The conquest of Africa that resulted in the enslavement and colonisation of Africa was fronted by empire builders, merchants and missionaries. These determined colonialists approached Africa armed with ideas and knowledge about Africa that Western philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods had imagined and produced. Africa was imagined to be a wilderness and a vacant space, while the African was re-invented in the Western imagination to be a marauding savage that urgently needed civilisation and salvation. Rigorously, Western intellectuals philosophised and produced ideas and knowledge of why and how Africa should be conquered, enslaved, colonised and exploited. The events in South Africa and other developments of social and political unrest in the rest of Africa invite African liberation leaders and thinkers back to thinking about conquest, Empire, coloniality and liberation. Africa urgently needs new political and economic directions or risk degeneration into political and economic crises that will make the recolonisation of Africa not just a remote possibility but a nightmarish reality.

That the eruptions in South Africa are starting at the universities, the supposed sites of thinking and knowing, is symbolic of the need in Africa for new thinking and new political engagement. Far from the colonial illusion that what is happening in South Africa is the work of savage students in confrontation with an incompetent black government and liberation movement, the truth is that Empire in shape of commoditised education, minimisation of the welfare and developmental state, and liberal democratic thinking has encountered a deadly crisis.

The states and government systems that liberation movements in Africa inherited from colonial regimes were not designed to liberate Africans but to keep them in economic and political subjection. The gist of this article is the present absence of African intellectuals in African politics, at a time when the liberation movements need the intellectual compass to navigate their countries out of the economic and political crises that Empire has produced before them. African intellectuals, the human scientists and social scientists must arise to undo the intellectual deeds of the intellectuals of Empire that have shaped and produced Africa into this troubling economic and political condition. The shrinking African economies and the crises of the polities that have resulted in social and political unrest need the urgent attention of African intellectuals. In exploiting the world, invading countries of the Global South and sponsoring regime changes and the toppling of liberation governments Western leaders such as George Bush Jr, Tony Blair and others relied on the research and advices of Western intellectuals like Samuel Huntington who counseled the inevitability of a “clash of civilisations” in the world and encouraged Empire to run riot in the world. Thinkers of Empire like Francis Fukuyama implored and exhorted the West to an “end of history” where liberalism and neo-liberalism with is capitalist world economic system will envelop the entire planet forever.

Just as ancient Western regimes of Empire relied on philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment for advice on how to conquer and dominate the world, present capitalist Western regimes rely on their modern thinkers on how to consolidate globalisation, economically and politically control and dominate the Global South, and achieve the profits of slavery and colonialism without direct rule of the countries of the so called Third World.

This political and economic state of affairs demands the vigilant presence of African intellectuals who will provide the liberation movements in Africa with ideas of decoloniality and liberation. Sadly, and even tragically African liberation governments still rely for political and economic ideas on foreign and Western experts and expatriates. World Bank and IMF experts are still the trusted economic and even political advisors, through blue prints, of African governments in this era of predatory globalisation and vampiric coloniality. In South Africa, dangerously, former advisors of the apartheid regime have found themselves new jobs as advisors of different departments and sectors of the liberation movement and government. The few African intellectuals that are active and give political and economic advice to their governments are the “walking lies” who have been educated into Western liberal and colonial thinking and dispense white sense and sensibility to black liberation movements and governments. The other African intellectuals with Western education, and Eurocentric sense and sensibility, have found work in being destructive critics of African liberation movements.

African governments need not be spared criticism; they should be rigorously subjected to critique but also be given advice, political and economic directions. On their part liberation movements and governments need to listen to and implement constructive critique from African intellectuals, not simply on partisan grounds but on the grounds of the importance of liberation. Relations between African intellectuals and African governments need not necessarily be enemy relations; they need to be critical, agonistic and creative. The Tanzanian Marxist scholar, Issa Shivji, mourned the crisis of African intellectualism thus: “The metamorphosis of the African intellectual from a revolutionary to an activist, from a critical political economist to a post-modernist, from a social analyst to a constitutionalist liberal, from an anti-imperialist to a cultural atavist, from a radical economics professor to a neo-liberal World Bank spokesperson, from an intellectual to a consultant is blatant, unrepentant and mercenary.”

The African intellectual that Shivji is praying for is a relevant intellectual who is prepared to remind African governments of their duty to liberation instead of being instruments of coloniality. Many African intellectuals, some gifted scholars, have turned themselves into professional critics of African governments, spewing insults and caricatures of Africa, for the pleasure and entertainment of Western racists and white supremacists.

Decolonising Education

Predominantly, the regional and international media report that the marauding students in South Africa are demanding free higher education, and are prepared to burn the university and the country for that demand. Little or no reportage is on the issue that the students are also demanding – the decolonisation of education. Fed up are young South Africans of being educated and conditioned into being haters and enemies of Africa. A young African intellectual generation is demanding liberating and humanising education that will help them to be at home with their black skins and their African history

In South Africa, even high school pupils have gone to the streets to defend their kinky hair against a hateful white sensibility that demands the oiling and burning of black hair for the pleasure of white sensibility. History departments, political science departments and other departments within African universities are being asked, not so politely, but in flames and smoke, to restore the history and dignity of Africa and Africans in their curriculums.

That “Rhodes Must Fall” is nothing but a metaphor that projects the demand that Empire and all what it stands for in Africa must fall because at long last young Africans have been born who will go back to the paths of liberation and decoloniality that the founding fathers and mothers of African resistance and liberation paved. In all this, needed more than ever before, are African intellectuals that will claim their space as defenders of African liberation and producers of an African consciousness of liberation and decoloniality.

Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa