Africa: The Case for Decolonising Nationalism

> Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni 

PATRIOTISM IS the maddening fire that drives men and women to war, to kill and be killed for their countries. It is an inexplicable and beyond sense love and commitment to nation, country and history. 

By its nature, patriotism is a passion that is guided by the ideology of nationalism. For that reason, in one way or another, all patriots happen to be deep nationalists even if they do not understand themselves to be such.

In the Global South, nationalism as a political and cultural ideology achieved new importance in the struggles against colonialism. It is nationalism, far more than Marxism and its communist praxis that produced patriots of the likes of Mau Mau guerillas in Kenya, dedicated cadres that were willing to die for their countries.

For its uses in the liberation struggles of the South nationalism became a true ideology of liberation and in the processes its sicknesses and darker sides, what Frantz Fanon called “pitfalls of national consciousness” were ignored if not totally forgotten by scholars and political leaders alike.

As an ideology, African nationalism in particular was directly provoked by colonisation and the humiliation and dehumanisation of the colonised, those who had to fight to the kill and the death to defend their humanity and nationhood.

As a decolonisation and liberation ideology nationalism became charged with matters of national sovereignty, self-determination and the importance of the homeland, the motherland and the fatherland.

The weighty matters of language, identity, history and memory are also imbricated in nationhood, nationality and nationalism.

This short article seeks to unmask the toxic tendencies of nationalist ideology that have for very long been hidden by its good reputation as a liberatory ideology and worldview.

In the name of the nation and the country, in Africa and elsewhere, men and women have done terrible things from mob violence, mass murder to genocide itself.

It is for that reason that I argue that nationalism needs to be decolonised, separated from and exorcised of its undersides such as tribalism, nativism, xenophobia, racism and other chauvinisms that criminalise the differences and diversity of the human race.

As soon as nationalist ideology and consciousness degenerates to a level where peoples of other languages, identities, histories and ancestries become our natural enemies by virtue of their difference from us, we should begin to read and understand the degeneration to coloniality of our nationalism, its decline from a liberatory philosophy to a philosophy of domination, subjugation and exclusion of other, for no better reason than that we imagine them to be different from us and to be outsiders, aliens and foreigners.

Judging by Nazism and Boer apartheid, nationalism can also be produced by a consuming inferiority complex, an ideology of the weak who aspire for greatness.

The Gift from Benedict Anderson

In 1983, Chinese-born Anglo-Irish historian and political scientist, Benedict O’Gorman Anderson, published a treatise on the origins and spread of nationalism in the globe.

Importantly, Anderson established and argued that nations are not natural but imagined communities, creatures of our fantasy.

We passionately imagine ourselves to be the nation that we are, we go on to believe our imagined identity and then work so hard to prove that those that are not part of our nation are foreigners and aliens. 

                                         > Benedict O’Gorman Anderson

We concoct theories of shared history; we trace shared ancestries, shared language, common cultural practices and even religious rites that we use to separate ourselves from those that do not belong to our nation, the ones that must be excluded.

That is how we invented tribes and clans, and other bloodlines.

Being the ideology that it is, nationalism helps us to create myths and stereotypes about ourselves first, the founding fictions and myths about our heroic nation.

After that, nationalism compels us to fashion toxic myths and stereotypes about the outsiders to our nation, we imagine them and believe the imagination of them as inferior tribes and inferior races or clans. Folktales and proverbs are circulated that attest to their dark histories, their greed, blood thirstiness, laziness, disease and criminality.

We imagine the others, the different ones to be pollutants in the land and irritants to our pure and glorious nation, they are arrivants, settlers and problematic others and outsiders to the nation.

As patriotic nativists we cannot stop imagining and wishing that they will soon leave our nation alone and go back whence they came.

As purist patriots, we imagine ourselves as bearing the burden and the duty to force them out, persecute them so that they leave our land, our resources, the opportunities in our country, our women and our men that they are finishing, yes-  sexual nationalism does not only cause xenophobia  it can lead to genocide.

As Anderson so ably illustrated, it all starts in the mind, in imagination and ends up being a reality that produces deep national hatred of those that are imagined to be outsid

ers.  Colonialists and enslavers used nationalism and nationalist ideology to divide and rule natives, in South Africa they even built reserves and homelands for different nations and sub-nations, to separate them and destroy prospects of them uniting against Empire.

The other bad habit of nationalist consciousness is that it keeps inventing new outsiders, those that were part of our nation yesterday can wake up tomorrow having been reinvented and reimagined  as outsiders, being the wrong tribe, the wrong clan or even the wrong family, that must be pushed out.

As an ideology that feeds on the imagination more rather than reality, nationalism is fired up, it escalates its passions to religious levels and spiritual heights, the patriots are angry activists who are willing to kill and to die in defence of the nation.

The Offerings of Edward Said

For the wrong book, in my view, did Edward Wadie Said become an international intellectual celebrity. Published in 1978, ‘Orientalism’ is a good book but it is not great.

It is famous for its beauty of prose and argument, novelty of expression and not its philosophical stamina and vision of the world and life.

That prize for power and greatness goes to his 1979 treatise, ‘The Question of Palestine’, a book that makes Empire tremble, a forceful description of the nature of global domination of the other by the West, using the case study of the Palestinians.

‘Orientalism’ is a classic of beauty while

‘The Question of Palestine’ is a classic of power and visions, utopia, a punchy condemnation of one world and a proposition for a new world and a new humanity.

While ‘Orientalism’ provides a good archeology of the Eurocentric domination of the Orient and the Global South, ‘The Question of Palestine’ delivers a great eschatology, a map that humanity must navigate out of domination to liberation and full humanity.

What keeps ‘Orientalism ‘important to decolonial thinkers, humanists and students of liberation is its novel descriptions of ordinary things, demonstrations of realities of domination of one by the other that are hidden in the otherwise obvious and simple rituals of everyday life.

It is in ‘Orientalism’ that Edward Said describes countries as “imaginative geographies.”

Natives and citizens of a country invest fantasy and imagination in the beauty and importance of their country as a geographic landscape.

A passionate and patriotic attachment to the land, sentimentalism to the country develops.

The country becomes, not just the soil and the wilderness that we exist within, our poetic and fantastic imagination lifts the land up to the status of a holy motherland and sacred fatherland. 

                                          > Edward Wadie

The graves of our ancestors that lie on the land become shrines and the soil around us becomes spiritual and alive.

We develop a sense of belonging and a passionate sensitivity about those that are with us in the land but do not belong with us, they came from elsewhere or we came here before them, we are the owners of the land, they are arrivants and intruders.

For the reason that the land has become more than a simple natural resource to be shared but a spiritual landscape, physical maps, borders and other boundaries become very important.

Outsiders must keep outside as we jealously and also dangerously safeguard the land of our ancestors.

We can go to war to push the intruders and strangers out.

The concept of countries as “imaginative geographies” that we invest with patriotic and passionate sentimentalism explains even better what Benedict Anderson does in his elucidation of nations as imagined communities.

After Edward Said and Benedict Anderson, we can only imagine the combination of nationalism as a powerful political and cultural ideology with the forceful sentimental attachment to the land called our country, its maps and borders.

A strong kind of spiritual and political jealousy over our national identity and the country, the land where our national population is settled, we invent passionate spiritual poems called national anthems that we emotionally recite to

“When Donald Trump pledges to make “America Great Again!” he sloganeers to nationalism, passionate and jingoistic Americanism”

remind ourselves of who we are.

We design signs and symbols, national flags that we piously salute as spiritual objects and artefacts in honour of our nation and country.

The rivers and mountains that mark our borders and boundaries, separating us from other nations become shrines of a kind, spiritual landscapes, we worship them.

The whole country, the abode of the nation, not of the nations because there is always one nation in nationalist thinking, becomes a museum of history and memory, patriotic pride becomes a true religion and the others, other nations and foreigners, late comers, can go and hang.

Making Our Country  Great Again

When Donald Trump pledges to make “America Great Again!” he sloganeers to nationalism, passionate and jingoistic Americanism.

While that slogan is good for those that consider themselves true Americans, it is a declaration of war on those that are considered foreigners, even the Native Americans, the ones whose ancestors were conquered and dispossessed of the land must truly be afraid.

Nationalism wakes up the dead and in its full flight it leads to war and genocide.

In a deep way, nationalism, as it happened in Africa, is awakened by fear, anger and hatred of being dominated by the other.

It can also be awakened by guilt and hatred, the refugees that Trump wants to close out of great America are stateless people who mainly come from countries of the world that America and Europe have destabilized with war, some of them are true byproducts and the debris of global capitalism, the poor of the world, in search of the elusive American dream.

Nationalism and nationhood are good for African patriots and their countries, but the ideology of nationalism, national political consciousness carries a baggage of love for our nation and our country and hatred for others, outsiders, arrivants and aliens.

The physical national boundaries, maps and borders are bad and colonial in nature, even worse however are the spiritual, mental and psychological maps that we carry in our hearts and minds, the consciousness that makes us see other Africans from other countries, other nationals from other regions, those who do not speak our language and share in our history as enemies. Africa must decolonise the nationalist ideology and consciousness. *Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa

February 2017
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