Africa: Call for a Return to the Base

> Mkhosana Bingweni & William Ntabazimbili

The recent tour of South African universities by Ngugi wa Thiongo, during which he delivered punchy lectures on African languages, has revived the old pleas for the return to critical humanism.

In the present model of the university in Africa, humanities have been marginalised if they have not been rendered complicit in cultural imperialism. For the lack of critical humanism, the university sits so irrelevantly to African political and cultural needs.

The absence of philosophy, history, literature and the arts that help Africa to critically navigate the world and recover from the political and economic traumas of slavery and colonialism is an indictment of the universities in Africa.

If ever there was a moment when humanity and the world urgently needed humanist critical consciousness and reflection, modes of thinking, observation and examination that centralise life in its human, animal, climatic, environmental and planetary forms that moment is now.

The message and symbol of Donald Trump and the hatred of poor and powerless peoples that he has exhibited are a cry for critical human understanding in the globe.

Fate of the Humanities in the University

The present marginality of the humanities and humanist ways of thinking and knowing in the university signifies a worldwide and civilisational contempt for humanity and the humane sensibility.

In the Euro-American model of the university, which is a corporation that is given to and driven by the profit motive, the poor who happen predominantly to be black, appear as the Duboisan people who are taken as problem people and not regarded as people with a problem in the world.

These communities of the poor and the powerless are in everything but name as good as foreigners, aliens, immigrants, refugees and fugitives that the present world order has marked for expulsion, persecution and death.

In the university, the natural sciences and some parts of the social sciences, the profitable disciplines are valorised and massive investment is made in them.

Effectively what is true higher education today is par excellence a commodity that floats to laws of supply and demand, to the rule of the market forces; in that cut-throat commercial climate of the present university, the poor who demand and deserve free and affordable quality higher education, who rightly clamour for education as a public good, are unwanted intruders who are here to disturb the peace of capital, the peace and comfort of modernity.

Easily, the poor screamers and protestors appear as irritants at best and pollutants at worst, hooligans that have no respect for civility and order.

What defines the present world as the so-called “information society” is big data, massive statistics and texts that create a huge online traffic of raw information   most of which has not yet, or not usefully been translated and interpreted into knowledge that is humane and humanising. Hence, we do not exist in a knowledge society but in data society ruled by “statistical reason”.

The intellectuals, in the main, are a lot that is informed but not knowledgeable. Where they are knowledgeable they are accessories of capital and functionaries of profit to whom human questions and the humane are irritating moralism.

Humane and humanising knowledges are pretended in philosophy, history, literature, politics and arts departments that are still hostage to the fallacy that knowledge was born in European and American classical epochs and came to Africa, Latin America and some parts of Asia as benevolent and civilising charity of the enslaving and colonising Empire.

Analytical and continental categories of philosophy and quantitative social sciences are the real and legitimate modes of thinking and knowing, the so-called “epistemologies of the south” are treated as articles of the museum, exotic fetishes for the titillation of tastes of intellectual tourists, not tools of critically engaging with the world and life. Knowledge and modes of knowing in the present university remain Euro-American, white, male, Christian, heterosexual and formed for capital.

When these Eurocentric humanities are brought to life in the present university, they are unleashed as theories and ideologies, and as such they save only to rationalise, defend and sustain the status quo and not critically challenge it. They offer palliative treatment to the oppressed and exploited multitudes, helping them to die still but die in peace.

There is no wonder that statues of dead white imperialist and racist conquerors like Cecil John Rhodes populate university campuses and appear to critically conscious young black students as idols of Empire deserving eviction.

The incomprehensible and unforgivable burning of libraries and the arson of torching lecture rooms by protesting black students is itself a symptom of the clash of sensibilities in the university, where poor black students experience the university as a cold and alien, alienating universe that in the first place has banned and even burnt their own history, languages, political background, culture and sensibility even at a symbolic and physical level.

Far from being African universities or at least universities in Africa, the present universities are Euro-American universities on Africa, empty of any form and content of knowing and knowledge that provide what Boaventura de Sousa Santos has called “strong answers to the strong questions” that black and poor peoples of the world are confronted with in the present world order, questions of how human beings in their difference and diversity can share life and space in the planet, and how they can coexist with nature and the environment, how oppressions, dominations and hatreds of all types can be surmounted and humanism sustained.

There is nothing much in the social sciences, natural sciences and the co-opted humanities, in their uncritical everydayness, that humanely and humanistically press the good idea that nature and the environment, the planet in its physicality is not just a pile of natural resources to be exploited for profit but that it is also a living abode to be preserved for the continuity of humanity, plant and animal life on earth.

Little or no recognition is given to the histories of the black people, cultures and traditions of the poor, the theologies and spiritualities of the former enslaved and former colonised that have clues to how hate and domination may not be ways of living in the world.

A clue that they have earned from centuries of suffering domination and exploitation, their education from existing in the underside of Euro-American modernity.

The present Euro-American model of the university on Africa suffers a problem of fake universalism, where provincial knowledges and sensibilities of the west as a part of the world and westerners as some people in the world, are fraudulently presented as knowledges and sensibilities of the whole world and the entire human race.

The worldview and world sense that is projected by the present university on Africa is fraudulently fake, it presents a province of the world, Euro-America as the world, erasing other humanities, histories and sensibilities, silencing other peoples.

The genocides of conquest that killed native Americans and native Africans in the millions have been recorded, what have not been accounted for in earnest, are the erasures and silencing of cultures, histories and knowledges of the native people, the epistemicides of slavish and colonial domination are still going on in the university today, ‘hermeneutic injustice’ and ‘cognitive injustice’ are crimes against humanity and the humanities that are going on, making the universities cultural and spiritual crime scenes.

What Ngugi Said

Ngugi counselled Africans to secure their political and cultural base and to abandon languages and vocabularies of negativity.

Like Thabo Mbeki earlier in the years, Ngugi asked Africans to define themselves and not rely on borrowed colonial definitions of their countries and communities.

The world has criminally not acknowledged the contributions of black intellectuals to civilisation, for that reason black intellectuals must stand up and claim their space.

African governments and policy makers in the field of education and culture should stop the blame game, scape-goating colonialism, and make liberating language policies.There is no need to abandon colonial languages in total, Africans must use the English language for instance but they must not allow the language to use them.

In a strong way, Ngugi was asking for a return to African humanism hence the title of his lecture series, “Secure the Base” and the message that Africans must remember that in colonialism and slavery, “what the sword did to the body” of the African “colonial languages did to the mind” of the Africans.

l Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni and William Ntabazimbili write from South Africa.

March 2017
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