The African challenge of knowledge freedom

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

There was a time in the history of Africa when Africans believed that political independence from colonial domination was to usher in a paradise of liberation and prosperity in the continent.

This epoch and its political dreams are summarised in Kwame Nkrumah’s clarion cry, “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things shall be added unto you!”

The decades after the political independence of Ghana and Africa at large proved that political independence in Africa can deliver black leaders, new national anthems and colourful flags but not liberation.

Before his dethronement and eventual death, Kwame Nkrumah himself observed in his classic book of 1965, Neocolonialism the Last Stage of Imperialism, that political independence does not guarantee economic freedom.

The next struggle was for the economic freedom of Africa. After betrayal by the British government that reneged on its Lancaster House promise to fund land reform in Zimbabwe, the government of Robert Mugabe got into an elephantine fight for indigenisation of the economy and economic freedom, a fight whose historical impacts and effects are yet to be understood.

Dramatised also by the South African Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party led by Julius Malema, economic freedom beyond political independence has been the principal struggle of postcolonial Africa.

Recently, the Zimbabwean born decolonial theorist, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, has observed that the quality of African political independence and economic independence cannot be guaranteed without sound “epistemic freedom”.

By epistemic freedom Gatsheni refers to knowledge freedom where the understanding of the African historical and political condition is an independent understanding that is not influenced or sponsored by the same powers of the world that occasioned African domination in the first place.

Epistemic freedom, as argued by Gatsheni is also a principal contribution to the decolonisation of education and knowledge, a struggle that is presently raging in the African academy.

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s important intellectual and political gesture is that there cannot be political and economic justice for Africans where there is no, what I can call, epistemic justice.

Our freedom as Africans to know ourselves, know each other and understand our continent clearly is a central freedom in the struggle for the liberation and also the rehumanisation of Africa. In that struggle, Gatsheni has emphasised the importance of a philosophy of liberation and he has forcefully, under the banner of Africa Decolonial Research Network (ADERN), suggested that African intellectuals, politicians and policy makers should explore decoloniality.

Together with other decolonial intellectuals and activists from the Global South, Gatsheni has described decoloniality as a radical antisystemic   intellectual, political and ethical movement that seeks to set afoot critical cosmopolitanism beyond narrow Eurocentric and some Afrocentric fundamentalisms.

In other words, like Aime Cesaire, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni gestures towards a new world that is rich in universalism that is equipped with localism and a localism that is rich in universalism.

A world where the structures and systems of power and knowledge that Europe and America have built are demolished and the hierarchies of superiority and inferiority are abolished and peoples of the world meet and trade with each other as human beings.

This is an intellectual and political call for a worldwide liquidation of coloniality.

On decolonial units of understanding

As a historian and development theorist, Gatsheni has paid homage to African liberation politicians and intellectuals that fought colonialism under the ideological and political banners of Marxism, Pan-Africanism and Nationalism.

In paying that due homage to the African political and intellectual giants on whose shoulders decoloniality is founded, Gatsheni has provided the critique that African ideologies of decolonisation thus far have suffered the paralysis of being borrowed ideas that were influenced by the same colonisers and imperialists that bought the continent of Africa into subjection in the very first place.

If African nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Marxism were not exactly borrowed ideas, they became infected or got hijacked by the colonisers and enslavers of Africa.

The infection and the hijacking of African ideologies of decolonisation by colonial ideologies is what might have, in a big way, compromised the decolonisation of Africa and limited it from becoming complete liberation of the continent and the rehumanisation of the people of Africa.

Gatsheni, using decoloniality as a philosophy of liberation, has suggested that the domination of Africa and its decolonisation should be looked at under three units of analysis or understanding, that of coloniality of power, coloniality of knowledge and coloniality of being.  Simply, how the Euro-American Empire overpowered Africa, what knowledges and ideologies were used in the domination of Africa and the kind of people and beings that Africans became after conquest and domination needs to be clearly understood, that is.

Conquest and colonisation turn their victims into sick people, and sick people if they don’t understand their sickness well may not be able to liberate themselves.

Conquest and colonisation were a disabling disease in the continent and our recovery is pending.  Decoloniality as a philosophy and political practice that seeks to radically undo coloniality in Africa needs to pay close critical attention to how the Euro-American Empire used power and knowledge to produce Africans into the victims and objects that we have become politically, economically and otherwise.

Over and above political and economic freedom, knowledge freedom and knowledge justice are important weapons in the struggle for the radical liberation of the African continent and the entire Global South. Coloniality remains the sickness of the Global South, a metaphysical and political disability that afflicts us.

The crisis of knowledge dependence in Africa

When African liberation movements were fighting the political dependence of Africa on Europe and America in the 1960s the African intellectuals, some of whom were also politicians, were also fighting scholarly and intellectual dependence on the West. Power and knowledge were always contested in colonialism and the struggle against it.

Only recently, presenting his Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, Issa Shivji described how African scholars and knowledge producers have largely remained as problematic as they are problematising.

As knowledge producers, Shivji argued, African intellectuals are double-edged weapons that can produce ideas for liberation and also ideas for domination and exploitation. Shivji lamented the corporitisation, commoditisation and commercialisation of knowledge and knowledge production in Africa.  Instead of clarifying and illuminating ideas and life, scholars as entrepreneurs and commercial dealers in ideas tend to mystify issues and conceal the truth for profit and for the benefit of power.

When knowledge has been tempered with, is being used to protect certain political interests and not for liberation, it degenerates not only to propaganda but to ideology in the very negative sense of the word.

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni has emphasised how African intellectuals should radically escape the trappings of compromising and limiting education and knowledge-making systems.

The university and the media, in Africa, as information and knowledge industries, have become vivid sites of coloniality of knowledge and knowledge dependence, hence the need for journalists, scholars and other information and intellectual workers to be vigilant of the kind of theories and concepts that they use to study and understand Africa.

Religion too, as not only a spiritual site but also a political and ideological institution in Africa, has been used to circulate doctrines and ideologies that fortify rather than disturb the workings of Empire and coloniality in Africa and the entire Global South.

In short, we must all take off our colonial spectacles and put on the decolonial looking glasses that will allow us to see Africa and Africans anew, without the colonial fog that has been cast around.

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s concept of epistemic freedom is a critical effort for a new reading and understanding of Africa from the vantage point of Africans, what Ngugi wa Thiongo described as the intellectual and political habit of “seeing ourselves clearly.”

• Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa.

November 2017
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