The puzzle of political alternation

DRC: quo vadis?

As Kabila fights to retain power, opposition politicians must put political differences aside in the interests of the electorate

Children in Goma, capital city of North Kivu province, DRC © iStock

The 2006 elections marked the end of a dramatic decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after two wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2002) and a complex peace process. Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father Laurent-Désiré in January 2001, was sworn in on December 6, 2006 as the first elected president of the Third Republic, in the country’s first reasonably fair and free multiparty election since independence. But the next election, in November 2011, was so contested that it brought the country to the edge of implosion. It was not organised to protect a fragile democratic process but to consolidate power. The regime used its control over the security forces and the electoral machinery against a weak and divided opposition. Since September 2014 President Kabila’s political family has attempted several times to push his reign beyond its constitutional limit of December 19, 2016. Aubin Minaku, the speaker of the National Assembly, tried to change the constitution in September 2014 but failed to mobilise the necessary majority. In January 2015 the government proposed passing a new electoral law that included a census that would delay the elections by several years. Once again, however, this was blocked—this time not by Parliament but in the streets. Protests were organised in several cities, including Kinshasa and Goma. At least 40 people died. Few expected the violence, and it was unclear who had instigated it. Given all this, the only strategy that has worked is slippage, le glissement: delaying the electoral calendar on the grounds that the government is not ready to organise elections; and the systematic non-disbursement of funds budgeted for phases of the electoral process. Since 2014 Kabila has found it increasing difficult to guarantee a cohesive government. It is likely that he exceeded his expiry date to take advantage of the superficial unity between the interest groups on which his regime is built. Through his father, Kabila is a member of the Balubakat people in North Katanga. Both Kabila regimes (père and fils) are perceived as representing a Swahili-speaking Katanga-based political fortress. More recently, signs of serious discontent have emerged among the Balubakat. The north of the province, where the Balubakat comes from, has been largely absent of the growth dynamics observable in the major cities such as Lubumbashi, Likasi and Kolwezi. The people there blame their leaders for this. After Laurent-Désiré Kabila took power, Balubakat leaders visibly enriched themselves, but there was hardly any return for North Katanga. Most Congolese politicians have used their mandate to develop their own regions by rehabilitating roads, building schools and hospitals, and so on. In 2013 three Balubakat leaders lost decisive positions in key sectors of public life. John Numbi ceased to be national police chief, Daniel Mulunda Ngoi was dismissed as president of the electoral commission and Jean-Claude Masangu ended his mandate as president of the national bank. At the end of 2014, Katanga turned against Kabila, a consensus incarnated in the personality of the then governor of Katanga, Moïse Katumbi. In March 2015 party leaders within the majority, including Pierre Lumbi, Olivier Kamitatu, Charles Mwando Simba and Kyungu wa Kumanza joined forces. Known as the G7, they share the conviction that further constitutional reform or slippage of the electoral process pose enormous risks for the country’s stability, and might undermine the achievements of the peace and democratisation process. Since then Kabila has struggled with the supporters of his challengers in 2006 (Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has since been tried and convicted in The Hague) and 2011 (Étienne Tshisekedi, who left the country in 2013, only to return in 2016). Most of all, he has struggled with members of his support base who won the 2006 elections with him, and who were the main reason Congolese and international public opinion considered the election to be reasonably free and fair. Some were key people in his regime during his first period in office. Lumbi was minister of infrastructure and, later, Kabila’s counsellor on security; Kamitatu, minister of planning; Vital Kamerhe, who left the president’s camp in 2010, was speaker of Parliament; and, of course, Katumbi. They are now leading opposition figures. Their success will depend on their capacity to mobilise the masses who are frustrated because they believe that the current regime has neither the capacity nor the political will to change the country. The mistrust is widespread, and directed at the entire political caste. Politicians are thought to be interested only in enriching themselves, their families, their clans and their own communities. Little distinction is made between the ruling party and the opposition. Congo’s political elite lacks moral authority and, therefore, the ability to manage social unrest. Tshisekedi recently returned to the country, cheered by an impressive crowd. But it remains to be seen whether he can translate this enthusiasm into an effective popular force for change. The opposition must provide a plan to govern the country differently, and take into account the DRC’s complex ethnic and regional puzzle. Congo’s political elite lacks moral authority and … the ability to manage social unrest. Katumbi is thought to be a likely challenger to Kabila. He has a good reputation as a businessman and manager, and is seen to be generous. He has the money, charisma and looks for a successful campaign, and has used his success in football and development to support his political ambitions. Yet it is unlikely that the Congolese population will accept a third president from the former province of Katanga. Moreover, dark shadows hang over his business past: questions could be asked about how he acquired his wealth. Many people think he lacks the strength of personality to be a leader at this level. He is not considered a sophisticated intellectual nor a visionary. He might play a crucial role in the future of the country, but a lot depends on the coalition he can mobilise. Tshisekedi considers himself the president elected in 2011, and his followers in his home province of Kasai believe it is their turn to provide the president after predecessors from the western (Kasavubu), northern (Mobutu) and eastern (the Kabilas) parts of the DRC. Other challengers are in the offing. In 2011, Kamerhe claimed much of Kabila’s 2006 electorate in the Kivu provinces. But can he manage the huge potential for grassroots anger and violence? Currently, every local conflict in eastern Congo is activated under pressure of local tensions. The Congolese state collapsed at the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocratic regime and has not risen from its ashes. Its capacity to deal with local conflicts is limited. Political protagonists may try to manipulate these conflicts to position themselves on the political chessboard at provincial or national levels. Kabila has probably lost his capacity to hold together the antagonistic groups that comprise his regime. The opposition must prove that its leaders can unite to fight an election. They will have to build the country’s different local realities into a dynamic political force for change.

Mapping ethnic conflicts

Africa: an artificial patchwork?

Understanding the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Africa means appreciating the role of ethnic identity

In 2011 Peter S. Larson, a professor at the University of Nagasaki, Japan, published an attempt to chart the interplay between ethnicity and African conflict. Larson used the 1959 map of 835 “ethnic regions” of Africa produced by anthropologist George Murdock. While admitting that Murdock’s map is “perhaps naïve”, Larson states that it remains an important source to Africanists. He then drew on the University of Sussex’s Armed Conflict and Event Location Database to plot current conflict events onto Murdock’s ethnographic map. Mapping conflict by national borders painted huge chunks of the African map red with danger, Larson found, but plotting the Sussex data onto the Murdock map altered the patterns. In particular, conflicts became identifiable as regional rather than as national or international. Moreover, he wrote, “one can see that conflict events largely occur within Murdock’s ethnic boundaries”. Yet he argued against the conclusion that African conflicts were mainly ethnicity-driven. As one example, Larson’s map revealed that the Algerian conflict is really a conflict between the government and the Amazigh, a Berber group of the Kabyle region of the Atlas Mountains who have a tradition of independence: Amazigh means “Free People”. By contrast, the map plots the ethnic element behind the secessionist war in Angola’s Cabinda enclave, where the Bakongo majority has developed a unique culture distinct from that of other Bakongo in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Similar convergences of conflict and ethnicity can be seen in Ogoni and Ijaw militancy in the Niger Delta, the Tuareg insurrection of northern Mali, and other regions. Larson’s map was published just before the Arab Spring rolled out across the Maghreb. The latest Sussex map, published in 2015, shows the spread of conflict into Libya, especially to Benghazi.

Conflicts in Africa by ethnic region

Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog: https://peterslarson.com/2011/01/19/african-conflict-and-ethnic-distribution/

In Egypt it has moved into Sinai, where most people speak Bedawi Arabic, unlike Cairo’s Egyptian Arabic majority. In the former Somalia, conflict is centred in Mogadishu. Other conflicts are mapped in north-western Nigeria (Boko Haram), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The map shows that violence against civilians had declined in Zimbabwe, especially in Matabeleland. Meanwhile, civil protests continued in South Africa, as well as in many West African and Maghreb capitals after the lull following the Arab Spring. Perhaps more telling is Sussex’s 2015 map of the agents of violent conflict in Africa. Searching only for “communal militia” reveals a widespread tendency to armed communal violence, in distinct regions, that likely involves an element of ethnicity. For example, in Libya communal militia-driven conflict occurs in remote and coastal areas that are homogeneously Arab or Toubou. But the civil war is not only ethnicity-based; it is also a politico-confessional conflict between former Gaddafi supporters and Salafist and democratic forces.

Spread of main languages in Africa

Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog: https://peterslarson.com/2011/01/19/african-conflict-and-ethnic-distribution/

Militia conflict in south-central Nigeria occurs in the Christian Igbo heartland, far away from Boko Haram’s strongholds. The conflict on the CAR/Congo border is primarily confessional, between Muslim Séléka and Christian Anti-Balaka militia. The conflict in Darfur, in the Sudan, involves a number of ethnicities, as well as ethnicised environmental drivers. In South Kivu, in the DRC, the conflict involves several ethnicities, as well as ethnicised drivers deriving from the long aftermath of the Rwandan genocide—complicated by relations with endogenous political militia sometimes supported by foreign governments. Community conflict in highland Kenya is regional and ethnic, and relatively isolated from the multiculturalism of Nairobi. The emergence of communal militia in South Sudan is mostly a result of the breakdown of the Dinka-Nuer ethnic compact, but is also driven by the fragility of the new state and a tendency by all parties to resort to military “solutions”. Communal armed conflict in former Somalia involves a power struggle between six major Somali clans, plus Al-Shabaab, and only a smattering of “outsiders”. This brief overview is an indication of the difficulty of accurately charting the role of ethnic identity in African conflicts. Each involves many facets, including the influence of ethnicity, which is itself complicated by history. Even distinctly ethnic civil conflicts such as the 2007/08 pogroms in Kenya and the wave of violence in 2008 in South Africa involved a blend of other factors and influences. In Kenya, where perhaps 1,500 were killed and perhaps 600,000 displaced, the crisis was rooted in political unrest following the contested election of President Mwai Kibaki. Opposition supporters of his opponent, Raila Odinga, went on the warpath, killing members of Kibaki’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu. This ethnicised the conflict, with Kikuyu striking back at the Luo and Kalejin ethnic groups. In South Africa 62 people were killed and 100,000 displaced in violence supposedly directed only at foreigners. But the media’s “xenophobic” tag was inaccurate; only two thirds of those killed were foreigners, among them Somalis and Mozambicans. Resource contestation and business jealousy were the root causes, while the violence also had elements of sheer criminality and the settling of personal scores. This was also the case in Kenya where land, hunger, poverty and criminality skewed ethnic tensions. More coherently, ethnic conflicts include those where a particular, identifiable group seeks to establish a secessionist movement. For instance, the ethnic Alliance of the Bakongo political party, established in 1955, wanted a Kongo Kingdom covering parts of the DRC, Congo, Angola and Cabinda, with the long-term aim of restoring the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom of 1390-1857. But other than South Sudan and Eritrea, both of which had distinct ethno-nationalist foundations, secessionist wars have always failed in Africa.

 

MICHAEL SCHMIDT is a field reporter who has worked in 45 countries across six continents, but with a focus on Africa. He is the author of five books including Drinking With Ghosts (2014). He is a 2009 academic leader at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico), a 2011 Clive Menell Media Fellow at Duke University (USA), and a 2017 Arts Rights Justice Academy Fellow at Universität Hildesheim (Germany). He researches and writes on African affairs and continental human rights.

 

Looking for the right rules of engagement

People displaced by Boko Haram conduct their daily businesses at a government-run camp in the Bulunkutu area of Maiduguri, Borno state, north east Nigeria, February 2019 (Photo by INI EKOTT)

 

Boko Haram: fight or talk?

 

Last year, the Nigerian military persistently denied media reports of an upsurge in attacks by Boko Haram in the country’s northeast. Then, in November 2018, the Islamist militant group raided an army base near the border with Niger and Chad and killed over 100 soldiers, according to Reuters news agency. The army admitted the attack in the town of Metele, but said the death toll was 23. But even that relatively lower figure represented a devastating turn for the Nigerian military.

Three years earlier, it had put the group on the back foot under the  new government of Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general who came to power on a promise to defeat Boko Haram. Those early wins allowed the Buhari government to feel upbeat about rescuing hundreds of abducted schoolgirls and ending the conflict through negotiation. By 2016, the new president was urging the United Nations (UN) to mediate and offering to “bend over backwards” to solve the crisis. The talks that followed led to the release of 103 schoolgirls, but further negotiations failed. Over 100 of the girls kidnapped in 2014 from Chibok town amid global outrage remain missing.

Many analysts have linked the partial success in the negotiations to the recent rise in attacks on military targets, pointing at the huge payments the group received as ransom and the release of its commanders in exchange for the schoolgirls. “Going into negotiation with terrorists gives [them] a psychological sense of control over the authority, and somewhat legitimises their activities,” said Anietie Umoren, a psychologist and researcher at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Nigeria.

Indeed, critics argue that the group has used the resources to regroup. With attacks persisting and the military response not as effective, such ironic outcomes raise the question of how the Nigerian government can best engage the group and end the crisis.

Only a few countries admit negotiating with extremists. Most western countries, for example, adopt a “no negotiation with terrorists” policy, especially with regards to the payment of ransom. Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel maintain this policy, but do sometimes negotiate secretly, according to Alan Steinberg in a 2015 paper in the Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development. On the other hand, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland are more open to negotiation, according to various reports. The successful Nigeria negotiation for the abducted girls was mediated by the Swiss government.

For decades, many policymakers feared that negotiating with extremists would weaken governments, legitimise extremism and incite violence, but some recent studies have countered that claim. Ostracising extremists may do more harm than good, argues Harmonie Toros, an expert on conflict resolution, in a 2008 research paper. Rather, a preparedness to engage in dialogue with extremists could help resolve conflicts. “Negotiations also enable groups to voice their grievances and strengthen factions interested in non-violent solutions,” she writes. “In contrast, naming groups as terrorists with the intention of delegitimising them can radicalise such groups and curtail attempts to resolve conflicts non-violently.”

Nigeria’s experience with extremism dates back decades, but it was the advent of Boko Haram that required the Nigerian government to formulate some form of official position on negotiating with radical groups. The jihadist sect, which emerged a decade ago, has now become one of the world’s most brutal extremist groups. Its activities have left over 30,000 people dead and more than 1.6 million people displaced, according to the UN’s 2018 Nigeria National Human Development report.

While the Nigerian government does sometimes admit to engaging in negotiations with Boko Haram, it denies paying ransoms. In 2016, Information Minister Lai Mohammed acknowledged the negotiation to free the Chibok girls succeeded after the mediation of the Swiss government and the International Red Cross, but denied that a ransom was paid. However, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC reported that between two and three million euros were paid to the group and also that some of its top leaders had been released.

That approach showed early signs of trouble. By March 2017, a Boko Haram propaganda video showed a man clutching an AK 47, claiming to be one of five commanders freed and threatening fresh attacks. The group, which has split into two factions, soon intensified its attacks in 2018, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Security analysts point to several reasons for the new attacks, among them poor military strategy, demoralised troops and poor equipment. They also traced the problem to the government’s negotiation model, which funnelled millions of dollars to the militants and freed their skilled fighters, allowing the group to rebuild its arsenal and manpower.

The recent uptick in attacks by Boko Haram, also known as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) in recognition of the group’s allegiance to the terror group ISIL, has three main causes, according to Cheta Nwanze of the Abuja-based SBM Intelligence. “The funding received by Boko Haram from the federal government came with the added benefit of experienced commanders being returned,” he told Africa in Fact. In addition, the security forces were increasingly attending to threats elsewhere, including clashes between herders and farmers in the central region and deadly attacks on villagers by bandits in the northwest. The government’s attention was further distracted by the looming general election in February this year. Moreover, Boko Haram was marking the 10th anniversary of the death of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

In March last year,  Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the government was negotiating a possible ceasefire and an end to the conflict. But after the Melete army base attack and other similar raids, the government appeared reluctant to negotiate and pay ransoms. It gave a hint of this in August 2018 after the sect abducted three female aid workers and demanded a huge amount of money for their return, according to government insiders. The government rebuffed the threat and the militants murdered two of the workers in response.

President Buhari, who was at the time of writing seeking a second term in the February elections, has not stated clearly what, if any, non-military approaches he may apply in dealing with the crisis if re-elected. The government would, however, “consolidate on [Buhari’s] first-term achievements”, according to the campaign manifesto of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress.

Meanwhile, Buhari’s main challenger in the election, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, says he will use “diplomacy, intelligence and border controls” in tackling the problem. Taunting the Buhari administration for its prisoner swap policy, Abubakar added that he would not release captured Boko Haram fighters back into society. “It makes no military or practical sense to release hardened terrorists, who have taken the precious lives of members of the Nigerian Armed Forces, on the flimsy excuse that they have been deradicalised or are repentant,” Abubakar said on 12 January, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).

Analysts say the crisis may ultimately not be resolved militarily. Any negotiations, however, must be done from a position of strength, they warn. “You cannot rule [negotiations] out, but … you don’t negotiate from a position of weakness, which is where we are now,” Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer and former head of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, told Africa in Fact.

The United States Institute of Peace, an American federal institution that promotes conflict resolution worldwide, says negotiations with extremists can help governments to gain intelligence and influence, and so ultimately contribute to ending conflict involving extremists. “The greatest benefit of engagement is to end the conflict, or at least its terrorist form. If the terrorists can agree to stop violent acts, the state can reciprocate by softening its ‘no engagement’ stance. This initial exchange can lead to further exchanges,” it says on an undated page of its website, Engaging Extremists.

The fact that a split has recently emerged within the group may, however, make talks more difficult. One faction is led by the better-known Abubakar Shekau – a former deputy of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf – who has been reported killed several times, only to re-emerge as apparently alive and well. The other faction is led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of Yusuf’s, who acted as the spokesperson of Boko Haram before it split in 2016. Shekau has repeatedly turned down previous attempts at negotiation, while al-Barnawi has been open to dialogue. In 2016, President Buhari admitted that the split had made it difficult to find credible leaders with whom to negotiate.

“We have to find a way to draw the more pliable faction into local politics, in a manner that is not hostile to the Nigerian state and its citizens,” says SBM’s Nwanze. “This is because [the extremist group] is increasingly gaining acceptance among some locals as an alternate government.”

One community where such an alternate government may operate is the fishing town of Baga in Borno state, where the militants launched a deadly attack in December 2018. The army, which initially denied the group had taken control of the town as widely reported in the media, later announced it had recaptured it. Weeks after that claim, residents said Boko Haram militants remained in control of Baga, and were issuing “movement permits” that allowed residents to move in and out of the town, the newspaper Premium Times said in a 5 February report.

Negotiating with a Boko Haram faction that operates as an alternate government raises the fear that the Nigerian government is flirting with a threat to its legitimacy, or even the possibility of a secession, if it allows the group to consolidate its gains. Whether it decides to do so will be determined by a range of factors, including whether Buhari successfully retains the presidency. In the meanwhile, though, Nigeria’s approach to engaging with the extremists looks more like dithering than purposeful, considered action.

A billboard in Maidugari, Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram, shows Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and other politicians ahead of recent general elections. Political leaders will play roles in deciding on possible talks with the deadly Islamist group. February 2019 (Photo by INI EKOTT)

Ini Ekott is the Assistant Managing Editor (News) at Premium Times, an online newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria. Prior to this, he reported for Next, an investigative newspaper in Lagos. He has written for IPS Africa and other publications and is a former Wole Soyinka investigative journalist of the year.

An acute sense of dislocation

 

Protesting students (foreground) are watched by students (background) attending lectures, at the University of Cape Town on October 3, 2016. – Groups of students with the Fees Must Fall movement moved around the campus singing and dancing to disrupt lectures on the first day of classes after weeks of closures at this and other universities around South Africa. (Photo by Rodger Bosch / AFP)

 

Post-colonial theory: the strong arm of identity

 

I have always been mistrustful of the rhetoric on decolonisation. Our difficulty deciding its meaning not only consigns it to a realm of needless obscurity but also frustrates our cause, which I understand to be the reimagining of the entire knowledge-making apparatus in the pursuit of a just, humane and equitable social order.

The major problem with the term “decolonisation” is its status as empty signifier. My concern is that the radical potential of decolonisation discourse — because of its indeterminacy — is always at risk of being co-opted by hegemonic political formations. We have witnessed such reversals already in the fate of the so-called African Renaissance, an idiom that was meant to signify continental rebirth but was converted instead into the ideological glue that rationalised former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s export of free-market economics across Africa. We also observe it in university life today with the relentless commodification of engaged scholarship into just another signpost on the road to tenure.

I would regard “decolonisation” as being another one of those radical chic terms. Everyone who cares about the future of higher education in South Africa is talking about it, yet most admit they do not know what it actually means. It is no accident that the looseness of the term is consistent with the anti-foundationalist values of the intellectual tradition with which it is most closely associated, namely, post-colonial theory. Indeed, the post-colonial genre is itself difficult to master, being viewed in some quarters as not theory at all. It has been regarded even as a form of post-theory: criticise a post-colonial writer, Vivek Chibber warns in his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013), and you may be dismissed for having misunderstood.

But there is a second problem with the term “decolonisation”: it seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of coloniser and colonised, white and black become impossible to displace. If we are committed to a non-racial future as enshrined in our constitution, it is difficult to imagine how that can ever be realised for as long as we continue to reify — and weaponise — certain highly contentious markers of social difference.

I am, of course, speaking about race, for despite the common sense that it is a social construction, some of us continue to assert the value of strategic essentialism. It cannot be denied that racism remains an integral part of lived experience in South Africa, but it has to be distinguished from race, which, again, has no external referent.

Post-colonial theory proceeds from the premise of social difference, an insistence that underpins its trademark critiques of eurocentrism, colonial ideology and economic determinism, as Chibber argues in his 2013 book. The result is an abiding suspicion of grand theory and a corresponding focus on marginality, alterity, and particularity instead. Inevitably, identity becomes the basis for political mobilisation as the possibility for universal comradeship slowly disintegrates.

The influence of post-colonial theory on student movements in South Africa has been substantial. Unwilling to frame their struggle in terms of the universal values of dignity, security and equality, protestors have opted for the particulars of white privilege and black pain, practising a form of identity politics that is unmistakably middle class.

Trapped in a self-referential form of protest, a certain narcissism has set in, as self-styled radicals reveal a decidedly unradical preoccupation with their own bourgeois destinies. Whereas the May 1968 generation pursued causes that extended far beyond the confines of the academy, to date our students have shown little interest in backing the causes of the South African majority – most of whom will never set foot inside a university. Young people who are functionally illiterate and virtually unemployable have no interest in decolonising consciousness, let alone in resurrecting the past glories of the colour black.

I am not attempting to disavow or trivialise the lived experiences of protesting students. What they perceive more than anything is an acute sense of dislocation – a feeling of otherness that is the fate of anyone entering an institutional space that is deeply alienating. But these psychological concerns must be recognised for what they are, namely, an emergent elite’s struggle for a coherent sense of self, rather than a movement for radical social change. The future of South Africa does not depend on the middle class – black or white. It depends on the millions of South Africans whose terminal state of wretchedness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for revolution.

The fact that decolonisation discourse is saturated with bourgeois concerns also tells us that something is seriously wrong with the academy. The marketisation of knowledge-making processes over the past four decades – and the gradual insertion of South African higher education institutions into that global landscape in the post-apartheid years – has resulted in the assembly-line production of graduates who are quickly assimilated into the well-oiled machineries of a market-friendly economy. Yet decolonisation activists, by and large, do not seem to take issue with the instrumentalisation of their education, directing all their energies towards the attainment of what they call “free, quality, decolonised education”. Instead of a materialist reading of the asymmetries of academic life, they support an agenda that centres on high-level abstractions, such as “epistemic violence” and the like.

There is another reason to question the decolonisation agenda – specifically, its suggestion that the academic disciplines we have inherited remain suitable as disciplines in a society as historically contingent as ours. For example, it is one thing to question the topics and methods of a discipline such as psychology, but it is another matter entirely to question the existence of psychology altogether.

Disciplines as they exist today do not represent, in the words of Plato, “the carving of nature at its joints”. They only exist because particular societies have deemed particular problems worthy of investigation. There is nothing given about a disciplinary order, which only emerges as a result of specific arrangements between knowledge-making communities and powerful interest groups. Approaching decolonisation as an intellectual project that targets individual disciplines, therefore, is a non-starter.

In the 1970s, the theorist Gayatri Spivak castigated French feminists for expressing solidarity with Vietnamese women. It was the first time in the history of the socialist left that someone from the Global South had questioned the possibility of universal comradeship. From there, post-colonial theory took off, its popularity in no small measure the result of the general disarray of the left.

Today, internecine conflicts among academics and students – both in South Africa and internationally – find socialists and anti-racists being put down as conservative and racist. And that is perhaps the most pernicious effect of decolonisation discourse: the now widespread belief that one’s identity constitutes an argument in and of itself, a belief that is surely antithetical to the very concept of a university.

The idea that only black people may speak for black people, that only women may speak for women, that only disabled people may speak for disabled people, that only disabled black women may speak for disabled black women – in short, the idea that only the oppressed may speak for the oppressed, and only if they are identically oppressed – is one of the most absurd yet dangerous ideas in circulation today.

Post-colonial theory denies the possibility of empathy – of a shared humanity – and it is for that reason that it cannot provide the ethical vision we need now more than ever.

First published under a Creative Commons licence by Africa is Not a Country on 26 November 2018.

 

Wahbie Long, Ph.D., is an associate professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychology and the director of the Child Guidance Clinic at the University of Cape Town. He has a Y1 rating from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, and has held fellowships at Harvard and Durham. In 2016, he was the recipient of the Early Career Award of the Society for the History of Psychology (Division 26 of the American Psychological Association).
Sustainable Development Goals – Issue Number 50 – Striving to survive and thrive.

Sustainable Development Goals – Issue Number 50 – Striving to survive and thrive.

Sustainability – it has become all too easy to subsume the cure for the world’s ills under this throwaway word.  The word refers to the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level, or to avoiding depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance.  The 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was released recently – we are literally facing a real and present cataclysm.

We thus chose the subject of Sustainable Development Goals as the topic for our special 50th issue of Africa in Fact. Not only does this issue mark a milestone for us as the flagship publication of Good Governance Africa, but it is also a turning point towards a new urgency of engagement.  AIF Issue 50 suggests that the success of the SDGs will rest on three pillars: political will, cooperation and partnerships, and investment in reliable data.

This issue is on sale now from Exclusive Books, C N A, Spar and PnP stores nationally.