Africa Knows! It is time to decolonise minds

Blog 6

The Epistemic Revolution for Epistemic Freedom in Africa

By: Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni
February 26, 2021

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Professor and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South with Emphasis on Africa at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Previously, Prof. Ndlovu-Gatsheni worked as Research Professor and Director of Scholarship at the Department of Leadership and Transformation at the University of South Africa (UNISA). He previously worked as Acting Executive Director of Change Management Unit in the Vice-Chancellor's Office at the University of South Africa. He is also the founder of the Africa Decolonial Research Network (ADERN) based at the University of South Africa. In 2007, he was a Visiting Fellow at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands.

We have not yet seen the revolution

The colonial cognitive empire which invaded the mental universe of Africa cannot be reformed. It needs an epistemic revolution. The problem has been that throughout modern human history 'reform' initiatives have often been deliberately celebrated as 'revolutions'. The decolonization of the twentieth century, for example was quickly celebrated as an earth-shaking moment in human history and indeed a 'wind of change sweeping across Africa' and even named as 'hurricane' by Kwame Nkrumah. Yes, indeed for the enslaved and colonized people they longed for a hurricane to sweep away colonialism. This is why the leading African historian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza celebrated depicted decolonization as the 'proudest moment in African history'. Indeed, Africans like other colonized people sacrificed for a decolonial revolution but the Euro-North American-centric global system of power did not rest on its laurels and allow such a revolution to take place. With specific reference to those African countries that gained political independence in the 1960s, the processes were depicted as 'transfer of power' from white foreigners to local native elite produced by colonialism itself. For those countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia where armed anti-colonial struggles were fought, outright military defeat of colonial forces was not allowed and what kicked in were 'negotiations' / 'negotiated settlements' often followed by 'reconciliation' policies, which delivered them as neo-colonies.

While they were pulling back the physical empires after 1945 they were simultaneously rolling out what the historian Robert Gildea termed the 'empires of the mind' and what Kwame Nkrumah called 'neo-colonialism'. As it this was taking place colonialism was constantly faking its own death so as to feed the colonized the myths of decolonization and illusions of freedom. The reality is that when the physical empire was being dismantled the cognitive empire was intensifying its grip backed by what Gildea has correctly termed as the 'global financial republic' constituted by such multilateral institutions as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and many others. Even the United Nations Organization (UNO) became a major cog in the post-1945 global order to accommodate the de-revolutionized, disciplined, and powerless newly born 'nation-states' into its lowest echelons without veto powers. Both the emergent superpowers namely the Soviet Union and United States of America postured as anti-colonial while actively laying-out a new form that is best characterised as 'Cold-War coloniality' through which they projected their ideologies across the post-1945 world and even sponsored proxy hot wars in Africa in a new scramble for spheres of influence and economic exploitation.

Thus, what has to be clearly understood is that across epochs the Euro-North American-centric modern world system born in the 15th century has been producing global orders as a strategy of shielding itself from revolutionary anti-systemic forces on the one hand, and on the other as a tactic of its own self-preservation and self-perpetuation. The good example is the shift from the Westphalian order which granted sovereignty to the few European powers to the post-1945 UNO global order of granting self-determination to the former colonies. Even for this right to self-determination for Africa it had to be fought for to the extent that it was only in 1960 after the adoption of UNO General Assembly Resolution 1514 that it became a right rather than a privilege. I had to give this background because there are academics and intellectuals who seem not to understand that decolonization of the twentieth century was hijacked at two level. At the first level, by the native petit-bourgeois whom Frantz Fanon depicted as intellectually lazy and suffering from pitfalls of consciousness cascading from their socio-genesis (born of colonialism and emerging directly from inside the belly of the beast). At a second level, by global colonial matrices of power which always policed and disciplined any anti-systemic force and movement. This takes us to the knowledge domain where the cognitive empire continues to wreak havoc in the systems, institutions and psyche of both the former colonizers and (ex)colonized peoples.

The cognitive empire and the limits of anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism

The Euro-North American-centric modern world system which Latin American decolonial theorists like Ramon Grosfoguel have correctly characterised as modern/colonial/imperial/patriarchal/sexist/racist/heteronormative; is underpinned and enabled by a very strong cognitive empire propelled by a Eurocentric epistemology. It is very common these days to be easily criticized for using such terms as Eurocentric epistemology because there is a counter-argument which says what today exist as Eurocentric knowledge is in fact born out of appropriation of other knowledges. This is a fair argument but it does not satisfactorily bury its Eurocentrism. The second argument is that what has been termed Eurocentric knowledge has been rocked by internal critiques and haunted by internal contestations through and through regarding its methodologies, epistemologies, theoretical frameworks, and even horizons. So there no singular thing called Eurocentric epistemology. This is also a far argument.

The limits of these two argument is that their proponents forget that all powerful systems and institutions always reform themselves so as to give themselves a new lease of life rather than to change. The internal reform must not be taken for an epistemic revolution. The leading sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein warned longed ago about the limits of what he correctly termed the 'anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism'. Ructions within Eurocentric epistemology have not resulted in rupturing Eurocentrism itself. This is why it would be instructive to give the example of how the current Euro-North American-centric modern world system has been keeping itself alive since the last 500 years in the face of numerous anti-systemic forces and movements dating back to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). The first tactic is to condemn and delegitimize the genuine demands for revolution before moving physical to liquidate the revolutionaries. What is happening in France currently where some right-wing figures in government and in academia are on the offensive against decolonial and postcolonial thought and its proponents, trying to link it to terrorism is one good example. The second strategy is to infiltrate, seduce, dilute and divert the anti-systemic movements into reformist formations before accommodation them into the modern world system they had initial sought to destroy. Even the enthusiastic embrace of epistemological decolonization and decoloniality in leading universities in Europe and North America and its sponsorship by such funders as the Mellon Foundation while it is welcomed might also be a way of making not turning decolonization into metaphor and a buzz word but perhaps even to turn it into a neo-liberal concept and compromise its revolutionary subversive character. This fear makes sense within a context where by the triumph of neoliberalism at the end of the Cold War, resulted in the delegitimation of the very idea of 'revolutions' and the normativization of the idea of 'transitions'. While revolutions are anti-systemic, transitions are reformist and they tend to deliver small changes within the same world system and its global order. Transitions tend to tinker with the margins of an existing system rather than destroying it. In neoliberal conceptions of change even decolonization of the twentieth century is seen as part of transition from empires to nation-states rather than a revolutionary rupture.

Decolonization and the European game of knowledge

The concept of the European game was introduced by Fanon and he warmed his comrades never to join the game and urged them to develop new concepts and to turn over a new leaf. He charged that Europe failed to set afoot new humanism rather it bequeathed on the world a metaphysical catastrophe where a paradigm of difference and paradigm of war became the order of life particularly in the colonies, resulting in de-civilization and dehumanization. The decolonization of the twentieth century was expected by the colonized peoples to deliver them from the colonial metaphysical catastrophe. Indeed, efforts were made in the 1960s and 1970s to Africanize universities, deracialize the personnel, increase access to the universities to African students, and even establish institutes of African Studies like at the University of Ghana in 1962. Kwame Nkrumah himself as the head of state and government of Ghana pushed for the establishment of the Institute of African Studies. The Institute of African Studies was meant to advance knowledge of Africa in all its dimensions and demonstrate the 'African genius' that had been denied and suppressed by colonialism.

African nationalism of the 1960s also expanded the higher education in Africa making sure there was one state and one university at lease across the continent. A majority of the first generation of African academics and intellectuals rose to the challenge of nationalist revolution and tried to introduce changes in knowledge. The golden age of these initiatives included the rise of the respected Ibadan School of History in Nigeria, the Dakar School in Senegal and the Dar in Tanzania among others. Such scholars as Kenneth Dike, Jacob Ade Ajayi, Walter Rodney, and Cheikh Anta Diop and others in the humanities produced academic works that directly overturned colonial historiography and its 'colonial library. They advanced the idea of 'African factor' (African agency) in human history and introduced oral and other methodologies that enabled then to demonstrate empirically that Africa had a long history which pre-dated the colonial encounter.

Works by African scholars were included in the curriculum and at the University of Dar-es-salaam attempts were made even to abolish disciplinary iron cages as they established such new fields as 'Development Studies'. At the University of Nairobi, Ngugi wa Thiong'o a leading advocate of decolonization, worked with his colleagues and called for the abolition of the English Department in 1968, which was continuing to privilege teaching of English literature in an independent state of Kenya. What became known as the 'Nairobi Memo' of 1968 suggested a clear reconfiguration of the Department so as to start with African literature before English literature as part of re-centering Africa in knowledge generation.

While these changes were commendable they did not amount to the necessary epistemic revolution and epistemic freedom. More often the changes led to what the leading African scholar Cathrine Odora-Hoppers termed the desire for inclusion in the European game rather than questioning and dismantling it. Eurocentric epistemology remained dominant though tinkering with its margins continued. However, the fall of the African public higher education under the weight of neoliberal structural adjustment programmes halted the efforts at decolonization that had emerged in the 1960s. African economies were in crisis and under neoliberalism knowledge underwent commodification rather than decolonization as market forces and its corporatist ideas invaded and colonized institutions of higher education. This is partly why there is continuing need for decolonization of knowledge, including de-corporatization of higher education.

Epistemic revolution and epistemic freedom

Thanks to the students, youth, progressive intellectuals and indigenous people's movements for not letting the agenda of decolonizing knowledge disappear under the triumphalism of neoliberalism and the technological turn. The epistemological decolonization of the twenty-first century also known as decoloniality is not about inclusion in the European game rather it is about dismantling and undoing what colonialism and coloniality has been doing and is doing on the one hand, and on the other, it is dedicated to the painstaking process of unlearning for purposes of re-leaning as well as reconstitution of new knowledge predicated on new epistemologies and pedagogies.

This makes it revolutionary and it confronts the cognitive empire directly in its structural, institutional, epistemic, relational and ontological/personal dimensions. Consistently, unjust ideas, notions, assumptions, and practices are daily unmasked while the iconography of the empire have been subjected to the fires of the Rhodes Must Fall and the Black Lives Matter Movements. The notions/claims of universal, un-situated, truthful, objective, and singular rationality of Eurocentric epistemology, coming from the European Enlightenment time; are being directly challenged by decolonial ideas of subjectivity/geo-/body-politics of knowledge, situatedness, and intersectionality.

At another level, the traditional concept of academic freedom is being deepened through the concept of epistemic freedom so as to liberate it from neoliberal limits of rights decoupled from social justice and cognitive justice. The concept of epistemic freedom brings the demands for rights and justice together. Consequently, the notions of Europe and North America having science and the rest of the world being reduced to abodes of culture and wisdom is being destroyed as the descendants of the enslaved and colonized proclaim for all to know that they are in the first instance human born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems and as such their lives matter as is their knowledges. In the words of Nelson Maldonado-Torres, the epistemic revolution is predicated on 'a decolonial epistemic turn whereby the damn emerges as a questioner, thinker, theorist, writer and communicator'.

In a nutshell, the republic of letters/kingdom of knowledge across the world has to open up for revolutionary questions emerging from lived experiences of the descendants of those who were enslaved, colonized and racialized into non-beings. The cognitive empire is indeed pushed to the defence by the epistemologies of the Global South, victory is certain as the decolonization of the twenty-first century is assuming a planetary scale.

* This conference took place from December 2020 to February 2021 *
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