Getting Real About Decolonisation
A version of this blog first appeared in the South African website The Daily Maverick.
In the 24 years since the end of apartheid, how many times have South Africans been promised a decolonised future? Today as we debate State Capture and why economic inequality is even worse than it was in the days of apartheid, we must question whether our leaders genuinely believe this promise.
It is easy to blame government, but in order to receive something one must ask for it. When we call for decolonisation do we know what we are demanding? Too often we confuse different aspects of what decolonisation might mean and thus make it easier for political parties to promise decolonisation and deliver something else.
There are different aspects to decolonisation. First there is “cultural decolonisation”. This is the project of preserving and valuing what has been lost of our own cultures because of the violence of colonisation. So when we insist that every South African student be required to learn at least one African language, or when we take steps to preserve cultures that are under threat of disappearing, we are taking part in cultural decolonisation. To their credit, ANC governments have taken some steps towards cultural decolonisation.
Important as cultural decolonisation is, it should not be confused with ‘political decolonisation’. Political decolonisation aims to “un-wreak” the havoc that colonialism wrought in our societies. This does not mean trying to create some alternative timeline where colonialism did not occur. Time moves only forward. Rather political decolonisation is about understanding and undoing the damage that colonialism did to our societies.
What did colonial damage entail? At its most basic level, colonialism was pure and simple theft. The gold and silver that the Spanish were seeking in the Americas was ultimately found under people’s feet. Those people were uprooted to facilitate theft; a process that is ongoing in Guatemala and elsewhere. In order to steal something you need to transform it from the common property that it was (under everyone’s feet or in communal places of worship) to a commodity that can be bought and sold. So one of the key elements of the colonial process is commodification.
In order to legalise and maximise theft, colonialism had to restructure societies. Restructuring was done in many different ways but a key component was to encourage competition. At different times competition took different forms. Explorers competed with one another for favour from European courts hungry for gold and spices; slaves in the Congo competed with one another to complete rubber collection quotas and to avoid loss of limb – the fate of those who failed to meet the quotas. Here in South Africa, Cecil John Rhodes engineered a plan to force people to compete with one another for mining jobs – a plan that was ultimately enforced through the Natives Land Act of 1913.
The damage wrought by colonial processes of competition and commodification is hard to exaggerate. The culture of commodification runs deep – today we use the word privatisation as a euphemism for when the State sells common property for private profit, and we are taught in economics schools to see it as a good thing. In the age of State Capture we must ask the obvious question: For whom is this privatisation a good thing?
Competitive structures tend to break down trust – we assume that everyone is out to loot us and most of the time we’re right – because our neighbours have the same assumptions. South Africans need look no further than the Cape Flats for a glimpse at what happens to a society without cooperation and trust.
What would a genuine attempt at political decolonisation look like? At a minimum it would a) strengthen the social bonds of co-operation within and between our societies, and b) build up a collective resource pool (let’s call it the commons) and strengthen the societies that steward those resources.
When faced with these challenges what has been the ANC response? Have we invested in structures that would encourage development in a more cooperative way, such as workers collectives or farmers cooperatives or have we continued to provide incentives to domestic and multinational companies who want to extract wealth and take it abroad? Have we had discussions around community stewardship of natural resources or have we acquiesced to every mining company request and run around like headless chickens when our water tables run dry?
Because we know the answer to these questions we must ask another one: What does the ANC’s rhetoric around decolonisation actually mean when it clearly has no intention of taking forward a programme around political decolonisation?
I don’t know what motivates the ANC, but I fear the worst. I worry that it is not decolonisation but nativism that has become the ANC’s agenda.
Traditionally nativism means favouring one’s own society above others, but there is no single South African society. When Jacob Zuma became president, how long did it take for the majority of government posts to be allocated to Zulu-speaking people? Now that Cyril Ramaphosa is President, should we expect that many of those Zulu-speaking people will be replaced with Venda-speakers and others from Limpopo? Is this sub-nativism or, to use the pejorative, tribalism at work?
There’s nothing wrong with government turnover per se and diversity does matter. But when you are playing musical chairs on a sinking ship, the ethnicity of the person who next sits down does not matter. We all drown together.
The ANC is led by those who were the victims of colonialism. They now live in the very same houses where once lived those who oppressed them. And so we must ask them: Are you going to take those houses apart and use the materials to build a South Africa based on values of solidarity and co-operation and not the toxic forms of commodification and competition which have been in place for centuries?
If the answer to this question is “no” then we must stop pretending that the ANC is anything other than what it is – a party that, despite its anti-colonial history, is advancing a colonial vision.