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Africa: Unthinking the historically accepted thinking of the continent



Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni

THIS review essay is focused on four publications which address diverse, but related issues involving Africa in the present conjuncture.

The first is a voluminous book by Michael Neocosmos titled Thinking Freedom in Africa: Toward a Theory of Emancipatory Politics, which focuses on complex issues critiquing national conceptions of liberation and the limitations of the predication of emancipation on identity; it is dedicated to the agenda of re-articulating freedom from a universalist vantage point. 

The second is an edited volume titled Debating African Philosophy: Perspectives on Identity, Decolonial Ethics and Comparative Philosophy, which addresses the recovery of African philosophical thought. 

It underscores the primacy of an African theorisation of contemporary issues such as epistemology, philosophical language, moral/political philosophy, philosophy of race, environmental ethics, and the metaphysics of disability, as well as how to embrace decolonisation/decoloniality, in an attempt to widen the canon of philosophy. 

The third volume is premised on an intellectual conversation between the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne and anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle and is titled In Search of African(s). This book of conversations examines various aspects of Africa, ranging from the very idea of Africa to identity, representation, language, human rights. and universalism. 

The fourth book is another edited volume, titled Africa Rising? Navigating the Nexus Between Rhetoric and Emerging Reality, which focuses on developmentalism in the present conjuncture while also linking it to indigenous knowledge systems, transitional justice, security, political economy, and the “Africa rising” discourse.

The commonality that cuts across these four publications is the painstaking and complex task of unthinking the historically accepted thinking on Africa and the various intellectual projections into Africa’s futures. Knowledge about Africa is subjected to critiques from diverse disciplinary vantage points. 

Previous and current ways of knowing are challenged without being discarded as a basis for another knowledge capable of propelling Africa into a better future. The broader discursive terrain is that of the intellectual turmoil and epistemic insurrection which define the present conjuncture in which “knowledge of knowledge” itself and “our knowledge of our knowledge of things” are open for debate (Santos Reference Santos2017:41). 

At the centre of this intellectual turmoil is what Immanuel Wallerstein (Wallerstein2004:58) terms the “uncertainty of knowledge.” Inevitably, the republic of letters has become a site of struggles, in which rethinking of thinking itself has become a necessary challenge. In terms of definition of rethinking thinking, Cathrine Odora Hoppers and Howard Richards posited it this way: “The task for rethinking thinking is therefore precisely this: to recognise the cultural asphyxiation of those numerous ‘others’ that has been the norm, and work to bring other categories of self-definition, of dreaming, of acting, of loving, of living into the commons as a matter of universal concern” (Hoppers and Richards2012:8). 

Therefore, the epistemic insurrection is about the existential as well as ways of knowing. The knowledge which has driven the world for the past five hundred years is manifesting a deep exhaustion and has reached its limits. 

Consequently, basic epistemological questions have been reopened. These basic questions include the relationships between epistemology and ontology, identity and knowledge, biopolitics and knowledge, geopolitics and knowledge, objectivity versus subjectivity, engaged scholarship and neutrality, truth and universality of knowledge, and many others. 

While Paul Gilroy is correct in stating that these battles over ideas and concepts are not new (Gilroy2005:9), nevertheless, they have taken on new significance within the twenty-first century context of insurgent and resurgent decolonisation (Ndlovu-Gatsheni Reference Ndlovu-Gatsheni2018; Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Ndlovu Reference Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Ndlovu2021). 

For example, Neocosmos is very critical of empiricism, with its concomitant artery called “tyranny of the objective” (16), as it is not considered suitable for the rethinking and unthinking which enables a necessary epistemic rupture.

It is within this context that one finds Africa as an idea, invention, reality, space, home, and continent subjected to a barrage of critiques which generate animated debates and reinterpretation from various disciplinary vantage points. 

While it is true that these battles over ideas and concepts were evident in philosophy, historiography, geography, and anthropology even prior to the twentieth century with the question of humanity at the centre, they acquired a new sharpness in the twentieth century, where they became linked to struggles for liberation from colonialism, self-determination, justice, and equality. 

Today, the battles over ideas and concepts are animated by the insurgent and resurgent decolonisation of the twenty-first century. Such formations and movements as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall are its planetary signatures.

The planetary questions of emancipation and the ethics of living together are re-emerging within an increasingly entangled and globalised world. The question of which knowledges are critical to anchor human life has returned with force as those descendants of enslaved, racialised, and colonised people declare vociferously and vehemently that they were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems which must be recognised (Ndlovu-Gatsheni Reference Ndlovu-Gatsheni2018, Ndlovu-Gatsheni2020).

Knowing/unknowing Africa

Modern knowledge is accessed and digested through modern disciplines. Within modern disciplines, Africa exists as a contested epistemic creation and as a phenomenon which needs to be liberated from the cognitive empire and its “colonial library” (Mudimbe1988). There seems to be a consensus that Africa is not and has never been a primordial fixture. 

However, Wole Soyinka posited that, unlike other continents which have figures who claim to have “discovered” them, there is no one who ever claimed to have “discovered” Africa (Soyinka 2012). Of course, there are claims to the “discovery” of mouths of rivers, of mountains, and of lakes within Africa, but not of Africa itself. If we consider the archaeological and paleontological scholarship which indicates that Africa is indeed the “cradle of humankind,” then it is not surprising that it has been spared the paradigm of discovery. Does this, then, give Africa a primordial definition? The books under review seem to challenge primordiality in favour of construction and invention regarding the idea of Africa.

In the works under review, disciplinary knowledge is a departure point. Since modern disciplines have emerged within a context in which humanity was grappling with specific modern problems, they are presented as the key lens through which Africa is comprehended and its broader world interpreted.

Taking this as a departure point is ideal, because the four publications under consideration here are written from diverse disciplinary vantage points, ranging from sociology to philosophy, politics, international relations, law, and anthropology. 

Disciplinary lenses, like all other devices which assist humans in enhancing their view of the world, have their limitations; hence, the recourse in knowledge production to inter-, trans-, and multi-disciplinarity as a solution. Lewis R. Gordon (Gordon 2006) warned about the problem termed “disciplinary decadence,” which takes the form of reification, ossification, and ontologising of disciplines to the extent that academics become colonised by them and blinded to human problems that are far wider than disciplinary knowledge can allow for. Gordon elaborated on the manifestations of disciplinary decadence:

Thus, a decadent scientist criticises the humanities for not being scientific; a decadent literary scholar criticises scientists and social scientists for not being literary or textual; a decadent social scientist sins in two directions — by criticising either humanities for not being social scientific or social science for not being scientific in accord with, say, physics or biology. And, of course, the decadent historian criticises all for not being historical; the decadent philosopher criticises all for not being philosophical. 

The key point here is how scholars are colonised by their disciplines in a double sense: first, in terms of their worldview and world-sensing, and second, in terms of how they view and review each other’s work. But the reality in knowledge generation and production is complex. For example, one finds a sociologist such as Neocosmos based in Africa, predicating his award-winning and voluminous work on the philosophical ideas of the French philosopher Alain Badiou and others like Frantz Fanon, who are difficult to classify discipline-wise because they produced knowledge from the battlefields of history and its associated struggles rather than from academia.

 The central subjects of Neocosmos’ book are emancipatory politics and human freedom. His concerns are rendered in this manner:

How are we to begin to think human emancipation in Africa today after the collapse of the Marxist, the Third World nationalists as well as the neo-liberal visions of freedom? How are we to conceptualize an emancipatory future governed by a fidelity to the idea of a universal humanity in a context where humanity no longer features within our ambit of thought and when previous ways of thinking emancipation have become obsolete? 

These key questions provoked Neocosmos to mount acerbic critiques of such disciplines as history, such fields of study as social science, and such theories as Marxism for being inadequate to the task of rethinking freedom and relaunching emancipatory politics.

Social science and history are criticized for their tendency “to conflate the crucial understanding that it is people who make history with an ex post facto analysis that imposes a necessary, objective, casual pattern on time” (xx). Marxist political economy analysis is criticized for its failure “to enable us to think an emancipatory political practice beyond interest; and in consequence Marxist politics have remained, along with liberal politics, overwhelmingly statist in their practice” (xx). Invoking the name “Africa” in the title of his book (Thinking Freedom in Africa), Neocosmos emphasizes the need to think out of place, out of order, and indeed beyond place and identity.

 This is how he frames his overarching argument:Rather than starting from what seems to distinguish Africa, its cultural uniqueness, which determines its place in the Western imaginary — a position evidently rooted in Enlightenment thought and central to colonial taxonomy — this book begins from the subversion of place, from how African people themselves thought emancipation when they rebelled, which is precisely what makes Africans fully part of humanity as a whole. 

All people are capable of thinking beyond their social place and immediate interests. Starting from culture merely forces a concentration on identity, ethnicity, authenticity, race, darkness, natives, ‘Africanity,’ periphery, ‘coloniality,’ and so on — on difference and not on universal humanity. Ultimately, it is allocation to social space that structures such an analysis. It then becomes easy to fall into a position in which, for example, Africans are simply victims of a history that has been made exclusively by others, in the West. Africans, like other human beings, must be thought of as agents of their history, not as its victims.

One is left wondering, what is Africa to Neocosmos? To reach an understanding, one has to try and follow his thinking about ways of knowing Africa. Neocosmos is very critical about current ways of knowing of Africa. Unknowing some ways through which Africa has been previously known is urgent for Neocosmos. This new way of knowing Africa is informed by a desire to place Africa within the “universal.” This is why Neocosmos posits that “What is universal is precisely the stepping out of place, a displacement which enables one to affirm one’s humanity independently of where one is situated by the Other, be it the state, culture or the colonial oppressor”. He blames the social sciences for disabling new ways of thinking human emancipation universally: “The core problem we face in thinking emancipation is that the social sciences as currently constituted unfortunately do not possess a universal conception of humanity”. 

The question of universalism is also the main subject of a conversation between the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne and the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle in the book In Search for Africa(s). Amselle is desirous of a shift from provincialising Europe, which to him sounds like creating a culture map, to a “quest for commonalities which must prevail over affirmations of difference”.

His fear is that a paradigm of difference gives ammunition to fundamentalists and populists. Diagne posits that universalism does not yet exist; it is not in the past, but is somewhere ahead, as it has yet to be created. He credits postcolonial and decolonial critiques for challenging and exposing the false and moribund universalism that was created through colonialism. Diagne prefers “a universal of decentring,” predicated on “translation” which enables relationality.

The weakness of the idea of universalism is that it sounds abstract and detached from the African reality. For Neocosmos to deny that through such inimical processes as enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, racial capitalism, and patriarchy “the majority of the world’s population” is indeed “living in subhuman conditions” is rather strange. The point here is that his claim of common humanity and the agency of Africans can be made without denying how dehumanising and dismembering enslavement, colonialism, racial capitalism, and patriarchy were to Africans. 

Neocosmos blames social science, “rarely engaged in thinking universal emancipation, freedom, justice and human dignity”. To resolve this problem, Neocosmos tries to ground emancipatory politics on African people as thinkers and knowers, but at the same time, he strangely parachutes Badiou’s thought into Africa to help him in rethinking and unthinking Africa.

When Neocosmos is confronted by this contradictory reality, his explanation is unconvincing: “Not that this book is about Badiou’s thought — it is not — rather, it is about Africans and the manner in which they have thought and currently think freedom”. 

The question is, why involve Badiou rather than directly demonstrating empirically to the world through capturing African thought that “ordinary people are in fact capable of thought beyond the habit of place — excessive thought — and show these capacities in often unpredictable sites”? There is nothing novel about the idea that ordinary people think, as long as we disconnect from Eurocentric thought. The challenge, as posed by Gayatri Spivak (Spivak, Nelson and Grossberg1988), is how to capture their voices so as to avoid speaking for them. This has been the agenda of Subaltern Studies in Southeast Asia and has been the argument of anticolonial and decolonial struggles and scholarship since the very beginning of colonial encounters.

It would seem that Neocosmos invited Badiou to rescue him from his failure to recover the “authentic” agency and voice of the ordinary Africa people, just like Subaltern Studies has failed to recover the voice of the subaltern beyond its representation. 

But Neocosmos’ argument is clearly that there is a need to revive the idea of the people as makers of history and agents of emancipation, and that this departure point will take us to the idea of people as thinkers beyond their place and identity. Neocosmos also advances the notion of displacement as a site of thinking through the politics of emancipation free from interests. 

To arrive at all this, three moves have to be undertaken: to think beyond subjectivity beyond identity; to rethink history beyond historicism; and to rethink politics beyond the state. The problem is in the implementation of such a political project as a universal emancipatory politics.

Neocosmos’ book is encyclopaedic, covering such themes as the Haitian Revolution and its politics of freedom and equality; a critique of historical thought and African national liberation politics; the articulation of what is termed “people’s power” as a mode of politics; social movements and social representation; Marxism and the agrarian question; the state and civil society; and feminism and politics of solidarity. 

There is consistent critique and theorising throughout the book. The overarching aim is to claim and rearticulate emancipatory politics predicated on rethinking and unthinking knowledge for freedom. What is intriguing is Neocosmos’ spirited effort to move the discourse of freedom from identity and state to the ordinary people and the thesis of escalating emancipatory politics to the universal level. Unlike Diagne, who perceives universalism as an aspiration, Neocosmos is not clear on what he means by the universal, and his attempt to predicate emancipatory politics on anything other than identity, culture, and state sounds utopic rather than real.

The question of universals and particulars is also debated intensely by philosophers Kwasi Wiredu and Odera Oruka in Debating African Philosophy. Those entities which are called “cultural universals” are said to undercut and hinder philosophical dialogue (Oruka1990; Wiredu Wiredu1990). 

Intercultural communication, just like Diagne’s translation, is provided as a possible vehicle for ushering humanity into the universal. But Debating African Philosophy is not only about universals and particulars, it is also about how the discipline of philosophy 21st first century. 

This is why the edited volume is framed by concerns of “decolonising philosophy,” “decolonising for identity,” “decolonising for universal truth,” “decolonising for relative truth,” “decolonising for justice,” and “decolonising for relevance.” The question of what is liberation and the content of emancipatory politics which pre-occupied Neocosmos also feature in Debating African Philosophy, with a reflection on African liberation movements and the question of identity.

How the philosophical canon neglected or supported enslavement in the 17th and 18th centuries is subjected to analysis and critique in George Hull’s edited volume Debating African Philosophy. This forms an ideal departure point for a discussion of decolonisation and its implications for philosophy as a discipline. The intervention of Ottobah Cuguoano is affirmatively provided to mount a decolonial critique of Eurocentric moral and political philosophy:

Decolonising the philosophical canon has a much broader aim and more far-reaching consequences than anything that emerges simply from an examination of the 18th century debate about slavery, but the fact that the canonical philosophers of that period do not have a place in the history of abolition is in and of itself a reason to re-examine both the canon of moral and political philosophy and the interests of those who once determined what belonged to it and of those who now sustain it. (Bernasconi and Hull2019:38)

What follows this opening chapter are nuanced examinations of bioethics from both decolonial and African philosophical perspectives, which highlight what is termed “moral neo-colonialism.” The essays in this volume examine how a philosophy without memory at its centre can constitute “epistemic injustice” in the context of South Africa; the centrality of African intellectual ideas opposed to racism as stuff for philosophy; Black consciousness ideas of Steve Biko as a vehicle to improve “social reality”; the importance of “African ethics” and issues of “guilt”; the “moral status of nonhuman nature”; language and philosophy; knowledge and philosophy; disability and the social conception of the self; as well as the importance of comparative perspectives. 

This is a rich and enriching work which represents genuine efforts to respond to insurgent and resurgent decolonisation from disciplinary perspectives, using thematic vantage points. 

However, Diagne, who is a philosopher, insists on the concept of “a philosophy in Africa” rather than “African philosophy.”

The issues of democracy, democratic transitions, sustainable development, global blue economy, informal economy, indigenous knowledge, conflict resolution, and the discourse of Africa rising emerge poignantly in Africa Rising? Navigating the Nexus Between Rhetoric and Emerging Reality. 

In this volume, which is edited by Norman Sempijja and Kgame Molope, one finds an admixture of themes addressed from diverse disciplinary perspectives. While the discourse of “Africa rising” is chosen as the thread intended to tie the chapters together, this is not effectively achieved. The empirical richness is both a strength and a weakness of the book, because in its richness the thread which cuts across it is often lost in the details and narrations. 

However, the introductory chapter makes a good effort to establish this cohesive thread through its thematic interventions: “governance in the Africa rising discourse,” “economic development in the Africa rising discourse,” and “security in the Africa rising discourse.”

The order of knowledge, politics of identity, and contested ideas of Africa

What role does identity play in knowledge and knowing is a question which has come to haunt the world of knowledge. What also emerges poignantly is how the “colour line” and the “epistemic line” have coalesced to set in motion a cognitive empire which continues to wreak epistemic havoc in Africa (Ndlovu-Gatsheni2018, Ndlovu-Gatsheni2020, Ndlovu-Gatsheni2021). In the midst of all this, there is an emerging consensus that knowledge plays an active role in the creation of realities (the idea that epistemology frames reality) (Mignolo and Walsh2018; Santos2018; Ndlovu-Gatsheni2018).

It was perhaps from this perspective of how epistemology frames ontology that the Congolese intellectual Valentin Y. Mudimbe (Mudimbe1988, Mudimbe1994) introduced the notions of the “invention of Africa” and the “idea of Africa.” In Mudimbe’s writings, one finds efforts to deconstruct and reconstruct the idea of Africa, albeit with premium given to external forces and factors. 

In Diagne and Amselle’s In Search of Africa(s), the idea of Africa is subjected to intense debates, with Amselle on the offensive predicated on a deconstructivist anthropological perspective which, like all other postcolonial deconstructions, is opposed to all essentialisms, culturalisations, and centrisms, as well as the continentalisation of thinking and knowledge. Amselle is not only critical of postcolonial and decolonial perspectives, but is also consistently criticising all conceptions of Africa as either essentialist or Afrocentric. 

As Amselle states: “For my part, I am an Africanist anthropologist who is here striving to critically deconstruct some concepts that have been unfortunately imposed on African societies, such as ‘Negritude,’ Bantu philosophy, Dogon cosmology, and so on”. 

One wonders what would be left of Africa if this radical postcolonial deconstructionism were followed to its logical conclusion. Of course, Amselle deconstructs Europe as well with the same aggression, but does not speak of “Europes” to capture its multiplicity and political and cultural constructedness as he does for what emerges as “Africas” (18). Amselle’s thesis is that “Continents are like languages: they exist only because we speak about them, because we speak them”.

Amselle’s interlocutor Diagne also poses the question of what Africa is, and addresses the genealogy of the name, highlighting that Africa is not a country and agonizing over the question of why Africa is the only continent that should always be written in the plural (“Africas”) as a reaction to essentialism and the colonial lack of differentiation (99–100). Like Amselle, Diagne accepts that anticolonial discourses (Negritude, African nationalism, African personality, and others) have often dangerously offered a simplistic response to Eurocentric “othering” discourses. But unlike Amselle, Diagne strongly advocates this:It is necessary, epistemically, to give ourselves a ‘concept of Africa’, but generally speaking the main sense of this is both philosophical and political. If we must say ‘Africa’ in the singular, this is not our ignorance of the constitutive plurality of the continent or of the ethics of pluralism (to which I will return) which this de facto plurality necessitates. If we need to say ‘Africa’ in the singular, this is because the point is to name an idea, a project, a telos. It is to evoke the horizon onto which the younger generations of the Africa of today are projecting their dream of tomorrow.

Here Diagne, unlike Amselle, is reconstructive. This reconstruction is part of a long African intellectual and political agenda to shift from what Ngugi wa Thiong’o termed a shift from the “Mudimbean idea of Africa” to the “African idea of Africa” (Thiong’o2009:11). The Mudimbean idea of Africa privileges how Africa was invented by foreigners and how the idea of Africa is framed by what he termed the “colonial library.” 

The Ngugian idea of Africa is the concept of how Africans themselves have self-defined and struggled to make Africa in their own image. Diagne is in favour of the African idea of Africa predicated on what Ngugi wa Thiong’o terms “re-membering,” without necessarily ignoring how the idea of Africa remains open and plural (Thiong’o2009). This is why he states, “finally, I come back to the concept of re-membering. I repeat that it is affirmation and valorisation of the plurality of Africa and not a project of homogenisation”.

Conclusion: Africa desires Africa

The concept of “Africa desires Africa” comes from Diagne. “To desire Africa means to wish to create unity in pluralism”. At the centre of critical engagement with the discourse of “Africa rising” is part of an “Africa” that “desires Africa,” that is, an Africa that is developed. This is why in Africa Rising? Navigating the Nexus Between Rhetoric and Emerging Reality there is an emphasis on three issues: the question of Africa’s involvement in the global economy, Africa’s agency with regard to development, and Africa’s ownership of resources and ownership of the postcolonial trajectory of development. This dovetails neatly with Diagne’s proposition that “The future of the African project is not given, but will be what, together, we make of it. It is in this respect that Africa is not be the invention of anyone other than Africans themselves. And this future has started to emerge”.

An Africa that “desires Africa” is one which requires the epistemological decolonization which preoccupies the sixteen chapters of Debating African Philosophy. However, invocations of African identity, African culture, African philosophy, African languages, and African conceptions of human rights captured in the Charter of the Mande (of 1222) and the Hunter’s Oath have provoked spirited dismissals by Jean-Loup Amselle from his radical anthropological deconstructionist stance. Even the notion of African language is subjected to the same radical deconstructionist dismissals. Whenever these issues are raised, Amselle raises the red flags of essentialism and Afrocentrism. This radical deconstructionism emerges poignantly here:I would like to emphasise that languages are historical, social and political creations, and that, as such, they form part of power relations, chains of languages. Current African languages, in the form familiar to us, also result from their being enclosed within clearly demarcated borders in colonial times, so we must be careful not to represent these essentialised entities, which are in reality artificially stabilised historical products, as respectables for categories of thought that have been established once and for all.

This deconstructionist approach is also reflected in the work of African linguistic experts such as Finex Ndhlovu and Leketi Makala in Decolonising Multilingualism in Africa: Recentering Silenced Voices from the Global South (Ndhlovu and Makalela2021), in which they highlight the problems of standardisation and orthography as well as how missionaries, colonialists, and African nationalists invented what we know today as African languages. 

The question which arises is, was colonialism so successful that it committed a linguicide? The answer comes from postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha, who highlight that colonialism was always ambivalent, riddled by internal ructions and never complete or successful (Bhabha1994). The answer also comes from decolonial theorists, particularly from the concept of “border gnosis” as the base from which to reconstitute knowledge and articulate an agenda for “re-existence” (Mignolo Reference Mignolo2009).

What is then at play are the contestations between postcolonial deconstructionism and decolonial reconstructionism (reconstitution/re-membering/re-existence). At the centre of this contestation Neocosmos throws in the complex politics of emancipation and freedom, which are not premised on identity and place. 

The challenge is how to transcend such previous and current categories of political analysis such as race, class, nation, state, culture, civil society, and tradition so as to instantiate a new politics of emancipation that goes beyond identity and space — that is, a universal politics. Universalism as a concept is problematic because “uni” means one and the very paradigm of a modern world progressing towards a singular telos has the smell of Eurocentric enlightenment.

Secondly, if the notion of “a universal politics” sounds more idealistic and utopian than realistic, it is because of global coloniality, which has successfully subjected all aspects of human life to its colonial matrices of power, thus making the insurgent and resurgent decolonisation of the twenty-first century the most viable means for advancing liberatory politics. The decolonial vision is that of “pluriversality” rather than universality, which Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Thiong’o2012:8) named “globalectics” (a new “way of thinking and relating to the world, particularly in the era of globalism and globalisation.”

Within this context, Africa and Africans have to be liberated from the objectivity which cascades from Eurocentric thought and its radical deconstructions to the extent that nothing African remains even as a concept and an imaginary.

About the writer: Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Professor and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South with Emphasis on Africa at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is a leading decolonial theorist with over 100 publications in the fields of African history, African politics, African development and decolonial theory.rn the fate of the continent.

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