What is decolonization for?

Scholars Archie Mafeje and Cedric Robinson challenged Eurocentrism. Their ideas are becoming more widely known. They're the focus of AIAC Talk this week.

The late Cedric Robinson in 2006. Image credit Doc Searls via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

As the literary scholar and a regular contributor to the site, Bhakti Shringarpure, recently wrote on Africa Is a Country, “Decolonization has taken over our social media timelines with a vengeance. With hundreds of thousands of ‘decolonize’ hashtags, several articles, op-eds, and surveys on the subject—and plenty of Twitter fighting over the term—one thing is clear: decolonization is all kinds of trendy these days. So, we are naturally forced to ask: What counts as ‘authentic’ decolonization in 2020?” For some, decolonization, and its attendant concepts like “decoloniality,” have become something of an empty signifier, too much of a catch-all to meaningfully refer to anything. For others, it raises a complaint still worth addressing: that knowledge production, across universities, media and culture, remains built on a foundation that marginalizes non-Western sources of knowledge.

These debates often proceed as non-starters because there is very little precision over what exactly is being debated. Beyond the terms in use (which is what typically clouds things), there is a need to ask what is decolonization for? For all of its supposed weaknesses as a theory and practice, what need must it be addressing for it to demonstrate such resilience in spite of those weaknesses? Therefore, this week on AIAC Talk we are exploring two scholars and activists whose body of work, though once marginal, are beginning to grow in prominence as these questions become more pressing. With Bongani Nyoka and Joshua Myers, we will discuss the social and political thought of Archie Mafeje and Cedric Robinson.

At first glance, there is seemingly little that unites the thought of these two thinkers, one a South African and the other an American—their writings never directly engaged each other, their activities never overlapped, and they are hardly talked about together. But their object of critique is the same: Eurocentrism. Then follows, Eurocentrism as it pertains to whom and what? Critically, as it pertains to left-wing political thought, in advance of its emancipatory agenda. The direct target was mainstream Marxism, and its inability to appreciate non-Western epistemologies. For example, there is this from Mafeje: “If Marxism is a universal scientific theory, how does it overcome its own syntactical as well as semantic limitations? How does it relate, methodologically, to vernacular languages, understood in the analytical, political sense?” And then, there is this from Robinson: “Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality.”

Both Robinson and Mafeje are products of the intellectual ferment of the 1960s (they both entered college at the end of the 1950s; Robinson in Berkeley and Mafeje at the University of Cape Town. Both would be influenced by their stays in the UK (Robinson at Sussex and Mafeje at Cambridge). Both, finished their first degrees in anthropology and their critiques of the social sciences started from there. Robinson would take his lead on “racial capitalism” from work done by a group of mainly white South African intellectuals (Martin Legassick and David Hemson) to describe the nature of Apartheid and generalize that to global apartheid. Mafeje’s enforced exile from South Africa, forced him to confront larger debates about land and agrarian reform and spared him the parochialism of some of his South African fellows. Finally, both were seen as politically marginal within broader black movements in their countries when they were alive (Mafeje died in 2007, Robinson 2016), but their ideas have been revived by newer activists (Robinson by Black Lives Matter in the US and Mafeje by Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall in South Africa).

Archie Mafeje (CODESRIA)

In his seminal text, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson posits the group of black intellectuals challenging Marxism at the height of anticolonial consciousness as forming a distinct, political tradition, one whose critiques constituted “the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being, the ontological totality.” What should we make of figures like Mafeje and Robinson, and the range of concerns they championed, which, although they did not use the term, could be read as a project to decolonize classical left-wing theory? What informs their resurgence today, and is it a project that in its assertion of an African cultural heritage, eschews the universal? Or, should we take our cue from Mafeje, who in his defense of Africanization in the essay “Africanity: A Combative Ideology” argued that “‘if what we say and do has relevance for our humanity, its international relevance is guaranteed.”

Dr. Bongani Nyoka is a Lecturer in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, and is the author of two books on Mafeje: Archie Mafeje: Voices of Liberation (HSRC Press, 2019) and The Social and Political Thought of Archie Mafeje (Wits University Press, 2020). Joshua Myers is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. He is the author of We Are Worth Fighting For: A History of the Howard University Student Protest of 1989 as well as a new biography of Cedric Robinson, which is called Cedric Robinson: The Time of the Black Radical Tradition, forthcoming with Polity Books.

Stream the show the show on Tuesday at 18:00 in Cairo, 16:00 in London, and 12:00 in New York on YouTube.

Last week, we commemorated 10 years of the Arab Spring by exploring its unfinished, revolutionary business. We spoke to Nihal El Aaser about the movement’s unfolding in Egypt and the legacy its left on Egyptian politics today, and then were joined by Zachariah Mampilly to generalize its influence on social movements across the rest of the continent.

Clips from that episode are available on our YouTube channel, but as usual, best check out the whole thing on our Patreon along with all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading