“A Resurgence of Decolonisation: We Need to do African Studies with Africans”—An Interview with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Part 1


The following conversation with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni represents the second instalment in a series of four conversations that Antipode is organising on decolonial and anticolonial African scholarship. The first conversation focused on the recent work of Franklin Obeng-Odoom. In this second instalment, we ask Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni about the broader political and intellectual context in Africa that informed the volume he recently co-edited with Morgan Ndlovu, Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2021).

Below we share Part 1 of our interview, in which Ndlovu-Gatsheni reflects on the relationship between the two overarching themes explored in the book—Marxism and decolonisation—and his new position in Bayreuth, Germany, where he occupies a professorship in “Epistemologies of the Global South”. He describes the institutions and movements in South Africa where contributors to the volume may have developed their Marxist and decolonial analyses. The interview touches on some of the key African and African diasporic theoretical reference points for the volume, including Pan-African, Black radical, Afrocentric, nationalist, and Black consciousness traditions of thought. Finally, we discuss the relevance of land reform, mining, and feminism to the theoretical and empirical frameworks deployed in the book.

Yousuf Al-Bulushi
May 2022

Yousuf Al-Bulushi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on global capitalism, political geography, social movements, and the black radical tradition in Africa and the African diaspora. He is currently completing a book manuscript, Ruptures in the Afterlife of the Apartheid City, which takes up the interventions by Abahlali baseMjondolo, a movement of shack dwellers in Durban, South Africa, as a window into broader questions of precarity, black radicalism, development, transformation, and autonomy. He is a member of the international advisory board for Antipode.

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni received the questions for this interview in advance, but his answers were delivered live in a conversation held over Zoom with Yousuf Al-Bulushi.

The Interview

Yousuf Al-Bulushi: Your chair position at Bayreuth University in Germany is in Epistemologies of the Global South. Can you describe how this particular position came about? What does the title mean, in your mind? And how does it relate to the project of the book we’re discussing today, Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century?

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni: My position here is professor in Epistemologies of the Global South, with the emphasis on Africa. It emerged within a context in which the University of Bayreuth, which is well known for its African Studies programme, was leveraging its positionality at a time of resurgence and insurgence of decolonisation of the 21st century. In 2019, they won funding for what is called the “Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence”. And that funding really emerges within a context in which there is a resurgence of decolonisation, in which the question of decolonising knowledge becomes a prominent feature. This chair was meant to bring in epistemologies of the South to catalyse the thinking, the epistemologies, the methodologies, as well as the reflections on doing “African Studies” differently. One issue that was very clear in this is that we need to do African Studies with Africans, rather than making them objects of study. The second issue is, doing African Studies without considering the epistemologies from Africa, from the global South, will still be problematic. Now, how this relates to the issues which we’re dealing with in the book: one of the trends cutting across the book is the Black Radical Tradition, which has always embraced the Marxist tradition. At the centre of epistemologies of the global South is also the Black Radical Tradition allied with what Cedric Robinson termed Black Marxism. But the book was conceived while I was still in South Africa, not when I was here, at the University of Bayreuth.

Yousuf Al-Bulushi: In North America, despite our long history of red baiting and anti-communism, there are a few places where scholars and activists can still go to learn about Marxism and decoloniality from more than just one or two anomalous thinkers. This is perhaps a product of what Michael Watts refers to in his essay on the successes and failures of 1968 as the long march through the institutions. In the case of your volume, many—although not all—of the contributors, are at South African institutions. I wonder if you can speak to the specific context of Marxism in South Africa—where are the contributors to the volume learning their Marxism? Are they members or past members of organisations like the South African Communist Party (SACP) or the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)? Are they learning Marxism in SAcp or NUMSA political education sessions? Are they learning Marxism in their formal education at specific universities where Marxism has somewhat of a foothold? Or are they principally autodidacts, forced to learn Marxism on their own for lack of access to an institutionalised presence of Marxism? After answering that I’d like you to answer the same question for decoloniality—where are your contributors first learning about decoloniality? What kind of institutional presence does it have in South Africa? Have they participated in organisations like the Economic Freedom Fighters or the Rhodes Must Fall movement that may have generated an interest in theories of decolonisation? I think I read somewhere that there was an important decolonial theory working group that may have also influenced the development of this volume.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Yes, as I mentioned, the book was conceived while I was working in South Africa, even the co-editor Professor Morgan Ndlovu is still in South Africa. So, the location determined the number of South African contributors, and also, with a project like this, you always rely on networks. And the networks which I had were mainly in South Africa. The very idea of theorising both Marxism and decolonisation simultaneously emerged within the context in which there was a feeling among others that this push for decoloniality is displacing, so to speak, Marxism, or with others, of course, doing a quick critique of Marxism, putting forward such views [of Marxism] as a Eurocentric idea. So, I thought, instead of falling into those quick dismissals, it would be important for us to have a project in which we really bring people to think deeply about the two movements. From where I was standing, the key concern of the book was that I never saw an antagonism between Marxism and decolonisation. If anything, I saw complementarity between the two. But coming back to your question directly, the uniqueness of South Africa: I think the first uniqueness of South Africa, it’s really the colonial uniqueness in the sense that, it was supposed to be a little Europe existing at the southern tip of the African continent. And it really emerged perhaps concurrently with the movement to colonise Latin America. If you think about the so-called “voyages” of Vasco da Gama or Bartholomeu Dias, who were contemporaries, they were actually happening simultaneously with Columbus going to the Americas. So, it’s a unique space from which to think about the depth of colonialism in the South African region, with South Africa, really becoming a staging post, into Zimbabwe, into Malawi, into others from 1652 onwards. So, that’s one thing, which I thought would be important as a starting point to understand the question of coloniality. And second, it also has the deepest, if I can say racial capitalist realities, including links with the issues of enslavement. So, all the dirty aspects of coloniality, modernity, you’ll see them in South Africa. Of course, maybe they did not fully succeed in the project of extermination. But there were massive killings of the indigenous people, and it is also about their displacement. The second aspect is that South Africa becomes a convergence zone of intellectual traditions. Garveyism, Ghandiism, you’ll see them in South Africa. You’re able to see Black Power and Black Consciousness as strong traditions in South Africa. You will also see liberalism. White liberalism as well as liberal African nationalist traditions. But you can also see the radical Pan-Africanist tradition in the mould of the Pan-African Congress under Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, which really brings in the notion of “Africa for Africans”, the Garveyist idea. And then you also have very deep and rich traditions of Marxist thinking, embodied, of course, by the South African Communist Party and the New Unity Movement, among others. You can then see in this deep Marxist tradition, people like Moses Kotane going to the Soviet Union long ago. You will see people like Joe Slovo, emerging as key Marxist thinkers. People like Chris Hani. You’ll find that there is a Chris Hani Institute in South Africa. You’ll also find a place called Mzala Nxumalo Centre in Durban, which tries to revive Mzala’s tradition which was also a deeply Marxist tradition. These are recent centres which were built. The other aspect in South Africa which is very interesting, related to the Marxist tradition is the emergence of the labour unions. When we think about institutions, we also think about the University of the Western Cape for instance, which was also a leftist dominated institution, which produced a lot of leftist thinkers. The University of Durban-Westville was another one. So, there is really a very rich tradition. It’s a very complex intellectual space to operate in. And that tradition is not dead. But those leftist traditions were always in contact with strong Africanist traditions. When Mbeki came to power after Mandela, he came with the idea of an African Renaissance, which goes back to the time of Kwame Nkrumah and others. And this tradition also has its own institutions. When I joined UNISA I found there was an Institute for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa. So, in South Africa, you find almost every tradition in the same space.

And of course, the long anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles themselves became schools in which many people were educated and radicalised. But as you were saying, they were also auto-didacts. As a result of the disappointment of the transition from apartheid to democracy, the youth were in search of answers to the question: “Why is the situation like that?”, why certain changes never took place, and a lot of them then decided to force themselves to look for revolutionary thought, which can help them to explain the situation in South Africa. So, indeed, there are people who are learning on their own by going back to these traditions. But you will also find that the other important aspect of the South African situation is the strong civil society movements, which are also grounded in leftist, and also Africanist traditions, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement, the anti-privatisation movements, which are also schools in their own right. They make sure their constituencies are equipped ideologically to think differently. It won’t be surprising in such a situation to find such movements as the Economic Freedom Fighters, who are combining both the nationalist, the Marxist, and Fanonian type of thinking, while also bringing Biko into the mix. I must say also, the youth and students in South Africa are also influenced by particular thinkers, such as Bernard Magubane, who was also a leftist thinker, and pan-Africanist intellectuals like Archie Mafeje, who also belonged to the New Unity Movement, and Steve Biko is alive today more than he was during his time I think.

So in that context, it was easy to see decoloniality in such a rich space. But more specifically, I’ve been in South Africa for over a decade or so, and when I joined the University of South Africa, I also then entered into a space which was not very familiar to me: it was still white at the top, Black at the bottom. And I quickly also said: “But how do I contribute to changing the situation which I found?” And then, I formed the Africa Decolonial Research Network in 2011. And that Africa Decolonial Research Network became really the site for decoloniality. And the University of South Africa became also a site for nurturing the decolonial spirit. I was also reading the literatures of the Latin American modernity/coloniality group. And one of our members, Morgan Ndlovu (co-editor of this book), in 2011, attended the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia annual conference where Ramon Grosfoguel was the keynote speaker. It was in that encounter that when they began to speak, Morgan informed Ramon that “In South Africa we formed the Africa Decolonial Research Network”, Ramon just jumped in and said: “This is exciting news. Yaa! This is exactly what we wanted. There is decoloniality in Africa!” And that member came with a message to me from Ramon to say they have an international Summer School on Decolonizing Knowledge and Power in Barcelona and our network was invited. And in 2012, seven of us went there, and that’s how we then combined our forces. And in 2014, we began a version of the Barcelona School at the University of South Africa. It attracted a lot of young people from across the institutions in South Africa, including those who were from the social movements. So when Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall then broke out in 2015-2016, we were just hiding the fact that perhaps the decolonial school might actually be the one who influenced this, because now the government was worried. But indeed, it [the decolonial school] contributed a lot to making people rethink their condition and it gives them the vocabulary to name some of the issues which they didn’t have a name for. But I think this story won’t be complete without emphasising that South Africa is in Africa. Let me put it that way. So, because of that, the existence of strong Pan-Africanist and decolonisation traditions on the continent must also be taken into account. Nkrumah is a hero in South Africa. Lumumba is a hero in South Africa. Amílcar Cabral is a hero in South Africa. Frantz Fanon is a hero in South Africa. So, there is also a tapping into the long existing, strong Pan-Africanist traditions in the decoloniality movement. Of course, with the contradictions, such as xenophobia. And also, we cannot ignore the fact that there are also institutions on the continent, such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, which has continuously produced Africa-centred and political economic thinking.

Al-Bulushi: The book certainly draws extensively on African and Caribbean anti-colonial traditions of thought, particularly on the work of Cesaire, Nkrumah, Senghor, Cabral, as you just mentioned, and others. How has the reception of these thinkers changed over time? And what new light do the contributors to this volume shed on their work for radical theory today?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: I think one of the issues when we were doing the decolonial work, one of the agenda items was to try to expose ourselves, the youth, and the students to the literatures which we were deprived of. You know, these literatures which are not in the curricula. So, we began a project of recovery, of Black radical thinking. And immediately, as we exposed ourselves, the youth, and the students to some of the literature, we began to understand the world differently, and the politics of knowledge became clear to us. Some of the leading scholars like Molefi Asante, for instance, and the Afrocentricity School, have a very strong following in South Africa. So, a lot of the members of ADERN [the Africa Decolonial Research Network] see value in both decoloniality, Afrocentricity and Black Marxism. Then there are others who, when they discovered Cheikh Anta Diop, they also thought, here is an answer to our problem. The works of these scholars, thinkers and activists has always been available but not in the curriculum and formal education.

The same can be said about Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. A lot of the scholars actually began to read that book now rather than when it was first published in 1983. And they think: “Oh, wow, we didn’t know there was somebody who explained racial capitalism in this way!” So, it’s an interesting time, in which the reading is “going back” to the Black Radical Tradition. And if you view this from the Latin American decoloniality, these figures are from the border, they’re not the central figures in academia. And now, all the young academics and next generation scholars who are training for Masters and PhDs, and those who have teaching responsibilities, they are now rewriting the curriculum and bringing in these thinkers. Your question was about whether there is a changing meaning to all this. There is indeed a changing meaning of it. The way the younger scholars are taking it up and applying it to current challenges and problems. This is like new old literature to many of us who were not exposed to it before. And therefore, this is a literature which can propel us into understanding the present and into the future. So, we use it not only for academic, intellectual enrichment, but also for activist purposes. And this also comes within a context in which we are tired of the neoliberal traditions and the issues of democracy and human rights as a solution to African problems of social and economic as well as cognitive justice, and many are really disillusioned with that type of thinking. So, they think there must be other thinking which can actually liberate them, other than the issues of democracy and human rights preached from the global North. Not that they are saying democracy is wrong or human rights is wrong—but they want it to be radicalised.

So what they were lacking was the language to name the challenges which they are facing. So, concepts like neo-colonialism, coined by Kwame Nkrumah in 1965, is an important concept. A concept like racial capitalism—which you can see throughout the chapters in this book—they find really has an explanatory power when applied to the situation in South Africa. Concepts like decolonisation of the mind, from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ibekwe Chinweizu. There was a time when Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was not very popular. But he has recently come to South Africa three times if I am not mistaken. Really, the walls and lecture theatres were full. Because it’s also like a discovery: “Oh, Ngugi is alive!” And his works have come back as new literature. This is what is interesting to me. And even including myself, I reread all these literatures after I had the PhD. And I found that they taught me a lot of things, which I could not have known if I had not done that. So, I think what happens is that it radicalises and propels us into action. If you see the Rhodes Must Fall and the Fees Must Fall movement, Biko’s idea of Black Consciousness was very central. Fanon’s ideas on violence and decolonisation were also very central. Intersectionality thought featured too. There was a debate—how do we handle the issue of violence in activist politics, and others were justifying violence by saying “Fanon said, decolonisation is always a violent movement”.

Al-Bulushi: Another unique aspect of this volume is its combination of theoretical and empirical studies. With regards to the latter, issues of land reform, mining, and feminist policy are some of the topics that come to the foreground. Can you tell us why these topics are especially important when it comes to thinking about where Marxists and decolonial thinkers might turn today to apply their ideas in radical forms of praxis?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: This again takes me back to my first point about the place of South Africa in modernity and more specifically in colonial modernity. Perhaps let me make reference to the uniqueness of the Southern African region as a whole, in the sense that it was dominated by what is called settler colonialism. I think that’s an important point to begin with because if we don’t understand that, we won’t understand why the issue of land, for instance, becomes a central issue, or the issue of minerals and mines. You will not understand why there is a formation like Economic Freedom Fighters, if you don’t take that background into account, in the sense that even after the liberation struggles in Southern Africa, you find that perhaps what was gained was political independence, without the economic independence, without cognitive justice and epistemic freedom. The question of minerals and nationalisation is also very central in their discourses. Southern Africa is rich in minerals like gold, diamonds, and many others. There is a feeling mainly among youth that what was gained in 1994 in South Africa was bourgeois liberal democracy, and that social justice and economic justice were never delivered. So, in that sense, immediately you speak about both Marxism and decolonisation, they seem to take them to the necessary existential issues of life in an antiblack world, continuations of racial capitalist exploitation, as well as heteronormative patriarchal sexism.

On the question of land also, you will find that Zimbabwe also stands at the centre of debates in the sense that the attempt to do compulsory land reclamation provoked so many problems on the one hand and on the other hand it was necessary. And the feeling is that global capital and the powerful regimes of the global North wanted to make an example of Zimbabwe, that if you take this radical position, this is the disciplining which you will receive. So that others must never attempt what Zimbabwe attempted to do. So that’s what everyone cautions now: “Don’t do it the way Zimbabwe did it, because you will see the consequences.” So, Namibia is not moving as fast as it’s supposed to move in terms of land reform. South Africa is also very cautionary in the way they want to do it. So, on that Zimbabwe question, we were happy to receive that chapter which actually speaks about the land reform in Zimbabwe from a Marxist and decolonial perspective as an important aspect of Black economic liberation.

And then, if you come to South Africa, the issue of mines and minerals and you link it with the Marikana massacre of 2012, whereby Lonmin—which is actually a multinational company in cahoots with the South African neo-apartheid state—gained against labour and killed 34 miners who were striking for a living wage. What is perhaps emerging poignantly in the book is that Marxism continues to be seen as a very good science of understanding capitalism. And perhaps, decolonisation is another very good science for understanding colonialism. But also revealing that capitalism and colonialism are self-co-constituting each other. So, if you combine them, you will understand the modern world-system better. And in understanding the modern world-system better, the issue of feminism, the issue of gender, the issue of sexism, then arises not as an addition, but as an intrinsic part of the constitution and the cartography of power of coloniality. To the extent that the argument is you’ll never have a genuine decolonisation without de-patriarchisation, this is where that chapter that brings in the issue of feminist policy becomes very important, in the sense that this is not another terrain of struggle which is on the side. It is really a central part of the decolonisation struggles, because the major problem with decolonisation in the 20th century was that it then became dominated by men, it became androcentric, and the issue of de-patriarchisation fell by the wayside. So now, when we’re reorganising and the re-articulating decolonisation in the 21st century, the issue of gender must not be a peripheral issue, it must be an interesting part of the decolonisation, because there can never be decolonisation without de-patriarchisation. And secondly, there can never be a good social science, which ignores more than 50% of the population which are of the female gender. And there was always this critique when I went to the university in the 90s, that Marxism was gender and race blind because of its concentration on class analysis. And I think the position is now changed as research on Marxism has progressed in that it depends which version of Marxism one is referring to. Friedrich Engels engaged the gender question and there are many Marxist feminists. Decolonisation was also suffering from the same limit of sometimes sidelining gender but now the question of heteronormative patriarchal sexism is central to it. Yes, in the 1960s, the dominance of big men, whenever you talk about decolonisation, big names like Nkrumah, Nyerere, and others, and very few women, was common. But there were many women in the struggles. So, that’s why we are trying to say that theory and praxis need to go together to reflect on the actually existing social, political, cultural, economic, and epistemic challenges, and the gender question as well as the sexuality question cannot be ignored.

Al-Bulushi: Along that line of thought, I would like to ask you about the importance of feminist analysis in the volume. In radical geography, it has often been social reproduction, broadly conceived, that has been an extremely important field of analysis for us. And this is thanks in large part to interventions by scholars like Altha Cravey, Cindi Katz, Melissa Wright, and many others. In the African context, we can think of the work of Pumla Gqola, Ifi Amadiume, Oyeronke Oyewumi, and Sylvia Tamale, among many others, as having advanced the study of gender, decolonial feminism, and racial capitalism. So, I’m wondering how the other contributors—beyond that important chapter you referenced by Funzani Mtembu on feminist policy—engage with questions of social reproduction, on the one hand, from the Marxist tradition, and what Maria Lugones called the coloniality of gender, on the other hand, from the decolonial tradition?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: That’s an important question in the sense that even among the contributors there was a skewing towards men. And that’s always a challenge even in the wake of decolonising, which we’re trying to do, in the sense that most of the time, the responses are mainly from men because they dominate the academies. So, we need a targeted and deliberate invitation of women into these spaces so that we don’t reproduce the same problems of the domain of knowledge being dominated by men, even if they are Black. This is one aspect. So, as I was saying, what we’re trying to do is to make sure that the issue of gender is not an addition and certainly we are not yet there. Gender questions should be cutting across decolonising work. We must not be found saying: “Oh, there is gender, that we did not take into consideration!” What we were trying to do is to make it part of the broader decolonisation of the 21st century, to the extent that we’re saying the problem is the modern world-system and the global orders. And if the problem is the modern world-system, and its global orders, then at the centre is the heteronormative patriarchal sexist order of things that has to fall. And if it is a central part of that, how do you change the modern world-system, therefore, without engaging the question of gender? We might not be succeeding the way we wish to succeed. But we were very aware of that important aspect of it. And we were really very happy that Funzani and the other colleague from India, Debadrita Chakraborty, who also dealt with the question of the Dalits, actually dealt with it from Maria Lugones’ concept of coloniality of gender. It actually was very interesting for us, because we needed more of that type of thinking. But at the moment, we are very aware that consciously, we need to address the question of gender as an intrinsic part of decolonising. So, it might not be cutting across all the other chapters of our book at the moment. Just like race, which continues to privilege white supremacy and bourgeois lifestyles, gender inequalities continue to privilege men, and hence there is slowness in moving away from it by the beneficiaries of patriarchy. They need to be pushed to take a deliberate position to reflect on and embrace feminism and womanism.

This concludes Part 1 of our interview with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni; Part 2 will be published shortly here on Antipode Online.