Below we share Part 2 of our interview with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, in which we continue our discussion of his recently co-edited volume, Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century (readers can find Part 1 of the interview here). In what follows, we discuss the influence that the student movement in South Africa had upon the development of key themes in the book. Ndlovu-Gatsheni elaborates on his dual role as a theoretician of radical forms of Marxism and decolonisation in the African context, and his promotion to the role of university administrator responsible for institutionalising movement demands in the wake of the student uprisings. We discuss how this dual role highlights a central theme of the book—the inextricable relationship between theory and radical forms of praxis—something that too often eludes adherents of radical traditions of thought who nonetheless confine their interventions to the academic sphere.
Ndlovu-Gatsheni emphasises the necessity of rupturing the bounds of compartmentalised academic disciplines in order to engage in radical forms of praxis. Against the Eurocentric narratives of the white-dominated institutions of African Studies, he offers us a brilliant genealogy of transdisciplinary African traditions of African Studies. Ndlovu-Gatsheni then links the frameworks developed in the volume Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century to the work of radical geography. The interview closes with a call to simultaneously reinvent and link Marxist and democratic traditions of theorisation and struggle.
Readers who have been enjoying this interview with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and the prior interview we published with Franklin Obeng-Odoom should look out for our next instalment exploring the work of decolonial feminist Sylvia Tamale in the coming months.
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.
Yousuf Al-Bulushi: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the broader movement context that may have informed this volume. You’ve already touched on it by talking about how your decolonial theory working group that began in 2011 may have influenced the “Fallist” movement in important ways. But I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about how the movement may have also influenced your theorising. I’m thinking of some of the problems and tensions that emerged, either in the “Fallist” movement itself, or in what we could call the broader globalisation of the Movement for Black Lives, which is now definitely decentred from the United States exclusively. Did those of you involved in this volume have specific conversations around the problems that emerged in these movements, when these struggles began to have ripple effects on college campuses throughout the world, and might we view the volume as also responding to and thinking further about these problems that emerged in the movements?
Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Yeah. In fact, even within the intellectual decolonial movement, we always had these tensions about what we’ve just discussed. The tensions about how seriously are we taking the gender question into account, and how committed are we? How different are we from other patriarchs who have been parroting this concept of decolonisation but practising patriarchy at the same time? That tension has always been there. The other issue was that of doing decolonisation as an intellectual project versus doing decolonisation as a liberation project. So, there were also tensions between those who are using decoloniality for careerist purposes mainly and then they abandon the mud and brick aspect of it, which is the activist part.
You’re talking here to somebody who led in the formation of ADERN [the Africa Decolonial Research Network] in 2011 as an epistemic movement in the first instance that was concerned with issues inside universities where the politics of knowledge was a glaring issue. The outbreak of Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall in 2015 and 2016 respectively read to us like a translation of theory into praxis. It was mainly because of the Rhodes Must Fall and the Fees Must Fall movements that even conservative academics and the universities were put under pressure to implement changes in institutional cultures, curriculum, scholarship, funding models, pedagogies, demographics, and iconography. On one end was the urgent need on the part of the university leaders to placate the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall activists because the university feared further eruptions, and, on the other, there were committed progressive academics and students who thought that this was an opportunity to bring about real and genuine change within the universities, and even outside the universities, informed by decolonisation thinking and praxis. At the University of South Africa in 2016, they built what is called the “Change Management” unit within the vice chancellor’s office. I was invited into that space. And again, I consulted with the network and comrades because it can be dangerous to move into these spaces of administration where managerialism rules. But at the same time, it can also be dangerous to leave that space for reactionary forces and their hypocritical politics. So, we felt that there was a need to push some of our forces into those spaces, while others remained on the ground to make sure that all the flanks were covered, and to monitor any tendencies that undermined the struggles for decolonisation. So, I did move from being head of the Archie Mafeje Research Institute for Applied Social Policy Research [AMRI] and became a director of that Change Management unit responsible for the scholarship and curriculum transformation. Administrators of the university were comfortable with the concept “transformation” rather than “decolonisation”. Activists were saying “we are beyond transformation and we are for decolonisation”. At the management level, they were not very comfortable with the term decolonisation. I maintained the concept of decolonisation and critiqued “transformation” as not radical enough and as having failed. Rhodes Must Fall never cried for “transformation”. They were clear that they wanted decolonisation. So if the university’s new initiatives were really developed in response to those movement demands, I asked, why weren’t we using the language which the movement was using? And then the question came: “But there are so many grammars of change. Transformation is one of them. Social Inclusion is one of them. Africanisation is one of them. Decolonisation is one of them.” So, then it meant that we were exhausting ourselves in these grammars. Which one? Then I said: “No, no, no. I don’t want to be trapped in nomenclatures while the realities on the ground were dire for students, young academics, and women academics who were on the receiving end of what Ramon Grosfoguel correctly termed “racist/sexist” cultures of domination.
If we’re using Africanisation, what I demanded was a practical explanation of what was being done under this grammar of change. If we are using social inclusion, again I demanded that it be explained practically, so as to see whether it was really adequate to the task at hand. And that’s how I will measure whether you are moving forward or not. So, that’s the way we broke the deadlock, while they were trying to trap us into spending a lot of time debating: “Is it decolonisation? Is this transformation? Is it social inclusion? Is it Africanisation? Is it indigenisation?” So, I said: “No, no, no, use whatever concept you want to use. Whatever grammar you want to use. But for me, from the office which I occupy, I want to see changes concretely on the ground. Whether we are changing using indigenisation, Africanisation, I have no problem with the name. But I will come to assess, what are you doing within a department? What are you doing within a faculty? What are you doing within a college? And if there is actually concrete change, I have no worry about what term we are using. So, I spent the last five years before I came to Bayreuth in that office, where I ended up being the Acting Executive Director, and we were not comfortable with the concept of “Change Management”. We thought it smelled neoliberal. So we renamed the office into a Department of Leadership and Transformation (DLT). And it had very clear areas of change. We wanted to change scholarship, curriculum, and the language of learning, teaching, and research. That was one area. Then there was a second strand, which concerned a change of institutional cultures, including racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other aspects. Then third, there was the leadership, management, and governance domain that also needed to be decolonised. It had embraced neoliberal corporatist cultures in which knowledge, education, and research were commodified and commercialised. Then the systems and the policies of the university had to be subjected to change so as to make them supportive of the agenda of decolonisation. And that’s the way it was structured.
It was not the easiest part of the job because you needed to mobilise the entire constituency of the university behind the agenda of decolonisation. Academics in Westernised universities work through dissensus rather than consensus [laughter]. So, really, you need to spend a lot of time to make sure that what we are bringing is a superior thinking to what they are used to. The university council and vice chancellor seemed genuine in wanting to decolonise the university. So I spent most of the time really mobilising. From an administrative point of view, DLT was also even given the task of documenting where there was resistance. But because I was also an academic, I was not very comfortable quickly saying “these people are resisting”. Perhaps they don’t understand what we are talking about. So, that’s basically the tension which I saw.
But in the movements themselves there were also tensions related to other identities that were not accommodated, like LGBT+. There were a lot of reactions within the movement. And I think they were inevitable, if I can put it that way. This Rhodes Must Fall/Fees Must Fall movement—just like the liberation struggles—they were schools in revolutionary thinking and revolutionary praxis. You learn while you are doing. You learn while you’re doing. So, throughout there is learning and unlearning of a lot of things.
And then the other aspect which I learned is the issue that if you create an office like the one which I’m talking about, which is located in the vice chancellor’s office, people take whatever you say in terms of “compliance”. And that’s a very problematic way of thinking, that “now the office has said X, and we need to comply”. But in their hearts and minds, they have not changed. So, that’s another reality, which I realised. If you make it a matter of compliance, people will give you a good report, but without having changed their consciousness of knowledge or their politics of knowledge.
The other challenge which we faced as a challenge, which is continuing now, is the issue of sexual harassment within the institutions. It divided a lot of comrades who were supposed to be on one side. So, they were really many factions within the movement. And the good part, we always say, is that it was never meant to be an event. It is a process, and it is a process which is not about other people, but about ourselves. And that issue of being about ourselves I’ve tried to emphasise many times. Because a person like myself, I was never produced by a decolonial university or something like that. I’m also produced by these very problematic institutions. So, on a daily basis, I must also interrogate myself, learn to unlearn in order to relearn some of the things, so that we become better and perhaps we will create the institutions of relationality which are better than the previous ones. So, it’s really a learning curve which I came through, and I’m thankful for being at the centre because it made me a better person and helped me to express my ideas writing books better.
But you’ll realise that, while I was in office, I also wrote a book called Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization (Routledge, 2018). And that book, I wrote it because I always told the vice chancellor: “Those who are in this office of yours, who are supposed to lead in this decolonisation, they need to be on top of the scholarship of revolutionary change to be effective. And being on top of the revolutionary discourses requires that they must research widely on all these other topics. They must also be research-led in thinking and action.” And that book, I wrote it while I was in office, because I was reacting to critical questions which were posed to the office and to me. So, it’s another way of learning how to write a book while you are still doing the work of activism and administration.
Now you mentioned Black Lives Matter and I was saying, in South Africa, it was more of Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall as the rupturing point. Of course, it converges with the Black Lives Matter movement. And analytically, we need to read them as events of the same moment, or some conjuncture. And if we read them that way, we will then see that, despite the fact that they emerge in different geospatial regions of the world—the US and South Africa—there are a lot of commonalities. They all quickly travelled out of their areas of origin, into the planetary, if I can use that word. That’s where you will see Rhodes Must Fall starting in Cape Town, and then Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford. You will see the Black Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd in the USA, sparking the movements against statues all over the world targeting monuments and iconography of racists, enslavers, imperialists, and colonialists. And I think I always think about these as planetary decolonial movements of the 21st century. Of course, there are specific locations with regards to where they come from, but they quickly become planetary in terms of their resonance.
Al-Bulushi: What you’ve just conveyed about the back and forth between the work of movements and the work of scholarship, even when working within the institution, is such a rich example of praxis. So I want to ask you a little bit more about the centrality of praxis to this volume. In conversation with the work of Hamid Dabashi, you explain in the volume that philosophers of liberation write across and against disciplines. And that this is because they write with “blood and tears”. This means that praxis arguably lies at the heart of your conception of Marxism and decolonisation. And this is certainly a challenge to many purely academic theorisations of radical critique, although it’s obviously most loyal to the original formulations of actually existing Marxism and decolonisation. As the US-based ethnic studies scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have argued about the overly loose use of the term decolonisation, “decolonization is not a metaphor”. So, I’m wondering if you can expand upon the priority of praxis to your theorisation and what it might look like for scholars to take the necessity of engaging in praxis more seriously. As we train the next generation of Marxist and decolonial scholars, should we be insisting that their scholarship always involve radical forms of praxis as well?
Ndlovu-Gatsheni: It’s an important question which also preoccupied a lot of us: how adequate is it to think from disciplines? How adequate is thinking from the disciplines for practical changes? And going back to the work of Lewis Gordon about Disciplinary Decadence, whereby the discipline becomes a spectacle, which makes you see some things and not see others. We always have an issue because all of us were trained in disciplines. But the issue is how do you get out of the discipline into the existential problems facing humanity? And Marxism and decolonisation became handy to me in the sense that I always said, “but Marx never wrote for a promotion to professorship”. He was not sitting down writing a book so that he could become lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, etc. Behind all the writing there was an agenda of liberation and exposure of the dangers of capitalism as well as bourgeois leadership of the world. And I then thought about Frantz Fanon, who, when he was writing, was also involved in a very violent struggle for liberation in Algeria. And the issue was how to make sense of what was taking place, and also to equip the comrades with a better way of understanding the complexities of the struggles they’re involved in. Then I thought about the work of Amílcar Cabral. All the theorisation that he was doing was not from a lecture room, or a lecture theatre, or an office. But it was from the bush and it was meant for the consumption of the comrades who were involved practically on the ground. So, that’s why I was really happy about the idea of knowledge from the battlefields of history. And if we link it with the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, to the epistemologies of the South, that is, those knowledges which emerged from struggles against colonialism, against capitalism, and against patriarchy. Was it not Karl Marx who said capitalism emerged dripping with blood from every pore? So, the “blood and tears” is not a metaphor if the world is read from Marxism and decolonisation, because the coloniser’s model of the world emerged through violence, warfare, genocides, enslavement, dispossession, displacement, and racial and gender exploitations.
And I think if we think from this “underside of modernity” (to use a concept from Enrique Dussel) and build from that, the question of thought, knowledge, and action as always intertwined become clear and urgent. And in the Southern African region during the armed liberation struggles against white settler regimes, there was a clear thinking that the guns and revolutionary thought belonged together. One had to always think about the revolution, but with your gun under your arm [laughter] so that you could do both simultaneously. So, it’s not like bourgeois intellectualism, or bourgeois pontification. The Tanzanian intellectual Issa Shivji once said that bourgeois pontification is 99% irrelevant [laughter]. Only perhaps 1% relevant. So, I thought, when we bring together the issue of Marxism and decolonisation, we’re bringing something which is 99% relevant, and practical. And I saw it, in the sense that Rhodes Must Fall was full of action. So it’s really important to me that we don’t fall into bourgeois intellectualism, which is always just pontificating, while you are sitting in air-conditioned offices and hotels. We need to combine the two. But our training was not meant to be like that. And I think what we need to do is to do scholarship differently. We need to know that scholarship has to have a liberatory purpose.
But I must hasten to say, there are spaces whereby we are divided as academics and intellectuals into those who push for a purposeful scholarship, a liberatory purpose, and those who think that, no, no, if you do that, you are bringing ideology to scholarship and undermining scientific thinking. You are actually bringing identity to scholarship. You are bringing subjectivity to scholarship. You are really moving away from objectivity and impartiality and all that. But to me it’s important that knowledge has to be relevant and useful. Scholarship has to have an agenda. It can’t be an agenda-less game. To me, I’m not shy to say my research and scholarship is informed by the struggles for liberation of the oppressed and this does not mean I compromise on scientific quality. I do both. And secondly, that does not therefore mean that it is not rigorous. I do both, but I think it is important that there must be a higher purpose. Why are we doing it? And I think even the Western philosophers, whatever they were doing in philosophising, had a purpose. There was philosophical support for racism, enslavement, and colonialism! So we need to do scholarship which has a purpose for decolonisation. It was never just philosophy for the sake of philosophy. There were Western thinkers who were in support of imperialism and the colonial project. And if you then say we must do scholarship which is not in support of anything, then it’s a useless scholarship. We need to be on fire for justice, if I can be allowed to draw from Cornel West’s concept of “Black prophetic fire”! We need to be on fire for gender equality. We need to be on fire for equal redistribution of material resources. We need to be on fire in defence of Black lives. The scholarship needs to be animated by realities which actually decimate human lives. And fundamentally, to even save the Earth from capitalist exploitative logics.
Al-Bulushi: Studies of Africa within Africa—as opposed to the Western formations, institutionalised in bodies, such as the African Studies Associations in the UK and the US—have arguably oscillated between two competing polls over the past half-century. On the one hand, at the height of the anti-colonial struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, political economy and the question of development came to dominate many studies as an exclusive lens through which one was supposed to pursue all forms of intellectual inquiry. On the other hand, especially since the 1990s, scholars like Mahmood Mamdani and Achille Mbembe have been somewhat critical of what they viewed as an overemphasis upon political economy. And instead, they’ve examined other questions such as the relative autonomy of the political, postcoloniality, and questions of subjectivity. The critique of Marxism is a question that this volume takes up, but via other reference points, such as Ayi Kwei Armah, Stokely Carmichael, and Onkgopotse Tiro. Can you share some of these critiques with us and explain what they might offer to ongoing conversations across sometimes competing liberatory traditions of struggle?
Ndlovu-Gatsheni: The starting point is very good: what are the key questions which animate African Studies and African thought? I think you have raised the question of development. Decolonisation starts with existential questions. For example W.E.B. Du Bois posed the question as follows: “How does it feel to be a problem?” And that’s an existential question. And this is then picked up by Aimé Césaire, putting it in terms of the tormenting question: “Who am I? Who are we? What are we in the antiblack world?” I think these existential questions form an ideal background for what is called the Black Radical Tradition. There are questions of life. And then, of course, the next question which also animates African Studies is the question of history and being human. And that question of history arose from a context where there were attempts to deny that those designated as Black are human beings and therefore have history. There is a lot of work in the volume trying to answer that question, and to say: “No, we’re human beings with a history.” Then, of course, the developmental question, which is also linked to that.
Thinking about it from the continent, it has taken me back to the 1960s. It takes me back to what was happening in Ghana when it gained independence in 1957. Kwame Nkrumah was the head of state, but he was also actively involved in the struggles for epistemic freedom. To the extent that he was a leading figure in the establishment of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. This was a catalyst for change within a university that was linked to the University of London tradition. There was no African Studies, it was very peripheral. If you look at his speech at the formal opening of African Studies, it talks about the African genius, how do we regain the African genius? And then at the Congress of the Pan-Africanists he talks about the African renaissance. And Professor Kenneth Dike from Ibadan, who was also there, talks about regaining our epistemic sovereignty. So that is an attempt to say, “but political independence without epistemic freedom would be empty”. So, it would be important to move in that direction, to the extent of Nkrumah inviting W.E.B. Du Bois to Ghana to continue with his Africana encyclopedia. And if Nkrumah was not removed from power in 1966, we don’t really know what would have been the outcome of all these efforts. But I found that to be a very important aspect of this issue of African Studies. Because at the moment, a lot of the way people are thinking about African Studies is to think from the US and also to think from England. What I’m trying to do is ask, how do we think about the movement for African Studies in Africa itself? And you already mentioned the issue of associations. 1957—Ghana gains independence. 1957—US Association of African Studies is established. It begins to overwhelmingly push the issue of African Studies as Area Studies, while Nkrumah is pushing African Studies as part of the advancement of Pan-Africanism and the African national revolution. Whether it was a coincidence or not I don’t know, but it happened in the same year—when Nkrumah is talking about epistemic autonomy (African genius and African renaissance), then in the US they are establishing an association to read Africa from the outside, funded from the US which was involved in a Cold War. But during that time, it looked like the continent was very confident of where it wanted to go. If we move from Ghana to Nigeria (Ibadan), you will also find that there was a clear argument: “In order for us to move forward, we need to rewrite African history.” And if we went to Dakar, with Cheikh Anta Diop, “we need to dispel the Eurocentric conception of African history”. And if you moved to Dar es Salaam, again, you will find a very interesting leftist tradition with Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, Shivji, Mamdani and others, of course, also critiquing the Ibadan School, arguing that the Ibadan School is all about kings and queens. It’s not about the people. History is not made by queens and the kings. It’s made by the people and then the Dar es Salaam School begins to do what might be called a People’s History From Below.
In 1967, there is the establishment of the Association of African Universities. And in that association there is a clear definition of what an African university is. It is born in Africa, not transplanted from outside. Then you move up to 1973 with the establishment of CODESRIA and others. You’ll begin to see that there is a shift. First, the economies were no longer performing well enough to finance the universities. Second, on the political front, you had military dictators and the rise of Idi Amin and the others. And then third, at a global scale, you have the beginnings of the Washington Consensus and the Structural Adjustment Programs. And then the whole African national decolonial project collapses. And when it collapses, a lot of academics engage in what we call survivalist politics. Either you adopt a comprador position in the intellectual sphere in which you just become a conduit so that you get paid. Or you degenerate into sycophancy, again singing for your supper.
And this takes us to the emergence of what you were talking about—postcolonial discourses. And again, I always try to be very careful when I’m talking about this. Because some people want to dismiss it and say “the posts” were a problem—that postcolonialism was actually born out of postmodernism and poststructuralism. But I think we need to nuance this as well, in the sense that there is a version of postcolonialism which is informed by postmodernism and poststructuralism, but there is also another version is informed by anti-colonialism. If you look at the significant work of scholars like V.Y. Mudimbe, The Idea of Africa, The Invention of Africa, you can’t dismiss this literature and say: “It contributes nothing to African Studies!” Even Mbembe’s On the Postcolony, it has generated so much for us in African Studies. And then you go to the work of Pal Ahluwalia, who wrote this book Out of Africa, in which he was saying: “Let’s not quickly say that the postcolonialism is coming from Europe.” And his idea is that you will find that thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and others are Maghrebian thinkers, rather than French thinkers, if their history and linkages with Tunisia and Algeria are considered. And if you think that way then you will understand them differently. So, it’s a complex terrain in which African Studies finds itself, but you cannot then dismiss the contribution of post-colonial thought easily.
What I’ve always tried to say is that there is a long decolonial intellectual movement, with its own sub-movements. So, if you think in that way, then you spend all your time trying to consider nuances and contexts of particular moments and intellectual traditions that emerged. Julian Go’s work on how anti-colonial thought is social theory helps us also to understand this better by using the idea that there are waves. He uses postcolonial for everything—rather than the decolonial—in his waves perspective. Importantly, he identifies the significance of 1973 as a turning point in postcolonial thought. And he says that in 1973, first of all there is the assassination of Amílcar Cabral, who was a leading light in the anti-colonial phase of postcolonial thought. It becomes a turning point. And he also says that in 1973 we have the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war, which was being watched by Edward Said. And he begins to write that canonical text, Orientalism, based on the observations he made during the Arab-Israeli War, whereby Western media was Orientalising the Arabs as cowards destined to be defeated by Israel. And I always add that, if we were thinking from the continent, 1973 was also the formation of CODESRIA.
So, it’s a very complex terrain, which, as I said, forces you to end up presenting another lecture. But it also takes us to the other dimension, which is always falling between the cracks: the gendering of African Studies and the contribution of feminist scholarship to African Studies. What changes does it bring? How is it cutting across? Where did it intervene? I then see the recent insurgence of decolonisation in the 21st century as perhaps a “fourth wave” within this context in which we return to reopening the basic epistemological questions, if I can use that argument from Immanuel Wallerstein. To me the basic epistemological questions include: What is the relationship between knowledge and identity, for instance? What is the relationship between knowledge and ideology, for instance? What is the relationship between knowledge and geography, for instance? And all these questions, you cannot just dismiss them as they are doing in France and say: “This is Critical Race Studies which is something from America, which is an imposition on us.” I think that’s a lazy way of dealing with it. These are difficult questions which have come back to haunt us. And we need to confront them directly.
Al-Bulushi: You’ve just mentioned the question of geography. And I think you’ve already given us a rich sense of how you were thinking about, and how the volume is thinking about, how we might radicalise and decolonise our geographical imaginations. So I’m hoping you can say a little bit more about that, with regards to the geographical imagination that is at work in this volume. And relatedly, I wonder what you make of the burgeoning field of Black Geographies and the interventions by people like Katherine McKittrick, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Clyde Woods? Might we see your volume as helping to further globalise some of the themes in their work, even if more implicitly than then explicitly?
Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Yeah, in fact, when I saw that question, I thought that the departure link perhaps in decolonial thinking is the work of James Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World. And he was a geographer, I think. The issue which we are trying to engage is this notion of “worlding from Europe”. And what Marxism and the decolonial in combination are trying to do is to pose a counter re-worlding from the global South. If we think that way then you will centre certain events which might otherwise be peripheral, like the Haitian Revolution. This becomes a very central example of re-worlding from the global South. You will find the people who were enslaved, who were kept in chains but who never lost the drive to reproduce space on their own terms.
And the second aspect takes us to the concept of the geographies of opulence versus the geographies of poverty. And our approach is to study this, not from a conventional geographic way where it can be naturalised, but by denaturalising what has been naturalised by the coloniser’s model. And if you bring Fanon into this issue of the geographies, his concept of the zone of being and the zone of non-being has links with urban space and the Manichaean structure. The town of the Black, and town of the whites. I supervised a Master’s thesis which was using Fanon to study the geography of Sandton, which is the richest suburb in South Africa, and the poor township of Alexandria, which is just across the M1 highway. And they were using the M1 as really a dividing line between the two. And it really brought out very clearly the Manichaean structure. They’re just neighbours, on one side the houses are very small matchboxes, and on the other side are gigantic houses. And if the police see you [a resident from Alexandria] on the other side in Sandton at one o’clock, they will always ask you where you are going. And you need to say “well I’m going to George’s house” or something like that, or “I’m working” if you are Black. And if you have no answer for the police, they just take you across M1 and drop you back in Alexandria. You belong in that geographical field—don’t come to this other side.
So, I found this concept of Black Geographies to be very important, but I also found that it is also breaking out of the disciplinary. Geography was not always known that way. It’s really an interesting way to bring in race, to bring in gender into issues of space. And this type of thinking makes people rethink their fields of study. If it wasn’t for your question, I wasn’t following Black Geographies that much. So, I really had do to go back to check, because I’m reading Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science here. So, I knew a bit about it. But I hadn’t delved deeply into thinking about Black Geographies yet. It actually links very well within the whole concept of coloniality of being. Because if you don’t understand the coloniality of being, you won’t understand why some people were subjected to genocide, while others were subjected to enslavement, while others were subjected to dispossession. You won’t understand. Because the issue is the coloniality of being. If we pose it properly, it actually says: “This is a device.” They were looking for a device: “Who are we going to colonise? Who are we going to enslave? Who are we going to dispossess?” And then they brought a criterion that the ontologies of human beings will be graduated. So there will be some with the higher ontology who are white, and then there are others who are lighter, and some who are darker. And then there are others who are pushed out of the human family all together. And those are the ones are who were subjected to genocide. Those are the ones who are pushed into a subhuman category. Those are the ones who were subjected to slavery. Colonialism was not a random process. You needed to have clear targets and a structure which allowed you to say: “No, I will colonise these.” You fight them, then you target them differently, and you subjected them to modern colonial power differently. So I found that we can link those things in a very interesting way.
Al-Bulushi: Finally, the book really underscores the importance of Marxism in the 21st century being democratic. And this term may mean different things to different people. Can you expand upon the specificity of the democratic in your democratic Marxism of the 21st century and why it’s so important for your project?
Ndlovu-Gatsheni: And when you raised the question I thought it’s not only “democratic Marxism”, but it must also be “democratic decolonisation”. And I think we were supposed to put it in quotation marks, the “democratic”. Because it doesn’t mean the liberal democracy which we’re all familiar with. It must mean something deeper than that. And with reference to Marxism, we’re thinking about how to shift from the orthodox version of Marxism, which was very prescriptive, very rigid, very dogmatic, highly curated, if I can use such a word, and perhaps even intolerant of diversity. This tradition suffered the high price of Stalinism. It was also state-led. This gave Marxism a bad name. People then decided to associate the failure of the Soviet Union with the failure of Marxism. But, to me, Marxism is a science. And it is still relevant even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Because as a science of understanding capitalism, there is nothing which rivals it. It continues to be a very useful science. Then its democratisation concerns re-routing it through people’s struggles, rather than the way it has been hijacked by elites. I think that’s what we mean by “democratic”. If we re-route it through people’s concrete struggles, which are anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, then it regains its popular aspect, whereby it is not an imposition from above. And if we think that way, even for decolonisation, then we need to think how to re-route it through the people’s struggles. Rather than the way it has been hijacked by the petite bourgeoisie and nationalist elites, which, if we use Fanon’s terminology, are associated with the “pitfalls of national consciousness”, and all its corresponding problems. This then means that the Marxism and decolonisation of the 21st century is open to other movements, like radical ecological movements, feminist movements, and Indigenous peoples’ movements. In that way, it is really not rigidly proletarian, so to speak. It adapts to the challenges of the present times. And if Stalin is used as an example of a spoiler in Marxism, then we can say there were also many spoilers in decolonisation during the 20th century. People like Mobutu Sese Soko and many others gave it a bad name. So, the democratic is really to say: we take into account the distortions and the abuses of these liberatory theories, as the book is trying to say, but you don’t then throw away the bathwater together with the baby. As a science of understanding capitalism, in all its mutations, I think Marxism is still very useful. And decolonisation and decoloniality are very useful in understanding the afterlives of colonialism. So that’s what we meant by “democratic”. But we don’t mean the liberal definition of democracy.
But at the same time, I think, if we take them together, Marxism and decolonisation, it also enables us to speak today about the sovereignty of the people rather than the sovereignty of the state. And I think that emerged clearly in the Arab Spring, where people were really trying to gain their sovereignty against the sovereignty of the state. But there was a time in the decolonisation of the 20th century, whereby the sovereignty of the state was confused with the sovereignty of the people. But I think now we’ve learnt that the sovereignty of the state is never the sovereignty of the people. It also makes us reconsider the horizon of decolonisation. In the 20th century, the horizon or the heaven of decolonisation was the attainment of state status, or national status. But I think we’ve realised that the state is actually a coup within the modern world-system, saving capital more than the people. Approaching it that way enables us to rethink many things which went wrong in the 20th century.
Many thanks again from everyone at Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography and the Antipode Foundation to both Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Yousuf Al-Bulushi for such an engaging contribution. Thanks also to Antipode Editor Stefan Ouma for all his work conceiving and planning the conversation.