Decolonization: the Impossible Project

RW Johnson writes on why it would be a mistake to take such demands too seriously or to concede to them

The demand for the “decolonization” of learning on South African campuses continues to take centre stage. Typically, university administrations and academics, keen to be politically correct, have accepted this demand. This is, of course, in line with the general wish of university administrators to accommodate student demands, which in turn tends to mean accommodating themselves to the expressed wishes of radical black students who typically control SRCs.

This situation is fraught with dangers. Traditionally universities everywhere in the world have been led by the most highly educated elements on campus, the professoriate and leading academics, with vice chancellors typically chosen from amongst the ranks of the most intellectually distinguished.

Indeed, this is pretty much intrinsic to the definition of a university. In South Africa, however, this model has effectively been discarded. The average calibre of vice chancellors has fallen way below traditional standards and this has been accompanied by many affirmative action academic appointments which have on balance lowered the average intellectual standard of university faculties.

But if, in addition, a university is essentially driven by the opinions of radical students this means that the major motive force on campus is provided by the least educated members of the university community.

This is an exact inversion of the traditional model and indeed of the definition of what a university is. Something similar has happened at many public hospitals. There too the leading medical specialists within the institution typically provided the main authority – but in South Africa, at least outside the Western Cape, that traditional model was discarded after 1994 and frequently hospitals fell under the command of Cosatu or ANC elements who were, almost invariably, far less educated or medically trained.

This inversion of traditional hierarchies was, of course, key to the dramatic decline of so many public hospitals. A similar process is now at work in many universities.

In that extremely bleak context the demand for the “decolonization” of learning is often seized upon as at least less harmful to the institution than many of the other demands emanating from radical students. Usually, though, the main results are negative. It is far easier, for example, to decide to exclude from the syllabus writers alleged to be, in some sense, colonial, than it is to come up with “decolonial” alternatives that are intellectually respectable.

This is particularly true in the STEM subjects: demands for “decolonized” maths or science are not even intellectually coherent. Indeed, such demands can only really be made by people who do not really understand the nature of maths or science. But there is, in any case, a need to examine the whole concept of “decolonization”.

Initially the word “decolonization” was invented in the 1950s to describe the formal process of the abandonment of colonial rule, the running down of the old flag and the running up of the new one. Members of the British royal family attended scores of such ceremonies which became entirely formulaic.

After a brief hiccup over the question of whether India could be both a republic and a member of the Commonwealth, headed by the Queen, this circle too was routinely squared. Many former colonies used their new independence to make institutional and linguistic changes (e.g. Tanzania adopting Swahili or Namibia adopting English as their official languages). There was no limit, in theory, to such changes. In practice the limits were quite narrow.

However, as Ronald Dore and Samuel Huntington both pointed out, most such ex-colonies went through a process of “second generation indigenization” in which the successor generation attempted to rediscover and re-instate more of the local indigenous culture. Clearly, “indigenization” and “decolonization” are virtual synonyms. Names got changed (Harry Lee

became Lee Kuan Yew), statues were sometimes pulled down and occasionally new official languages were adopted (Mandarin in Singapore, Afrikaans in South Africa, Hebrew in Israel) but generally such changes were symbolic rather than fundamental.

Nonetheless, the native intelligentsias which drove this process liked to imagine themselves as continuing the anti-colonial struggle and made demands for further “decolonization” including, somewhat bizarrely, “the decolonization of the mind”.

This second generation indigenization is often somewhat romantic and to present it as a continuing part of the anti-colonial struggle is somewhat bogus. This drive begins only when the anti-colonial struggle is over and no one is resisting whatever changes the independent country wishes to make. Nonetheless, such a reaction is perfectly natural and the resentment against the cruelties, indignities and suppression which are intrinsic to colonialism continue for some time after formal colonial rule has ended.

When a country has been colonized for a lengthy period – e.g. Britain under the Romans – full decolonization is effectively impossible simply because that colonial experience becomes a permanent part of that country’s history and identity.

Even today the British language bears the deep imprint of Latin, the British upper class still studies Classics, many British roads still follow the path of old Roman roads, the old Roman capital (Londinium) is still the capital and the country still has much Romanesque architecture.

The Roman heritage long since became part of Britain’s personality and culture. It is important to realise that the colonized play an important role in the construction of colonial society – they act as translators, facilitators, resisters or collaborators. They are intermediaries of all sorts and influences are not all one-way. Inevitably, there is a degree of fusion, including intermarriage.

South Africa is an odd case in that it has experienced several waves of decolonization. The formation of the Union in 1910 saw the replacement of the titled imperial governors as the country’s political elite by former Boer generals – Botha, Smuts and Herzog – and a corresponding wave of indigenization. This increased further after the granting of full independence by the Statute of Westminster in 1931 and the National Party victory of 1948 carried this much further with the adoption of Die Stem and the Rand, Republican status and an even greater prominence of Afrikaans language and culture. 1994 then saw a yet further wave of symbolic change – street renaming and the like - which has still not quite spent itself.

Even so, the colonial inheritance is still fundamental to South African life. I have sat through many speeches calling for the revitalization of African languages – the speeches are always given in English – but the reality is that South Africa is fast becoming an Anglophone country. All the other

languages are probably on the way to becoming kitchen languages. This is true even of Afrikaans, which has been the victim of various discriminatory measures, most notably its virtual elimination from tertiary education.

All the other African languages are clearly in decline. The colonial sports - cricket, soccer, rugby, golf and tennis – remain dominant. South African literature, history, biography and newspapers are written almost exclusively in English and Afrikaans. Roman-Dutch law remains unchallenged. The country’s architecture remains a mixture of Cape Dutch, half-timbered Olde English, colonial verandah houses, grand Romanesque public buildings and American-style office blocks.

Modern cultural influences are almost wholly Western: there is little that is Asian and almost nothing which is African. The ever-greater world of TV, film, computers and the Internet is primarily Anglophone and Western. There are, of course, far more black faces in every form of media than there used to be but this has not brought a corresponding Africanization: everyone speaks English, wears Western dress styles, and most changes are marginal or cosmetic. It is difficult to see how this can be further “decolonized”.

Moreover, Western cultural influences are still advancing quite fast at the expense of African influences. Under ANC rule higher education has become monolithically English-speaking. Cable TV means that an increasing and influential part of the population gets its news from BBC, CNN, Sky and Al-Jazeera while the Internet allows many more to read foreign newspapers and British publications like the Economist and Spectator have many local subscribers.

The rise of streaming services has increased the audience for Anglo-American TV and film. Above all, South Africa’s population is increasingly concentrated in a handful of metropoles in which Western culture is utterly dominant while the more African rural world is in decline.

Given that more far-reaching decolonization is impossible the question is how to understand demands for decolonization. It is important here to note the influence of the SACP theory of South Africa “colonialism of a special type” (CST) in which the country has been internally colonized by its white population. This doctrine centrally contradicts the Freedom Charter insistence that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, and the notion of a “common society” favoured by the Party’s leading theorist, Jack Simons.

If you believe in internal colonization then the whites are all settlers who must be driven out and it follows that even rule by Afrikaners was a form of colonial rule, something which, of course, Afrikaners would strongly dispute. (I have, up to this point, gone along with this CST view – which treats Afrikaner rule as a form of colonialism - since it is the dominant ANC assumption. But really whether one accepts that depends on whether one accepts the CST theory. In company with Simons and the Freedom Charter, I don’t.)

If one keeps that CST framework in mind, demands for decolonization are thus in reality attacks on the three minority groups, all of whom are seen as colonial. The ultimate form of decolonization will thus be seen when South Africa is inhabited only by Africans. It is, though, important to note that even then South Africa would not really be decolonized. It still owes its borders and its unity as a single country to colonialism.

It would still rely on such colonial inheritances as the matric, the universities, scientific and medical institutions, the ports, the airports and so on. You can rename old streets and roads but not erase the fact that they are part of the colonial inheritance. You can get rid of Rhodes’ statue, but the President still lives in Groote Schuur, Rhodes’s house, and the government still sits in the Union Buildings, designed by Rhodes’s architect.

“Impossibilism” was the term which originally denoted those Marxists who argued for revolution rather than social reform. In effect the social democrats accused the revolutionaries of advocating a type of change which would be possible only on rare occasions and in a few limited cases, often suggesting that their impossibilism derived from their absolutist character or frame of mind rather than any concrete reality.

In this sense the demand for decolonization is an impossibilist demand – and like all impossibilist demands it is really about something other than its stated objective. In South Africa it is usually intended as an attack on whites in particular. In practice this may not literally be a demand for “one settler, one bullet” but simply a rhetorical device through which the position of whites in any dispute or argument is undermined. As such it is really just part of platform rhetoric, not a serious political programme.

This is evident in various ways. When confronted with the protean reality that no African country will ever truly be stripped of its colonial heritage, some African intellectuals – a recent modern example is the writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o - have argued for “decolonizing the mind”. To that end Thiong’o writes mainly in Gikuyu and he also argued for the abolition of the English Department at Nairobi university.

Thiong’o’s eminence has allowed him more latitude than most but his books have circulated only when translated into English (sometimes translated by Thiong’o himself) and he has held posts at various American universities, where he has lectured in English.

The fact is that “decolonizing the mind” is a much more difficult thing to do than knocking over a statue or renaming a street. It is virtually impossible that Thiong’o’s example will ever be widely emulated. So while calls to “decolonize the mind” are a standard part of platform rhetoric, they never get much further than that. Similarly, demands for “African science”, “African philosophy” and “African maths” (recently made on the UCT campus) need not be taken seriously. They too are clearly impossibilist.

Second, it was the case for some years before and after 1994 that Africanist radicals on South African university campuses would make speeches demanding that in future they wanted African history to be taught. They were sick of hearing about the Great Trek, they said, and wanted proper African history instead.

Typically a member of the History Department would then rise to say “But we have been teaching African history for years. We teach about the ancient empires of Ghana and Mali, about the Atlantic slave trade and about the Muslim East African slave trade, about the migration of the Bantu peoples and much else besides. There is a vast and expert literature on this subject as well as specialist journals. These books and journals are all in our university library and you are welcome to study them or, indeed, to take the course we give.”

Often the platform orator knew no history and was silenced by this. However, a few months later one might hear the same person or others of his ilk making exactly the same speech about “wanting proper African history and being sick of hearing about the Great Trek”.

One realised that this speech was not really about history at all. It was, rather, a device aimed by the speaker at his followers whom he wished to mobilize behind him. Its approximate meaning was “Look at me disrespecting the academics who, we are told, are such clever people. I am a son of the soil and am asserting my African roots as superior and preferable to theirs.” (This example is now a little dated: most historians are now black and few students have even heard of the Great Trek.)

Something of the same applies to the repeated demands for the revitalization of African languages. Typically, such demands or pleas are made in public speeches or articles without any attempt at a practical follow-through of any kind. There is clearly a strong element of self-advertisement and Africanist assertion about the making of such demands.

As we know from the example of Afrikaans, its wider use depended on a huge work of writing and translation, often carried out unpaid by dedicated teachers and other intellectuals, ultimately producing a large Afrikaans literature such that Afrikaans speakers could study and read about almost any subject in their own language.

There is no sign of such an effort being made for any Bantu language and typically university departments offering isiZulu, isiXhosa and so on find precious few takers even among African students. It is sad that it is so: African languages are worthy of study. But it is so.

To sum up then: Demands for “decolonization” are natural but their practical application seldom goes beyond merely symbolic change – changes on banknotes, to the flag, national anthem, renaming and so on. Real root and branch “decolonization” is impossible because colonial innovations and colonial culture have become deeply part of the integument of the whole society.

In addition it is precisely those innovations and that colonial culture which continue to point the way towards a more modern and developed future. Given this impossibility the continued assertion of the cause of decolonization beyond the merely symbolic is mainly a rhetorical device aimed at undermining the position of other social groups. It is a mistake to take such demands too seriously or to concede to them.

R.W. Johnson