The Long Shadow of Colonialist Ideology

In the present South African political discourse, it is tragic how often elements of colonialist ideology crop up in the arguments of the very people who are most wont to insist that one cannot demolish the master’s house with the master’s tools — tragic because I want them to be right! The metaphor is nonsensical on the face of it: the name on the handle of a 16lb hammer is irrelevant to its efficacy in bringing down anyone’s given extent of 9” brick masonry. To suppose that there is a necessary relevance is to miss the specific intent of the expression, that the master’s tools are here analogous to complexes and structures of ideology, shaped and devised to perform their specific oppressive function and no other, and to that only. For the very idea that everything about the master bears his unique and exclusive essence is itself one of the master’s tools, and indeed one of the tools contemplated in the expression.

I have, for instance, met people whom I have reason to suspect actually believe that people are genetically predisposed to speak one language and not another; that the injustice inherent in the institutional imposition of languages in which people are not quite comfortable is not a failure to respect the circumstances arising from their specific histories of isolation and oppression, but a rejection of their genetic essence. The charge becomes not one of perpetuating an unjust incumbency, but of favouring a “race” in the most substantively literal fascist sense.

Over the past year I have also increasingly encountered a position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine which goes far beyond the usual tankie canards about mainstream media and CIA propaganda. The logic seems to be:

  1. The Soviet Union and the Putin regime are incarnations of the same thing, i.e. an eternal Russian ethnic essence;
  2. This eternal Russian ethnic essence demonstrated benevolence towards African anti-colonial efforts, and therefore towards an eternal African ethnic essence, during the Brezhnev era;
  3. Therefore the eternal African ethnic essence owes allegiance to the eternal Russian ethnic essence, placing Africans under an ethnic-moral obligation to root for Putin.

The irony is that this indirect allegiance to the Soviet Union is constructed not in terms of the Soviet Union’s own putative Marxism, but in terms of an ethno-nationalism which is arguably anathema to Marxism.

The common thread connecting these anecdotes is a belief in unchanging, mutually independent, self-contained ethnic-cultural entities, of which individual persons are presumably mere semi-real projections. I fear that this might be a more pervasive base anthropological metaphysic in South African society than appearances might suggest. Even among reasonable mainstream voices there is every so often a passing remark or throwaway comment which would make little sense if not for this belief.

Where does this belief come from? I am wary of characterizing people as “brainwashed”, or “sheeple”: I shy away from any suggestion that people are incapable of making up their own minds, when a major component of my position is precisely that people are very much capable of making up their own minds, and in fact do so daily as a matter of course. At the same time I am dissatisfied that the belief represents a sort of default position, be it of humans in general or Africans in particular: it is too characteristic of a specific place in the recorded history of ideas. I would be wholly reluctant to answer the question, were it not for my own experience of the whites-only echo-chamber political discourse in apartheid South Africa, in which the belief in unchanging, mutually independent, self-contained ethnic-cultural entities represented the pervasive base anthropological metaphysic.

I remember the debates in those days. It was all, “How can any nation hope to flourish?” and, “How can any race expect to survive?” The idea that nations or races are the true subject of history, in a sense which was almost more Lukácsian than Hegelian, was very much the default understanding. The very word apartheid — literally “separateness” — encapsulates the idea of mutually independent, self-contained ethnic-cultural entities, simultaneously an anthropological necessity and a precarious historic goal. My own embryonic understanding of society in terms of structured relationality between persons was met with complete incomprehension. 

It is significant that the two Anglo-Boer Wars of 1880-1881 and 1899-1902 are in the white-Afrikaner context often termed the Vryheidsoorloë, or Freedom Wars. “Freedom” here has nothing to do with a human agent’s ability to act, but concerns only the removal of British Empire hegemony over the process of white-Afrikaner “national emergence”. In these terms it is therefore axiomatic that boots will always be required to be licked: it matters nothing if “surely in any successful state” people get kicked in the teeth, but only who does the kicking, and who owns the teeth. Freedom becomes incomprehensible except as “a totalitarian dictatorship of our very own”.

The crystallization of white-Afrikaner nationalism after the Anglo-Boer Wars, which led eventually to the philosophy of apartheid and the platform which brought the National Party to power in 1948, drew not only on the same Hegelian-Nietzchean-Wagnerian intellectual climate as fed the contemporary development of Nazism in Germany, but also on earlier European colonialist ideological constructions. The idea of mutually independent, self-contained ethnic-cultural entities ties rather obviously to the largely British colonialist idea of “Deepest Darkest Africa”, which allowed ad-hoc exploration by various Europeans for whatever purpose to be cast in terms of a narrative of discovery, an “opening up to the light” driven by European colonial imperialism. 

This idea required an unhistorical understanding of pre-colonial Africa as unified in its isolation from the rest of the world (whether internally homogenous or not): it required Africa to be understood as a cohesive “thing”, fundamentally and eternally separate from the world. It was necessary that the fundamental nature of the universe should change at Gibraltar, at the Suez Canal, and at the Bab-el-Mandeb, and that things like gravity and the behaviour of light be different on this side. The idea of eternal ethnic territoriality — that this blood goes with that soil — was thus a central colonialist idea, as evinced by colonial efforts to impose notions of nation-statehood on subjugated populations, despite those notions arguably dating from well within the colonial era. East is East, it was said, and West is West; and never the twain shall meet (though it is clear from the subsequent lines that Kipling was here not proclaiming but describing an attitude which was common in his time.) We still commonly default to a unitary “West,” a thing of pocket calculators and ice, in contrast not only with an “East” which is wall-to-wall Oriental Riffs and gongs all the way from the Bosporus to Papua New Guinea, but also with Africa. It was necessary that “Africa” and “African” become eternal basic truths, central to the most basic nature of reality; as thus also “The Black Man” and “The White Man”, “Europe” and “European”, and a lot more. This suits the idea that all people necessarily act primarily in the interest of their “own kind”. The axiomatic claim of eternal essence denies all historical context. It enables blithe projections of its own ideological content, leading to historical whoppers of a sort which, unfortunately, persists unabated. Only last week I encountered the assertion that Jesus founded the Roman Empire in order to assure the supremacy of the European Race: but was this a statement for or against colonialism?

It was nothing short of world-building, as subsequently associated with space opera: the construction of an entire universe in such a way that the programmes of toothbrush-moustached British empire-builders are revealed to be fundamentally necessary in it — and presented with such force that it became the world-view of generations.

It was this metaphysical environment which allowed the National Party to maintain a dominant-party system for 46 years. By recasting all political questions not as “what” or “how” questions but “who” questions; by changing the discourse from one about what constitutes a desirable condition and what is to be done to achieve it, to one only about whose interests are to be served by whatever means, the NP were able to define themselves as the necessary representation, indeed the direct literal political manifestation, of the putative white-Afrikaner “nation”. By presenting a vote against the NP as a vote against “the nation”, electoral success could be isolated from administrative or economic performance as long as a majority of the white electorate identified as Afrikaners.

I am therefore confident to trace the present persistence of this anthropological metaphysic in South African society to an intellectual stream which runs through apartheid ideology to the colonialist ideology before it. To what extent does colonialist ideology determine the unspoken default metaphysic implicit in broad South African culture today? How deep is the imprint of colonialist ideology? How long is its shadow? Of all the failings of the ANC since it came to power in 1994, the one I am least ready to forgive is their refusal actively to dismantle this metaphysic and their express exploitation of it instead for their own electoral advantage. For the discourse is today exactly the same, in its most basic assumptions, as it was in 1975. 

Surely it is reasonable to expect that the South African majority, though violently excluded from participation in political discourse during the apartheid era, should nevertheless have been affected deeply by it as a result of simply living in an environment steeped in colonialist ideology, and bombarded for decades on end with its fundamental ideas? It is here where we strike a wrinkle, for the very idea of mutually independent, self-contained ethnic-cultural entities implies that people think in terms of ethnically specific ideas determined by their genetics, understood as existing separately from a broad context. It denies the idea of cultural exchange, to say nothing of the idea that cultural exchange is universal, abundant in its scope, and central to the mechanics of culture as such.

Having grown up in a context in which the default belief is that your ideas come from your genetics, it becomes very hard not simply to accept that that belief itself comes from your genetics. It becomes almost impossible to question it. It is as if colonialist ideology leads you through a door which becomes invisible once, having passed through it, you turn and look behind you. The sheer evil genius of it! For it has left us today with an anti-colonial movement immersed in ideas developed specifically to enable and facilitate colonialism, eager to defend “Deepest Darkest Africa” against its own cosmopolitan history.

Colonialist ideology has convinced us not only that the master’s tools have really been uniquely our own for all eternity; it has also convinced us that a huge range of tools which have nothing to do with the master are really the master’s tools. Is it any wonder the master’s house keeps getting rebuilt?

We need to get past this. We need to step back, rub our eyes out, and see the world which is emerging from recent developments in historical and anthropological studies. Far from “Deepest Darkest Africa”, the emerging picture is of an Africa which has always been in communication with the rest of the world, which has always been learning and teaching, whose boundaries have always been ambiguous and permeable. Is this not a far better thing for Africans to claim? — for it is a (shared) claim to the entire world.

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