Learn and Unlearn, in order to Re-learn: A response to Phikolomzi Adonis

By Ntando Sindane

In 2017 I attended a law conference organised by the South African Law Deans Association (SALDA) and hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of law, under the theme, “Decolonisation and Africanisation of Legal Education in South Africa.” Various law academics presented papers, doing their best to grapple with the question of decoloniality yet only one stood out from all the speakers. This was Criminal and Procedural law professor, Dawie de Villiers; arguing that existing law concepts can be used to decolonise the law curriculum, and that the Constitution of the republic already embodies what it means to decolonise.

It was only when a young black student probed the good prof to further unpack his arguments that the prof completely unraveled. The prof was heard saying things like, “don’t be political my boy”, and also “this decolonisation thing becomes nonsense when you politicise it,” and even worse, “the law is practical, but all you care about is your catch phrases and divisive reverse racism,” most bizarrely, “You simply can’t decolonise everything my boy”. I was the young black student at the receiving end of the good prof’s ignorant rejoinder.

I am reminded of this particular incident when I read one Phikolomzi Adonis’ scathing attack on decolonial scholarship, wherein Mr Adonis accuses the calls for decolonisation of being unrealistic, populist and impractical. Mr Adonis goes on to ask three questions, with the aim to prove his point, and these are: where are we starting and ending to decolonise, how do we decolonise and do we decolonise as a whole?

In his reasoning, the paucity of responses to his questions, do good to suggest that the decolonial agenda has “no concrete ideas on what decolonisation will be on a practical level.

Just like Professor Dawie de Villiers, I suspect that Mr Adonis began by discussing his arguments with someone else before putting pen to paper, because two years after the 2017 conference, the good prof went on to publish a whole book chapter on decolonisation. The challenge facing us, is that when we let things slide, and not correct wrong ideas every time they are publicly ventilated, we run the risk of seeing these very ideas re-surfacing as a published book chapter thus masquerading as scholarly, when it is actually a product of myopic conjecture. It is against this background that I pen this response, not to claim to have all answers, but instead to invite Mr Adonis to think, read and grapple with concepts with a greater depth, hence the challenge to, “learn and unlearn, in order to relearn”.

Where do we start and end the decolonial inquiry? The first thing that needs to be understood is that decolonisation is not entirely a response to colonialism, but rather to coloniality. Nelson Maldonado-Torres assists in differentiating between the two:

“Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of people, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience.”

This distinction is crucial because it crystalises the focus of decolonial activism; furthermore, it paves way for society to understand that coloniality manifests in three ways and these are Being, Knowledge and Power.

LEARN: To explain the essence of coloniality of Being, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni tells a story, saying that once upon a time, there was a family of human beings, and that nothing separated this family because each person’s humanity was validated by the person next to them. However, shortly prior to the colonial episode, white people committed the sin of dis-membering black people from the family of human beings. As a result, the family was now torn apart between humans (white people) and non-humans (black people).

Nelson Maldonado-Torres explains this by telling another story, arguing that white people used Rene Descartes’ ontological axiom that says, “I think, therefore I am”, to assert that they (white people) think and therefore they are Being, whereas black people cannot think and therefore they Non-Beings. This ontological engagement was crucial for the sustenance of the colonial project, because whiteness was able to justify the killing, raping, maiming, zombiefying, thingfying, dispossession, othering and total subjugation of black people, precisely because black people are Non-Beings.

The starting point of decolonisation therefore entails the on-going project of reversing the colonial assumption of the Non-Being of black people, this is a project to re-humanise the de-humanised, or more succinctly to re-member the dismembered black body into the body of human Beings.

UNLEARN: How? Mr Adonis, asks; the “I think therefore I am” axiom, when used to re-humanise black people asserts that black people can think, and therefore they too are Beings. Beings who can think, are able to produce knowledge, have an identity, and a culture and are a people worthy of intellectual engagement. As a result, decoloniality practically changes society by affirming the cultural identity of black people as a validation of their Being, and not some barbarism or voodoo.

Decoloniality does the same to the academy, for it demands for the forgotten and silenced voices (through epistemicide) of African scholars and thinkers to begin finding centre stage in universities, something that seeks to practically shake the very foundations of a Westernised university.

Mr Adonis further asks; do we decolonise as a whole? Indeed, coloniality speaks to every aspect of our modern experience, so this necessitates wholesale decolonisation. To this end, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gastheni draws from works done by Walter Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Ramon Grosfoguel (no, I am not name dropping, I am deliberately mentioning theses names to give you a starting point in doing your own research) and many other scholars of decoloniality to illustrate critical concepts such as core-periphery divisions, male-female hierarchies, heterosexual-homosexual hierarchies, religious-spiritual divisions, as well as epistemic and linguistic hierarchies to denote the nature of coloniality and its manifestations. This analysis produces a decolonial manifesto that seeks to practicalize decolonisation, this manifesto is aptly captured in thirteen words, and these are known as the 13 Ds of decolonisation:

  1. Depatriarchisation
  2. De-bourgeoisefication
  3. Decorporatisation
  4. Detribalisation
  5. Deimperialisation
  6. Deprovincialisation
  7. Deperipherisation
  8. Demystification
  9. Decommodification
  10. Decommissioning
  11. Democratisation
  12. Deborderisation
  13. Deracialisation

RE-LEARN: I could venture into unpacking all these thirteen, but that would spoil the fun, instead note this as a challenge for you to learn about the link between the coloniality of Being and, for example racism, find the praxis of the decolonial demand for Deracialisation, or unlearn the links between coloniality of Power and, for example the undemocratic nature of global institutions of power such as IMF, the world bank and others, then link this with the decolonial demand for Democratization. Democratization and Deracialisation are just two, from the 13 Ds, and I can assure you that the remaining eleven present a clear praxis of the calls for decolonisation.

The young black student made the mistake of not confronting Prof Dawie de Villiers in 2017, as a result, Dawie’s vulgarisation of decolonial scholarship now finds itself published even by highly respected academic publishing houses such as Juta & Company (Pty) Ltd. Dawie, as a benefactor of colonial looting, white privilege and the dismembering of black people, stands to lose nothing from his vitriolic attack on decolonisation, but the stakes are much higher for both Phikolomzi and I, because decolonisation seeks to undo the very cesspool of colonial survival that we find ourselves in. Phikolomzi Adonis cannot afford to speak from the same hymn sheet as Dawie de Villiers, such would be an abomination.

I admit, I love how Mr Adonis uses the conversation between Jesus Christ and Nicodemus in John 3:4 which reads “Nicodemus said to him, how can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb again and be born?” He uses this verse to conclude his attack on decoloniality by asking, “How do we unlive colonisation?” Indeed, Jesus’ response, in the verse that follows, is helpful, and I dare say somewhat decolonial, because he calls for Nicodemus to imagine the impossible and the impractical – that is for a grown man to be born anew. In similar terms decoloniality is a call to seek deeper truths and hidden meanings, about the prevailing inhumane conditions of the subaltern in all of the Global South. To be a decolonial born-again means committing yourself to learning and unlearning in order to re-learn.

Ntando Sindane is an emerging researcher and academic at Unisa’s department of mercantile law. He writes in his ideological capacity. 

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