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Full text of HEPI’s 2018 Annual Lecture by Professor Ihron Rensburg: Global Africa: Nelson Mandela and the Meaning of Decolonizing Knowledge and Universities

  • 27 November 2018

The 2018 HEPI Annual Lecture and subsequent reception were kindly sponsored by Pearson, to whom we are very grateful.


When reflecting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the founding father of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy, now one-hundred years since his birth and almost five years since his passing, I continue to puzzle over the nature of South Africa’s transition to democracy, and in particular over the conjunctural facts that conspired with human agency to facilitate the country’s specific post-apartheid democracy outcome. For now, in the third decade of South Africa’s democratic era, when widening inequality, deepening poverty and resiliently high unemployment are predominant phenomena, there are voices that hold that South Africa’s transition to democracy was a calamitous compromise that limited the nation’s capacity to make the many leaps forward that are required to tackle these fundamental socio-economic flaws, including the durability of the colonial university model and knowledge system. In contemporary times, these voices go as far as to call Nelson Mandela “a sell-out”. Since the colonised and the colonising, and the colony and the colonising metropole always constituted a contest between and within each other, and thus constitute a single analytic field (Cooper and Stoller, 1997), these questions and debates are equally important to nation-states and their institutions within the colonising metropole.

Here I argue and show that transitions are far more complex than is comprehended by the simple finger pointing of successor generations – they involve contestation over political power and its transfer, and ongoing struggles over the socio-economic and cultural order. Each epoch throws up its own possibilities for rupture of the ancien régime, which must be analysed and grasped in contest; and each new epoch offers possibilities for far more deep-seated transformation and change. Importantly, while Nelson Mandela would be the first to acknowledge that he was a member of a leadership team which wrestled with conjunctural facts, opportunities and challenges, he remains an important icon and reference point worldwide for those freedom-loving persons seeking to build inclusive and caring nations. It is in this light, and given his significant role in facilitating South Africa’s transition from apartheid, that an imagined conversation with him about transitions to democracy might throw some light on pertinent and critical transition society concerns.

I commence with an imaginary dialogue with Nelson Mandela about the accomplishments and disappointments of transition in South Africa since 1994. Second, I present, in line with the perspective of Prof Sir Hillary Beckles, a framework of ‘Global Pan-Africanism’, distinguishing this from a continent-limiting Pan-Africanism. Third, I make pertinent remarks about global Western hegemony and the position of universities and intellectuals in Africa. Fourth, I draw attention to four features of the limited character of transformation in South African universities, arguing that these do not amount to delinking nor an epistemic break with the ancien régime. Fifth, I characterise ubuntu(African humanism) as the central feature of this perspective and illustrate this philosophy with some practical examples. In conclusion, I return to the dialogue with Mandela to offer a potential ethical direction for the future.

In conversation with Nelson Mandela

Far too often these days, I ask tata’uMandela[1]why South Africa’s transition to a liberal democracy was not accompanied by a definite Samir Amin (1987a, 1987b)-type of delinking, or a Bourdieu (1984, 1990)-type of epistemic break with the ancien régime. Given the unprecedented mobilisation of the 1980s that rendered South Africa ungovernable, and which laid the foundations for a socialist democracy, I ask whether we have defaulted to – and if I should therefore become more comfortable with the idea of – a two-stage revolution towards a socialist democracy.

I ask tata’uMandela what was possible at the time, given the conjunctural facts ‘on the ground’. The first of these circumstances was the fall of the most odious forms of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that had made it increasingly unlikely that socialist nation states and policies would flourish or be tolerated by the global hegemony of neo-liberalism. The second occurrence was the end of the Cold War and the concomitant strident ascendancy of the most conservative factions of neo-liberalism. Third, there was a sharp downturn in the South African economy that had been battered by labour protests and shutdowns, sanctions, plummeting business confidence, disinvestment, capital flight, and concern about an Angola or Mozambica-type scenario of no-return, no-recovery, and scorched earth. And fourth, South Africa had witnessed successful insurrection and a state of ungovernability, and the consequent (what turned out to be) over-exuberance for the construction of a socialist democracy of social activists and actors (Suttner, 2014).

I ask tata’uMandela why elite economic interests were so formidably protected in the new South African Constitution (1996), even though Section 25 thereof is arguably pro-land reform? Why was the nationalisation of key parts of the economy and large monopoly enterprises dropped so unceremoniously? And why was trade liberalisation embraced, resulting in the collapse of key labour-absorbing industries such as the textile and leather industries? Why was such a critical matter as the return of land to the indigenous Khoi (South Africa’s First Nation), Nguni, baSotho and others reduced to protecting existing property rights – themselves the result of centuries of violence-ridden land dispossession and theft – with expropriation allowed only under an extremely limited range of conditions, and then with compensation (albeit determined in the light of many factors, including the history of dispossession)?

I ask tata’uMandela what was possible, what opportunities were seized and what opportunities were missed? I ask again why we opted for what we received, given the delinking (Amin, 1987a, 1987b) option to reimagine, re-envision and reground our nation and knowledge, teaching, learning and research presented by and within the 1985–89 uprising. That uprising was forged in the instance of the People’s Education Movement (Mkhatshwa, 1985; Kruss, 1988; Mashamba, 1991; Rensburg, 1996) which offered the foundations for a radical Paulo Freirean people’s education pedagogy, an early Soviet-type of school, college and university governance, and a transformed relationship between knowledge production and transformation. Consider that delinking was forged, at least initially, in the instances of Tanzania’s experiment with African socialism, Zambia’s with African humanism, and Cuba and the People’s Republic of China’s adoption of socialism and communism. And why did we have to settle for building our new post-apartheid democracy from within the apartheid economy, within apartheid property rights, within apartheid education, within apartheid health, within the apartheid-racialised landscape, and within the former apartheid state? Why could we not reimagine, re-envision and break with the racist-sexist-colonial-apartheid regime, and the authoritarian, bureaucratic, anti-democratic knowledge, teaching, learning and research production systems?

I ask tata’uMandela why did we, in the blink of an eye, turn from invoking ungovernability, insurrection and forward to people’s power (Tambo, 1985), to – in your words: “Let’s throw our weapons into the sea, let’s end insurrection, let’s build peace, let’s ready ourselves to govern, and let’s advance nation-building”? And, I retort, on what terms tata’uMadiba[2]did we do this, and at what cost in terms of the means and the time to transform, root and branch, our new nation state – including the political, socio-economic and cultural? And, why did we switch civil society activism on and off as we pleased?

Or, tata’uMadiba, is this a generational matter that requires your generation and mine to complete our historic missions to deliver the necessary democratic breakthrough founded upon a single nation state? And that therefore, it is the historic duty of the next generation of activists and freedom fighters, and the ones who come thereafter – such as the new social movements forged or made possible in the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall campaigns, and the hundreds of localised, unconnected social protest movements – to define and to accomplish their own historic missions?

And, then I hear Nelson Mandela whispering to me – My son, transitions from authoritarian regimes to political democracies are complex and easily misunderstood. In fact, typically, as O’Donnell and Schmitter (1991: 72) remind us political democracy is, “produced by stalemate and dissensus rather than by prior unity and consensus. It emerges from the interdependence of conflicted interests and the diversity of discordant ideals, in a context which encourages strategic interaction among wary and weary actors”.

Mandela continues… Our country could not be allowed to become another scorched earth. We gave our lives to preserve it for our future. This was indeed our opportunity to achieve our first goal of a democratic breakthrough. It was imperative for us to embrace each other and to build our non-racial democracy upon the values of freedom, equality and human dignity. And we had to undertake this with great care, always with one eye fixed on our exploited and subjugated urban and rural poor, who continue to strain under the yoke of social and economic oppression – for we could not maintain any longer the oppression and exploitation and human tragedy that was in front of our own eyes! We knew that, as a revolutionary liberation movement, we would be able to immediately change the worst aspects of the misery and suffering of our people – from ending the most virulent, odious and self-evident forms of racism, ending the political quagmire and the extra-judicial killings of activists, to increasing employment, equalising old age and disability grants, introducing child grants to uplift the poorest among us, ending Bantu and apartheid-riddled public education and health, commencing the process of building public housing and land redistribution, and turning the country from the isolated skunk of the world to a revered and influential non-racial, non-sexist rainbow democracy.

Mandela continues… We of course did consider the accomplishments of what you would call ‘other bourgeois democracies’ that advanced the causes of the bourgeoisie and middle classes, and less so those of their slaves, serfs and the poor. Well then, I suggest that you consider again the situation of France under Mitterrand’s Socialist Party and even of the UK under the ‘real left’ Labour Party, where as a result of considerable efforts, a united leftist labour movement, a socialist political party and a revolutionary developmental state – right in the face of the protesting bourgeoisie – made significant gains in public health and education, in social development and in employment! We believe that this is what Poulantzas (1973) would call the effective use of the relative autonomy of the state to uplift the ubuntu(humanity) of all of society.

And then again, I ask tata’uMadiba, did we not lay the foundations for our corrupt, arrogant and unaccountable state – initially during the time of negotiating our democratic breakthrough, when first we absorbed, and later smothered the United Democratic Front (UDF) – that vast network of civil society organisations – and in turn, mass-based democracy and activism? And now, more latterly, we have witnessed the corrupt arms deal and our tragic HIV/AIDS scepticism; we failed to act when called upon during Zimbabwe’s rigged 2008 elections; we failed to accept the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) peer report about the state of our state; and, we failed to respond to the political and economic capture of the state and its state-owned enterprises.

And tata’uMadiba, what do you say about former President Kgalema Motlanthe[3] telling the BBC that your beloved ANC is now dead, that self-correction seems futile, and that it needs to lose the 2019 election in order to be resurrected, so that it can become itself again – for that would be the only way that corrupt elements would slink away and leave the party to those interested in the wellbeing of the nation. And yet, I hear Deputy President (now President) Cyril Ramaphosa, saying that the opportunity to rebuild your beloved ANC is now and not tomorrow, and that losing an election is beyond the realm of possibilities. And, then again, I hear former President Thabo Mbeki reminding us as his comrades removed him as the President of the Republic in 2008, “Gloom and despondency have never defeated adversity. Trying times need courage and resilience. Our strength as a people is not tested during the best of times but during the worst of times” (Mbeki, 2008).

And then, again, I hear tata’uMadiba whisper: My son, the ‘long walk to freedom’ is now in your hands and those of your generation and the generations that will follow you – for it always seems impossible until it’s done. And, son, remember what we advised, “If our expectations, if our fondest prayers and dreams, are not realised, then we should all bear in mind that the greatest glory of living lies not in never falling but in rising every time you fall” (Mandela, 1998, cited in Bennet: A26). And, don’t forget that “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There are many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death” (Mandela, 1994:60). So, go well, son. Build a better Global Africa and a transforming, decolonised future for all our people. By this, I remind you that it is your responsibility to also tackle the cultural dimension of our human condition.

The case and framework for global Pan-Africanism

In reflecting on this discursive work, and spurred on by recent student protests for a free, quality and decolonised education – in South Africa, across Global Africa, here in the United Kingdom and beyond – I now reflect on the state of knowledge and of knowledge institutions in ‘Global Africa’. I use the term ‘Global Africa’ – as opposed to the far narrower Africa continent-limited ‘Pan Africanism’ – to refer to Africa and its diaspora, uniting Africans from the Americas, Europe and other continents, both culturally and intellectually.

But first, some brief reflections on the first wave of decolonisation of the 1960s. It is self-evident that this first wave was, in the main, limited to changing the political and legal frameworks for new governance mechanisms, and that of its important symbolism – new flags, inclusive general elections, new universities, new airlines, new public broadcasters, etc. On the other hand, the most recent decolonisation wave of 2015-17, fanned especially by protesting students in South Africa, focused on transforming the economic, social and cultural order, and the knowledge systems that underpinned and sustained Western hegemony in the post-colonial period.

Amin (2017, cited in Kvangraven, 2017:17) argues convincingly that delinking from the exploitative global economic system is a prerequisite for countries in the political South such as Brazil, South Africa, China, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines to undergo development; that while participation in the global economic system is unavoidable, this should not overwhelm and over-determine a country’s national sovereign project; that national popular projects must be put in place alongside delinking to drive inclusion and participation in development; and, that rather than mimicking the hegemonic order, a critique of it must be nurtured in the media and universities. For in this manner, Amin argues, these nations can compel the exploitative global system to adjust to their needs rather than themselves simply going along with having to unilaterally adjust to the needs of the core.

In Amin’s estimation (ibid, 2017:16), China’s balance between its national sovereign project and participation in the global economy is 50:50 (against Amin’s ideal of 70:30), while in Brazil and India the balance is worse at 20:80; and in South Africa it is the worst at 0:100. In a similar manner to Amin, I argue that while complete delinking (or autarky) from the global knowledge system is not possible, nations such as South Africa and regions such as Global Africa ignore their national and regional sovereign projects and their relative autonomies at their peril. For it is in this manner – delinking and nurturing national popular projects – that re-imagination, re-envisioning and re-grounding of the post-colony away from the ancien régimeis made possible, in terms of the society, economy, politics, culture and knowledge.

Transforming the knowledge systems is a matter that preoccupies Ngugi wa Thiong’o (cited in Maringe, 2017) who argues that the process of decolonisation is largely incomplete until the knowledge systems which shape people’s identities, linguistic capabilities and intellectual capital, and in turn their socio-economic progress, have been decolonised.

Western hegemony, Global Africa and post-colonial knowledge production: Myths and liberalism

I focus now on progress made by Global Africans since the end of colonisation to nurture and canonise a global African philosophy or way of seeing – to make sense of and nurture a far different and better world. I could also have subtitled this discussion: ‘Work in progress – an unfinished project’. Now, I continue to offer this narrative to South Africa’s militant student activists in order for them to make sense of, and connect their contemporary struggles for a free, quality and decolonised education to those of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Lillian Ngoyi, Charlotte Maxeke, Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Emma Mashinini, Matthew Goniwe, Wantu Zenzile and Peter Mokaba. I could also have subtitled my discussion: ‘Return to Source’ – this narrative connects us back to the decolonisation raison d’êtreand to the urgency of the anti-colonial struggles of Njinga Mbandi, Nkrumah, Sojourner Truth, Garvey, Senghor, Diop, Cabral, Claudia Jones, Fanon, Walcott, Toni Morrison, Rodney, Hudi Shaawari, Michelle Cliff, Angela Davis and Miriam Makeba.[4] Or perhaps even more poignantly, I could have subtitled my discussion: ‘Rising from four centuries of deception, duplicity and complicity’ – this narrative draws attention to the sustained claims of colonisers and missionaries alike of their good intentions ‘to civilise the savage natives’ into Western thought and life, and of our (Africans) complicity in these centuries-old projects of deception and duplicity.

In this regard, Wernick (2006:559) reminds us that the university in the Modern Age has experienced, as a result of a “ruptural and top-down” modernisation process, discontinuity with the ancient world’s knowledge institutions in Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and southeast Asia. These ancient institutions have now become simply an extension of European intellectual tradition, and defined as a core element of Western – instead of African, Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Japanese or southeast Asian – cultural identity.

Along similar lines, Mamdani (2017) reminds us that ‘enlightenment’ and the modern Western university were a response to an entirely different set of circumstances – not the changing vision of a self-reflective and self-revolutionising Europe nor of Europe’s universalism of economic rationality, personhood, freedom, participation and social progress (Cooper and Stoler, 1997), but a self-assertive, aggrandising, conquering Europe, expanding across the globe. This move began with the new world, then Asia, and finally Africa, seeking to transform and to civilize that world in its own image. More specifically, for Mamdani (2017), “The African university began as a colonial project whose ambition was the conquest of society. The university was the frontline of the colonial civilising mission” (citied by[5]

Strikingly, and apparently contradictorily, many of Africa’s great liberation leaders were educated at these very institutions, either locally in the colony, and/or internationally in the colonising metropole – reflecting that even in the interstices of backward and contradiction-filled liberalism lie the possibilities for engaged, critical and liberation scholarship.

The question that I puzzle over for the rest of this discussion is, what will be global Africa’s unique contribution to the creation of a new, different, inclusive, caring, decolonised future as it, Global Africa, rises, carefully and unsteadily, to leadership of the world over the course of the next three generations, and as, concomitantly, Chinese leadership rises and then recedes.

It is self-evident that Western philosophical, economic, political and cultural hegemony has over centuries now successfully elevated to ‘fact’ the myth of the undisputed superiority of its philosophy and thought. This impression continues largely untroubled at this time, as many of our universities, and far too many academics and other intellectuals still seek to outdo each other to think, sound, behave, speak, and thus live out this self-fulfilling myth – in front of our eyes and those of their peers, students and the public. In this myth, African thought and philosophy have long been shouted down and drowned out.

As Edward Said (2003:2) reminds us, this practice of myth-making and diminution was well established earlier, in the treatment of so-called ‘Orientals’:

Every single empire in this official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilise, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and the death brought by the latest mission civilizatrice.

Consider the example of Hahn, who in the late-19thcentury had lived for eight years undertaking his research among the Namaquas, a tribe of the Khoikhoi, while absolving himself of a great cultural genocide, patronisingly laments the decline of the Khoikhoi,

“An unmerciful fate has overtaken the Khoikhoi; the most powerful tribes have been annihilated, and with them their traditions, sacred as well as profane. Those still extant have lost so much of their national peculiarities by contact with civilisation, and have adopted such a number of Indo-European beliefs and customs; and the Christian ideas introduced by the missionaries have amalgamated to such a degree with the national religious ideas and mythologies, that for this reason I have in the following pages preferred to give less than I could give, lest I should be accused that from a certain natural interest in, and sympathy with, the Khoikhoi, I had been carried away to assign to them a higher station in the scale of culture that they are entitled to claim.”[6]

Having lived among the Namaqua, won over their confidence and provided vital insights into Khoikhoi culture, consider Hahn’s extraordinary cultural superiority vanity, cultural imperialism, misrepresentation (Ali Mazrui[7]) and the violence of self-consciousness and self-righteousness upon which so many of the European sciences disciplines were to be founded,

“My readers are Aryans, they belong to that race of mankind which in science, arts, and religion will for ever serve as a standard to all other races on the surface of the earth.”[8]

Thus, having observed and collected the evidence of an advanced culture nested within a wider colonised world, and its contribution to humanity, even it was lost on Hahn. Consider that Africa’s great civilisations predated his misrepresentations of his Aryan culture, science, arts, and religion whose roots and sources are easily traced back to Africa. Consider further that when the early human beings migrated out of Africa between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, “… they were not traveling alone. They were carrying something with them, and that something had developed slowly over millennia. It was culture, the blueprint for civilisation itself. It was not just DNA that migrated out of Africa”.[9]They should also consider the enormous contributions to civilisation of the ancient Iron Age Kingdom of Axum, ancient Egypt, ancient Kush, ancient Timbuktu, ancient Great Zimbabwe, ancient Zanzibar and the great ‘Bantu’ migration from 3,000 BC onwards that witnessed a massive shift of people and technologies. All of these and many other ancient African kingdoms predate imperialist-colonialism and have contributed significantly to laying the foundations of the modern world: to its philosophies, its sciences, its engineering feats, and so on.[10]

Puzzlingly, the fact that Africa’s first universities predated those of Europe is lost on Hahn and his likes. Al-Qarawiyyin at Fes (859AD), Al Azhar at Cairo (970AD), Timbuktu (also known as the University of Sankora, 12th century), and for that matter, Sri Lanka’s Nalanda University (5th century AD) all predate Europe’s first universities. For the record, Bologna (1088AD), Oxford (1096AD) and Salamanca (1134AD) were established two to three centuries after Al-Qarawiyyin.

Consider also the idea that all of the modern sciences have their roots in Westernism. From the idea of zero, to the decimal system, numerical notations, binary numbers, algorithms, theories of the atom, heliocentric theory, plastic and cataract surgery, medicine, laws of motion, calculus, and so on. Misrepresentation upon misrepresentation!

Said (1993) is equally forthright when he speaks to the tragedy of those intellectuals who practice a philosophy of pure textuality, who advocate a critical non-interference, and who are silent about the historical and social worlds in which the classics, liberal education, literature, natural sciences, engineering and medicine take place. And these patterns of misrepresentation continue unabated.

Witness the contemporary wisdom dished out just yesterday by the German Commissioner for Africa, Gunter Nooke following on the advice of Nobel Laurate Paul Romer – African countries should lease land to the EU and the World Bank so that they can build and run cities in Africa to boost job creation and development.[11] Since African nations can’t get their act together, and Europeans know far better, Africans should, extraordinarily, accept voluntary colonialism.

In the instance of South Africa, as part of the colonising metropole and apartheid’s modernisation and Westernisation projects that denied Asia and Africa forms of knowledge (Cooper and Stoler, 1997), one of the most powerful weapons was the creation of enforced identities which still linger today. These identities are reproduced in academia, the media and in the popular imagination (Adekeye Adebajo, 2017:3). As Mamdani (cited in Adebajo, ibid.), informed by his troubled experience at the University of Cape Town put it, “It was the White intelligentsia that took the lead in creating apartheid-enforced identities in the knowledge they produced. Believing that this was an act of intellectual creativity unrelated to the culture of privilege in which they were steeped, they ended up defending an ingrained prejudice”.

Mamdani, not unlike Said (1978) on orientalism, noted that although these White liberal English South African institutions had intellectual freedom, they lacked social accountability; that excellence was equated with race; and, that institutional autonomy was used to defend White privilege (Adebajo, 2017). Troubling as it is, it was thus no surprise that nihilistic student activists took part in the student protests of 2015–17 in South Africa, insisting on the disestablishment of this bulwark of White academic privilege – academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Four Features of the Limited Character of Transformation in South African Universities

Consider for example South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy higher university education project where we can discern at least four distinguishable features that define the nature and substance of its ambition and which provide a basis for assessing whether delinking (Amin, 1987a, 1987b) or an epistemic break (Bourdieu, 1984, 1990) has been accomplished or is under way. These features are: firstly, transformation as an essential – yet narrow – focus on de-racialisation; secondly, transformation as the alignment of curricula and qualifications to suit the economy and the labour market; thirdly, transformation with liberal notions of individual excellence and meritocracy at its core; and fourthly, transformation as the merging of higher education institutions while effectively sustaining the inequitable and racially-organised institutional arrangements of the ancien régime.

The conclusion that one inevitably arrives at is that, at least until very recently, the conception and implementation of transformation has failed at a general system level, to disrupt, delink or precipitate an epistemic break from the status quo ante, and as a result, actually mimicked Bourdieu’s ideas of academic capitalism and Gramsci’s  (1971) conception of cultural reproduction, hegemony and counter-hegemony. This failure resulted in forfeiting the immediate possibility of nurturing a post-colonial university and related knowledge system.

It would be remiss of me not to also draw attention to the early knowledge decolonisation projects hosted at various African knowledge production centres of excellence, such as the Ibadan School of History, the Dakar School of Culture and the Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy (Adésínà, 2005:23–39); these centres actively sought to enable delinking and an epistemic break with the ancien régime. Regrettably, they were not sustained, as liberation leaders were replaced by – or themselves became military rulers and despots during Africa’s lost decades (circa 1967–1997). Thus, so much unfinished work lies ahead. But where does this commence? And what wisdom can we draw from South Africa’s struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, and from Mazrui, Said and other scholars? But first, let us introduce, examine and apply the value of ubuntu to possible African and future world epistemes.

African epistemes and the nurturing of a New World: The case for ubuntu

Mphahlele (2002) holds that African humanism is the belief that human life – that is, the person and the personalised social units to which he/she belongs, which are the sole, sacred receptacles – is central to the universe. To ‘be’ underscores one’s very existence and the value of life.

Ramose (1999:49) confirms that the aphorism Motho ke motho ka batho(‘I am because you are’) implies the idea that “the individual human being is the subject and not the object of intrinsic value in its own right”, and that if it were not so, “it would be senseless to base the affirmation of one’s humanness on the recognition of the same in the other”; and that “it is meaningful to state that to denigrate and disrespect the other human being is in the first place to denigrate and disrespect oneself only if it is accepted that oneself is the subject worthy of dignity and respect” (ibid.).

As Metz (2014:6761) puts it, ubuntuliterally means ‘humanness’: to exhibit ubuntuis to be a person who is living a genuinely human way of life, whereas the lack thereof is to be lacking in human excellence, or living like an animal. Following this human philosophy, Metz continues, one’s basic aim in life should be to exude ubuntuwhich one can do by valuing communal relationships with other people. Realising oneself cannot be achieved except through others. Thus, ‘a person is a person through other persons’ or ‘I am because we are’.

Metz (2014:6763) continues: “community (harmony) in sub-Saharan ethics is usefully analysed as the combination of two logically distinct kinds of interaction, identifying with others and exhibiting solidarity with them.” Moreover, one exhibits human excellence, “insofar as one displays character traits such as politeness, kindness, sympathy, compassion, benevolence, altruism, sacrifice, forgiveness, mercy, and tolerance” (Metz, 2014:6764).

Recent South African illustrations of the practice of ubuntumay be found in the South African Constitution (Republic of South Africa, 1996) which appealed to people’s ubuntuin striking out the death penalty as being inconsistent with the right to life and the value of human dignity (Cornell and Mavungua, quoted in Metz, 2014). Furthermore, ubuntuwas central to the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that dealt with apartheid-era crimes through the application of restorative justice (Tutu, 1999, quoted in Metz, 2014).

At the University of Johannesburg, ubuntudemanded entering into community with others, particularly those who are vulnerable or who have been wronged, and in the context of the number of its Black students who come from schools serving the poorest 40% of people in South Africa rising, by design, from 8% in 2005 to 31% in 2017, has seen the university provide twice daily free meals to 18,000 students who would otherwise go to lectures and labs hungry, trying to learn while starving (University of Johannesburg, 2015, 2016, 2017).

This then logically leads me back to the question: When all is said and done, what will be Global Africa’s contribution to Global Africa and the world, as Global Africans take leadership of the world? I believe that it must be to strive to live out the ubuntutraits already described and exemplified. It must also be a return to the other Global Africa ethic, namely to live in harmony with our planet – an ailing planet which now requires fundamental and urgent recalibration. I believe our contribution will also be evident when we decolonise and contextualise undergraduate studies, voluntary community service and service learning – and challenge and enable our students to make poverty and inequality history. We need to enable them to lead the world – in their enterprises, organisations and public institutions – to a far better place: one that is inclusive, caring, kind, prosperous, sustainable, and in harmony with the environment.


I conclude where I began, with Said and Mazrui, by offering Said’s (1993:11) seminal reminder of the historic duty of intellectuals:

The role of the intellectual … cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the carpet.

For it is only when we do all of this, that we shall ‘return to source’. And then we shall be able to finish – or at least initiate finishing – the unfinished business of decolonisation, and of reimagining and creating a new future for Global Africa and for the world. And so, can we actually imagine Africa, our “locus of enunciation” (Grosfoguel, 2011), as the epicentre of knowledge production and creation, and as a vital part of the transformation of the lived experiences of our people in the 21st century and beyond?

It is in our hands, and I hear again, tata’uMadiba whispering – For, my son, it is in these detailed matters of an actual war of position in action and in class solidarity, as Gramsci would call it, that you and your peers can take forward the incomplete work of my generation. And, this work that you must complete relates to all aspects of our human condition, whether public education, land ownership, public health, public housing, social development, knowledge and value systems, and so on. All of these will require detailed examination, and the development and implementation of challenging if not revolutionary strategies and tactics to move our people forward. Test the limits of our new Constitution; make sure the Bill of Rights works for all and that it advances in a real manner, the socio-economic rights of the oppressed, the poor and the excluded. Continuously build and strengthen our judiciary, and our ‘Chapter 9 institutions’;[12] hold accountable your executive through an effective parliament, labour movement and civil society, whilst building bridges across civil society, labour, parliament and the executive.

Nelson Mandela continues … As you make history, always remember history – Nyerere’s African socialism, Kaunda’s African humanism, the early Soviets, socialist Cuba, early post-independence socialist Guinea–Bissau, socialist possibilities in early post-independence Angola and Mozambique. And learn from it all, so that you can be alert and do far better than others who have gone before you. Love and embrace the generation that comes after yours, many of whom feel that there were no struggles before theirs – ahistoricism, as one may call this fault – and many others who feel that we sold out our nation to the apartheid regime. Be mindful of the fact that in my youth, I turned many a meeting upside down when I differed sharply with my peers and the older generation of leaders – take as much time as is needed to debate with them and demonstrate to them that freedom, however limited it may be in their eyes, was not free, and that it is a great honour to advance the cause of the oppressed and the excluded, majorities and minorities alike. Also, always remind yourself that it is only when we take up the challenge, that we will become the subjects of our own history that is grounded within an African and ubuntuepisteme of cooperation and interdependence. For it is in these manners then, that we will engage the rest of the world on even-handed terms, with our heads held high.


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[1] This is a Xhosa expression of endearment toward an older father figure, in this instance, Nelson Mandela.

[2] This Xhosa expression of endearment toward an older father figure invokes his clan name, in this instance, Nelson Mandela’s clan name, ‘Madiba’.

[3] Interview with Steven Sackur on 12 September 2017 on the BBC show Hard Talk. See also an interesting take on this by Yunus Momoniat in Business Day (15 September 2017): Moribund ANC’s salvation lies in losing next election.

[4] While the list here is necessarily selective and incomplete, it is useful in highlighting the work of such activists.

[5] See also the YouTube video, Mamdani delivers rousing TB Davie Memorial Lecture.

[6] Hahn, T. 1881:30-31.Tsuni-LLGoam, The Supreme Being Of The Khoi-Khoi. Leopold Classic Library. London: Trubner & Co., Ludgate Hill.

[7] Cited in Maringe, F. 2017. Transforming Knowledge Production Systems in the New African University. Knowledge and Change in African Universities. Re-imagining the Terrain,Vol 2,edited by M. Cross and A. Ndofirepi, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. pp. 1-18.

[8] Hahn, T. ibid:114.

[9] Gates quoted in Africa’s Great Civilisations. 2017. Public Broadcasting Service. Washington DC.

[10] Gates, ibid.


[12] The institutions listed in Chapter 9 of the Constitution include the Public Protector, the South African Human Rights Commission, the Auditor-General, the Independent Electoral Commission, the Commission for Gender Equality and the Commission for the Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.

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