What’s the deal with decolonisation?



Discussions about decolonisation have been ongoing for a number of years now yet the debates truly became heated and took centre stage in South Africa between 2015 and 2016, mainly fuelled by the RhodesMustFall campaign and subsequent Fees Must Fall nationwide protests.

The term “decolonise” is a more confrontational and bold term for what was already popularised as “black conscious”, “uhuru”, “power to the people” and “mayibuye iAfrica” which were chanted ceaselessly during the struggle against apartheid. To call for decolonisation is to implicate racist, sexist, anti-poor doctrines and their advocates. It is to reject the ideas and presuppositions that our societies and institutions have so deeply entrenched to become the norm, in which there is often no room for the African, the Indian, the Coloured or any “other”.

While the abovementioned versions of decolonisation which preceded the term as we use it today were centred on the affirmative transfer of power “to” those who were disenfranchised without any or little reference to those who held the power, this recent talk of decolonisation speaks of the affirmative transfer of power “from” those who have illegitimate monopoly of it “to” the disenfranchised. This explicit denouncing of colonial remnants in various spheres of life have exacerbated racial and class tensions across South Africa.

Part of the resistance to decolonisation is the misinterpretation of “colonial” to be synonymous with “white”. For some, this is a valid concession, however, colonial means much more than merely white. It refers to white supremacy and the structures and practices which uphold it at the expense of the rest of the population. To decolonise is to challenge the innate associations of white to the standard of success, wealth, beauty, professionalism and competency (re the African time jokes) or even purity, while the opposite is perceived of other races.

Many opposers of the decolonisation project refer to it as the revert back to a Hobbes “state of nature-like” primitive time where disease and war are rife, in the absence of law, art, science, philosophy and modern technology. This very attitude demonstrates not only a deep misunderstanding of the term “decolonisation” but the out-dated Eurocentric perception that disregards the advanced nature of precolonial African civilizations, history, art, philosophy and traditional medicine.

The biggest mistake made here is to assume that because a country is independent  that it is also free from colonial influences and constructs. The first revelation of this thinking is associating colonial rule with bringing civilisation and all the luxuries and innovations of the modern world, while ignoring cheap/forced labour, native taxes which were economically crippling, systematic and institutional racism. The second mistake made is to ignore the lost generations which perpetuated cycles of poverty as a direct result of the colonial rule and the inverse, generational wealth legacies created by the same systems.

The way forward regarding decolonisation depends on the collective effort to rebuild a society whose values, culture and institutions reflect its identity. If we claim our identity is of a reconciled or reconciling nation wherein all are equal, then those remnants which prove otherwise must be uprooted. This will require a concession to the dehumanising and oppressive nature of white supremacy and its guardians. Decolonising requires imagination, brutal honesty, reflection, co-creation and re-invention by an entire generation, as opposed to the view that it is an anarchic upheaval of civilisation and order by a politically frustrated  and free-riding few.