The Roots of Xenophobic Violence in South Africa—A Pan African Response

Albano Augustinho TrocoDr. Madalitso Zililo Phiri is a critical Black Studies scholar. Phiri was inaugurated into scholarship by a life-long fascination with politics, society, and world history and his research program pursue three complementary lines of inquiry: comparative social policy (in South Africa and Brazil), race and the political economy of development (especially in Africa), and Black radical thought. His publications include refereed journal articles, book chapters, and opinion pieces in internationally accredited periodicals such as the Journal of Southern African Studies (JSAS), Black Agenda Review, Africa Insight, and the South African Journal of International Affairs (SAIJA).


In South Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic has served to reify the manifold inequalities emanating from the country’s histories of colonial domination, Black genocide, and anti-black racism. But South Africa’s current social crisis is further exacerbated by internal perceptions that it has been inundated and infested with illegal immigrants who have eroded the country’s social fiber. It is a perspective that oftentimes leads to physical violence. Trucks driven by foreign nationals have been burned and there have been arrests and extra-judicial killings of ‘illegal’ workers, gardeners, and small shopkeepers from countries including Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Somalia.

While such violence threatens to further polarize working-class communities, it also highlights the key existential and political problem of twenty-first century South Africa: that of the nature of the relationship between South African citizens, the belonging and inclusion of foreign nationals, and the post-apartheid polity. As a Malawian national with a Pan-African orientation living in South Africa, recent anti-immigrant actions have, for me, pointed to a need to understand the origins of the formation of the colonial nation-state, with the aim of dismantling it, as a means towards forging a more expansive and inclusive idea of citizenship.

Several dates are crucial to understanding how aspects of colonialism and Black resistance were at odds in shaping the trajectory of South Africa. These dates are 1910, 1912, and 1913. The year 1910 saw the formation of the Union of South Africa, whose sole aim was to unite the antagonistic British and Dutch (Boer) territories to exclude Black Africans from participating in this newly formed state under the guise of the mission civilisatrice. By contrast, 1912 saw the birth of the African National Congress (ANC) whose sole aim was to resist the exclusivist, colonial, and imperial idea that South Africa would be governed by privileged White citizens. If these two dates bring to the fore the origins of state bifurcated by White supremacy and resistance to it, then 1913 further consolidated ideas of difference and White economic privilege through two pieces of legislation: the Land Act and the Immigration Act.

The Land Act of 1913 instrumentalized the dispossession and economic destitution of Black Africans. In the same year, on May 8, 1913 the colonial parliament passed legislation that banned the recruitment of migrant workers from areas north of latitude 22 degrees which included British governed territories like Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (Malawi) and the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.

The Immigration Act of 1913 has received less attention than the Land Act because contemporary contestations on redistributive politics in South African have focused on expropriation of land without compensation. However, both land dispossession and exclusive migration policies were produced under the epoch of a violent colonial modernity, and their consolidation in the colonial era were in the service of British imperialism. The Immigration Act of 1913, I argue, with its ban on the “tropical native,” was a progenitor of contemporary violence toward African nationals in South Africa. Banning the tropical native served to cement the ideas of exclusive citizenship that has shaped South Africa’s post-apartheid migration policies. It is no coincidence that the colonial regime fused land dispossession and banned the “tropical native” in the same year.

That violence, has been central to contemporary state making in South Africa, has been extensively documented, especially through the construction of ‘Nativism’ as a theory. Mahmood Mamdani distills ideas of White supremacy and segregation that are foundational to institutional state making by engaging with Jan Smuts’ policy of Nativism. Smuts suggested, “The British Empire does not stand for the assimilation of its peoples into a common type, it does not stand for standardization, but for the fullest freest development of its peoples along their own specific lines”. The mythical racial foundations of inclusion and exclusion in this newly formed union had been drawn. As Frantz Fanon conveys, colonial modernity has been adept at creating two centers: the universal “Man” and the bastardized “Other”.  By this logic, the bastardized “Other” is perpetually condemned into the “zone of non-being”. More recently, Mamdani  has argued that the global project of carving out the world into a European image was first experimented in Europe and the Americas.

Similarly, the modern South African state was founded on the premises of ethnic cleansing and perpetual servitude of the “tropical Native” and the “South African Native”. Both are produced and reproduced to serve imperial labor demands in an economy that excludes them. South Africa’s ban on migrant workers from its northern neighbors created an environment for illegal migration to thrive; thus, we can better understand the phenomenon of poverty, unemployment, low wages, wars, and other factors that compel people to move from one country to another. This challenges current narrow nationalist populism that is insurgent and resurgent across Western countries and several African countries. Rather, the existence of a legal prohibition of any human activity almost always creates a field of illegal practices.

South Africa recently passed a new law in response to growing concerns in the country about its ‘porous’ borders. This became more topical when a Malawian who was living in South Africa and purporting to be a Christian prophet clandestinely escaped the country while facing charges of money laundering and racketeering, much to the dismay and embarrassment of South African authorities. Talk radio was filled with racist and xenophobic rhetoric that finds frequent expression in phrases like “we in South Africa” and “those people from Africa”. Figures on illegal immigration tend to be exaggerated and dated. According to 2011 figures from Statistics South Africa, legal migrants were about 4.2% of the total population, or about 2.1 million people. Over 75% come from across the African continent, with the majority (68%) from within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Over 45% of those from the SADC region were Zimbabweans.

In contrast to the current discourse about legal and illegal immigration, radical Pan-Africanists aimed to unmake the racial hierarchies that have been solidified by European colonial modernity. It is common for people to superficially invoke Nkrumah’s ‘Africa Must Unite’ thesis by referring to ethnic and linguistic homogeneities across the Southern Africa sub-region and using tropes like  “we are all the same” and “we should just unite”. The nation-state, however, continues to lure us into its symbols of belonging and exclusion, including sovereignty, currencies, national anthems, cuisine, linguistic identity, religiosity, music, art, sport and complex collective histories that define what and who we are.

Fanon’s admonition in The Wretched of the Earth helps us understand the contemporary trap: “[S]o comrades,” he averred, “let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her”. South Africa’s path toward the transcendence of a violent, exclusionary national state is the creation of a Pan-African federation that stretches across the Southern African sub-continent. This redivision would not be predicated on the Southern Africa Development Community, which retains neocolonial political and market imperatives. The Pan-African federation might geographically redraw colonial constructed borders and identities on three geographical fronts: South Africa-Namibia-Angola, South Africa-Lesotho-Swaziland-Botswana, and South Africa-Zimbabwe-Mozambique-Malawi-Zambia. Adom Getachew reconstructs this model in her discussion of Kwame Nkrumah’s and Eric Williams’ vision of postcolonial federation. For them, regional federations would overcome the postcolonial predicament by creating larger, more diverse domestic markets, organizing collective development plans, ensuring regional redistribution, and providing for regional security.  Such a federation would help to overcome the current postcolonial predicament because, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Mhlanga suggest, “borders as political and social creations rather than natural phenomena, must be open to negotiation, re-construction, re-drawing, contestations, acceptances and total rejections”.  This is, in part, the promise of Pan-Africanism.

This article was first published by Black Agenda Report on February 24, 2021.

Why COVID-19 can’t be blamed for Angola’s failure to have local governance

Albano Augustinho TrocoAlbano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.


Joao Lourenco, president of Angola. His promise to hold municipal elections this year has come to naught. Chesenot/Getty Images

Angola is the only southern African nation that has not introduced a system of elected local government. This, 45 years after it made constitutional provisions for the establishment of this important tier of government.

In 2018, President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This will no longer be the case. The government blames the COVID-19 health crisis for the failure. But the truth shows otherwise.

Even without the pandemic, local government elections would not have happened this year because Angola’s National Assembly has not approved the necessary legal framework. The framework, which was expected by mid-August this year, would have supported the gradual implementation of local government functions.

This, in my view, is part of a deliberate delaying strategy by the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), to maintain a system where the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence.

Angola’s system of governance

Angola has four levels of government – national, provincial, municipal and district (comuna). The last three enjoy little policy, budgetary or fiscal autonomy because of a rigid top-down relationship with the national government based in Luanda.

Central government effectively appoints all senior officials at the three lower levels. The president appoints the 18 provincial governors. They in turn appoint the 164 municipal administrators, who then appoint the 475 administrators of the districts.

Because officials at sub-national level are not elected by the people, they are politically and institutionally accountable to their hierarchical superiors, and, ultimately, to the president. Hence, sub-national government in Angola has always been remote from the people.

This governance system makes Angola one of the most politically and administratively centralised states in Africa. This heightens the zero-sum nature of national politics in Angola.

The party that wins the general elections gets to fill all executive offices with its own political appointees. These often also assume the chairmanship of the ruling party in their jurisdiction.

As a result, political parties that lose national elections can’t participate in local government. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has been in power for decades, is the main beneficiary of this system. This practice will change once local elections are established.

Constitutional journey

Angola’s first post-colonial constitution referred to the concept of elected local government with administrative and fiscal autonomy. This constitution was enacted in 1975, the same year the country gained independence from Portugal.

Seventeen years later, a constitutional revision law postulated that state organisation at the local level should comprise two structures: elected local representative bodies (autarquias locais) and decentralised local units of the central government (órgãos administrativos locais).

The latest constitution of 2010 reaffirms the commitment to these principles. But it declares that the effective institutionalisation of local authorities will happen gradually.

A wide range of factors has hampered the implementation of these constitutional provisions. They include:

  • the 27 years of civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Jonas Savimbi’s party, Unita (1975- 2002);
  • the establishment of single-party rule by the ruling party along Marxist-Leninist lines, giving rise to a highly centralised and securitised state;
  • the institution of administrative de-concentration reforms. This means that the central government has the ability to transfer some of its responsibilities to local government units, without necessarily allowing for the establishment of elected representative bodies;
  • the introduction of the principle of gradualism in establishing a system of elected local representatives.
  • the use of delaying tactics to maintain the status quo.

Empty promises

The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence. Thus, from a cost-benefit perspective, it can be argued that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola does not have the incentive to implement locally elected government.

The party has delayed the implementation of a system of elected local representatives until the “conditions are right”. This would enable it to decentralise power without actually losing it.

For instance, in 2008, the Minister of Territorial Administration stated that local government elections would take place in 2011 after the constitutional changes of 2010. This never happened.

Similarly, in 2011 the ministry said that the country’s first local elections would be held by 2014, following a general election in 2012, and a population census in 2014. This too did not happen.

In 2016, the deputy president, Manuel Vicente, said local elections would possibly take place in 2021. Two years later President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This came after consultations with the Council of the Republic (a constitutionally sanctioned body that advises the president on a wide range of issues).

The government announced that the local elections would start in selected municipalities, and spread to all municipalities by 2035. Opposition parties objected, and called for the simultaneous implementation of elected local government in all municipalities.

In August 2020, Parliament went into recess without completing the approval of the legal framework for the elections. The hope is that local elections will be held before the next general elections scheduled for 2022.

What next?

Angola has been in a severe economic crisis since 2014. The crunch is the combined result of a sudden decline in oil prices in international markets, a drop in domestic oil production, poor financial mismanagement, and massive corruption.

Consequently, the local currency has been devalued. This has raised public debt levels and external debt servicing costs. Meanwhile, foreign currency reserves continue to drop. This predicament could be used by the government to claim there is no money to hold local elections, further postponing the necessary development of local democracy.

For years, the ruling party has deployed delaying tactics to ensure that the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The economy and current COVID-19 pandemic are simply the latest in a long series of excuses.


This article was first published by The Conversation on August 24, 2020.

Land evictions and the real power of City rulers

Laurence PiperLaurence Piper is a Political Scientist at the University of the Western Cape interested in urban governance, democracy, and informality in South Africa and comparatively. His latest book is Democracy Disconnected:Participation and Governance in a City of the South, Routledge, 2019, with Dr Fiona Anciano. He is a past President of the South African Association of Political Studies (SAAPS) 2016-8, and a founding member of the Association for Political Theory in Africa (APTA).


The current spate of housing evictions in Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini seems especially malicious, not only because it is winter, but because of the assurance by national government that no evictions would happen in South Africa during the Covid-19 lockdown. City authorities argue that these are not evictions but rather efforts to stop land invasions initiated during the lockdown – a position that national government has endorsed. Whatever one thinks of this defence, it is cold comfort to those like Bulelani Qholani, yanked naked out of his home and left without shelter in the Cape winter rains.

Nevertheless, there is a point to the state’s case. Local government is much more concerned about the loss of land than illegal housing, and these evictions offer an important insight into the kinds of power at the heart of city rule in South Africa and beyond.

As argued in the recent book, Democracy Disconnected, city rule does not work like national government because city authorities are not sovereign over the people and places of the city. Rather they form part of a larger system of government where other spheres directly control key aspects of daily life. When the neighbourhood watch reports a crime to the police, it is engaging with national government. In turn, provincial government is responsible for the hospitals we go to for Covid-19.

It is really only over some basic services such as local roads, refuse collection, and street lighting that municipalities have complete control. Even then, the supply of electricity depends on the national parastatal, Eskom (enough said!). Furthermore, on the issues of greatest importance to most neighbourhoods around the country ­– jobs, crime, health, education and transport – local government is a bit player. The real policy-making power that impact on residents where they live does not lie with City Hall.

At the same time, our everyday democratic institutions such as neighbourhood associations, ward committees, ward councillors, city officials are connected to local government, which is great if the problem is fixing a pothole or refuse collection, but of little use if the issue is more important. Not having ward based politicians in provincial or national government further exacerbates this disconnect. Hence, in this everyday sense, local democracy is disconnected from the ‘power over’ the neighbourhoods in which people live.

But there is more to city rule than the divisions of powers between national, provincial and local government. In the analysis so far we have been thinking of political power as sovereignty in the western tradition – as the highest authority to make decisions over people and places. Following Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber, this conception of ‘power over’ law and policy is closely associated with having a monopoly on coercive capacity. It is the army and the police that ultimately back up the rule of law, and cities have limited powers over most laws and policies, and a small police force if any.

However, there is another way to think about power that is more relevant to municipalities, and that is the idea of power as a productive force – the ‘power to’ make society, and in the case of City rulers, the power to build houses, roads, harbours, airports, factories, communication infrastructure and so on.

This idea of power as productive is well made in many traditions of political thought, and a famous example is Foucault’s distinction in western history between state sovereignty as coercive control over citizens and state biopower as managing populations to enhance their biological wellbeing. If the destruction of shacks illustrates the former, educating people in social distancing and wearing masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 is an example of the latter.

However, in the context of city rule under conditions of democratic capitalism, loosely framed, Clarence Stone offers a more specific and empirically informed account of the centrality of ‘power to’, illustrating that the real challenge of city rule is generating and co-ordinating resources to literally build the city. As Stone argues, in a competitive capitalist system, government does not have all the resources to make the city on its own, and must seek out partnerships with business to build new houses, or malls, or ports, or factories, and so on. Economic policy thus profoundly shapes the distribution or resources among state and non-state actors, creating a massive co-ordination challenge. Consequently, a successful City Hall is one that can create mutually beneficial partnerships with other spheres of state, capital and residents to generate and coordinate the resources to make the city.

And so we return to the issue of evictions. In brief, ownership and control of city land is an important resource, and therefore a key source of productive power for City Hall to ‘steer’ the urban environment. This is especially pronounced across the Global South as high levels of urbanisation mean that cities must grow the built environment to accommodate a burgeoning population. Land is a source of productive power for City rulers in three ways.

First, control of city land also gives cities important influence when it comes to engaging provincial and national government over the building of new schools, hospitals, police stations, power stations and the like. This often takes the form of negotiating the exchange of land or changing land use rights. So important is keeping control of land that the City of Cape Town changed its practice to allow any department to veto the sale of city land, even against the wishes of the executive. This was intended to prevent possible short-term collusion between politicians and their business partners (Helen Zille, interviewed by author 26-09-2017).  

Second, rents in the form of local taxes (rates) are a key source of income for the metropolitan municipalities in South Africa, alongside the sale of services, for example electricity charges. A case in point: the City of Cape Town earns about a quarter of its revenue from electricity sales, and about a fifth from property rates. Third, zoning policy offers municipalities a means of expressing productive power by controlling what various groups can do with land in the city – especially through offering commercial or industrial rights for business. (This may be an important, if informal, source of revenue for political parties too).

These three reasons are why land matters so much to cities. It is an important source of much of their power, now conceived in productive rather than coercive terms. Of course, coercive power remains important – not least to protect City control over land as shown by the recent evictions – because it is the access to productive power enabled by controlling land that matters most in the growing urban South.

In conclusion then, as tempting as it is to blame the evictions in Cape Town on the anti-poor attitude of the DA-led City (and to be fair they have some form here), the fact that it is also happening in ANC-run municipalities reveals a deeper cause. City rulers need land for rental income, to create partnerships with business to attract investment to add value to land and to create jobs, and as a key resource in engaging other spheres of the state in building the city. Only once we understand the importance of land to the power of City Hall, and rethink power in terms of production rather than coercion, can we understand the political will to evict poor people from land in the winter cold and during a pandemic.

What sets good and bad leaders apart in the coronavirus era

Lawrence HamiltonLawrence Hamilton is the NRF British Academy Research Professor in Political Theory, Wits and Cambridge. He contributes to rethinking political theory from and for the Global South. His works include Amartya Sen (2019), Freedom is Power (2014) and The Political Philosophy of Needs (2003).



Crises bring out the best and worst of politicians and populations. Folly, fear and fortitude are on display everywhere. In the main, democracies have fared better than non-democracies in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

But the record is very varied indeed. What explains this? What can be done about it?

Among democratic regimes, at the one extreme we have seen denialism, the denigration of scientific advice and an obsession with putting the economy before lives. This is especially evident in the United States and Brazil. At the other we have witnessed the organised, prudent, empathetic responses of countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, and Finland. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa initially did very well, but some subsequent decisions might damage his good record.

These two extremes of leadership style were evident even before COVID-19.

The USA and Brazilian responses to the pandemic, led by President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro, have been characterised by secretive, narcissistic, paranoid, hubristic and impulsive decision-making. These actions have endangered the lives and livelihoods of their residents, over which they have a duty of care.

The data bears this out well. Despite having arrived on their shores relatively late, the pandemic has ripped through their populations, with no sign of abating. They lead in infections and deaths.

At the other extreme, a common denominator has been a firm attempt by political leaders to “follow the science” and control the spread of the virus and fake news from the outset. A combination of transparency, prudence, empathy, timing and courage has produced excellent results in South Korea, New Zealand and Finland.

South Africa’s response has been lauded, though it is beginning to attract criticism for heavy-handed policing and some inexplicable decisions.

Democracy and leadership

What becomes clear is that in these fast-moving and life-defining times in democracies a great deal depends on the quality of the elected leadership. Democracies that happen to have leaders who simultaneously engage empathetically with those they govern and are informed by good science are best able to deal with the crisis.

They gather clear-eyed knowledge of their countries’ particular circumstances, and display courage and timing in making critical and sometimes unpopular decisions. They are able to overcome many of the challenges that the pandemic throws up.

Democracy helps, but it is not the deciding factor. What matters most is what kind of leader is in place, where his or her priorities lie: the well-being of the populace or the interests of a small group.

Four of the top five performing countries in terms of lives saved and control of the spread of the virus have women leaders: New Zealand’s Jacinda ArdernFinland’s Sanna Marin, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. These women display empathy and firm focus on the well-being of their populations.

Politicians judge best when they listen to their populations and learn from the science. That is why democracy is uniquely placed to engender good judgements, as the Indian economist Amartya Sen argued with regard to famines, and I have argued elsewhere.

Yet, it would be mistaken to think that democracy guarantees good judgement. If the purveyors of conspiracy theories and exemplars of prejudice are also your democratic leaders, democracy itself cannot resolve things. It only gives citizens the power to remove those leaders at the next election.

Bread, circuses and crises

In the current crisis, Ramaphosa has done a much better job than Trump and Bolsonaro.

Ramaphosa got off to a great start. He acted firmly, quickly, with clear justification and impressive results. South Africans have just emerged from one of the most severe lockdowns imposed anywhere in the world. This kept the infection rate nearly as low as that of South Korea, though it is now shooting up.

During this period, however, there have been at least two problematic decisions that undermine public trust and thus how people may behave.

The first is the decision to ban the sale of tobacco. Even if we could distinguish sharply between basic needs and other needs – something I dispute – the idea that addiction to smoking falls into the latter category, and that, along with the fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, justifies the ban, is misguided. For an addict, the need for a cigarette may often trump even the need for vital nutrition.

The second is the decision to allow religious gatherings to resume under lockdown level 3. Having spent so long restricting gatherings, to now allow larger gatherings seems like folly. It is well known – cases abound from South Africa to South Korea – that, like funerals, large religious gatherings are super-spreading events.

Along with the ban on tobacco products and the incorrect assumption that the state could directly meet the basic nutritional needs of the population via the delivery of food parcels, the response to the religious lobby is reminiscent of Juvenal’s comment under imperial Rome some two thousand years ago that all the people really want is “bread and circuses”. This is not what people want or need. They require the power to express their actual needs and interests and the democratic means to ensure that government responds to these.

Ramaphosa’s good leadership has been undermined by a paternalistic attitude to people’s needs and seeming deference to South Africa’s powerful religious lobby.

Lessons to be learnt

Two things can be learnt from the varied responses to the coronavirus crisis.

First, we must use it to find a roadmap for how we can properly make the health and well-being of a state’s population the raison d’être of its government. The first thing to identify is that health is not the “absence of disease” but the status we each have when our ever-changing needs are optimally satisfied. For this, we need a politics that allows us to express and assess our needs, and determine who is best placed to represent us in responding to these needs, all in non-dominating conditions.

Second, given that it is no accident that those leaders who have responded worst to this crisis have also been the main sources of countless conspiracy theories and misinformation, we must learn to keep oligarchs away from political power. Under representative democracy, bar outright revolution, we do not have the power to affect the everyday decisions of our representatives, but we can keep those with exclusive social and economic interests out of positions of political power.


This article was first published by The Conversation, June 7, 2020

South Africa in lockdown: COVID-19 information and its inconsistencies

Candice BaileyCandice Bailey is a Political Studies PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand looking into the Promotion of Access to Information Act and how it enables democracy.


SOUTH AFRICA enters a new phase of its ongoing COVID-19 fight this week, loosening the grip on a variety of regulations introduced in mid-March to try and contain the spread of the deadly virus. The latest stage of the lockdown takes place as South Africa marks more than 30 000 COVID-19 cases and close to 700 deaths. 

Level three means that most of the economy opens up, a large cohort of workers return, previously forbidden goods such as alcohol go on sale and the night-time curfew is lifted. Social distancing is still a must, as is wearing masks in public and so is vigorous handwashing. Staying home as much as possible is still the best course of action and interprovincial travel remains prohibited, with the exception of business travel and those attending funerals of close relatives. 

At this time the government is relying on the public to take collective responsibility for the management of the virus. Providing definitive guidance and information to the citizenry is more important now than ever before. One critical issue is the need for people to understand the severity of this pandemic, how easily it can spread and the fact that even the simple day-to-day tasks we carry out can put us at risk of contracting the virus. 

But the concern here is that the government’s track record over the last 9 to 10 weeks with providing definitive guidance hasn’t been great. This may have disastrous consequences for the South African government which should be seen as the most reliable authority on COVID-19 guidelines. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial address announcing lockdown measures put everyone at ease. The public felt informed and in control. But as the lockdown has progressed, Ramaphosa and members of his cabinet have created scenarios of pandemonium. At certain points there has been clear definitive communication on the lockdown rules. On other occasions the public has been left in pockets of vast uncertainty caused by inconsistent messaging and uncoordinated communication. Sometimes the goalposts have shifted. At other times critical statistical information has been left out when engaging with the public.

Some government officials have made about turns mid-regulation, while other ministers have bordered on an authoritarian approach, threatening the public about regulations. There are countless examples. The to-ing and fro-ing of when exactly public schools would reopen, is a case in point. The sale of cigarettes and tobacco products is another. The actions of some soldiers when implementing enforcement can be added to the list. And a clear explanation on why the Western Cape has higher figures than the rest of the country and why its engaged in a different testing model is another question that has not been convincingly addressed. 

The other worrying trend emerging is the seemingly reluctant stance of Provincial Government officials in the Western Cape to adhere to national decisions, creating confusion. 

Although there are mechanisms that the public could use to comment on regulations, this has also been a clouded issue. It’s still generally unclear how the public can comment on the regulations. Is there a central place where the public can lodge their comments? And what about those in rural areas – with limited access to electronic communication – how do they make sure their voices are heard? 

We are in unchartered territory – and to a certain degree the government must be commended for rolling with the punches and taking definitive action very early on in the pandemic’s cycle. But there are times that they have gotten it very wrong.  The good thing is that they were able to admit when in practice certain regulations were just not workable and they needed to be amended accordingly. The decision not to sell baby clothing in level 5 is a clear example of how one sector of the citizenries needs were completely overlooked.

COVID-19 will be around for a long time and the only way citizens are going to survive it is if they get information they need – and are able to make informed choices about the issues that affect them. 

Renowned Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has published one of the most notable discussions within modern democratic theory on the need for information in democracy. In the time of COVID-19, we need to remember these words and ensure that the information we receive is not only provided consistently, but also that it is reliable and above all accurate. In his seminal work The Idea of Justice, Sen discusses the role that the media plays in society, drawing on the links between the media and public reasoning. He speaks of an informational role the media play in disseminating knowledge, allowing critical scrutiny and facilitating public reasoning. He also emphasizes the importance of “general information” about what is happening where. One of Sen’s poignant illustrations is that of famine. He argues that “famines do not take place in functioning democracies” – and that the media have an important role in this because it points to the protective power of political liberty. Sen says: “When a government is accountable to the public, and when there is free news-reporting and uncensored public criticism, then the government too has an excellent incentive to do its best to eradicate famines.” Sen was speaking about the Bengal famine of 1943 where an estimated 3 million people died. 

The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be compared to the Bengal famine. But it is an unprecedented global health crisis with more than 6 million people infected and more than 370 000 people dead. The estimates are that in South Africa, at least 45 000 people will die from this virus.

There are two important points that Sen makes. Firstly, public dialogue about the calamity can make the fate of the victim a powerful political issue which ultimately has an impact on voting. But it is also able to make people take an interest in the matter through public discussion. The second point concerns the informational role, which provides the public with knowledge. What this suggests is first and foremost that democracy has a role in creating informed citizens, and mechanisms such as freedom of access to information can be used by the media to effect accountability. 

The ruling of the Pretoria High Court this week shows that the judiciary also has a role to play in ensuring the dissemination of clear and precise information. It must do this by admonishing the government when it errs in drafting or enforcing regulations. The court’s  decision to send the government back to the drawing board and focus on drafting level 3 and 4 regulations that are in line with South Africa’s constitution is an indication that its democracy is alive and well. 

If the South African government wants the support of the public, they need to clean up their communication act. South Africans expect them to provide clear precise and well considered communication. And they need to remember that in a democracy you need to subscribe to a brand of governance that is citizen-centred. People need to feel considered and listened to. The public don’t want their concerns to fall on deaf ears. They want to feel like democracy is functioning in the face of the global health crisis. 

The expectation of the electorate as a collective is not that each individual’s preferences and requests be met, but that the needs of the citizens are dutifully engaged and considered when decisions are made. South Africa has a mixed participatory and representative democracy, but  for citizens to truly participate, they need to be well informed. Accurate information gives citizens the ability to effectively live their lives. If the status quo remains and the government fails to adequately share information, our democracy and our freedoms, such as access of information that holds it together, will be on a slippery slope.

COVID-19 and the Politics of the Year of the Nurse

Isabel BosmanIsabel Bosman is currently studying towards a Master’s degree in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research interests include elections, electronic voting and biometrics, and she is also interested in Political Theory. She is a 2020 Konrad Adenauer Stiftung scholar. As part of the scholarship programme, she is also a current intern at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) where she works in the African Governance and Diplomacy programme as well as SAIIA’s ‘Atoms for Development’.


When the World Health Organisation (WHO) last year named 2020 the ‘International Year of the Nurse and Midwife’, there was no way of knowing that this would have a prophetic ring to it. Five months into 2020, the picture that the WHO had in mind celebrating the work of nurses and midwives looks dramatically different. It’s one in which nurses and other critical medical personnel are being pushed to their very limits in a global pandemic that leaves more questions than answers in its wake. And yet celebrating their work is all the more relevant in the current context.

The challenges critical medical personnel are currently facing all lead back to a central question of care. There are three main challenges these critical workers face: insufficient supply of necessary protective equipment on a global scale; growing hostility towards them; and difficulties with access to childcare.

Considering the essential services they are providing, these are all challenges that they should not be subjected to, particularly not as the world marks the Year of the Nurse.

These critical workers all need the physical and emotional protection they deserve so that they fulfil their role as caregivers. It is imperative that their voices find expression and that their needs for personal care are met so that they extend care to the wider population in need of it.

Insufficient supply of necessary protective equipment

Critical medical personnel are some of the most important essential service providers the world needs right now. As a result, they are among the people with the most direct exposure to the coronavirus and in a perpetual state of risk. However, globally the life preserving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they need is in short supply. As the virus continues to spread, demand for this equipment naturally goes up. And with it, the cost of this necessary equipment has gone up significantly at the same time. As a response to the pandemic, the WHO calculates that medical personnel need a monthly total of 89 million masks, 76 million gloves, and 1.6 million protective goggles. Two months ago the WHO estimated that along with rising demand, a 40% increase in production of PPEs would be necessary.

Without the necessary protective equipment in the field, it is only a matter of time before a dilemma of a different kind develops: the more medical personnel infected with the disease, the less will be available to provide treatment to not only COVID-19 patients, but those with other conventional illnesses as well.

The effects of this can already be felt in South Africa.  Duduza clinic in Gauteng has been closed   after a nurse contracted COVID-19 and St. Augustine Hospital in Durban has halted the admission of new patients to allow staff and previously admitted patients to undergo testing following the death of three COVID-19 patients. These two examples show that society as a whole will be affected if nurses and other critical medical personnel are not thoroughly protected.

Growing hostility

Another challenge that nurses share on a global scale is increasing feelings of hostility towards them that often manifests in physical violence and aggression. Medical personnel have had to endure harmful chemicals and rocks thrown at them. In Mexico and Australia, hospital staff have refrained from publicly donning their uniforms for fear of physical violence and people spitting on them. In what Roborgh and Fast call ‘a deliberate weaponisation of COVID-19’, medical professionals in New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK have had to endure people trying to purposefully cough or spit on them.

In parts of Asia medical personnel have been threatened with arrest and in the UK and US have had to endure limitations on their freedom of speech for speaking out against uncooperative governments and the lived experiences of dealing first hand with the virus. In other cases, medical personnel are evicted from their homes by landlords concerned that they will carry and spread the virus (see also Roborgh & Fast, 2020). In Roborgh and Fast’s analysis, this adds ‘safety issues and economic hardship at a time of profound personal and professional pressure.’

Difficulties with access to childcare

A third important aspect to consider in this context is the question of childcare. Childcare, or familial care more broadly, is still largely dominated by women. This is important when considering the global gender – make up of medical workers, also dominated by women. The WHO has determined that women make up 70% of medical professionals worldwide. Zooming in on the country level, in the US, women occupy 76% of all jobs in the field and more specifically, they constitute 85% of nursing staff in the US.

Recently, it was reported that medical personnel in Japan are prohibited from sending their children to day care facilities or the few schools that are open, or in less extreme cases are required to present proof that their children are COVID-free. One hospital already reported that, as a result of the prohibition, medical personnel have had to take leave in order to tend to their children. 

As part of the global response to the pandemic, schools and childcare facilities have closed en masse. Duty bound, medical personnel and other essential workers provide much needed services to the wider population. However one has to ask what happens in cases where these workers require childcare, but are unable to access it?

These three factors are all intrinsically linked to the one aspect that forms such a central part of the healthcare profession: care.

How can the world truly celebrate the Year of the Nurse when nurses and other critical workers are facing these challenges in the line of duty? Are those frontline workers who are providing an essential service really being honoured? It is necessary for the world to ask in the Year of the Nurse, ‘who will care for the caregivers?’

The 50TH Anniversary of the End of the Nigerian Civil War: Revisiting the Ante-Bellum Strategies

Frank Aragbonfoh AbumereFrank Aragbonfoh Abumere is the Leader of the Global South (Developing World) Research Unit at the Arctic University of Norway. Until recently, he was a: Senior Member of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Visiting Fellow, African Studies Centre, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford; and Visiting Research Fellow, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).


On the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigeria Civil War, the consequences of the war still plague the Nigerian state. In other words, the Nigerian state is not merely faced with residual losses; the tragedies of the war have become recurrent phenomena. The combats and deaths of the war might have ended; nevertheless, the destruction, devastation, disunity and enmity left behind by the war are a spectre hunting the Nigerian state today. This prompts one to ponder on what could have been done strategically in order to prevent the war since failure to prevent the war was largely a failure of strategy. Except such failure of strategy is examined, even if history does not repeat itself, it may rhyme. The war has already happened once as tragedy, it should not happen secondly as a farce.

When dealing with crises and conflicts, many times we commit four errors of strategy. One error of strategy is the failure to use hard power when and where it is required. Another error of strategy is the failure to use soft power when and where it is required. The other errors of strategy are using only hard power when and where a combination of hard and soft powers (smart power) is required and using only soft power when and where a combination of soft and hard powers (smart power) is required. These errors of strategy sometimes result in grave and disastrous consequences. In order to prevent, resolve, manage or deal with crises and conflicts successfully, we need to understand that some crises and conflicts require hard power, some require soft power, yet others require both hard and soft powers (smart power). Hence, I argue that relying on hard power when and where soft power is required, relying on soft power when and where hard power is required, and relying on either hard or soft power alone when both are required to prevent, resolve, manage or deal with crises and conflicts is a project in futility which may result in grave and disastrous consequences. In the ante-bellum period of the Nigeria Civil War, the afore-mentioned four errors of strategy made it impossible to prevent the war. 

The war failed to be avoided because of a combination of errors of strategy by the principal actors in the ante-bellum period. I shall focus on the principal actors of the ante-bellum period since it was their actions and omissions that were of utmost importance to the country during that period. I am not necessarily isolating the principal actors as individuals; I see them both as individuals and representatives of the various collaborators with whom they acted or failed to act, and the various constituencies they represented.

The Coup Leaders

The January 1966 coup leaders believed it was only through hard power that they could bring about the revolution they wanted. This extreme reliance on military hard power did not only result in the July 1966 counter-coup and the subsequent crisis which culminated in secession and civil war, it would also have a domino effect that would go on to establish a coup culture and military rule in Nigeria until 29th May, 1999.

The July 1966 counter-coup leaders believed the only way they could get the ‘justice’ they wanted for the slain northern political and military leaders, the change of leadership of the country, and the secession of the northern region was through hard power. Like the January 1966 coup leaders’ extreme reliance on hard power, the July 1966 counter-coup leaders’ extreme reliance on hard power did not only result in the subsequent crisis which culminated in secession and civil war, it would also have a domino effect that would go on to establish a coup culture and military rule in Nigeria until 29th May, 1999.

Aguiyi-Ironsi

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s failure to ‘adequately’ punish the January 1966 coup leaders and Gowon’s total failure to punish the July 1966 counter-coup leaders can be considered to be grave strategic failures of relying on soft power when hard power should have been relied on. Aguiyi-Ironsi was seen as being too ‘soft’, rather than ‘hard’, on the January 1966 coup leaders. This contributed to northern military officers’ quest for ‘justice’ or vengeance which resulted in the July 1966 counter-coup. To what extent Aguiyi-Ironsi should have used hard power to adequately punish the coup leaders is difficult to tell. But having already used hard power to successfully check the coup leaders and arrest most of them, prosecuting and adequately punishing them were the next steps he failed to take. On his part, Gowon’s placating and pacifying the July 1966 counter-coup leaders rather than punishing them contributed to the Igbo (in particular) and the easterners (in general) deciding they were no longer safe anywhere in the country except in their own region. It was this grounded feeling of insecurity that would subsequently, one year later, lead to secession and consequently the war.

Aguiyi-Ironsi did not use military power to stop northerners from massacring the Igbo in particular and killing easterners in general. Here, Aguiyi-Ironsi needed to act urgently; he should have immediately used hard power to stop the massacre, and then employ soft power to pacify, reconcile and reintegrate both sides of the conflict. Gowon too did not use hard power to stop the northern soldiers who were massacring Igbo soldiers in particular and also killing soldiers from the eastern region in general. Furthermore, Gowon did not use military force to stop northern civilians from massacring Igbo civilians in particular and killing eastern civilians in general. 

Aguiyi-Ironsi opted for extreme pacifism and persuasion to the extent that although the country was very volatile, he failed to employ military power to quell the ongoing unrest and to prevent the imminent violence that was almost certain to happen. He only relied on ‘soft’ consultations and persuasions; he went on a nationwide tour to seek the support of leaders in the different regions (especially traditional rulers) in pacifying and persuading their people to shelf violence. It was on that tour that he too was assassinated. While engaging on pacifism and persuasion, Aguiyi-Ironsi should have at least put the security threat level on ‘red’, and hence put his hard power on alert since he knew the country was facing severe security risk.

Gowon

Like Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon extremely relied on soft power and failed to use hard power when he should have used it to prevent an imminent civil war. In essence, he failed to combine hard power with soft power; in other words, he failed to use smart power when it was required. While engaging in pacifism and persuasion, Gowon too should have at least put the security threat level on ‘red’, and hence put his hard power on alert since he knew the country was facing severe security risk. Gowon believed that persuasion would work; hence the Aburi meeting which led to the Aburi Accord. He would later agree that persuasion failed. Moreover, he believed that ‘appeasement’ of Ojukwu and the eastern region would work.                                                                                                                                           

But Gowon would later agree that appeasement failed. Even when using hard power, Gowon was extremely cautious to the extent that rather than using military action to prevent the secession, he opted for, and attempted to use, police action. It was only when his first and preferred option failed that he opted to use military action. Nevertheless, to his credit, Gowon was conscious of the fact that in trying to prevent a civil war like the Nigerian one, the problem with using excessive hard power is that even if it succeeds to prevent the war, it will still be counter-productive later on. Using too much hard power, even if it succeeds in preventing the secession, may make the Igbo resentful of Nigeria. If the Igbo’s resentment of Nigeria is a continuous one, then this raises questions of domination and legitimacy. Continuously forcing a people to be under you against their will is arguably tantamount to domination and hence the question of legitimacy will becloud the achieved ‘forced unity.’

Ojukwu

During the January 1966 coup, Ojukwu relied on hard power to contribute to stopping the coup leaders from taking over the country. After the coup, during the subsequent crisis that ensued, Ojukwu initially relied on soft power – as evidenced by the Aburi meeting and accord. But, he would later resort to hard power to get the secession of the Eastern Region. Firstly, when he needed to use hard power during the January 1966 coup, he did. Secondly, when he needed to use soft power during the subsequent crisis which ensued after the coup, he did. However, thirdly, when he totally jettisoned soft power and absolutely relied on hard power in order to guarantee the secession of the Eastern Region, he fell into an error of strategy. During the Aburi meeting he wanted a clause to be included in the accord; this was to allow regions to secede if they so wish. But the clause was rejected by the representatives of the federal government, hence its non-inclusion in the accord. So, we can say Ojukwu first attempted to use soft power, when that failed, he resorted to hard power. Nevertheless, the war became inevitable the moment he decided to totally jettison soft power and absolutely rely on hard power. Ojukwu over-relied on hard power and then got his strategy wrong.  

Conclusion

In summary, it is not that Ojukwu, the January 1966 coup leaders and the July 1966 counter-coup leaders should have totally rejected hard power and absolutely opted for soft power. So also, it is not that Aguiyi-Ironsi and Gowon should have totally rejected soft power and absolutely opted for hard power. Soft power might work extremely well, or it might not even work at all.  So also, hard power might work extremely well, or it might not even work at all. Soft power might work well to some extent and might not work well to some extent. So also, hard power might work well to some extent and it might not work well to some extent. Some contexts require soft power just as some contexts require hard power. But some contexts require smart power. Given that smart power contains the resources of both soft and hard powers, smart power has the best possible chance of success and hence it is the best possible option.

The Final Frontier: Space and the future of past injustices

Peter SutchPeter Sutch is a Professor of Political and International Theory at Cardiff University. He writes and teaches international political theory and the politics of international law. His most recent work examines justice and the laws of war, the notion of moral responsibility in international affairs and the politics and ethics of global commons governance.


There is plenty to worry about with the current state of politics on this planet and so it is understandable that the posturing of super-powers over the direction of space policy doesn’t garner headlines. However, along with a colleague and co-author (Peri Roberts of Cardiff University) I have been pushing people to take the time to think about the consequences of the militarisation and commercialisation of space before it is too late. Our concern is that the space-going powers, led by the USA, are wresting control from the international community which had begun to work on ways to ensure that the injustices of colonialism were not transferred to the future of humankind’s journey into Outer Space.

This might seem a little far-fetched. However, when we look at the steps that the international community took to build a legal regime for Space, and then at the ways that current US policy undermines the key values of that regime, there is considerable cause for concern. Above all, the US approach would see the lion’s share go to the advanced space-going nations and private capital, a change which departs fundamentally from previous efforts to attend to the legacies of historical colonial injustice.

On a more philosophical note we also want to challenge the thought that because the context in which the existing space law regime was made has changed, the principle of managing the evolution of space policy with special regard for the injustices of colonialism is no longer relevant. There are a wide variety of resources in contemporary political theory that challenge this underlying thought, but it is an argument that needs to be made now before the direction of politics in space is set.

Clearing the ground for American Dominance in space is not simply an aberration of the Trump regime – even though that administration lends a certain style of rhetoric to the policy field. The evolution of a ‘Space Force’ – a new branch of the military – is designed (in the words of Vice-President Pence) to ensure dominance for the USA in what is viewed as ‘a war-fighting domain just like land air and sea’. The second development, less sensational but arguably more significant, is captured in a speech by Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, to the Cosmos Club on 13th December 2017. He said, “it bears repeating: Outer space is not a ‘global commons,’ not the ‘common heritage of mankind,’ not ‘res communis,’ nor is it a public good”. These statements are important because, as we shall see, they challenge existing commitments both to pacific use and to benefit-sharing.

Nothing surprising here perhaps as technology permits ever greater exploitation of space and as that tech becomes vulnerable to attack. Senator Ted Cruz made the link in widely derided fashion by raising concerns about space pirates interfering with commercial and military activities. But the mindset is clear. Space is like the wild west frontier – to be tamed and commercialised by individual entrepreneurs enduring the hardships and risks of the task and deserving of protection. But before we concede the sense of this point let us examine the existing law of outer space and its intention.

Space law has its origins in the debates that began in the 1950’s about how to govern areas and entities without individual national ownership that serve as general or global resource pools and sinks, such as the deep seabed, Antarctica and outer space. The key innovation was the development of idea of the global commons.

The central feature here is that these areas, and the resources found there, need to be managed for the common good. Two related principles were important to the development of such regimes. First, the thought that the international community needed to respond to the inequalities associated with colonialism. Second, the need to avoid the consequences for both security and justice of a scramble for dominium over these spaces, a prospect explicitly likened to the colonial ‘scramble for Africa’ (Pardo 1967). These principles were widely understood to be important drivers in the debates at the time, although their centrality was not uncontentious. The states advocating a ‘New International Economic Order’ (NIEO) in the aftermath of post-war decolonisation had a distinctive take on the commons ideal, very different from that of many of the more powerful states.  Socialist states took a different view to the liberal-capitalist states. Key states (perhaps most tellingly the USA) took contrasting views at different points in the debates over the period from the 1950s to the present day. Several alternative statements of the broad ideals have also been proposed, such as the idea that such resources might be considered the ‘common interest of mankind’ (Antarctic Treaty 1959) or the ‘common province of all mankind’ (Outer Space Treaty 1967), or ‘the common heritage of mankind’ (UNCLOS III 1982 , The Moon Treaty 1979) and related but more general terms such as ‘the common concern of humanity’ (Shelton 2009), and these alternatives have found expression in these key international instruments.

Space law (in a simplified form) rolls out 3 stages. The first is the so-called constitution of outer space – the Outer Space Treaty 1967 – which provides that ‘The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind’ (article 1).  The second is the Moon Treaty 1979 which goes further, using the phrase ‘common heritage of mankind’ when providing for the use of the natural resources of the Moon and other celestial bodies that seeks ‘an equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration’ (article 11). This latter treaty was heavily imbued with an anticolonial aspiration that was central to the then very powerful coalition of proponents of the NIEO. The NIEO Declaration stated that ‘the remaining vestiges of alien and colonial domination, foreign occupation, racial discrimination, apartheid and neo-colonialism in all its forms continue to be among the greatest obstacles to the full emancipation and progress of the developing countries and all the peoples involved’ and demanded that ‘the political, economic and social well-being of present and future generations depends more than ever on co-operation between all the members of the international community on the basis of sovereign equality and the removal of the disequilibrium that exists between them’. The global commons solution was a way of harnessing these vast unowned resources to that end.

The power of the NIEO movement hit the buffers of an international legal order that cannot compel the powerful to accept norms they prefer not to consent to. The rapidly emerging concern of the developed states, that the common heritage rules that required benefit sharing and technology transfer would hamper private investment and lead to inequitable burdens for those at the vanguard of sea and space exploration, coincided with the sudden collapse of communism and a decline in the value of the metals market. As the balance of power and interest changed so did the will to resist the insistence of ocean-going and space-faring states. The notion of ‘common heritage’ thereafter gained a distinct tenor downplaying the strong commitment to benefit sharing. These are found expressed in the 1994 implementation agreement concerning part XI of UNCLOS III and in the 1996 Declaration on Space Benefits. Both, against the explicit ambitions of the NIEO advocates, are liberal regimes that reduce the burden on those developed ‘investor’ states most likely to be in a position to access and exploit resources from space or from the deep seabed. Most commentators acknowledge that while some principles favouring developing states exist on paper their practical form, as a result of these implementation negotiations, means that the common heritage of mankind ideal has lost much of its significance (Benko and Schrogl 1996:143, Tronchetti 2009:123).

The momentum of the NIEO in the UN may have faltered but does the argument that the economic injustices of colonialism still persist in the global order fall with it? The recent signals from Washington suggest the final abandonment of any commitment to addressing the injustices of gross inequalities propped up by a legal system that frames the actions of those who created this inequality as legitimate. Surely now is the time to refuse the extension of the damage of colonialism past the final frontier.

Critiques of the existing international economic and political order abound in political theory. From Antony Anghie’s explicit attacks on post-colonial economic law to Thomas Pogge’s mainstream liberalism, most serious thinking, confronted with the persistent challenge of post-colonial global inequality, finds it necessary to reassert the redistributive and benefit sharing elements of commons regimes in very similar terms to advocates of the NIEO. The core questions and drivers in these debates have proved remarkable persistent, as have the commons values that consistently emerge in response.

But given the resilience of the liberal-capitalist state model isn’t the move to a ‘wild west’ approach inevitable? Encouragingly, just at the time that common heritage and common province ideas were being diluted, a broader notion of common interest was beginning to take deeper root in international law in ways that incorporate but go beyond global commons regimes. The language of common interest dominates environmental, human rights and humanitarian law as challenges requiring common solutions arise and as the injustices of inequality become ever more apparent. It is vital that we think seriously about the exploitation of space in ways that recognise the potential amplification of economic injustice. As those who gained their position through imperialism, colonialism and the creation of economic and political institutions that cement that privilege exploit the free-market wild-west myth to dominate space the next stage of humanity will remain enslaved to the injustices of the past. Unless, that is, we remember that our common humanity requires a different approach.

The Dialectic of the I in Black Existentialist Quest for Authenticity

Wandile GanyaWandile Ganya is a published poet, medical doctor and part-time lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch. His philosophical interests include African hermeneutics, existentialism, ethics and phenomenology.

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No Black subject is locked in an infantile transivity, unable to cognise himself or his agency from that of another. Each agential subjectivity conduces upon its own intrepid rhapsody of being-in-the-world in the great struggle for liberty and authenticity. In this short piece, I address the racial reality in South Africa by theorising about the socio-political hermeneutic implication that this colonial race discourses have on Black existentialism. I write this with the intimation of dispelling the monolithic colonial narrative of the Black subject, its univocalism, and the influence it continues to exert upon postcolonial identarian politics.

One need only to conduct a brief investigation on Lacanian psychoanalysis to legitimise this proposition. I focus mainly on Lacanian resources to socio-political hermeneutic investigations of the I in Black existentialism. A discourse on Lacanian psychoanalysis and Black existentialism warrants some justification as these may strike a horrid note upon the intellect, that is, seem unlikely or accidentally conjoined substrata of philosophic reflection. What I argue for, as Marcuse did with Freud is that the Lacanian mirror stage is indeed open to socio-political hermeneutic interpretation, and insofar as chronology is concerned, it is a social and historical theory. As Marcuse writes,

The psyche appears more and more immediately to be a piece of social totality, so that individuation is almost synonymous with apathy and even with guilt, but also with the principle of negation, of possible revolution. Moreover, the totality of which the psyche is a part becomes to an increasing extent less ‘society’ than ‘politics’.

The mirror stage may be conceived as ‘an identification’ that is ‘the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image – whose predestination to this phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use, in analytic theory, of the ancient term imago.’ It is the incipient presentation of agential subjectivity. Importantly, the primordial I anticipates the incorporation of secondary identifications in the scheme of libidinal normalisation in its dialectic encounter with the other. The agency of the primordial I antecedes the dialectical construction of the socio-political subject and the functions it is made to hold.

Further, the mirror stage is the anticipation of individuation and unified body distinct from the other. They exist two interrelated observations, that is, firstly, a discordance between this incipient subjectivity and reality; and secondly, the idea that the body is indeed an exteriority more constituent than constituted of the I.

In the first observation I wish only to make manifest, setting aside its psychoanalytic or phenomenological density, the anxiety which invests the discordance between the I and reality; is of a natural order which endures even later in the span of existence of the I, creating what is understood in Lacanian psychoanalytic register as the Innenwelt and Umwelt that is the dyadic inner and outer experience of world. The mirror stage establishes a relation between the organism and reality.

In the second observation, that is, body as an exteriority constituent of the I, I hold that no secondary characterisation of body is ever complete and satisfying in itself. It is always, in a sense, riddled with falsity and deceit to self. For to the ego, body is always a site of openness. And by this I understand not a fixity but a unified material projection, a somethingness without form, which bears a first-order relation to the ego. It follows from this that all secondary identifications of the ego or body must maintain a falsity or stubborn delusion notwithstanding cultural topoi.

If we grant the above propositions, then it must follow that there exist no essence in the social category of race, it is but a construction whose cast invests socio-political discourse such as those we have observed in the recent past, in the lively insurrection of the decolonial movement which seeks, in one token, to return what was unjustly denied or taken away from the Black subject through dehumanising procedures. As Achille Mbembe argues, ostracisation from the I, that is loss of familiarity to the point that one is estranged or alienated to his identity where one is constituted out of an alterity is indeed one such procedure. The Black existentialist must seek to negate the amanuensic biography given to him/her. However, the onto-phenomenological quest for being and authenticity, I argue, must not cease at the point of negation ad absurdum. The Black existentialist must learn to work from without such constructions, and write his/her own biography and reinvent its political, social and economic spaces.

References

  • Marcuse, H., & Marcuse, H. (1970). Five lectures: Psychoanalysis, politics, and Utopia. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Mbembe, A. (2017). Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press.
  • Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A selection. New York: Norton Press.

Political voice in a changing world

Manjeet RamgotraManjeet Ramgotra teaches political theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London. Her research, teaching and writing focus on decolonising political theory and reinterpreting republicanism in both the history of western ideas and twentieth-century anti-colonial thought.


How we use language and participate in politics has transformed democratic notions. Today democracy is understood in terms of diversity and inclusivity. Yet, although executive and legislative institutions are open to a greater diversity of citizen, the institutions through which we conduct our political lives have not been reconceptualized to reflect contemporary social relations between individuals of different cultures, genders and class.

Many have reclaimed their place within political spaces, yet their voices are often muted and marginalized, especially if they challenge the predominant structures. Often diverse voices are either co-opted into the existing system of power or silenced. Moreover, as executive power becomes increasingly centralized, it stifles voices of change in an effort to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, those who question the abusive use of privilege are speaking out. Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements unsettle the locus of power and traditional use of authority. This produces conflict in which the powerful use their position to censor and the less powerful talk back.

This article examines how free speech operates in a changing political environment and calls for a rethinking of the institutions that govern, not simply to make them more inclusive but to redress the activity of politics and representation to better reflect the agency of the many groups of people who comprise our society. It argues that the language of diversity does not adequately challenge institutional structures and sees difference stripped of its racial, gender and cultural specificity. Decolonisation, on the other hand, repudiates the language of diversity and calls for a fundamental shift in power and knowledge structures. This includes dismantling power structures that are symbolized in statues, supported through educational curricula and actualized in gender, racial and social relations. How we see power and its embodiment, how we are formed to know truth and authority and how we relate to each other together construct part of the nexus of power and knowledge to which we are subject.

It is not surprising that these are the points at which many currently challenge the foundations of power. Rhodes Must Fall, broadening the educational curricula to include the female and non-white voices that have often been suppressed by the ‘white male voice’, Black Lives Matter and Me Too are all movements that question and speak out against our current power structures. Moreover, each of these expose various articulations of white male power in the public space, in our ideas, in racial and sexual relations. The call for change is thus structural. It is not just about opening up to and including others but actually calling out oppressive practices, reimagining public spaces so as to not venerate historical figures who supported oppression and reading theoretical ideas of the canon critically, especially when women and people of colour are accorded inferior intellectual and rational capacities so that the ruling classes maintain patriarchal and imperial structures. The point is not to take Aristotle or Kant off the curriculum, but rather to interrogate their ideas, to ask what is knowledge and to learn other sources of knowledge as well.

What is the difference between diversity and decolonising?
These two languages shape how we participate in the public space and how we think of democracy. When we use them, we invoke two understandings of contemporary politics: one that expands yet maintains institutional structures and the other that reclaims political voice and transforms.

Although people who enter politics as a result of diversity and inclusion may want to change structures, they can be co-opted into existing structures. Their voice and agency become shaped by structures or silenced. Often they are excluded through techniques that ridicule, consider as lightweight and don’t take seriously. For instance, Diane Abbott a long-standing and successful British MP is constantly ridiculed in the press and abused on social media. Their diversity gets muted and does not effect any real change.

This process reflects the view that the offices and institutions of politics construct power to keep it from becoming corrupt and abusive. The offices remain over time, whereas office-holders don’t. Hence politicians are shaped by the office. Their interests and personalities are meant to be held in check by the structures of power. Political office and institutions mirror a certain type of power and authority embodied in the ideal type citizen who tends to be the white propertied man. Such power controls and dominates change to maintain stability as well as privilege. The process of adapting to the institutional environment reflects the need to be part of a system to advance personal ambition and self-interest. In this system, individuals are rational, calculated and compete against each other, rather than work together in solidarity (Collins, 1994, p.93). This can lead to corruption and neglect of the public interest, whatever that may be at this time of uncertainty as we question our collective values.

The language of diversity shapes the ‘liberal face’ of democracy and inclusion. The language of decolonisation, in contrast, presents a more radical politics of democratisation that gives marginal voices the capacity to change the direction of politics through the recognition of their positionality and epistemic outlooks.

Rather than imposing a liberal universalist model to which one must conform, a decolonised politics would listen to difference and recognize the various needs. As such it would create the space for different voices to speak and be heard without necessarily conforming to a particular model of power. There is an anarchist element to the decolonising project, but at the same time the idea is to evaluate power structures in order to reconstruct them to be more fair and open. In part, decolonising occurs through the recognition that these institutional structures are predicated on a particular masculinist embodiment and understanding of power, that is both patriarchal and imperialist.

These ideas of power are deeply rooted in western thinking and were reiterated in the Renaissance. Power was conceptualized in terms of virtue which derived from the Latin ‘vir’ emphasized manliness, the capacity to rule and (to a lesser extent) be ruled. Machiavelli reconceptualized it as ‘virtù’ and promoted the virile, virtuous and authoritative prince who possessed the rational, strategic and physical capacities to dominate over irrational, unpredictable and constantly changing circumstances. These capricious and volatile circumstances were associated with the feminine and embodied in the Goddess Fortuna. In this understanding of power, domination of the masculine over the feminine gets played out in gender, class and racial relations where women, lower classes and the non-white are seen to be irrational, unruly and volatile. Decolonising seeks to uproot these power structures that try to mute and dominate change.

Those who hold power never want to give it up, as Machiavelli observed long ago. There is conflict. The powerful use their clout to censor and silence. The less powerful talk back. For instance, Me Too has empowered women to speak out about sexual exploitation in the work place within socio-political contexts that take them seriously and hold men to account. Through this dialectic change may occur. Indeed, to a certain extent it is occurring as new institutions that address people’s needs and take representation seriously are conceptualized (Hamilton, 2014; Williams, 1998). These move beyond the simple structure of a single MP authorised through elections to act on behalf of thousands of constituents. They are discursive institutions through which the needs of everyday citizens and constituents can be voiced.

The popular voice and political institutions
To be sure, people today have more clout. They are empowered by the internet and technology. More women and people of colour run for office and are changing the demographic of the legislature, but as this happens the executive power is becoming more centralized. Those who theorised about the doctrine of the separation and balance of powers worried that not only could the power of one become absolute, but also that the legislative power as the voice of the people had the tendency to become despotic.

Thinkers such as Montesquieu therefore argued for an executive veto over both branches of the legislative power to ward against the abuse of power. To Montesquieu, individual freedom could be secured only if the executive and legislative branches of power were completely separated as institutions and an independent judiciary were established. In this manner, power would be neither absolute nor arbitrary. The executive power would execute laws that were established by the upper chamber of the legislature and ratified by the lower chamber. In the absence of contestation, the people’s representatives who occupied the lower chamber were considered to consent to the laws. This separation of executive from legislation power guaranteed the individual liberty to live in security and as one wants within the bounds of the laws. It provided the political conditions for the freedom of speech.

This configuration of power maintained the social hierarchy between the landed aristocratic classes and the wealthiest ranks of the popular social classes. The nobles sat in the upper legislative chamber and the people in the lower chamber. The institutions were structured to accommodate the propertied social classes. After much struggle, the working classes, men of colour, and, finally, women got the vote. Although the structures eventually accommodated people on the margins, these had been built on a particular understanding of political power. They were established in part to regulate class relations and social conflict between the nobles and people.

Today, our social and political relations are more complex. Our institutional structures do not adequately mediate conflictual relations that arise from racial, gender and social difference. Rather we aim to minimize difference so that it does not matter as we are all equal and blind to difference. The voices of the marginalized get suppressed or are less well regarded and heard in the light of the grammar of white male power and authority. In my view, this is the case because our institutions from the family to the state are proving to be incapable of dealing with difference and relinquishing power.

Free speech and silence
The need for decolonisation is pertinent in struggles for liberation where different voices get pitted against each other and absorbed into existing power structures rather than finding opportunity to dismantle those structures and construct them anew.

I was struck by an observation that bell hooks made regarding black American women who in the nineteenth century reclaimed their public voice and fought for the right to vote. Unfortunately, white feminist and black men’s movements for suffrage alienated these women. Black women were part of neither movement for to be on the side of women was to abandon the struggles against slavery and racial oppression. To be on the side of the men was to support the patriarchy and abandon women’s struggles. Neither movement sought to secure the rights of black women. Yet black women were activists, writers and thinkers. Their activism and voice were silenced. In her book Ain’t I a Woman? bell hooks asks why are black women silent? She eloquently relates this to the silence of the oppressed, which is a “profound silence engendered by resignation and acceptance of one’s lot” (hooks, 1982, p.1). Resignation indicates the feeling of powerlessness against the structures and systems of power and acceptance indicates passive obedience, which maintains the predominant system in place. To bell hooks, this is an indication of the “sexist, racist socialization” that made black women feel that their interests were not worth fighting for, that the only option they had was submission (hooks, 1982, pp.7-9). This is an extraordinary conclusion and powerful reflection of how the struggles of others took precedence over those of some, how sexist and racist oppression have the effect of making black women feel so powerless as to not talk back to power.

I end on this note to reiterate that the object of decolonisation of power and knowledge structures is not make our world more colourful, as it were. Rather it is to give voice to those who have been silenced and oppressed by the structures and institutions that uphold white upper-class masculinist powers. These include the visible manifestations of their power in the statues of public squares, the theoretical voices that pervade our systems of knowledge and education and the assumption that by virtue of their epistemic and authoritative status, they can exploit and dominate the less powerful.

Speech is shaped by the language and discourse we use to construct meaning. As such it is not free. If we want freedom of thought and expression, we must decolonise to reconstruct our democratic institutions to share power and voice across different genders, races and classes according to egalitarian and non-dominatory concepts of power and knowledge.


Acknowledgement I wish to thank Catherine Davidson, Dick Blackwell, Alison Scott-Baumann, Michael Elliott and Lawrence Hamilton for constructive and thought provoking comments.


References

  • Collins, Patricia Hill (1994) “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” in ed. Mary Evans, The Woman Question. London: Sage Publications, pp.82-103.
  • Hamilton, Lawrence (2014) Freedom is Power: Liberty through Political Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • hooks, bell (1982) Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.
  • Williams, Melissa (1998) Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.