Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

South Africa reboot?

In the course of all the hype around “Rhodes must fall”, I started wondering about the logic underpinning the direction in which it has been developing, which seems to indicate that — as some commentators have indicated — nothing less than South Africa “falling” would satisfy those driving the process of destroying all vestiges of the chequered history of this country, at least where a meeting of different cultures is concerned. To be sure, a large part of its history since the 17th century has been one of gradual colonisation by western powers, including the Dutch and the British, and one can understand the animosity on the part of Africans towards these erstwhile subjugating colonial powers.

I used the word “erstwhile” deliberately, because this is the point: they are, or were, former colonial powers — they belong to the past, even if traces of their effects are still around us. And while it is not difficult to comprehend the delayed effect of the history of colonisation in the form of anger and resentment on the part of people living today, one would hope that the “symbolic cleansing” represented by the fall of the Rhodes statue will end with, at most, the relegation of such offending statues to spaces where their historical significance can still be examined, such as museums.

I say this because anyone who believes that the process of toppling everything even remotely reminiscent of colonial history must run its course “completely” or exhaustively, should reflect carefully about the consequences of such a process. After all, how far back into history do they want to go, assuming that one can indeed identify such a historical location? To be consistent, it means that one would have to identify a time before the loathed colonial influence commenced. But what would one find at that point? A “pure” African culture? And if so, how would anyone know what such a pure culture amounts to? Would one not have to make use of one of those reprehensible western disciplines, known as historiography, to ascertain what African culture was like four centuries ago? Presumably it would not have been exactly the same as “African” culture today, and if one would argue that it was indeed exactly the same, one would have to adduce some evidence to the effect, or else simply assume that there has been no “development” of African culture since then.

Furthermore, signifiers from an identifiable cultural “gene pool” are all metonymically connected. Hence, anyone who would insist on some purist ideal of the repristination of African culture, thoroughly cleansed of the abhorrent colonial elements with which it has been contaminated since the 17th century, would have to delete or remove everything, from the sciences and other cultural systems that have a broadly western origin, to the technological devices that the supporters of the “Rhodes must fall” campaign have been using. These include computers, iPads, tablets and smartphones, on which electronically mediated communication, such as that via social media, depends. Unless they want to argue that, if western colonisers had never arrived on African shores, the same, or comparable, technologies, would, in all likelihood, have developed on African soil. And again, if this argument is indeed put forward, one would want to see some evidence for it.

In light of the above, it is perhaps timely to remind all those people who might want to remove EVERYTHING that is reminiscent of other (non-African) cultural influences from South Africa that they face a singularly difficult, in fact, an impossible task. To disentangle the historically accumulated traces of other cultures (not only western, but eastern as well) from African culture, with which they have become amalgamated over time, is impossible because no one has access to a supposedly pure or pristine African culture as it existed some centuries ago. The only form in which such a cultural condition might be posited or hypothesized, is obviously that of an ideology, or what Jacques Lacan calls (a version of) the “Big Other”.

The Big Other can assume many guises, such as the People, or the Market, or History, or God, and what all of these versions of the Big Other share, is that it is invariably something intangible, which functions as a kind of unconscious touchstone or yardstick for people’s actions and for historical events. One can spell out what this amounts to, of course, such as when one says that the People are the moving force in history, or that the Market will punish nations that do not obey its principles. Or one could posit a “pure” culture of some kind as measure for existing cultural conditions, as seems to be the case with the RMF “movement”, if one could call it that. Small wonder that Marxists regard an ideology as “false consciousness”, which distorts social reality as it really exists.

Moreover, anyone who has ever reflected on the historical process as such, would know that it is not something straightforward, or “linear”, but an immensely complex spatio-temporal process that requires a hermeneutic key, as it were, to be unravelled. As some poststructuralists (including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault) have argued, there is no such thing as a univocal, unambiguous “history”, which everyone would unavoidably “read” or interpret in exactly the same manner. All that is historically given, is a kind of “field of contingent forces” that is historiographically “tweaked” in the one (ideologically filtered) direction or the other. For example, if one compares a British historiographical account of the war for American independence between America and Britain (that started with the “Boston Tea Party” in the late 18th century) with an American account, one might think that you are reading about two different wars, given the divergence between the two versions of “history”.

This is not surprising, given all the singular, strictly unrepeatable historical factors that lend themselves for interpretation by a historiographer (literally, a writer of history). This is why the German philosophical historian of philosophy, Wilhelm Windelband, made such a fundamental methodological distinction between the natural sciences and a discipline such as historiography. The natural sciences, he claimed, are “nomothetic” — literally, disciplines which state their cognitive-theoretical claims in terms of immutable laws, while historiography is an “ideographic” science, which faces the methodological task of articulating the manner in which an idea or “form” “writes itself” (or is written) in the process of temporal unfolding or manifestation of uniquely particular events. Anyone who knows what methodology means (broadly, the justification of certain methods), would grasp just what stringent demands this “ideographic” character of historiography entails, and hence, what difficulties this implies for anyone who claims to have the methodological means of arriving at an “unblemished picture” of a culture as it existed four centuries ago.

It might be worthwhile reminding oneself of another historiographic approach that readily lends itself to retrospective implementation, namely Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (and Karl Marx’s) dialectical method, which demonstrates even more clearly the intertwinement of cultural elements in the historical process. As history unfolds, Hegel argued, any given set of social and political circumstances is “negated” by its own opposite or “antithesis”, and this negation leads to a “synthesis” between the two respective totalities, which comprises, in its turn, a new “thesis”, only to be negated by a new antithesis, and so on. The important thing is that, every time a given cultural condition is negated and a synthesis between two opposing states is formed, the one that is negated is “sublated”, which means that it is simultaneously negated, cancelled, preserved AND lifted to a “higher” level of historical development.

Any stage of historical development therefore includes in it ALL the previous stages of development in sublated form — that is, simultaneously negated, cancelled, preserved and elevated (which is what “sublation”, or “Aufhebung” means). In other words, South Africa at present includes ALL its historical-cultural antecedents; African, western and eastern, since before the 17th century, in “sublated” form. Who can disentangle these without causing South African society to collapse? Who can reboot South Africa without leading to complete cultural, social and political entropy or disorder? No one. If one wants to change social structures, you have to work with what you have by modifying, differentiating, restructuring and revising it.

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    • Vee Jay

      Hi Bert,

      Thanks, as usual, for being a true ‘thought leader’. There is one much more direct component to this:
      1. Rhodes didn’t legitimately have land to bequeath since he stole it.
      2. This then applies to land for sale as well. (One may not legally sell or buy stolen goods, and the buyer does not have a right to usage of the bought stolen property.)

      Taken together, we’re in for a serious questioning of the entire system of property rights!

      On the one hand, it does require a serious degree of searching and questioning – our incredibly unequal society comes about through a process of conquest and exploitation – this is a fact.
      On the other, the entire socio-economic system will disintegrate if we really push this.

      (Then again, that is what we did de facto with the Group Areas act and the system did not collapse.)
      So who knows where it ends? Practically, I can’t imagine anyone pushing your point through to its logical conclusion – some things will stay and some things will ‘fall’… which ones?

      Nonetheless, it is possible that the national preference is for a more equal society, even if that does mean some chaos and a poorer society on the whole.


    • Peter Watermeyer

      Dear Mr Olivier, your learning and historical review are splendid, but this is not about logic, it’s about emotional thinking and power. If you want a historical comparison, consider the toppling of the statues of Easter Island during that Societýs collapse (see: Collapse by Jared Diamond). I don’t know if I can get this past the PC groupthink of the present Editor, but please bear in mind that you are here dealing with indisciplined and opinionated youth who pursue arguments by poo-chucking. Have a look at the comments, at least those considered sufficiently bland for publication, on the preceding blog The Academic Transformation We Seek is not Obvious, The main unanswered question is “What do these people mean by transformation?” And I’m pretty certain that the main reason for lack of clarity is that if the aims were clearly expressed without any resort to undefined concepts such as “African Culture”, they would be seen to be unsustainable by reasonable academic standards of logical challenge. This argument is not about intellect or logic, it’s about grabbing power by mass action, especially bearing in mind that the authorities in question are too weak (by which I mean, rightly afraid) to challenge some of the main underlying issues. Interestingly, this is not just a local phenomenon, see the Spectator article

    • Paul S

      This is already happening on several fronts. Behold Eskom’s bold and laudable steps towards disentangling the historically accumulated colonial evils of electricity and clean drinking water.

    • Rory Short

      Bert what you say here makes 100% sense. The reality is that in whatever society you live what you have to work with is ‘what is’ in that society at that point in time. ‘What is’ is the foundation on which you have to build and you are wasting both energy and time if you first set about trying to remove aspects of ‘what is’ before embarking on the things that are needed to build a different society.

    • brent

      The SA egg is scrambled. It cannot be unscrambled so lets make the scrambled egg a better egg for all together, not forgeting our past so we can learn from it. Brent