Everywhere one looks today in South Africa you find a new imperative: “Decolonise!” In certain academic quarters it has evidently already attained the level of a new ideology, where academics are expected to “decolonise” the courses they teach (and presumably the articles they submit for publication as well). What astonishes me is that academics do not seem capable of resisting this new ideological drive – for that is exactly what it is: a new ideological movement (albeit a counter-movement) that has the structure of the Biblical requirement, to say “Shibboleth” with the “right” pronunciation, or else …

Yesterday while driving I was listening to an interview on SAfm with a professor of English language studies at one of our universities. He was promoting the project of decolonisation energetically, arguing that the vestiges of colonialism should be removed from university curricula. When the interviewer asked him whether the inclusion of the work of African thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko in curricula is not enough to achieve this end, he retorted that one has to go further, to get to a point where people can discover “pride” in themselves. He was unable to specify what this source of pride would be, although his argument would seem to suggest (although he did not say this, as far as I recall) that it would be the uncovering of a pristine African cultural past.

It is not difficult to understand the reasons for this imperative to “decolonise” – every people who has ever been subjected to the coloniser’s oppressive and exploitative power would feel the need to throw off its yoke, as Fanon has demonstrated so forcefully in his writings. But is that not what African (and other) countries have done? Admittedly, when they attained their independence in the course of the 20th century they faced the task of living up to that “independence” by, among other things, finding their “own voices”. Broadly speaking, this could be understood as “decolonising” themselves, which is another way of saying that they have had to become independent in their thinking, speaking and writing.

This already indicates what form such decolonisation should take beyond the obvious political changing of the guard, namely the installation of new, African governments in the place of erstwhile colonial authorities. The most important, but also most problematic task facing a drive for decolonisation in the sense of finding your own “identity” in a distinctive African vocabulary, would seem to be the discursive-linguistic task of eradicating all traces of colonisation from the language that people use, for the simple reason that all ideology, including colonial ideology, is embedded in language as discourse. This is just another way of saying that colonisation, like other forms of ideological conquest, is (or was) about the imposition of power, as the mostly ignored, but yet very obvious, economic neo-colonisation of Africa by western corporations demonstrates.

Hence, any authentic decolonisation process has to rid itself of the power of colonising forces. How is this to be done? Certainly it cannot be done by returning to some mythical pre-colonial, “pure” African cultural “origin”, as it existed, unblemished by colonial influences before the arrival of colonisers on African soil, as I have argued on Thought Leader before. If it is a matter of “taking cultural power back”, it can only be done by doing for South African culture what the French do so well – prioritising the practice of French culture, even if American (and other kinds of) cultural imports exist side by side with it in France.

I don’t know of any sub-Saharan African sources or texts that predate the 17th century, when the Dutch arrived in the Cape. If they exist, I would be glad if anyone pointed me in the right direction to find them, because such texts – in other words, any kind of decipherable inscription, on any material – would probably constitute genuinely “African” cultural records or “texts” of some kind, as do San rock paintings in a certain sense. I specified “sub-Saharan” above, because there are several instances of texts from North-Africa that could be regarded as “African”, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Arabic texts preserved in libraries in Timbuktu, or the texts written by thinkers from North-Africa, including St Augustine, Fanon, Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida – the latter being a thinker who was regarded as one of the leading philosophers in the world at the time of his death in France in 2004.

Those driving the (counter-colonial) ideological project of decolonisation would probably find little comfort in this, because all these thinkers, from St Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries CE to Derrida, wrote in a western idiom – not as a gesture of disregarding Africa’s needs, but because that is the philosophical-theoretical idiom that they inherited from those who preceded them, and if there is one thing that is impossible to do, it is to invent an ABSOLUTELY new theoretical idiom, out of thin air. Invention always presupposes convention, as Derrida (among others) has shown (in Positions), even if he added that one is able to “shift the [epistemological] terrain” bit by bit, by engaging with the existing fabric of the sciences and disciplines.

If anyone believes that one could in fact “go back” to an original fountainhead of African culture, predating the advent of colonisation, the question to ask – already implied above – is: in what medium has this been preserved? If not in cultural artefacts of some kind, then in what else? It would be instructive in this regard to read some of Derrida’s texts, for example the long essay, “White Mythology” (in Margins of Philosophy – freely available for download), or his (Derrida’s) Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction.

In both of these paradigmatically deconstructive texts Derrida demonstrates the impossibility of returning to, uncovering, or repeating, an origin which is somehow “pure” – whether in the guise of a language uninhabited by metaphor (such as the dreamed-of language of western metaphysics; the “white mythology” in question), or in the form of Husserl’s hypothetical “first geometer”, who was responsible for executing the first geometrical “intuition” (regarding the calculation of the circumference of a circle, for example), which has to be repeated by every successive geometer, according to Husserl. What Derrida shows in detail regarding the latter phenomenological quest for geometrical purity – and here lies the lesson for the would-be project of “decolonisation” – is that, even if every successive geometer were to re-enact the geometrical “intuition” of the hypothetical first geometer, it would be unthinkable in the absence of a whole intervening tradition of geometry, which exists in the form of “writing”.

The implications for “decolonisation” should be clear: if the aim is to uncover the “original form” of African culture, it would be as impossible as it is in geometry to gain access to the “original” geometrical intuition, without an intervening cultural tradition. The giant leap across the African cultural tradition, intertwined as it is with western and other cultural influences, to the mythical source of pre-colonial African culture is impossible. One could imagine such a culture, of course, but it would be a hypostatisation. There are probably many records of African culture that date back to the early years of colonisation, but I’m willing to bet that they would be framed through western eyes, or – if rendered by Africans – by Africans in terms borrowed from western colonisers.

The news for those committed to the project of decolonisation is therefore not good. Unless they persist in deluding themselves, it is not a viable project. And if they do persist in their delusion, they ought to be reminded that it is an ideological project, burdened with the blindness that besets all ideological projects. Such blindness shows itself when those driving the project make statements like the following: “What is needed here is an epistemological paradigm-shift!” Reflection would reveal that the very statement is inescapably indebted to western theory: both “epistemological” and “paradigm-shift” are concepts fashioned in the workshop of western thought; the former among the ancient Greeks, and the latter – although also “originally” from ancient Greek philosophy – in the philosophy of science of Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 publication, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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