Gareth Setati
Gareth Setati

Are non-Afrikans inherently bad?

On June 8 2013 fellow Thought Leader blogger Malaika wa Azania shared a short opinion piece on her FB wall. In it she raised debate around the apparent Ubuntu in African people, and how the white man has “made of us animals with their capitalism and individualistic ideologies”.

She argued that Africans have been taken for granted and advantage of as a result of this Ubuntu. By “Afrikan” I presumed she meant black African people with kinky hair, who mostly occupy sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps those historically related to them in the diaspora. Her point was buttressed further with the following striking statement: “Afrikans are inherently good”.

I have come across this notion often enough from people, and I think Malaika was raising a good debate that is often treated lightly. While in the main I agree with the broad sentiment that the African’s “goodness” has been used against him, especially historically, the statement “Afrikans are inherently good” perhaps needs a further discussion that is separate to whatever Malaika was arguing on that day.

Generally, could this statement be to say “others” are inherently bad?

All persons, irrespective of their pigmentation, hair type, or culture, are part of the Homo Sapiens species and are very uniform genetically. That is, they are overwhelmingly similar than they are different. I think it was Professor Richard Dawkins who once made a poignant allusion to the fact that a person in the Congo Basin is more genetically similar to a Chinese monk (or even someone of European descent for that matter) than two unrelated chimpanzees playing on the same tree in the Congo. The scientific consensus for why this is so is that the human species once shrunk so much, almost coming to extinction, before finally surviving; and with the Ice Age gone, and the advent of the agricultural revolution starting in the Middle-East, eventually growing to today’s overall global population size. Since then until today, we remain remarkably genetically uniform as the Human Genome Project has shown. Besides, we know genes take geological time to be adjusted significantly anyway.

So the notion that we are “inherently good as Afrikans” must ultimately be measured against this biological fact I have just referenced. Otherwise, such a statement, put to some serious and formal scrutiny, may end up having us required to present empirical evidence showing the “inherence” of our good (or bad). Formally speaking, any reference to “inherence” in biological organisms refers to a genetically innate feature of that organism.

My view is in keeping with the scientific orthodoxy on this one. Historio-geographic factors, as advanced by the likes of Professor Jared Diamond, in his famous work titled Guns, Germs, and Steel are responsible for the different modes of existence, and later (mis)fortunes, of the different groups of human civilisations across the world. As such, Africans may have, after all, “culturally evolved” to embrace and emphasise communal living and camaraderie; while other cultures may have taken other cultural trajectories, whether good or bad, to each survive our respective environments.

Indeed, civilisations of the world do not radically reinvent themselves on a continuous basis – they socially, politically, and economically evolve and it is the interactions between these variables that make these debates so interesting rather than a simple debate of seeing ourselves against the backdrop of inherent goodness or badness. There are no total revolutions where all that has gone before is laid to rest, and new polities being born enjoying completely clean slates. Traditions, customs, institutions and social relationships will survive and adapt from one era to another, and this cuts across Africans and non-Africans.

For example, from a historical perspective, pre-colonial Africa was as varied as the continent itself. Different circumstances produced different societies with different traditions, customs, and politics, and these societies rose, fell and adapted as the centuries passed.

It is from this perspective that we should always call for careful application of the sentence “Afrikans are inherently good”. Indeed they are, but so is the rest of humanity, from a purely biological perspective that is and conversely, we should equally acknowledge some of humanity’s inherent badness.

The dangerous fallacy I seek to address here relates specifically to the “fallacy of ambiguity”. The word “inherent” is ambiguous because to someone it may be understood to mean biologically inherent, or culturally inherent, or otherwise.

Fallacies are not dangerous only because they interfere with our ability to arrive at the truth, but also because, in this specific instance of appealing to “inherence”, it is not difficult to imagine a eugenic notion (or motion) that can fester if the word is not adequately contextualised, in very clear terms, exactly what is meant by “inherent goodness” in a particular people.

I am not saying Malaika was not aware of these dangers, but often other people can absorb rhetoric such as “inherent goodness in Afrikans” from influential people and opinionistas such as Malaika, and then proceed to create their own versions based on their own misunderstandings of what was meant. History is replete with examples of how seeing people as inherently this or that can lead to social horrors. So we must be careful and ensure that context is never compromised.

However, all of this is not to say that there is no observable emphasis of communality amongst Africans – there is and it must be so. It has often been said that the polities of pre-colonial Africa where such that communal living became the best form of existence to survive life in Africa. Pre-colonial Africa is said to have had low population densities, and coupled with the production of relatively small economic surpluses, these factors hindered the formation of fully fleshed states in many parts of the continent. Again, this is not to say Africa was ubiquitously stateless; pre-colonial Africa exhibited both states and stateless societies.

The central point being made here is that the structure of pre-colonial African societies, especially the stateless ones, plausibly has much to do with our Ubuntu-ness as it was quite needed in those conditions. This communality is anyhow observed in other pastoral societies outside of Africa.

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