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Izwe Elethu: A reply to Rafael Winkler's 'Who has the authority to speak about identity?'

It is mischievous for Rafael Winkler to reduce an argument that has its basis in the critical examination of history of over 100 years to a mere squabble.

14/02/2017 04:30 SAST | Updated 14/02/2017 07:23 SAST
Adrian de Kock/Gallo Images
The statue of Jan van Riebeeck with a poster commenting on the debate about the removal of Cecil John Rhodes's statue at UCT on March 24, 2015 in Cape Town.

In January, the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA) held its annual general meeting. During the meeting there was a plenary session convened by some black philosophers in which they withdrew their membership from the PSSA and called for its wholesale disbandment.

Subsequent to that call, two articles have appeared in the Mail & Guardian related to the matter that contain serious errors of fact and interpretation. The errors in the first article, which is a general overview of the event, result from laziness and bad research on the part of its journalist. The second article, which we respond to here, was written by a professor who not only didn't attend the conference but neglected to listen to the podcast of the panel before writing about it. Since the Mail and Guardian has refused to publish our response and even taken to deleting comments made on the online version of the article by black attendees of the meeting. Our response appears below.

It is rather mischievous for Rafael Winkler to reduce an argument that has its basis in the critical examination of history of over a century to a mere squabble over the identity qualifications of who may speak. Prof Winkler's article is riddled with so many troubling problems that I will confine myself mainly to the question of philosophy and identity. I do, however, invite Prof Winkler to an open debate either in Johannesburg where he teaches or in Pretoria where I am based at a mutually agreeable time soon.

A history

The history of South African philosophy, much like other academic disciplines and indeed the university itself, can be characterised in its over 100-year history as mainly involved in mimetic activity.

Universities in South Africa were established by the colonists in order to keep their children abreast with their peers at home, and so from the outset the objective was to mimic the universities in the metropole in every regard possible. This included not only curricula and epistemological paradigms but even architecture and the internal arrangements of lecture and seminar halls.

In the case of philosophy, it still remains that the descendants of our Dutch and other European conquerors, the Afrikaners, mimicked their forebears in Germany, Holland and France and continue in the spirit of what is called continental philosophy (of course there is only one true continent and so the specification "European" is unnecessary even today in academic discourse). The English-speaking conqueror, on the other hand, found his model in the U.K. and U.S., and copied what was described as Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-American philosophy. Today it has evolved into what is described (though not without contest) as analytic philosophy.

To this day, philosophy departments in SA continue in this uncritical mimetic activity. They take pride in their personnel being trained in the metropole and boast about it in their prospectuses, and even better if the personnel are "real live" Europeans or Americans. The "work" that these departments do however generally goes unnoticed, it's largely uncited and unprescribed, no Festschrifts are written in its authors' honour. This is because it has restricted its activity to copying and importing not only theories and methods but even problems. This is in no small part due to the identity of the personnel who populate the philosophy departments.

Liberating philosophy from racism

The panel discussion that I took part in was entitled "Liberating Philosophy from Racism: The Ethical and Political Bases for the dissolution of the PSSA". If Prof Winkler had been in attendance or taken the care to listen to the podcast, he would have noted that the discussion from the PSSA 2016, in which an all-white panel was invited to discuss the possibility of a uniform South African identity, was not even mentioned in our panel. Therefore his suggestion that it was that discussion that formed the basis for our exit is misleading and insulting.

Even in the supposed attempts to address the marginalisation of Africans from philosophy in SA, because our identity continues to be that of objects rather than interlocutors in the decision-making, our erasure continues. The University of Johannesburg's Steve Biko Lecture Series organised by Prof Winkler amongst others, contained the who's who of European and American philosophy and not a single African, Black or Biko scholar is a mere case in point. The name was chosen to appease complainants while continuing the injustice without disturbance. Another case in point is the book Being at Home: Institutional Culture and Transformation in South African Higher Education, co-edited by a Rhodes University philosopher. Out of the book's 13 chapters appears only one African contributor -- perhaps the book itself is an argumentative artefact about the urgency of "transformation".

Far from identity being irrelevant to the practice of philosophy, it forms its very basis. Even as philosophers disagree about what constitutes genuine philosophy, an indispensable part of philosophising throughout time and in different traditions has been questioning. Now anyone who has ever asked a question must surely not find it farfetched that questions are by themselves tied to an identity. Questions are, after all, always asked by some-one about something. The some-one of the question is precisely not any other.

Philosophical problems and even methods themselves are contingent on the "problems" that the philosophers and the societies they come from suffer from or enjoy. This is why it took African philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze to reveal the racism in the celebrated Immanuel Kant's anthropological writings (which include prescriptions by the great Kant on how to whip your negro slaves) -- a problem that almost two centuries of white Kant scholarship had either ignored or deemed irrelevant (that is "unproblematic" in a philosophical sense). For us as Africans, this is very relevant and invites questions about Kant's very understanding of the human be-ing central to his moral philosophy.

The philosophising of white women has revealed that what has been called a Social Contract by the most important white male philosophers in the past two centuries is really a Sexual Contract between men to treat each other as equals and enjoy equal opportunity in the oppression of women. It took black philosopher Charles Mills, to point out that even white women enjoyed and continue to enjoy a greater degree of freedom and humanity in these polities than black and "non-white" people.

The argument of our panel was that the foundation of the most comprehensive philosophical problem of all, the problem of justice, is inscribed into the body of South Africa itself. South Africa shares an identity with its universities and the philosophy departments in them. It was brought into being by an act of British Parliament in a settlement between the English and Boers. South Africa, like its philosophy, has nothing to do with the indigenous peoples conquered in the unjust wars of colonisation.

We identified the premier philosophical problem of SA as the outstanding return of title to territory and the restoration of an unencumbered sovereignty to the indigenous conquered people. This why people continue to speak of black/African areas, African clothes, African food, African Studies and African philosophy in South Africa.

This prefix "African", far than expressing a mere specification of identity, reveals precisely the question of outstanding sovereignty. It reveals that the default and predominant identity in South Africa; whether in urban geography, fashion, language, culture or philosophy; is European. Anyone who doubts this only needs to consider the widespread commitment to ignorance of white South Africa after multiple centuries of presence of our languages and cultures. This too while they spend hundreds of thousands teaching and learning Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian and other languages of the places their forebears came from.

We took the decision to stop participating in our own oppression, to stop volunteering our bodies as fodder in the "new" South African game of brandishing blacks as a show of inclusivity. We do not wish to be included. The point about philosophy being at base about questioning leads to another point: questions are always asked in a language and a voice (even a mental one). The colonial conquest of Africans means precisely that our voice has been silenced and its language quarantined to the realm of the immaterial. We will restore the sovereignty of African philosophy and then of our land.

African philosophy cannot be reduced to a mere option on the menu of assortments on the table in this land, but must be the very basis through which engagement with all other traditions and problems unfold. All those philosophers who recognise the truth and justice of our call are welcome to join us at our table.