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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

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Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.

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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
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For much of the nineteenth century, Sundays in an open field at the gates of New Orleans saw a spectacular congregation of human activity. Picture a hot, humid, swampy Louisiana summer day, the Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the bass drum pulse reverberating as you approach a mass gathering at the fringe of the United States’s most Caribbean city.

You’d see New Orleaneans of all stripes, dressed in everything from the latest Parisian fashions to simple rags, standing around in circles, watching the most talented musicians, dancers, actors, and diviners of their city on full display.

If you could have angled your head to see inside the circle, you would be privileged to witness the diversity of humanity coming together. People from across Africa and the Americas co-mingling, sharing their culture, celebrating the arrival of the one day they can express their home and ancestral cultures in public.

Unaware that their communing would one day birth a novel culture, which would in turn branch out to influence cultures in the rest of the world, there must have been an urgent feeling to the gatherings, fleeting if not quite ephemeral, but temporary enough to make them feel dreamlike, religious even. As soon as that feverish dream of a day would break, they would be returning to unpaid labor, toiling in fields or answering to the whims of their white masters. Because they were not, in the society in which they lived, human.

In 2018, after returning to the US from living in Brazil, I visited New Orleans for the first time. While there, I picked up a book on the history of Congo Square, and in the following months I couldn’t help from periodically daydreaming about the historical Sunday gatherings in that city. I drew parallels to the basement house party or the rented community center of my childhood in Milwaukee, where immigrants would dance the night away, speak in their own language, eat their own food, even worship in their own cosmos.

They were also there at the nightclub that I frequented as a student in Madrid, filled with young men who may have risked their lives crossing deserts and seas to arrive in Europe, and who now danced in the center of circles to Youssou N’Dour. Or they were in the hidden away bars and nightclubs of New York and San Francisco, where migrants of a variety of classes and national origins brushed up against each other, catching up on the latest sounds from their various home lands. They were also in online spaces, in which young people across the world found a foothold for expression, with various permutations of digital soul music pulsing on the parallel circuits of a global capitalism still guided by the logic of white supremacy.

Connecting a historical moment like Congo Square to my own experiences helped to challenge lingering colonial logics embedded within my imaginings of America’s past. It particularly helped to destroy an invisible line that tends to be drawn between those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from Africa in bondage hundreds of years ago, and those who arrived more recently for other purposes. It forced me to recognize that African migration to the Americas (or elsewhere) can and should be thought of as a continuum, and the humanity of those who migrate, forced or by choice, is unbroken across space and time.

Last summer, I sat in a parking lot in King City, California, a small town surrounded by mountains and endless fields of fruit and vegetables, listening to a local Spanish language radio broadcast. On it, alongside various Mexican regional musics, they had public service announcements about COVID-19 and ads for English language classes. King City sits in the heart of one of the centers of industrial agriculture in the United States.

The manual labor performed in this region is done by workers from Mexico and Central America, some undocumented, but all descended from people who occupied and moved around these lands freely for thousands of years. Largely invisible in nearby wealthy urban enclaves, they are an integral labor force that save for a periodic scapegoating, demonization, and dehumanization in the media, isn’t normally seen as part of the nation—let alone having their hopes, joys, or individual expressions considered in mainstream discourse.

So I sat there, listening to the bright horn choruses and upbeat snare drum rolls, and imagined that these local radio broadcasts served to provide a sense of community and humanity to their audiences, not unlike those of the Sunday gatherings in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Humanity denied, humanity reclaimed, the contours of citizenship and their interplay with labor are perpetually dancing at the edges of the settler colony.

Contemporaneous to the gatherings at Congo Square, the American settler colony was in an expansive phase moving west across the North American continent. Around the same time, European powers were doling out territories for themselves in Africa, and across the world they accomplished these “civilizing missions” by pushing the existing inhabitants off of the land, killing or imprisoning them, or attempting to wipe out their way of life. The privileges of white settlers in these extensions of Europe were fortified by the legal structures of the colonial state. In the United States, laws like the Homestead Act and the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned white frontier families into state-sponsored militias, their structural advantage scrawled across the physical landscape of the continent.

In the wake of the guns and military campaigns (sometimes manned by colonised peoples themselves), urban professionals of the colonial metropoles followed with their pens, phonographs, and cameras and became the documentarians of the folk culture of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier (as well in the working class neighborhoods of cities). These state agents and entrepreneurs would chronicle the transition from an Atlantic society based on slave labor to capitalism. The legends they constructed would become the foundation for an imperialist ideology that continues to this day.

Starting around the mid-1800s, the US witnessed the rise in popularity of the blackface minstrel show. Through the medium of vaudeville, and with Congo Square as one of the direct source materials, the minstrel show denigrated people of African descent (or anyone deemed other at the time), mocking the expressions of humanity that they managed, while simultaneously integrating them into the identity of the nation. This form of entertainment would produce America’s first pop stars who would in turn become global ambassadors for the new American society that was emerging.

The legal mechanisms for enclosure in the world of ideas mirrored those of physical territory. As communication technology rapidly advanced, the mechanical copyright emerged to protect property in the cultural realm. This mechanism ensured a structural advantage for those with the resources to extract and define the value of the culture of those at the margins. The owners of patents and copyrights did more than just document their changing world, they also ossified racial categories and ushered racism along from the biological realm into the cultural one. This was the foundation on which the global entertainment industries of today were built.

After the very slow and wrought process of abolishing Atlantic slavery, and the violent consolidation of the colonial territories, by the turn of the twentieth century debates about citizenship and civil rights would arise to mask the battlefield over humanity. As Native Americans were cordoned off to reservations, Africans in the Americas would be folded into the nation as Black (Negro, Colored, etc). And as the western literary genre moved from the written word to the screen, and the minstrel show moved from live theater, to radio and phonograph, to film and television, the twin legacies of the fascination with and denigration of a dehumanized other would leave their mark on each.

White capitalist copyright owners would position themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers on the pure folk cultures of the inferior races, or white performers, on stage with their actual faces, would insert themselves as the individual genius responsible for the synthesis of a unique cultural innovation, the social relations behind the slick final product forever obscured. While various cultural rebellions have arisen throughout the years to counter these processes of dehumanization, the tools of extraction inherited from the nineteenth century have proven to be more than effective in upholding the logic of empire and racial capitalism.

In parallel to this cultural push and pull, a political debate would arise amongst Black Americans over how to (or whether to) integrate into the settler colonial society. Visions of a return to Africa would wax and wane, while an anti-colonial politics was violently repressed. Ultimately, the call to own property as a way to secure one’s rightful place within the nation, the ghosts of 40 acres and a mule, would ring out loud over the decades. This echo has found new life in today’s discourse around race, resulting in an ascendant black nationalist purism, particularly online. This trend is unfortunate. While there is certainly agency within the beauty and virtuosity that has come into the world as a result of the cultural resilience of African descended peoples in the Americas, it doesn’t mean that it is the result of some intrinsic quality unique to one racial group or national historical context.

In fact, it could be argued that the African retentions that remain in the Americas survived because the dominant systems either tolerated them or weren’t able to read them as such. In other words: Black American cultures have arisen as a result of both black resilience and white supremacy. Still, America’s Blackness is one of the most important cultural expressions of resilience and resistance in modern society. To put an enclosure around it only reinforces the settler colonial mentality, leaving the aims of universal humanism incomplete. Even those Africans at Congo Square, who helped start this whole thing in the first place, would likely remain outside of the gates.

Just over an hour drive from that King City parking lot where I was listening to the radio in Spanish, and on the western edge of the continental territory colonised by the United States, sits the headquarters of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Facebook, Tesla, Apple—the heart of the global information economy. Even though the bubble of the California Gold Rush has long since burst (a process that seems to repeat itself every few decades), it has turned into a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. If mass media was born amongst the colonization project of Euro-American imperialism, the dehumanization of non-European peoples, and the consolidation of racial capitalism, then today’s information economy is also built upon that same infrastructure.

On the wild frontiers of the early internet, online communities emerged that would freely exchange infinitely replicable digital material. In what many thought was a new reality of a post-scarce digitally permanent world, the reign of the regime of copyright briefly found itself in crisis. Music was the most fertile ground from which to declare one’s liberation, but it wasn’t the only one.

And while interaction with the old guard of racial capitalism allowed a tradition of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation inherited from vaudeville to continue, what had emerged within the confines of the virtual world—torrent libraries, file sharing sites, personal blogs, forums and chat rooms—collectively could be thought of as a sort of digital Congo Square. The response from the United States Department of Homeland Security, alongside other policing efforts, was to raid the safe houses of free exchange and try and put an end to it all through intimidation.

Before the average uploader became familiar with the DMCA takedown, some big companies looked at the anarchistic landscape and lured the loosely organized scattering of digital cultural producers onto their free platforms. Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc all provided sleek design, convenience, and a veneer of protection from the harshest crackdowns by the state.

Yet, these platforms were not immune to the demands of capital or its watchdogs. Perhaps, they never were meant to be. Investors eventually wanted returns, and the landed copyright elite needed their cut too, and whether planned or not, all the platforms would eventually make concessions that favored the biggest property owners over the public. These concessions would eventually evolve into the phenomenon now popularly known as surveillance capitalism.

Eventually, the ideological struggles of our time would also move on to the individualized “feeds” and “timelines” of the Silicon Valley platforms. No longer reserved for the stage of fights between or within nations, political speech is tailored, tracked, and manipulated in the interest of generating more interaction with minimal regard to the real world consequences. We may constantly measure ourselves against how we think other people might see us online, but when you strip us back down to our most human needs and desires, the questions that concern much of the population of this planet are fairly simple: What is the right of any individual human to exist wherever they are on Earth? And, under what conditions do they have a right to do so?

So today, across the world, young people leave rural communities to work in the fields, mines, and factories that fuel the supply chains of multinational corporations with the slightest hope that integration into the global economy will provide a better future for them and their families. Masses from the urban margins take to the streets with the belief that by facing state violence head on they might bring about a more just reality for their communities.

And, when members of both groups feel like they have no alternative but to hit the unmarked highways of the world’s most dangerous migration routes and seek a better future elsewhere, they are doing so with the idea that the same world that can beam images and sounds via satellite to a mobile phone in their pocket must be able to recognize a humanity denied as a result of neocolonial economic, environmental, and military policy.

Like in the post-Reconstruction era in the US, many of the proposed solutions to the injustices that have emerged in the digital age have concentrated on finding technological fixes to restore (old) systems of fair(er) compensation for the output (input) of online denizens. However, rather than provide solutions to the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism, technological fixes such as blockchain capitalism, cash app mutual aid, personalized sponsorship accounts, and other enclosure-oriented solutions ultimately retrofit the infrastructures of exploitation against the claims of universal humanism. While there certainly is value in building community online, especially as a form of resistance or resilience, the question remains: What forms of online participation emerge from the claims to humanity of the marginalsmisfitsNative Americans and Africans at the frontier?

And in our resistance, we should also never forget that the reality of surveillance capitalism is that one person’s individual wealth, clout, or social relevance is insignificant in comparison to the aggregate picture of all the behaviors of the world’s population.

By the time the platforms had a monopoly on audiences, they no longer needed the cultural products they claimed to be supporting to have any exchange value at all (with human moderation becoming fertile ground for corruption or payola). While influencers try to squeeze out a few pennies from sponsors or trickle down monetization schemes based on clout they’ve managed to accumulate in their online and real world social networks, the runways of the digital future are paved with the promise of returns from the proprietary algorithms built on data hoarded from the behavior of the masses.

As it stands, a few companies, concentrated in specific geographic locations, fortified by an accumulated wealth never seen before, defended by the largest military force ever to exist, swallow and secure all the information we give them: our behaviors, our desires, all of our humanistic acts and expressions, and employ small armies to sort, categorize, process and program, with the end goal of creating an “artificial intelligence” that can ultimately stake a claim to humanity too.

However, unlike the popular science fiction fantasy in which the future battles for humanity will happen between robots and humans, as big tech plans an exit from a planet in crisis, our future struggles are more likely to look like the age old one of humans who can harvest the fruits of their enclosures versus those of us who can’t. So, if blackness is the foundational currency on which the capitalist information economy is built, what will whiteness mean to a cyborg.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Ideas

Boda Boda Justice

Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.

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Boda Boda Justice
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We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.

Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.

Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.

However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.

Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.

What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level

However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.

Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.

Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.

It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”

As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.

“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”

Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

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Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.

Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.

Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.

Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.

As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.

In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.

In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970.  The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.

Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.

Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture  it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.

The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.

Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher,  Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.

Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.

Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.

Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself.  And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.

At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.

The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
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The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.

In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.

After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.

Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.

In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.

While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.

The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.

On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.

Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.

Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.

Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.

The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.

Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.

Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.

While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.

Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.

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