Philosophy is the new battleground in South Africa’s fight against colonialism

Tony Shabangu is done with studying Nietzsche.
Tony Shabangu is done with studying Nietzsche.
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Philosophy studies in South Africa revolves around pronouncements from white, European men. Tony Shabangu, a philosophy lecturer and doctoral student at University of Johannesburg, has read them all. He’s looking for something new.

Six years ago, Shabangu was writing his master’s honors thesis on Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that God is dead. It was the prestigious thing to do. But Shabangu, who comes from what he describes as “the hood” of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, struggled to see the point of writing yet another article on the over-studied Western philosopher. It was difficult to feel enthusiastic about a thinker who had opposed the abolition of slavery in the United States and claimed that slaves came from “useless and harmful stock.”

Then, in 2012, Shabangu’s father died. This personal crisis led him to question his priorities. “It felt like I was doing philosophy for nobody’s sake, for nothing’s sake,” he says. And so he switched his focus to African philosophy.

Though he lives in South Africa, this was a fairly radical choice. To judge from the syllabi of many South African university philosophy courses, African philosophy simply doesn’t exist. For growing numbers of South African students, their universities’ Euro-centric presentation of philosophy is not a tangential product of colonialism, but core to the imperialist mission.

Philosophy views itself as the science of thinking; it promises to teach students how to construct perfectly logical arguments. Colonization, too, controls and shapes the thoughts of all those under it. Under apartheid, which lasted from 1948 until it was dismantled in the early 1990s, South Africa’s education system was explicitly designed to justify white people’s domination.

The remnants of this intensely racist system still run through much of South African schooling: Students are predominantly taught in English, rather than in local languages such as Zulu or Sesotho, while “African studies” is a small subsection of most universities. And philosophy, in South Africa, is the domain of European thinkers.

But Shabangu says there’s growing demand for change, both from students in his country and visiting scholars. “More and more people would be like, ‘Where’s African philosophy? We came all the way to Africa, where are the African philosophers?’” he says, lifting his arms in an exaggerated shrug. Dressed in faded grey jeans, a baggy soccer jersey, and a baseball cap, he has none of the pretension or buttoned-up demeanor typical of academics. When he’s not smiling, he is perpetually on the verge of a grin, the corners of his mouth tugging upwards in easy humor. He sees a very different future for philosophy in South Africa. “We have more than enough people willing to do this,” he says.

Where’s the African philosophy?

The dearth of African ideas studied in South Africa came to national attention in 2015 as students protested under the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Students called for universities to stop honoring imperial leaders, to teach African thought in African languages, and to get more African professors on staff.

Since then, Shabangu’s department at the University of Johannesburg has shown signs of changing. There’s a lot of work to do. While more than three-quarters of Johannesburg is black, nine of 12 philosophy lecturers in Shabangu’s department are white. The vast majority of the thinkers studied are white Europeans.

On the upside, Shabangu sees an institutional desire to change. One of his professors, for example, now allows students to ask questions in African languages rather than insisting on English. “The change you see even in the way the students express themselves, the feeling in their answers, is amazing,” says Shabangu. “It’s very liberating.”

The process of incorporating more African philosophy into the curriculum isn’t simply a matter of swapping out the Western canon for an established set of African thinkers with equivalent honors and credentials. For centuries, academics have overlooked African ideas at the expense of Western ones, and much of transforming the subject involves considering the question of African philosophy and how to relate it to colonialism. The term “decolonization” describes the attempt to address and rectify the lingering effects of colonial rule, and has been applied in all manner of governmental policies and across academia. In philosophy, the process involves reclaiming African philosophical ideas and rejecting unquestioned Western concepts.

“Who is best placed to suggest which form of culture is best for African peoples? Who defines the needs of the people and the related epistemologies that best serve them?” ask Ivan Karp and D. A. Masolo in their book African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry. “Almost all of the literature on African philosophy calls for sustained empirical investigation of African cultures and collaboration with the African producers of those cultures.” There are countless African philosophers who’ve begun to do this work in recent decades: Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Appiah, Achille Mbembe, Henry Odera Oruka, and Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze are just some of the thinkers who could fill syllabi worth of African philosophy.

African philosophy does not necessarily focus on radically different topics than Western philosophy. The point is rather that the Western canon does not hold the only ways to explore philosophy, and that many ideas about living ethically or the nature of free will can be found elsewhere, informed by a variety of cultures and customs.

Whereas Western philosophy has an individualistic outlook, typically asserting that one man was the sole creator of a particular idea, the communal focus of many African societies means that certain philosophical concepts are not traced to any one creator or origin. One example is ubuntu, an idea that dominates much of African culture and philosophy.

“It’s a way of life and communal ethic based on traditional African societies,” says Shabangu. “The idea is that my personhood is tied up to the personhood of others.” A fundamental ubuntu principle, umuntu ngu ngabantu, translates as “You’re human through other humans.”

Whereas much of Western philosophy focuses on self-realization and achieving morality as an individual undertaking, ubuntu, which permeates much of African thought, insists that self-realization is a communal process.

This communal outlook of ubuntu also influences African ideas on epistemology, or the study of knowledge. For example, some African thinkers influenced by ubuntu believe that an object should be understood according to its relationship with its contexts and surroundings, rather than by any intrinsic properties. In the legal domain, several philosophers have argued that, in accordance with the values of ubuntu, a law is only valid if it’s been agreed upon by a community, rather than enforced by a minority from on high.

Philosophy as an excuse for colonialism and slavery

Although the University of Johannesburg has a long way to go to be considered truly diverse, the situation is far worse in another of the country’s most prestigious institutions, the University of Cape Town (UCT), which reflects the broader racism of the city. “There’s a huge polarization in [city of] Cape Town,” Shabangu says. “Black and white, it’s as clear as day. There’s a much more explicit thing happening there.”

In Cape Town, I meet Olerato Mogomotsi, who says he’s the only black postgraduate student at UCT, and is the only black student listed on the department’s website. All of the tenured professors in his department are white, and the majority are from the US or UK. When I ask him how it feels to be taught exclusively by white people, he blinks. “It’s expected,” he says. “In school I was taught by white people. The only black teacher taught African languages. I’ve been conditioned to expect that.”

Mogomotsi has a gentle demeanor. With his large round face and glasses, he is slightly reminiscent of a wise, calm owl. He says he doesn’t think about race within his field of philosophy; everyone around him ignores the subject, and so he feels he has no choice but to do the same. Instead, he focuses on ethics, writing his thesis on whether gay people have a moral obligation to be open about their sexuality in hostile, homophobic communities.


Olerato Mogomotsi, the only black postgraduate philosophy student at UCT
Olerato Mogomotsi, the only black postgraduate philosophy student at UCT

“I’m on autopilot mode. That’s the sad part. You want a PhD in philosophy, you have to do what you need to do,” he says. “My black experience is increasingly detached from the discipline.”

David Benatar, head of the UCT philosophy program, has claimed that the department’s curriculums in applied ethics, business ethics, and bioethics all draw upon “local issues and contexts.” The university does offer one course on the philosophy of race. But Mogomotsi says the majority of material he reads in his program comes white thinkers, and discussions on race can be uncomfortable. In one metaphysics class he took, the majority of the students were white and quickly came to a consensus that race was inconsequential—a superficial feature that didn’t truly determine identity or individual treatment.

“It felt uncomfortable. That’s not where the conversation ends,” says Mogomotsi. “Race is a historical narrative that’s imposed on us … It’s not something you can decide doesn’t matter.”

Race matters to him. It matters that philosophy has been presented to him as the product of white, European thinking; that his field reveres Immanuel Kant as the greatest ethical philosopher, while failing to mention that in 1761, Kant declared: “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meager talent. The Negroes are far below them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples.”

Since the creation of Western philosophy, the field has been used to assert Western superiority. As Stephen Cave notes in Aeon, Aristotle declared that some demographics were inherently more rational, and therefore superior, to others. Educated men were naturally entitled to rule over women, according to Aristotle, and over other men “whose business is to use their body” and who therefore “are by nature slaves.” At its core, this concept of natural-born superiority is a key driver of colonialism, giving white Europeans a pretext for destroying and controlling others’ cultures.

In philosophy departments around the world, the field is defined by the philosophical methodologies practiced in the West, and philosophical ideas from other cultures are studied in other departments like East Asian, African, or religious studies. In other words, Western philosophy is typically considered the only form of philosophy.

“What is ‘African studies?’” asks Mogomotsi. “Isn’t this just knowledge? Why do we have to push it to a corner of the university and devalue it within the subject I’m in?”

He’s up against serious resistance. Benatar, the head of the university’s philosophy program, ascribes to the view that philosophy is defined in part by Western methodologies. “I don’t want to discount the possibility that there are African traditions of philosophy,” Benatar says, “But I wonder whether there’s philosophy in the same sense as we’re talking about philosophy.”

When I meet Benatar at his University of Cape Town office, which is sparsely decorated with bland, standard-issue furniture and rows of textbooks perfectly aligned on the shelves, he’s willing to discuss the subject at length. Clean-shaven, with close-cropped grey hair and a steady gaze, he’s clearly convinced by the validity of his arguments, and repeatedly emphasizes ways in which he feels he has been oppressed or slighted.

Several former students said that Benatar was widely regarded as an impressive figure at the university just a few years ago. But he faced a wave of criticism from students and some fellow professors after he wrote an article in The Cape Times in 2015 in which he claimed: “Africa should demonstrate that it has something valuable to add, rather than arguing that it has something African to contribute. This is not to say that Africa can offer nothing valuable, but rather that the selling point should be that it is valuable rather than that it is African.” Benatar says he was met with personal attacks and labeled racist after the article was published. Xolela Mangcu, a sociology professor at the University of Cape Town, called Benatar’s article a, “racially offensive diatribe” in his own article for The Cape Times.

“In the world today in general, but especially in South Africa, to be called a racist is like being called a communist during the McCarthy era, a counter-revolutionary in the Stalinist era. That’s the sort of accusation it is,” he says. He believes that being called racist has made some people less willing to work with him and more likely to dismiss his views out of hand and denigrate his work. The atmosphere at the university is “toxic,” he says, claiming that several students have told him they’re scared to question any aspect of decolonization.

Certainly, aspects of the protest movement have been emotional and dogmatic, with some students arguing that a fully decolonized curriculum should reject all Western theories, including scientific principles such as gravity. But Benatar shows great concern for those who wish to resist aspects of decolonization, with comparatively little empathy for those who feel oppressed by the existing system.

There’s little intrinsic value, according to Benatar, in hiring a racially diverse faculty. “Often people want to justify race- and sex-based affirmative action on the basis of diversity,” he says. “The real interesting diversity is diversity of opinion. That, I think, universities are very bad at reflecting.”

Benatar also questions the argument that it’s important to hire black professors for the sake of having role models for black students. Though perhaps it can be useful for some individuals, he claims that certain immigrant communities—he didn’t offer specific examples—have managed to excel academically even when they had no role models of their race. “I think they rise to prominence in light of they don’t take on this self-crippling attitude of ‘If I don’t have a role model in the sense of somebody who looks like me or has my background, I’m unable to do this,’” he says. “A role model is good, but you can have a role model who doesn’t have your same ethnic background.”

White professors teaching African philosophy

Other philosophers in South Africa have not limited their own areas of research according to their own racial identity. Thaddeus Metz, a white American who moved to South Africa in 2004 and is now Shabangu’s advisor, was one of the first to study African philosophy in a traditional academic setting, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “It seemed obvious to me that I couldn’t come in and just teach the standard Western fare of utilitarianism and Kantianism, but that I should also engage with the local culture,” he says. “I thought I’d teach African ethics alongside Western ethics and put them into dialogue with each other. The striking thing to me was that no one at my university had done it before.”

Metz says he faced some dismissal from colleagues who seemed to devalue African philosophy. On one occasion, he gave a talk at UCT, drawing on ideas in the African tradition about survivor’s guilt. Whereas Western moral philosophies view survivor’s guilt as irrational, as it describes a sense of guilt despite having done nothing wrong, an ubuntu notion of developing personhood through a broader community suggests that survivor’s guilt is a justifiable expression of solidarity with others.

“One colleague’s response was, ‘Why draw on the African tradition, why not look at the ethics of care from the Western tradition?’” says Metz. “I found that odd. The African tradition has been around a lot longer and is a lot richer. Besides, these ideas are salient in the African tradition, which deserves credit for them. You can find some of them in the Western tradition but they’re not salient there.”

Although he’s an advocate for decolonizing philosophy, Metz has faced criticism from those driving the movement. Some South African students, having had their culture overlooked for so long, are seeking a more nationalist approach, claiming that African ideas should be studied and taught only by African philosophers. Metz says he’s been told he shouldn’t even be in South Africa, let alone teach there; that his very presence means he’s stealing bread from black people. “It’s understandable but it’s hard,” he says. “I’m not pretending to be the sole voice of African ideas. I’m not the first to do African philosophy. I encourage my students to disagree with me and develop their own views.”

Shabangu has faced criticism for studying with Metz. “I’m probably shooting myself in the foot for this because I’m going to be called an Uncle Tom or whatever, but Prof Metz has done a lot for what I understand in the field of African philosophy,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t be doing my honors had I not met Prof Metz.”

While some argue that decolonization of philosophy means eliminating Western concepts entirely, for Shabangu, it means emphasizing the overlooked schools of African philosophy, and de-emphasizing those Western ideas that have been over-promoted. He doesn’t know what the final result will look like, and to what extent the white figures of the past should be engaged with or supplanted. “Transformation is a process, not a punctuated thing,” he says. “We’ll never reach a stage where we can pinpoint that the decolonization process is complete. We’ll be getting closer and closer.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the majority of students and materials in a UCT philosophy of race class were white, and that students in that class decided that race was inconsequential. In fact, Mogomotsi was referring to a UCT metaphysics class.