Mabogo P. More, the eminent philosopher, won major international recognition in the form of the Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Last month he entered the debate that has followed the eruption of acute racial tensions in the Philosophical Society of South Africa with a response to an earlier intervention by Rafael Winkler. Philosophy is not the only discipline that confronts what seem to be unbridgeable divides. A number of senior academics have declared their refusal to publish in or collaborate with the official Political Science journal and significant tensions are brewing elsewhere. In the interests of giving more space to the critique of the racism entrenched in parts of the South African academy The Con has decided to publish the full version of More’s response to Winkler. More has recently completed two new books, one on Biko as philosopher and the other on More’s own experiences as a black philosopher in South Africa. We look forward to publishing excerpts from both of these books when they are published.
In the midst of the turmoil taking place in the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA), I read with interest the problematic article penned by Rafael Winkler in the Mail & Guardian. The problem for me is the transformation of a meta-philosophical issue into an epistemological issue. Winkler takes it upon himself to question the legitimacy of the complaints raised by young black South African philosophers about the treatment meted out to them by the PSSA. He questions their authority to talk about who and what they are. He implies that since they do not have the authority to talk about their experiences they, by that very fact, do not know who and what they are. According to the philosophy professor, the issue was prompted by an all-white panel discussion on South African identity. What he, in bad faith, avoids confronting straight on, is the fact that black philosophers questioned not only the constitution of the panel. Their main challenge was addressed to the persistent marginalization of everything black (philosophers, philosophy, students, etc.) by the PSSA. They were questioning the latent and subtle anti-black racism endemic within the PSSA itself.
The racism confronting the PSSA today is not new, not at at all. Let me demonstrate this by way of my experiences as a member of the PSSA, experiences which in Winkler’s view can neither speak to my identity nor command epistemic validity (truth). I have, over the past 42 years of teaching philosophy in this country, endured indignities in the PSSA by virtue of my black identity (to call myself black, according to Winkler is, strangely, to objectify myself). The main problem, to use Charles Mills’ characterization, is that philosophy in South Africa is “So white you’ve got to wear shades”. For example, in 1976 the Third Annual PSSA conference was scheduled to be at the University of Pretoria. On learning that two black philosophers (George Mashamba and I) were attending, the then head of department refused to have the conference hosted by his department and university. Black people were not welcomed at Tukkies even though they were members of the PSSA. To accommodate us the conference was moved to UNISA. Both Mashamba and I refused to attend.
In 1977 at the Fourth Congress of the PSSA held at Potchefstroom University a white woman cashier called me a “Kaffir” at the cafeteria. She did this in the presence of my white colleagues. None of these philosophers made a fuss about the incident except to quietly mumble a few embarrassed words to the hostile cashier that I was part of the group (a different “kaffir”). Being the only black at the conference, the hostile and unwelcoming gaze of the ordinary Potchefstroom whites was piercing to the bone. It was dehumanizing. A deluge of self-consciousness overwhelmed me. I felt that I was a curiosity, a phenomenon, a happening. I felt that I was exoticised and patronised. I was virtually a piece of rare Africana objet, subjected to statements such as: “I‘ve never met an intelligent black person like you before – I mean a black man who is actually a philosophy teacher”. But then, despite this seeming acknowledgement, I was philosophically completely ignored. Instead, questions about the intentions of black people – given the ‘76 Soweto Students Protests – were at the top of the agenda in any conversation with me. How would I, a single person, know the thinking of all black people? Was it a case of know one know all? The attitude of the philosophers was related to the familiar rudeness of white people who will say: “Our maid is black and she says that blacks want this and that.” Thinking back on the experience I am reminded of George Yancy’s 2008 book: Black Bodies, White Gazes which, according to its author, is an attempt “to explore the Black body within the context of whiteness, a context replete with contradictions and mythopoetic constructions”.
Tired of being a lone “School Kaffir” among white men with an attitude and tired of being constantly insulted in many ways than one, I stopped attending these annual philosophy conferences from that year. I think I remained the only black philosophy lecturer in South Africa until Joe Ndaba became a philosophy lecturer at the University of Zululand and Vincent Maphai joined the Department of Philosophy at Wits University. Maphai’s presence encouraged me to attend again when Wits hosted the annual philosophy conference in 1983. When I got there I realised that things hadn’t changed a bit so I stopped participating in academic philosophy conferences in South Africa.
Instead I looked to the United States and the Caribbean. I joined the Philosophy Born of Struggle Conferences organised by Leonard Harris and J. Everet Green in the USA and the Caribbean Philosophical Association, initiated by Paget Henry, Lewis R. Gordon, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Charles Mills, Anthony Bogues and others. These black philosophers formed these associations in response to the American Philosophical Association’s (APA) marginalisation of black philosophers’ work, their lived-experiences and Africana (Black) philosophy in general.
This move did not endear me to the philosophical community (read white) of South Africa. In an anti-Black society whites even want to tell blacks how to react to their insults. When you react in a way they do not expect, they label you ‘anti-white’ or ‘racist’ or, at that time, ‘black militant’ or, a la the apartheid regime: ‘communist inspired radical!’ The normal defense mechanism of a racist white is to call the black victim of racism racist. This is what Lewis Gordon appropriately calls ‘Equal Opportunity Racism’; expressed in statements that we so frequently hear today: ‘Blacks are also racist’. This means that if everyone is a racist, then either no one is racist or racism is a natural human phenomenon and no one can really be blamed for being human. In the same way if everyone is sick then no one is sick!
It was this milieu that produced me qua philosopher. My work focused progressively on the problem of racism, especially as it manifested itself in philosophy in South Africa. My criticism of philosophy in South Africa appeared in articles such as African Philosophy Revisited, African Philosophy in South Africa, Philosophy in South Africa: Before, Under and After Apartheid etc. . . In 1996 I published a piece entitled: Complicity, Neutrality or Advocacy: A Review of ‘Stay Out of Politics’ in which I argued that white philosophers in South Africa were morally responsible for apartheid by staying out of politics, that is, by tacitly taking the position that philosophy and politics do not mix and that, therefore, a philosopher’s job is not to involve him or herself in politics – even in the face of gross social injustices, political repression and systemic oppression.
At that time the mission statement of one philosophy journal in South Africa read: “Although Philosophical Papers is published in South Africa, it is not associated with the South African Government and the members of the Editorial Board regard the policy of Apartheid as an infringement of human, civil and academic rights and an affront to human dignity”. The other journal read: “The [Philosophical] Society is committed to the achievement of a just and democratic South Africa where there is no discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or creed”. I wrote that despite the seemingly progressive sounding mission statements of both philosophy journals, they were empty gestures not translated into meaningful commitment. When a member of the philosophical community (Richard Turner) was gunned down by the agents of apartheid, when a member of the society (George Mashamba) was arrested and sentenced to ten years on Robben Island and when another member (Louis Mnguni) was harassed, repeatedly detained by the security police – all of them subject to repression for “regarding the policy of Apartheid as an infringement of human, civil and academic rights and an affront to [their] human dignity” and “committed to the achievement of a just and democratic South Africa where there [will be] no discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or creed”, South African philosophers, individually and collectively, definitely had no difficulty staying out of politics. I further pointed out that South African philosophers demonstrated; (a) a loyalty to certain (foreign) philosophical traditions, (b) abdication from social and political responsibility and roles, and consequently (c) indifference and insensitivity to racism and Black suffering. For example, the exclusive emphasis on Anglo-American and continental philosophy, the systematic disregard of Eastern traditions, the exclusion of feminist theory or women philosophers, the a priori denial of the existence of African Philosophy in mainly white universities in a country which is a part of Africa is an idealisation of the world by philosophers, and thus justification for and perpetuation of the established ideological, political and social order. It leaves the established reality untouched, or to use one of its leading figures’ own words, “it leaves everything as it is” (Wittgenstein).
Winkler argues that the real problem of the all white panel was not racism but “who has the authority to speak about South African identity?” This formulation, seems to me to be an attempt to depoliticise and de-ideologise the issue thus relegating it to an epistemic proposition of “knowing” and “truth”. Authority, Winkler asserts, “is a property of our judgments insofar as we purport to say something true by means of them, and not of our experiences”. I’m puzzled here. Can judgments be true? Only factual statement seem to me to be either true or false. Value judgments call questions of justifiability and even validity into mind. What then are we to make of the truth of my experiences? Do I have no authority about my own experiences as a black person in philosophy in South Africa? One may be persuaded by Winkler’s assertion that “But to be black or a woman, to experience oppression, are facts about me. They are not judgments about my person. They carry in themselves no authority. In consequence, they cannot qualify someone to speak on such matters with authority”. The truth however is that “to be black or a woman”, even though facts about me are constituted as judgments about me a priori in the racist mind, is to live against that set of judments. In the racist consciousness or rationality, “Given any being in the world, if that being is black, then that being is lazy, corrupt, libidinous, thief, stupid, etc.” Such judgments “carry in themselves …authority” insofar as people act in accordance with them. Maybe I should refer Winkler to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, especially the chapter entitled “The Fact of Blackness”.
Indeed, for black people in an anti-black world, there is never a moment in their lives when their blackness is not an issue such that it can be treated as irrelevant to their existence. Instead it is often the primary relevant factor defining their very existence. No matter how much a black person has achieved or accomplished in wealth, education, career, sport or religion – no matter how rich a black person may be, no matter how many Ph. D degrees she or he has, no matter the fact that she or he maybe number one in the world in golf or tennis, and so on, presumptions and a priori assumptions about her/his black self are made that are solely predicated on the colour of the skin. Rich black men at the golf course are often mistaken for caddies. A black man or woman in front of his or her mansion in an exclusive white suburb is initially presumed to be a garden “boy” or a maid. A black professor at a historically white university is presumed to be either a student or labourer. Indeed, if he or she is acknowledged as a professor, she or he is not simply a professor but a BLACK professor. There are professors, doctors, CEOs scientists and BLACK professors, doctors, CEOs and scientists.
Winkler’s question: “Who has the authority to speak about South African identity?” may be rephrased into Linda Alcoff’s question: “Who has the authority to speak for others?”. She argues that to speak “for” or “about” others amounts to the same thing. Although White paternalism assumed many different forms, the one form which Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness adherents, and the black philosophers in the PSSA particularly abhorred was what Linda Alcoff calls “the problem of speaking for others”, especially by those whose location is socially, politically economically and epistemically salient. Speaking on behalf of blacks by whites of goodwill, for example, has always been a major problem among blacks struggling for freedom in antiblack societies. As far back as 1827, for example, the opening editorial of the first black newspaper in New York read:
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly. From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented. Men whom we equally love and admire have not hesitated to represent us disadvantageously, without becoming personally acquainted with the state of things, nor discerning between virtue and vice among us.”
Around the same period, Martin Delany also rejected white paternalism and urged blacks not to allow whites to think and speak for them. Persons from dominant groups who speak for others are often treated as authenticating presences that confer legitimacy and credibility on the demands of subjugated speakers. Such speaking for others does nothing to disrupt the discursive hierarchies that operate in public spaces. As a matter of fact, Alcoff correctly points out, “certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous i.e., the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or re-enforcing the oppression of the group spoken for”. What the black philosophers’ demand amounts to is: “Speak with and to us” and not “Speak for or about us”. The black philosophers at the conference were questioning the right given to white philosophers to speak for black philosophers in the PSSA.
Let me round up with Winkler’s liberal person who is gripped by “white guilt”. In Winkler’s view, part of the fundamental problem of post-apartheid South Africa is “white guilt”. He writes: “As long as our discourse on race, racism and South African identity remains invested with the values of racialism, nationalism and white guilt, they will continue to generate the old forms of xenophobia and exclusion in new and untold ways”. I am not sure whether I’m reading Winkler to be saying that whites should not feel remorse about what they have done to blacks for centuries on end, and are still doing. In other words, white guilt should be done away with, we should forget what happened and move on as everything is now ok. If this is what is implied, then the whole argument smacks of post-racism discourse which asserts that talk of racism is a veritable agent provocateur of discomfort, anxiety or hatred and therefore should be avoided because racism died with the demise of de jure apartheid. Unfortunately, as Alexis de Tocqueville commenting on how black people bear the stigma of racism, once remarked: “There is a natural prejudice that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal.” Unlike other enslaved peoples, black subjects, by contrast “transmit the eternal mark of [their] ignominy to all their descendants; and although the law may abolish [racism/apartheid], God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence”.
I guess what these young black philosophers in the PSSA are saying is exactly what Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture) said in the ‘60s during the Black Power Movement and the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) era: “Our fore-fathers ran, Our grand-fathers ran, Our fathers ran, this generation has run out of breath!!”