Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Wits University Press

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Read Achille Mbembe’s Thoughts on Decolonisation: “Is Radicalism the Same as Nihilism?”

On the PostcolonyAchille Mbembe has written a piece on the “new cultural temperament” that is “gradually engulfing post-apartheid urban South Africa”.

Mbembe, philosopher, political scientist and public intellectual, who is based at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, says South Africa is facing a “crucial moment” in its political project.

He says “a renewed pressure is being put on whiteness”, but adds that whiteness will not be demythologised by “forcing whites into silence”, and that black South Africans need to acknowledge their “attachment to whiteness, this mirror object of our fear and our envy”.

In addition, Mbembe insists that the “autobiographical and often self-indulgent discourse” that has replaced structural analysis makes for a “dangerous” argument, as what “makes us human is our capacity to share our condition with others”.

Mbembe’s seminal postcolonial text, On the Postcolony, was recently rereleased in an updated edition, with a foreword by Isabel Hofmeyr, and a preface by the author.

Read the piece, shared in full on Mbembe’s Facebook page:


The ground is fast shifting and a huge storm seems to be building up on the horizon. May 68? Soweto 76? Clearly something entirely different. The winds blowing from our campuses can be felt afar, in a different language, in those territories of abandonment where the violence of poverty and demoralization having become the norm, many have nothing to lose and are more or less ready to risk a fight. They simply can no longer wait, having waited for too long now. It does no longer matter where we look. Out there, almost everywhere seems to stretch a chain of young men and women rigid with tension.

The force of affect

A new cultural temperament is gradually engulfing post-apartheid urban South Africa. For the time being, it goes by the name “decolonization” – in truth a psychic state more than a political project in the strict sense of the term. Whatever the case, everything seems to indicate that ours is a crucial moment in the redefinition of what counts as “political” in this country. A dramatic feature of this rearticulation is the extent to which affect is being harnessed and recycled back into the political itself, as new voices increasingly render old ones inaudible, while feelings of anger, rage, and eventually muted grief seem to be the new markers of identity and agency.

Psychic bonds, in particular bonds of pain and suffering, more than lived material contradictions, have become the privileged mode of identification. I am my pain – how many times have I heard this statement in the months since RhodesMustFall emerged? I am my suffering and this lived experience of pain and suffering is so incommensurable that unless you have gone through the same trial, you will never understand – the fusion of self and suffering in this astonishing age of condensation, displacement and substitution.

So it is that the relative cultural hegemony the ANC exercised on black South African imagination during the years of the struggle is fast waning. In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years, these years of stagnation and mediocrity parading as leadership, there is hardly any center left standing as institutions after institutions crumble under the weight of corruption, a predatory new black elite and the cynicism of former oppressors. The discourse of black power, self-affirmation and worldliness of the early 1990s has been replaced by the discourse of fracture, injury and victimization – identity politics and the resentment that always is its corollary.

Rainbowism and its most important articles of faith – truth, reconciliation and forgiveness – is fading. Reduced to a commodity figure mostly destined to appease whites’ fears, Nelson Mandela himself is on trial. Some of the key pillars of the 1994 dispensation – a constitutional democracy, a market society, non-racialism – are also under assault. They are now perceived as disabling devices with no animating potency, at least in the eyes of those who are determined to no longer wait.
But how do we make sure that one noise machine is not simply replacing another?

The fact is this – nobody is saying that nothing has changed. To say nothing has changed would be akin to indulging in willful blindness.

Hyperboles notwithstanding, South Africa today is not the colony Frantz Fanon is writing about in his “Wretched of the Earth”.

If we cannot find a proper name for what we are facing, then we should keep searching.

What we are hearing is either that there have not been enough meaningful, decisive, radical change, not only in terms of the life chances of the black poor, but – and this is the novelty – in terms of the future prospects of the black middle class; or that thee have been too much change, but for the worse.

What is being said is either that twenty years after freedom, we have not disrupted enough the structures that maintain and reproduce “white supremacy”; that this is the reason why too many amongst us are trapped in a “bad life” that keeps wearing them out and down; that this wearing out of the black subject has been going on for too long and must now be brought to an end by all means necessary (the right to violence?); or that twenty years of “black freedom” have seen the disparaging of what some held dear to their identity and the gradual dismantling of the institutions they built for themselves and which, short of simply relinquishing, they are now asked to share with those they long kept at bay and took to be an inferior race.

What is going on is that a renewed pressure is being put on whiteness, white supremacy, white monopoly capital, whatever you want to call it. We are being told that we have not overturned the particular sets of interests that are produced and reproduced through white privilege in institutions of public and private life – in law firms, in financial institutions such as banking and insurance, in advertising and industry, in terms of land redistribution, in media, universities, language and culture in general.

What we are hearing is that we have allowed processes of racialization and the injustices they produce to proceed unabated, including within structures and institutions designed to counter racism, or which consider themselves to be broadly speaking anti-racist.

What we are witnessing is therefore a broad indictment of South African social and political order since the end of Apartheid.

A mass of structurally disenfranchised people have the feeling of being treated as foreigners on their own land. Consumed by the feeling that the doors of opportunity are fast closing, they are asking for firmer demarcations between citizens and foreigners; between those who belong and those who do not belong. They are convinced that those who won’t be able to “get in” right now might be left out for generations to come. Thus the social stampede, the rush to get in before it gets too late, the willingness to risk a fight at a moment when waiting is no longer a viable option.

Politics of impatience

Waiting is therefore progressively replaced by impatience and urgency. Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko and all the black prophets of urgency are coming back. They are being remobilized in the service of new forms of militantism.

The age of urgency is an age when a lot is being said – all sorts of things we had hardly heard about during the last twenty years, some ugly, outrageous, even toxic things, including calls for murder, atrocious things that speak to everything except to the project of freedom, in this age of fantasy and hysteria, when the gap between psychic realities and actual material realities has never been so wide, and the digital world only serves as an accelerator of every single moment and event.
The age of urgency is also an age when new wounded bodies, new warlike egos surface. They are now piling up, swearing and cursing, asking to be heard. They are claiming all kinds of rights – the right to violence, the right to disrupt that which is parading as normalcy. War, or at least war envy, is now on many lips. It is raging from within and there does not seem to be any means of preventing it from leaking into the wider society and. Untrue. Or maybe it is too late?
And yet so hard questions have to be asked.

How do we demythologize whiteness?

Properly understood, whiteness is a fiction that passes for a fact; it is a fiction that, by any means necessary, seeks to institutionalize itself as an event. This, it does by colonizing the entire realms of desire and of the imaginary.

The demythologization of whiteness requires that we develop a more complex understanding of South African versions of whiteness here and now. Post-1994, South African whiteness has sought to intensify its capacity to invest in what we should call the resources of the offshore. Simultaneously, it has attempted to fence itself off, to rebuild itself through enclaving itself. The University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Potchefstroom etc. are instances of those logics of offshoring and enclaving. But such logics are not limited to higher education institutions. They are typical of this neoliberal age.

We will not demythologize whiteness by forcing whites into silence. Intense pressure must be brought to bear on whiteness. But such pressure won’t produce much if whites are forced Into a position in which the only thing they are ever allowed to say in our public sphere is “look, I am so sorry”.

It is crucial for us to understand that we are a bit more than just “suffering subjects”. Politicizing pain is not the same thing as advocating dolorism. The fact is that whiteness has become a deep fantasmatic object of our unconscious. Whiteness has become part of our own libidinal investments. What we need to let go off are those libidinal investments and this is the only way in which we will be able to squarely confront what we call white privilege. We have to find out for ourselves what is the cost of our attachment to whiteness, this mirror object of our fear and our envy, our hate and our attraction, our repulsion and our aspirations. Is it that our fear is that the loss of whiteness as an object of accursed investment will defeat our capacity to nurture any hope about anything? Why are we invested in turning pain and suffering into such erotogenic objects? Could it be that our concentration of our libido on whiteness and pain and suffering is after all so typical of the narcissistic investments so characteristic of this neoliberal age?

The neurotic misery of our age

Part of what racism has always tried to do is to damage its victims capacity to help themselves. For instance, racism has encouraged its victims to perceive themselves as powerless. Current narratives of selfhood and identity including among so called radicals, are saturated by the trope of pain and suffering and even social death. Pain and suffering have become part of the cultural structures, the register through which many now represent themselves to themselves and to the world. To give account of who they are, or to explain themselves and their behavior to others, they increasingly tend to frame their life stories in terms of how much they have been injured, the types of wounds inflicted upon them by the forces of racism and patriarchy.

Under the pretext that the personal is political, this type of autobiographical and often self-indulgent discourse has replaced structural analysis. Personal feelings now suffice. Not only can’t they be shared, they cannot be challenged by rational discourse. Why? Because, it is alleged, black experience transcends human vocabulary to the point where it cannot be named.

Clearly this kind of argument is dangerous. The self is made at the point of encounter with an other. The is no self that is limited to itself. What makes us human is our capacity to share our condition with others. Progressive politics is about reaching out to others. It is never about enclosure. It is about nurturing the capacity to resume a human life in spite of having been wounded. The best of black radical thought has been about how we make sure that in the work of repair, certain compensations do not become pathological phenomena. There will not be a plausible critique of whiteness, white privilege, white monopoly capitalism that does not start from the assumption that whiteness has become this accursed part of ourselves we are deeply attached to, in spite of it threatening our own well-being.

Book details


Please register or log in to comment