Decoloniality and the Activist Intellectual

by Ompha Tshikhudo Malima

The most important questions in decolonial studies are: “what do we decolonise?” and “how do we decolonise?”

On what needs to be decolonised, my focus is on the issue of narratives in terms of writing. The narrative needs to be changed due to the question of epistemic justice. History shows us that the pen was used to exclude other traditions and rendered them uncivilised. This exclusion was done because the power of the pen was recognised. This is why African and Latin American philosophers offered rejoinders – through the pen – against bruising and nonsensical ideologies of philosophical racism. This is where the methodology – “how do we decolonise?” – comes forth. As highlighted, it is through the pen. But the pen does not arise from  a vacuum, it needs to be owned up. In my context as an African, I write from Ezekiel Mkhwanazi’s perspective of “an African philosopher in defence of the other.” I regard the philosopher as an intellectual. The issue is that there are intellectuals who are detached from society. They are guilty of what Pascah Mungwini (p. 48) calls “that arid concern with the abstract.” I then propose that an activist intellectual can get rid of this guilt. It is one who is attached not only to the ideological but also the material conditions of society. Their writings emanate from the society that they belong in. Mkhwanazi (p. 41)  argues that “such a thinker speaks and writes truth to power irrespective of the consequences.” The point here is that decolonial scholars should not only write on esoteric and hard to engage concepts. They can contribute to the corpus of discourses through the media, particularly through writing opinion articles and participating in radio interviews. I can posit with confidence that knowledge must leave the corridors of the academy and touch the lives of ordinary citizens, particularly the marginalised. Thus the onus probandi of the activist intellectual is to change the narrative while educating the public.

Decolonial scholarship cannot remain on the abstract level

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is relevant in this regard. While it is true that every human being is capable of reason, not all of them are (actually) philosophically inclined although they are potentially. Plato proposes that the philosopher has a duty to enlighten others, pursuant to their consciousness. I invoke this allegory to make sense of the intellectual’s duty to awaken the consciousness of the public and also play a role to make society better by realising their material needs, to marry “philosophy and the unfinished humanistic project of decolonisation in Africa.” Mungwini (p. 48) further advises that the philosophical pen can be deployed to address socio-politico-economic problems of our time. But how can that be when some intellectuals are imbued with “that arid concern with the abstract”?

We therefore need intellectuals who do not only “write truth to power irrespective of the consequences” but who are imbued with truth, knowledge and justice. It is problematic that there are those who are not only obsessed with abstract matters but their focus is not on social issues or the human condition. The human condition means the real state of affairs of the human person, which affects their existence, dignity and survival.

What is the core of being an activist intellectual?

The activist intellectual firstly, writes from wonder about the society that s/he belongs in. Their writings and narration stems from the human condition and their aim is to amplify it for the better. Proximity to the society is also portrayed by the conceptual schemes used to narrate and find solutions. One cannot be an activist intellectual by not using the language of their society and always gazing towards appropriation from other civilisations. Those who write from an indigenous perspective, including the use of languages qualify to be activist intellectuals. It is because they bring to life the conceptual schemes of their societies and try to understand problems from a particular view. I have written elsewhere that “language is the main expression of any civilisation.” It is my belief that a civilisation which thrives with narration (through the pen as well) ought to use its own language to do justice to concepts and thus the content it produces, to ensure sustainable and congruent knowledge.

The other core part of being an activist intellectual requires not only proximity but theoretical praxis of their work. Decolonial work must not just be about “decolonisation.” The question of “how do we decolonise?” must be answered sufficiently by the intellectual, it must not be an issue of ideological battles without material or congruent value in the society. We cannot, for instance, only write on decolonising religions while we do not normalise the very aspects that were colonised by religion. Alternative ways of becoming must be normalised simultaneously while deconstructing hegemonic religions through narration. Not only the debates must be progressive, the ways of living must also evolve. These ways of living include, for example, the normalisation of seeing (traditional) healers as authorities in African culture. We must also normalise freedom from the shackles of organised religions. The activist intellectual must practise what s/he preaches by narration and existence – writing about it and actualising it through their daily lives. The question of the intellectual’s objectivity while writing from their perspective cannot be problematic because it is a fallacy to speak of ultimate objectivity. This is not to escape from the power of reason, I am merely stating that objectivity is not from some transcendental realm, it can arise from particular circumstances and be concluded pursuant to exercising rationality within that locality.

The decolonial  intellectual must be an activist

For the purposes of my agenda, to argue that the intellectual should be an activist – I introduce the ‘primary’ and the ‘secondary’ intellectual. The former can be considered to be locked in the corridors of the academy while the latter branches out to the society. Being an activist intellectual is not an obligation, the only obligation is to narrate the “truth to power irrespective of the consequences.” Being a ‘secondary’ intellectual is a choice. It would be detrimental to reason and justice if we force all intellectuals to be activists, because human dignity is signified by freedom. It is conventional that there are various types of intellectuals but the scope of my work does not allow such a lengthy discussion. I focus on the decolonial (activist) intellectual. Decolonisation and decoloniality are an explicit expression of activism. The discourses are about affirming the dignity of the marginalised human, to unwind the evils of modernity and bring light to other knowledges. Decolonisation brings change, activism brings change – they must be married. The war towards decoloniality cannot be waged only through ideological battles at the academy. It is about ordinary people’s lives. The professors are not the only subjects of coloniality, they must unwind it not only for themselves but for others who are not trained or educated professionally to see the light. They must be like the Platonic philosophers in the cave, who were likewise affected by illusions but also gave upon themselves the ethical duty to illuminate others.

Ompha Tshikhudo Malima is currently studying in the Department of Philosophy, Practical and Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa (UNISA). His research focusses on political philosophy, decolonisation, religion, society and culture. 

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