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Black people have not yet fully recovered from the immense psychological trauma caused by colonialism. A complete restoration of their destroyed dignity is essential for meaningful empowerment.

Mama Christine Qunta is an accomplished writer, attorney and entrepreneur. Her work, spanning various fields, is held together by the quest for a more just and free society. I chose to speak to her to explore the nature of the historical circumstances that have given rise to and insidiously perpetuated our nervous condition. This interview deals broadly with three themes: the meaning of human dignity, which is understood as the inverse of the nervous condition, the relationship between human dignity and development as well as the means and tools for restoring dignity in our society.

Definitions are generally a good place to start and thus the first question to Mam’ Qunta was about how she conceives of human dignity and whether, following her definition, she thought it fair to argue that the dignity of Black people had been disproportionately undermined. The racial dimension of this question speaks to development concerns. Without presuming that race equals class, there is an implicit acknowledgement of their general confluence in South Africa. Furthermore, and what Mam’Qunta argues is underappreciated, is the psychology of Blackness, that is the psychology of being of the ‘underclass’. This too has development implications. The question thus, in its fullest sense, is about the history of that which constrains (and perhaps inversely, enables) development when such a huge portion of society has been psychologically and materially constructed as the lesser one.

Mam’ Qunta took the stance that human dignity is an innate quality that every human is born with, arguing that, ‘like self –esteem, it can be nurtured or destroyed through socialisation whether in the home or outside.’ She went on to agree that Blacks had indeed suffered a disproportionate attack on their dignity, locating this argument within a broad context. First, she noted that ‘the most catastrophic events in the history of humanity have been the Trans- Atlantic slave trade and colonialism that followed in its wake. Whilst other indigenous peoples elsewhere were colonised mostly by Europeans, what set the African continent apart was the duration, the scale of violence employed and the thoroughness of the destruction of indigenous institutions. The slave trade lasted from 1445 to 1870 and without any respite, colonisation kicked in. Physical occupation and violence alone could not have subjugated a whole continent. A most important tool in the hands of the slaver nations and colonists was the subversion of the minds of the colonised. European natural and social scientists and even priests were deployed in the project of what today would be termed psychological warfare. That warfare goes on to this day, most notably through Western mainstream media outlets. The project of psychological oppression was designed to ensure that the dignity and self – worth of Africans would be so destroyed that it would be natural for them to accept their own inferiority and the superiority of Europeans, culturally, intellectually and even physically. As we see today with some African leaders who slavishly follow Western dictates, physical occupation was rendered unnecessary. For example France has managed to maintain essentially a colonial relationship with much of its former colonies in West Africa.’

Responding to the racial terms upon which the dignity question is framed, Mam’ Qunta took the view that, ‘there is no doubt that the battle to resuscitate dignity should be primarily aimed at Black people that apartheid stripped of dignity on so many levels. It shouldn’t concern us that there might be some outcry regarding talking about race. There is often the shutting down of discussions on race in the name of “non- racialism”. Actually, the invocation of “non-racialism” is an appeal to avoid talking about race frankly and making white people uncomfortable. It is in essence a subversion of the ideal of non-racialism, which cannot come into being whilst in reality only one race enjoys equality consistently. I would think [the] primary role and goal [of white people"> should be to strive to be part of the future rather than the past. But to do this they would have to rediscover their own humanity. No person can claim to have his humanity intact if he/she believes that another human being is inferior because of his/her skin colour or an imagined set of prerequisites that such a person lacks. The search for an improved humanity must involve introspection and taking responsibility for the past fully. This would diminish resistance to the struggle of black people in this country to regain their feet, not just politically but also economically and psychologically. Whilst certainly this can and has happened at an individual level in some instances, I’m sceptical though that at a group level this will happen easily. Firstly because of the economic and cultural power whites wield but more importantly because at the moment the white community is without visionary leaders who can lead them out of their attachment to the past.’

And this perhaps is the issue, whether we all have a full appreciation of the context of underdevelopment, which informs our current trajectory. It is particularly because the dominant language for development in our country has become the language of delivery that one wonders, whether, in doing so, we assume an ahistorical, technocratic approach that doesn’t fully embrace our long-term interests. How do we also incorporate the identity question in meaningful terms such that our identities also give rise to active roles in the development project? How do we confront our different pasts in a way that helps us to build solidarity around the future?

Mam’Qunta certainly takes the view that the miracle of 1994 did not, and realistically could not, have instantaneously solved the crisis of dignity that has pervaded since the era of slavery. Colonialism and its later unofficial manifestations, she states, ‘operates in both explicit and subtler ways. Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and pre –eminent thinker, in his classic work Black Skins, White Masks, analyses the impact of colonialism on the psychology of the colonised. The peculiar form of alienation that makes Africans seek to purge themselves of their Africanness whether through culture or even physical appearance is truly a form of mental imbalance- what Fanon calls a “neurotic situation.”

‘At the heart of this is loss of dignity and self-esteem at both a personal level and as part of a beleaguered community or nation. Such a nation is not only despised, and denigrated by whites, but by itself. South Africa, post – 1994, is such a nation. We are a nation at war with itself, not just physically but also psychologically. The physical violence unleashed by Black people against other Black people, the self-hatred and timidity in the face of stubborn structural apartheid attests to this. Black people are fearful of speaking out against the extent to which white power dominates our institutions and economy.’

A few key issues must be extrapolated from the above analysis. First, we must ask ourselves whether we believe that we continue to exist in a context, locally and globally, where the interests of the powerful can be hostile to those who are disempowered. Acknowledging this means that development must take on a more strategic form, seeking to not only deliver but to empower. Empowerment seems the more potent tool for addressing historically entrenched structural injustice, which is in fact the structure that has led to and perpetuates under-development. It is highly questionable then, how far our achievements can go, if we continue to frame development in terms of delivery and seem unable to face the question of empowerment, which has its roots in a very long history of dispossession and dehumanisation. In addition, we must also be willing to deal with the question of practical application. In other words, how we go about undoing the psychological damage that has resulted from oppression. It is in dealing with the solutions to this challenge, that Mam’Qunta helps us to understand how a long view of history practically impacts the ways in which we can approach development.

Asked how exactly the restoration of dignity can become a core component of our approach to development, she shared the following: ‘I think a restoration programme would need to start with a cultural revolution. At the heart of such a revolution would be education, both formal and informal. History would be vital in such an education programme. If we can remove the layers of colonial lies and concealment of the true history of Africans not just in South Africa but the whole continent, it would be liberating. It needs the kind of vision of a future that we saw a glimpse of during the time of former president Thabo Mbeki and his vision of a free prosperous Africa. We need to rescue the true history not just of South Africa also the continent. That’s why I was happy when our government under Mbeki helped to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts. Our self-esteem is tied in with our belief system about our history. If we believe that we were primitive had no written scripts, knew no science and were thus the dark continent metaphorically speaking, then it would be easy to make us believe that Europeans are superior. The truth about our history is very different. But our education system fails our children and young people because its content is essentially European. This is why pre-eminent African philosophers and thinkers such as Fanon and Cheik Anta Diop are not taught as part of mainstream curriculum (except perhaps in African Studies). If African children learnt that their ancestors were the first to discover writing in ancient Egypt, to build the magnificent pyramids, Great Zimbabwe, the ancient churches of Ethiopia, mastered astronomy, mathematics and philosophy not just in ancient Egypt but also in Timbuktu and elsewhere, they would not have to believe that they contributed nothing to civilisation. Such knowledge would be more than learning history, it would be profoundly redemptive. No person who believes that his/her community has not contributed anything to world civilization can be truly free.’

She goes on further to criticise how tertiary education is organised to reflect the perpetuation of a status quo that ‘otherises’ Africans, even where their stories should be the norm, ‘the white supremacist notion of there being no such thing as African philosophy persists in mainstream South African academia.’ Furthermore, she notes, ‘The notion of an African Studies department in a university on the African continent is in itself an anomaly because you would expect rather European studies being a specialist department. African studies should be the mainstream, not the other way around. My point is that you need a massive, radical overhaul of the education system along with the infrastructural repair.’

What the above reveals is how the politics of empowerment and historicism can form part of a practical programme of action. In addition, it is clear that the work of embracing history and responding to the stubborn and pervasive structure that continues to nurse the dehumanisation of billions requires dedication. To this, Mam’Qunta adds: ‘I’m impatient with people who make excuses for laxity. We will not be able to lift our people out of the economic and cultural morass that they are in without consistent excellence and passion in whatever field we are.’

And if I were to add anything to her sentiments, it would probably be a call for creativity. To copy and paste ideas and programmes will only take us so far. A healthy dose of creativity will take us even further as we attempt to respond in earnest to our past, negotiate the ever-increasing complexity of the present and build inclusive pacts for all to share in the spoils that will come of ‘good change’.


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* Fumani Mthembi is an entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector. A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Independent on 30 September 2012.