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Black Citizenship Forum: Black Citizenship And The Problem Of ‘Coloniality’

Blacks subject as a stateless and rightless provider of cheap labor in a globalized and racial capitalist economy.

“Decolonization struggles – and later postcolonial nation-building and state-making – were constantly undercut by ethnic fractures and tribalism.”

For this edition of The Black Agenda Review’s Black Citizenship Forum, political scientist Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes on the impact of the ongoing legacy of colonialism – through the idea and practice of “coloniality” – on present-day citizenship in Africa. Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues that coloniality provides the basis and justification for European exploitation of the world and that this was done through  colonial legal orders, territorial boundaries, racial hierarchies, ethnic and tribal categorizations, and class identifications. Meanwhile, formal decolonization enshrined a neocolonial African comprador class enthralled to global capital and more than willing to exploit Black labor. This leads to a fundamental, existential question for African citizenship, found in a reprise of W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” For Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni, the point is not to answer the question, but to destroy the conditions that prompted the question to be asked in the first place.

Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni holds the post of Professor and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South with Emphasis on Africa at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. His most recent publications include Decolonization, Development and Knowledge in Africa: Turning Over A New Leaf (Routledge, 2020); The Dynamics of Higher Education in the Global South (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020), co-edited with Busani Mpofu; The History and Political Transition of Zimbabwe: From Robert Mugabe to Mnangagwa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); and Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century: Living Theories and True Ideas (Routledge, July 2021).

Black Citizenship and the Problem of “Coloniality”

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

The issue of “Black citizenship” is both planetary and existential. It is planetary because it affects Black people wherever they are located on the globe; it is existential because it dwells at the very heart of the meaning of Black existence. At the center of Black citizenship is what Puerto Rican theorist Nelson Maldonado-Torres, among others, has termed the “coloniality of being .” The phrase “coloniality of being” refers to the social classification of human populations according to a racial hierarchy. It explains who counts as human, while generating a racialized pyramid of modern society, with those considered “white” occupying the top, and those designated as Black, languishing at the bottom. Martinican intellectual and poet Aimé Césaire, captured this existential problem of Blackness in terms of three tormenting questions faced by Black people: Who am I? Who are we? What are we in a white world? W. E. B. Du Bois posed these queries in another way, asking of Black people in the modern, white-dominated world the soul-searching question: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The issue of Black citizenship concerns the struggle for Black life itself. The struggles for Black citizenship are fundamentally about the decolonization of the modern world because the global condition of coloniality – that is, the replication and legacies of colonial domination in contemporary times – makes Black citizenship impossible at a planetary scale. Today, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the US, the movements for Black lives have assumed planetary dimensions. Their planetary reach and resonance are a testament to the fact that the quest for Black citizenship is about Black life itself, while they reflect the reality that it is not only in the United States that the question of Black citizenship is an issue. While such initiatives as the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution could not deliver substantive Black citizenship to Black Americans, the decolonization struggles of the twentieth century in Africa also did not successfully result in the destruction of the modern world system of imperialism.

“How does it feel to be a problem?”

In the African context, the modern nation-state is an imposition of colonialism. Its formal origins can be traced to the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, when the continent was infamously partitioned by seven European imperial powers (Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain). These dominated territories eventually became colonies. Cartography and bordering marked the boundaries between colonies, with African people enclosed inside as subjects – not citizens. Out of this colonial context we find the primary and most urgent issues concerning Black people’s positionality in the white-dominated modern world, where institutions such as the nation-state reproduce classifications and exclusions in their citizenship laws and practices.

Colonization disrupted and displaced African communities, their indigenous knowledges and cosmologies, their forms of self-identification, and the organization of their social relations. The realities of life in the precolonial era, marked by  flexible and fluid identities (pluralities), mobility as a way of life, and compositionality (being human through others and with others), was swiftly replaced by colonial racial logics and liberal individualism. The notion of strangers, and indeed insiders and outsiders who cannot be absorbed by other societies, emerged. At one level, colonial laws were used to classify those considered “people” as citizens (white settlers) and those considered subjects (Black natives);  at another the laws cast African people as inchoate, irreconcilable, and competing“ tribes.” Identity cards were used to consolidate a colonial paradigm of difference. Colonial identifications such as Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone symbolized  colonialism’s molding  of Africa into a European possession.

“The realities of life in the precolonial era was swiftly replaced by colonial racial logics and liberal individualism.”

The tribal formations and cleavages invented by colonialism were further accentuated through class differentiations – and, in particularly, the production of an African petit bourgeoisie. Colonial power jealously guarded against the possibilities of the development of an African national consciousness and of an African nationalism predicated on pan-ethnic unities and solidarities. Struggles for pan-African unity, because of their potential to deal with the issue of Black citizenship directly, were subjected to even more elaborate and intense policing.

Identities such as “peasant,” “worker” and “bourgeoisie” were impositions of the capitalist world economic system onto Africa. At the beginning mercantilism helped  render African people as “slaves” to labor in  plantations and mines. Industrial racial capitalism, through dispossession and displacement of African people from land, resulted in forced peasantization and proletarianization. While African communities had their own forms of social stratification prior to European colonialism, there was no strict class identity which would determine the nature of conflicts. Because of their thirst for cheap labor for mines, farms, plantations, and factories, the European colonial regimes were flexible when it came to  the movement of cheap migrant labor across borders. And since African people were not entitled to any form of citizenship, the migrant workers remained aliens in places where they worked. Hence, today Africa is not open to the free mobility of the people who live there.

“Colonial power jealously guarded against the possibilities of the development of an African national consciousness.”

Decolonization did not succeed in reversing the social orders imposed by colonialism.

Decolonization struggles – and later postcolonial nation-building and state-making – were constantly undercut by ethnic fractures and tribalism. Moreover, the majority of elites who took over from the colonialists maintained their “comprador” roles in that they were willing accomplices in neo-colonialism , cutting deals with transnational multinational corporations and, in the process, reducing states in Africa to rentier formations. Intra-elite conflicts and competition among Africans assumed the form of military coups from the late 1960s onward, most of which were sponsored by imperial powers and engineered by the U.S. Central intelligence Agency. Such pan-Africanist leaders as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso were victims of CIA intrigue and intervention.

The dawn of political independence did not adequately solve the issue of Black citizenship mainly because African nationalism is structured through the logics of colonialism with its exclusionary and inclusionary tendencies. Postcolonial conceptions of citizenship ignored the realities on the ground, just as new conceptions of nationhood ignored the visible pre-colonial pluralities described above. For example, the question of labor migration was entangled with that of newly concretized nation-bound notions of Black citizenship. The status of Black workers as immigrants and migrants became accentuated after the end of juridical colonialism as territorial African nationalisms, with exceptions , undercut the possibilities of pan-Africanism. African nationalism struggled to lay the foundation of a strong postcolonial, pan-ethnic patriotism and horizontal comradeship. Moreover, African nationalism could easily degenerate into detestable forms of chauvinism, including xenophobia and nativism. The result has been that minority groups within African nation-states experience exclusion and even statelessness. All of this makes the call for an insurgent and resurgent decolonization in the twenty-first century very necessary.

“Territorial African nationalisms, with exceptions, undercut the possibilities of pan-Africanism.”

At the center of current planetary human embroilment is the Black subject as a stateless and rightless provider of cheap labor in a globalized and racial capitalist economy. This reality can be challenged by transnational and diasporic Black solidarity as an essential pre-requisite for a planetary decolonization. This planetary decolonization has to build on what has been set in motion by the Rhodes Must Fall movements, whose influence led not only to the removal of arch-colonist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town in South Africa but also at the University of Oxford in England. The removals of Rhodes’ statues are positive – though symbolic – signs of a drive to confront the global coloniality that make Black citizenship impossible. The ways that the  U.S. “Black Lives Matter” movement has galvanized Zimbabwean Lives Matter protests, for example, is another indication of the urgent need for a planetary struggle for decolonization. The emphasis of planetary decolonization is born out of the realization that planetary problems of racism and global coloniality cannot be successfully confronted from a national or continental vantage point.

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