Tuesday, 10 January 2017

2017 - South Africa and the World



South Africa and the World Facing 2017
It is not without reason that we ask ourselves at this time what the year 2017 will have in store for us. For once, it seems that the prospects for South Africa are at this moment far better than the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, Europe and North America. I will come back to this unexpected prospect in a short while.
Just having come back from South Africa I realize that the level of anxiety has risen considerably since I left Sweden in July. In “uppdrag granskning”, a regular feature of Swedish television of investigative journalism, it was made pretty clear in the part sent on 30 November that the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, did his planning from hideouts in Stockholm. He was shot dead at a flat in Brussels four months later, but one of his closest aids in the Paris attack, as it appears, is still walking around free, living close down below the small mosque at Hötorget in central Stockholm. This uncertainty, this very thought that this or that stranger may be one of the extremists, is eating you from within. The linkage to Islam also fills you with a feeling of uneasiness. Whole European nations are at this moment becoming prejudiced against one particular religion. Unless you have personal friends who are devoted worshippers of Islam you run the risk being stuck in a stereotype. (To avoid misunderstanding I like to state that I am lucky enough to have personal Muslim friends in Sweden as well as in South Africa, with whom I share not just everyday friendship but also a common faith in God.)
Then it is apparent that by the month our societies in Europe are becoming more segregated. The more educated as well as those who believe themselves to be more educated, those more privileged, those of liberal leanings of various sorts (and if I belong anywhere it is here), we are looking on in horror how the political landscape is changing fast, just in time for the new year 2017. Sebastian Payne, in his article in Financial Times on 28 December 2016 hits the nail just there: we are fast approaching “the year People Like Them (PLT) take control from People Like Us (PLU)”. There are a number of elections taking place this year in Europe (France, the Netherlands, etc.) and it may well be that after those People Like Them will be in majority leaving People Like Us behind. There are things to worry about and Payne quotes a letter from a certain Mr Craig: “We have two failed wars and the Middle East in flames, China expansionist, Europe enfeebled, America ineffective and Russia resurgent”.
Payne again hits the nail when saying that now when entering a new year we have to reckon with instinctual emotion rather than pure reason: “PLT are folks who act on gut not reason. Emotion, not facts. They the ones who voted for Mr Obama and joined the Trump train. They feel misled by the elites and have decided that change, whatever it might be, is better than the status quo.”
He is so right: “Calm heads and moral hearts are needed in politics, now more than ever.” Equally, he has got a point when saying, and it is about a reality that we are waking up to in this year of 2017: “If this was the year PLU were shunned, 2017 will be the year when PLT take control. Whether we like it or not, the divide in society is real and will be hard to close.”
Again, and perhaps being biased, countries like Canada and Sweden could well withstand the onslaught of the current populism.
Before coming back to South Africa, there is one more thing to say. PLT, as coined here above, are about those who have populist leanings, and they are many in Europe right now. In these populist movements you find this toxic mix of a genuine anxiety regarding our and our children’s future, not in a small measure related to various terrorist attacks, and something else. This something else could be outright racism, extreme forms of nationalism and ethnicity, and it is there. This whole scenario is very well described by Sheri Berman in her article “Populism is not fascism, but it could be a harbinger” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016, 39 – 44). So, there is no doubt that Marine le Pen’s National Front for example easily could turn into a fascist movement. Berman contends however that there is a stronger culture of democracy today than in the interwar years. “[T]he right-wing extremists in the United States and western Europe today have much more limited options and opportunities than their interwar counterparts did.” Still she concedes that this might not be the case in parts of eastern and southern Europe. Her recipe is rather not to stare oneself blind on the toxic mix of current populism but rather pay attention to democracy itself and its institutions. “[T]he West should worry more about the problems afflicting democracy than about right-wing populists themselves… (and) make democratic institutions, parties, and politicians more responsive to the needs of all citizens.”
She rightly argues that populism, right-wing or left-wing, is a clear sign that democracy does not fare well. Again, her distinction between populism and fascism is, at this point in time, probably of decisive importance: “Right-wing populism – indeed, populism of any kind – is a symptom of democracy in trouble; fascism and other revolutionary movements are the consequence of democracy in crisis.”
This could not be more true for South Africa: it is all about building that culture and ethos of democracy that also takes seriously the various institutions like the parliament, the judiciary and the freedom of media (the press). And one could even draw from Berman’s argument that there is distinction to be made between populism and fascism when it comes to South Africa. The break-away group from the ANC under youth leader Julius Malema in many ways acted in a populist way, also playing with a rhetoric that bordered on genocidal hate speech (against certain whites). But the break-away group has become a political party (EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters) quite to the left of ANC, and in many ways plays the game with the other political parties, except, perhaps on one point. There is never a sharp line drawn between peaceful articulations of views either verbally or through demonstrations on the one hand, and actions that in themselves carry elements of violence or at least coercion.
One would have to say the same thing regarding the student uprising during the second part of 2016. The cause is justified when it comes to a drive towards free education for all and the dire need for decolonisation of curricula, and the vast majority of students only want to go about it with peaceful means. But, and this is important, somewhere along the line there is a seed of violence sown into the action and there is reason to suspect EFF to have a hand in this. It is not violence leading to physical injuries but what should one say about the following coercive action: students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) holding the Rector hostage after a public meeting for more than half an hour?
Education, including tertiary education, is a cornerstone of any society and universities have had to contend with the fact that they had become leading apartheid institutions, built on the basis of racial classification. There were even special universities for English speaking whites  (UCT and Witwatersrand) and the other whites, the Afrikaners (Stellenbosch and Rand Afrikaans Universiteit, RAU).
Njabulo Ndebele is therefore right when he claims that all universities are in need of radical transformation, and that also goes for a place like UCT, which early on in defiance of the regime invited students of all races to come and study. There is no denying that a few of the former white universities like UCT have a higher standard than the others (UCT rated among the 200 best universities in the world). The academic standard as such has to be taken into account when transforming such institutions and universities that once had been designed for black students only will have to admit that their struggle credentials will not be enough when going into and becoming part of any international rating system.
Things have turned violent and ugly at two of the formerly white institutions, UCT and Wits, where at least half of the students are blacks today. The “discovery” of the colonial past, and, of course, continued white privilege in various forms (thus among their own class mates) have caused an uproar, but interestingly many white students also insist in being part of this uprising. However one can here sense an anger that will stop at nothing, an attitude that is clearly destructive, and a wish to smash everything to pieces (one library with handwritten documents and a lab have been burnt down at least). I am talking about the second semester 2016. However, Ndebele (well-known author and a former vice-chancellor of two universities) warned already more than ten years ago as follows. He first insists that all universities should be made black, not in the sense of colour coding, but in the sense of “the historic centring of the majority interest in national life”. What he says should not then be misunderstood as being a support of the historically black universities at the expense of the historically white ones. He says: “[I]t is not too difficult to see that, in general, our academic strengths are, with a few exceptions, not located in historically black institutions. It is not, therefore, in the universal interest of the black majority to seek to destroy existing strengths, merely because of their historic location, in the understandable desire to create new ones. To do so would simply be suicidal.” (Ndebele, Fine Lines from the Box, 166f)
It seems this is the crux of the matter. South Africa is still “white” but has to be made “black”, not in the sense of colour coding but in the sense of the majority, the vast majority (including  the poor), having a decisive say in an authentic national transformation. Whites here become apprehensive, but this should not be so, as it ultimately is not about race or colour per se. One should rather try to understand that blacks having come into their own will make sure that the others, whites etc., are part of the (new) deal.
It may well be that whites have great difficulties in unlearning this part of the story. J.M. Coetzee says: “If the work of hands on a particular patch of earth, digging, ploughing, planting, building, is what inscribes it as the property of its occupiers by right, then the hands of the black serfs doing the work had better not be seen. Blindness to the colour black is built into the South African pastoral.” (J.M. Coetzee, White Writing, in Ndebele, 61)
Ndebele concludes that “[p]astoral is the clinical tranquillity of the contemporary white South African suburb”, still very much in existence. An invisible hand has done its work. “Always hidden behind the legacy of imperial achievement has been the unacknowledged presence of black labour and the legitimacy of the political claims based upon that labour.” (Ndebele 62f)
In brief I will now tell why South Africa’s future is less bleak than that of Europe and North America.
As a model for this certitude of things coming right in South Africa I take a young, black woman, graduate from one of the universities, competent, well-articulated, self-assured, thriving in the multidimensionality of the new South Africa, not too much bogged down by the country’s historical burden, yet fully aware of its history, just as critical of President Zuma’s corrupt regime as of previous apartheid regimes. One such person will give you hope!
There are at least five reasons why I cannot say that South Africa’s future looks bleak but rather bright.
First, we have seen that democracy is becoming entrenched. I have earlier written about the local elections which took place in early August 2016. They were not only free and fair, they were also reflecting how diverse this society is and how decisive it is to support the party that delivers (social services, water, electricity, roads, litter, etc.).
Second, South Africa is a very open society. It is a society open for debate, and you get the sense that people are rather fearless in their debating, not afraid of giving expression of diverging opinions. With this I am not trying to intimate that things are always expressed with empathy.
Third, one can, not only sense, but actually see that society is being transformed. The born-frees (those born after 1994) are here very important. If you look at print media for example, Mail&Guardian, Cape Times, or Sunday Times, for example, you will find young, black men and women dominating the space, still finding some very good white people around.
Four, young, black academics and other professionals are emerging (too many whites are leaving the country for better pastures, but some are staying), and we have been able to see this for ourselves at the various graduation ceremonies at University of the Western Cape through the years. With such people future is bright.
Finally I again want to mention the student uprising of 2015 and 2016. It is a stern warning to the leadership of the country, but also a hopeful sign that already the young students want to be involved and share responsibility. And, again, I should emphasize that this uprising, which is against colonial and racial legacies as well as against the current insufficient political leadership (read President Zuma), very much is an expression by the whole student body of all shades. Many white students have played a vital role here.
And yet, enumerating signs that things are hopeful may not be enough. Encountering people is most of the time a real blessing. People seem contented and are as a matter of course very humane, and most of the time you discover after a little while that you are dealing with people of faith.
Two perspectives of faith should be mentioned here. First, there is a generous attitude to people of other faiths. There is a small Muslim community in South Africa and also a Jewish community, equally small, but both very vocal. The Christians predominate, a well-known fact. On 16 December, the day of reconciliation, there was again a walk in District Six in central Cape Town, where Christians, Muslims and Jews took part. They walked from the church, to the mosque and then to the synagogue. In each place there was a talk given by a person of a different faith and a prayer, and the walk involved people representing all three faiths.
But the Christian faith dominates in the country, especially in the black community. However, this dominance does not come across in a high-minded way. Media reflect this in many ways. For example, every Sunday night there is a gospel choir programme on national TV at prime time. On radio, the public broadcaster, SAFM, at the same time on a Sunday night, there will be a programme on Christian faith and ethics. One whole evening was devoted to the Christian marriage for example; another Sunday night was set apart for what is Christian leadership, etc.
The people of South Africa are very much like the full summer there right now, coinciding with Christmas, colourful, rich, bright, fearless and hopeful. Being partial, all that I have now said explains why the prospects for South Africa maybe so much better.

Reference: Njabulo S. Ndebele, Fine Lines from the Box. Further Thoughts about our Country. Roggebaai, Cape Town: Umuzi, 2007.

Friday, 11 November 2016

South African Universities Shutdown



South African Universities Shut Down: Anger, Impotence, separationsångest, yet Spirit of Hope

Part I
A person who supports liberation from oppressive structures generally (and South Africa has a long tradition of engaging in such a struggle) would welcome students’ engagement for an African reading of realities especially in a university set-up (thus “Rhodes must fall” movement) and for making university studies affordable (thus “Fees must fall” movement). So far so good;
But the current shut-down of campuses in many parts of the country is not immediately a logic consequence of these movements. For those of us who at this time go to a university campus on a daily basis the current shut-down comes through as an irrational act, detrimental to all. There is an element in the resistance movement that is bent on destruction. So, at our campus, known for being quite peaceful and a place that black students not least feel they are at home in, one morning “Campus Protection Services discovered petrol bombs and petrol containers hidden at various places across campus”. Apparently there are students, or people making themselves appear as students, who are bent on destruction and who couldn’t care less. At this point in time on various campuses extensive damage has been done to buildings, including libraries, cars have been torched etc.
What does not only frustrate me but also makes me very angry, is the fact that nobody seems to have a clue how this impasse is going to be resolved. I have to deal with the issue on a personal level, as it is something that concerns me directly, but I also want to relate to four different comments concerning our crisis: Arts Faculty staff meeting now a couple of weeks ago at UWC, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke’s comment in Mail&Guardian, October 14 to 20, Professor George Devenish’ article in Cape Times of October 20, Professor Jonathan Jansen’s article as well as that of Professor Nico Cloete in Financial Mail of October 13 to 19.
First the staff meeting of the Arts Faculty at UWC; the issue was: what do we do in the current situation (of a shutdown)? The situation: the students had 40 demands that had to be met before they would contemplate accepting opening the campus again and allow the ordinary activities take their course. It was the task of the university management to engage with the students on these demands (students= students’ representative council, all in favour of fees must fall campaign). One parent had been let in by default. He spoke. He said: I want my daughter to study, or I demand my money back. Everybody listened, but no meaningful response. I think this was one of the most useless meetings I ever have attended. Everybody was apparently afraid of blaming the students for anything, but violence is bad. Are we now talking about the lawless society? Since the early stages of this year’s student uprising one can also see a clear “patriarchalization”, meaning that the boys have taken over more and more, and subsequently physical violence is potentially at close range.
I left the meeting knowing that all staff were at a loss of what to do. Nobody had said anything that could lead anywhere out of the impasse in which we now found ourselves. And I was angry. I could not even go to my office and pick up one of my books. It is absurd, and totally irrational. Is there no pride in those who now are holding things at bay? Is there no pride in us being a university with some sense and some logic?? Here is no logic, just emerging madness…
Then you should at least read Maluleke’s comment in Mail&Guardian (a theology professor in Pretoria who figures regularly in this paper). Read carefully and you would discover that he (also) is beating about the bush. Brinkmanship is questioned, be it orchestrated by university management or students: “In this atmosphere of brinkmanship, the word engagement has assumed multiple and even contradictory meanings.” The only forms of engagement seem to be, for the time being, shut-downs or violence. It is as if students themselves have a contestation “in the manufacture and performance of outrage and rhetoric”. But Maluleke is quite cautious when it comes to confronting student behaviour. In the end the government is to be blamed. This is what everybody says (and rightly so) but such a statement is precisely what amounts to nothing (and everybody knows it).
Like I myself, Maluleke is deeply worried over the shutting down of campuses as he is aware of the ripple effects thereof. However one could only agree with him when he wonders why universities (read 25 something number of vice-chancellors) so far haven’t confronted the government “of the political party that, as recently as 2014, campaigned with posters proclaiming: ‘Vote ANC for free quality education’.”
George Devenish, emeritus professor of UKZN who assisted in the drafting of the 1993 interim constitution, says that “[t]he Academy of Science of South Africa has issued a stern warning that the country is facing the prospect of ‘permanent and irreversible damage’ to its higher education system, unless the chronic crisis unfolding in this sector is urgently resolved” (Cape Times 20 October, 2016). To date property valued at least R 100 million has been destroyed on campuses around the country. Devenish, as everybody else, puts the main blame on the government but also says that the incongruity of the student protest eventually could become fatal: “The protest is being pursued by a radical student leadership that is manifestly violating the rights of students who wish to complete the academic year. These radical students appear to be committed to closing down the institutions of higher learning at all costs, and in so doing, they are using or condoning violent demonstrations and arson.”

South African Universities Shut Down: Anger, Impotence, separationsångest, yet Spirit of Hope

Part II
But we should also listen to Professor Jonathan Jansen, who has just left the office as Vice Chancellor at the Free State University and is on his way to take up a position as guest professor at Stanford University, California; in other words, we could listen to a person who is free to speak his mind. And he does not mince his words.
What Jansen gives us is an utterly bleak picture, but a picture that we would have to face. To start with the emphasis on university education, as if that should be the goal of everyone, leaves the crucial, vocational education, that prepares people to work in a trade, a craft, etc., at a disadvantage.
But already in October last year President Zuma gave in and said to the students after their mass meeting in Pretoria that there would be no fee increase for the coming year. And he did, having come under severe pressure, create the impression on students that there is a direct causality on the part of the protesters: “make enough noise, cause sufficient disruption, and resort to violent attacks on public property, and eventually government pays attention and finds the money”.
The bigger picture tells us that similar unrest has been ongoing at universities in other countries in Africa, and where there does not seem to be a political resolution to funding crises on campuses. With this bigger picture in mind Jansen draws three conclusions for the (almost immediate) future: First, there will be “a steady decline in government funding”; second, there is a “creeping state of interference in the business of  universities”. Third, universities go into a “chronic instability”, and as we know, this is the second consecutive year of disruptions.
The result is disastrous and can be seen by all who dare to see: students who can afford to pay, leave, the professors who can afford to leave take jobs outside the country (not least those with high ratings from the National Research Foundation) and “the academic facility begins to collapse”. For example, funding for libraries and general maintenance will immediately be drying up.
The very sad thing is that this account is given by somebody who is on his way out of here. The one who cannot do this may feel that he is now telling truths while saving his own skin. Be that as it may, his final words are not to be ignored. He says:
“Does the militant minority care that they are in the process of destroying the top academic institutions still left on the continent? Frighteningly, no. The logic of the militant minority is that unless everybody can get free education right now, then nobody should, and if that means razing universities to the ground, so be it. What was built up over a century could very well be laid waste in a matter of two to three years.”
Jansen says that with President Zuma remaining silent there is only one way left, to me amounting to wishful thinking, namely the coming about of “a broad, assertive, public action that supports free education for the poor but stands up to the militant minority…”
Two more facts have to be added in order to give a fuller picture. In the same issue of the Financial Mail Professor Nico Cloete, Centre for Higher Education Trust, brings in two seemingly fateful circumstances. Not dealing with those, makes any other attempt futile. He says that “fewer than 5 % of the poor qualify for entry into universities, while for the 5% whose parents earn over R600,000/year, the percentage who qualify to enter university is over 50%”. But this is not enough, because of those who enter university far from all are going to be capped at a graduation ceremony: “barely 50% of the undergraduate students graduate”.
Having said all this, I have to emphasize very strongly that the students have a case, and that has been so since last year and the “Rhodes must fall campaign”. The key point is that violence and force are not going to help. Democracy is about casting your vote, and there lies the power of change. Admittedly, students are many times at a loss when it comes to meaningfully influence things on campus. But there are ways. What should be exposed far more are the condescendence and intransigence shown by academic staff knowingly or unknowingly. Let’s be honest: many academics have just taken for granted that they could carry on as before. The story of Professor Mahmood Mamdani, now Columbia University, USA, then at University of Cape Town, and the debacle regarding an introductory course on African humanities more than ten years ago, is a case in point.
Instead of making “decolonization” another catch phrase students and staff have to embark on the issue of curriculum. It should be noted that all curricula and all sciences have to be involved, though in very different ways.
This is the area where students, the brighter the better, should give their contribution and that must come now, not later.
My heart is going out to the students, all of them, also those who have committed violent acts (crimes). There must be a way back to campus, to a campus of peace, but also of struggle, but an intellectual one at that. Staff are, let me repeat, largely responsible for the fact that very little discussion on curriculum of any substance has taken place. We are standing there with guilt, let us confess.
I said initially in this rather long letter that I am angry, and so I am. I cannot stand the situation as it is, meaning that I cannot at this moment go to campus to do my job. However, my anger could easily become destructive, and that is a state of affairs that I want to avoid. Luckily I am sensing, while writing this piece, that my anger evokes a fighting spirit within me. I want to fight the good fight, even though with peaceful means. After all these years, and I have by now been working with and in South Africa/Africa for almost 41 years, I cannot turn my back on things as they are on campus. Whatever this means in practical terms, I want to make my contribution both to a renewed curriculum as well as to a renewed sense of (peaceful) fighting spirit, not neglecting nor ignoring the poor students (of whom only 5% make it for the university), also not being complacent about the 50% undergraduates who never graduate.
But before anything else, let us get back to our campuses. I am missing the sense of community there at the University of the Western Cape, the talks in the corridor, the serious discussions in class, the (frequent, those who know me) tea break as well as a not so infrequent visit to Val’s restaurant.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Black Atlantic



Black Atlantic as Chronotope (Notion) – Some Comments
Hans S A Engdahl, University of the Western Cape, 2016-11-03

In a post-graduate course on “African Theology, Black Theology and Gender” during the second semester of 2016 at University of the Western Cape, Black Atlantic has been used as a common denominator or chronotope.[1]
In the following I will relate some of Paul Gilroy’s deliberations on this theme. Secondly, I will give a few comments of my own.
No doubt Gilroy is looking out for a concept that can keep away from definitions that are too confined, too circumscribed. Being black or African, just the very talk in such terms, lends one easily to start accepting identities that equals to or are similar to ethnic or national(istic) concerns. Gilroy’s errand is different and his hopes are that he has struck something that would be of great help.
So he says, having realized that living in Great Britain (Gilroy is British) or in the USA bears out similar kinds of limitations, but also some openings: “My search for resources with which to comprehend the doubleness and cultural intermixture that distinguish the experience of black Britons in contemporary Europe required me to seek inspiration from other sources and, in effect, to make an intellectual journey across the Atlantic. In black America’s histories of cultural and political debate and organisation I found another, second perspective with which to orient my own position. Here too the lure of ethnic particularism and nationalism has provided an ever present danger.”[2]
Having moved westward over the waters to Yale University he knew very well that there was much more to say than just something on ethnic or national lines. From within the black community there were other dimensions: There were thinkers “who were prepared to renounce the easy claims of African-American exceptionalism in favour of a global, coalitional politics in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism might be seen to interact if not to fuse.”[3]
Settling for talking about Black Atlantic Gilroy has several things in mind. There is the sea and its borders like the continents of Africa, the Americas and Europe. There is the continuous movement west and east, north and south. There are ships and there are people of various categories on these ships. Things here are never standing still. There is perpetual motion. Not to be forgotten, this fluid, ever moving reality also has a long and very deep history. Gilroy concludes: “I have settled on the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol for this enterprise and as my starting point. The image of the ship – a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion – is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons… Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs.”[4]
One can easily see that the very nature of an ocean would work against any definitive understanding of social reality in terms of for example nationalisms or ethnicities. But change does not come easy. In passing Gilroy mentions two famous Britons from the 19th century, the master of water colours J.M.W. Turner and eminent art critic John Ruskin. The latter was for many years the owner of Turner’s famous “picture of a slave ship”. Ruskin developed, along with his pursuits in architectonic and arts criticism, a social concern relating to the New Left, albeit on conservative grounds. Gilroy uses Turner’s slave ship as a chronotope[5] that cuts through and opens up well established rigidities. The picture portrays how dead and dying slaves are thrown overboard in a severe storm. Eventually Ruskin put up the painting for sale as “it is said that he had begun to find it too painful to live with”.[6] The painting ended up in Boston.
Gilroy draws conclusions. “Its exile in Boston is yet another pointer towards the shape of the Atlantic as a system of cultural exchanges. It is more important, though, to draw attention to Ruskin’s inability to discuss the picture except in terms of what it revealed about the aesthetics of painting water.”[7] It seemed as impossibility for a Briton of this time to register that slavery was an economic system orchestrated by the west, not least by the British, and as we will find out, to Gilroy the relationship between modernity and slavery is an unfinished business. Britain, in some form of nationalism, is an entity in itself, inventing and re-inventing itself. “[T]he aesthetic and cultural tradition in which Turner and Ruskin stand compounded and reproduced its nationalism and its ethnocentrism by denying imaginary, invented Englishness any external referents whatsoever. England ceaselessly gives birth to itself, seemingly from Britannia’s head.”[8]
Even though Gilroy shuns essentialist ways of understanding peoples and cultures it goes without saying that in the west at least the very notion of a black Atlantic creates a barrier. Who is on board and who is not? But this is exactly the point. Without such a notion the African diaspora emerging into America and now Europe is made invisible. The first step is to see this diaspora as a western reality as well. At the back of it all, and for good reasons, Gilroy does not go so much into that, there remains the hard questions regarding Africa itself and how the continent of Africa stands in relation to the rest. Another way of putting it would be to say that the only way for the west to recognize the continent of Africa in a proper sense is to take black Africa in the west seriously.
Again, Turner’s painting is such a powerful image talking about England’s ethical and political degeneration but also about means of communication. “Turner’s extraordinary painting of the slave ship remains a useful image not only for its self-conscious moral power and the striking way that it aims directly for the sublime in its invocation of racial terror, commerce, and England’s ethico-political degeneration. It should be emphasised that ships were the living means by which the points within that Atlantic world were joined.”[9]
Then, if you want to lay bare the intricate relationships between industrialisation, modernisation on the one hand and slavery and oppression on the other, it may indeed be quite necessary to talk explicitly about the black Atlantic. “Ships also refer us back to the middle passage, to the half-remembered micro-politics of the slave trade and its relationship to both industrialisation and modernisation.”[10] The task then is to “rethink modernity via the history of the black Atlantic and the African diaspora into the western hemisphere”.[11]
It is most likely in the end that Gilroy here is cutting through severe criticism from two sides in one go. The west (whites) may loathe any talk about black(s), and on the other hand, among blacks themselves there is a strong move towards identity markers for good reason. Without saying it in so many words one can surmise that to Gilroy it is not about colour or race but about a condition and possibly about a “post-condition”, that are all but ignored in the modern and post-modern west.
It could be said that there is an Africa factor in this discourse that operates in a liberative way, at least from a diaspora perspective, and here people living on the continent of Africa could play a definite role. Minority statuses in the west put pressure relentlessly even towards elaborating on confinement either into the existing nation state or the minority group.
Gilroy here refers to W. E. B. Du Bois and what he and others represent. “Du Bois’s travel experiences raise in the sharpest possible form a question common to the lives of almost all these figures who begin as African-Americans or Caribbean people and are then changed into something else which evades those specific labels and with them all fixed notions of nationality and national identity. Whether their experience of exile is enforced or chosen, temporary or permanent, these intellectuals and activists, writers, speakers, poets, and artists repeatedly articulate a desire to escape the restrictive bonds of ethnicity, national in identification, and sometimes even ‘race’ itself.”[12]
One should bear in mind that Gilroy wrote this text more than twenty years ago. The formation of the European Union was well underway and there must have been rather more of hopefulness toward a transnational existence generally then than now after Brexit in June 2016. Be that as it may, for anyone originating in Africa and then ending up in a diaspora in the west much of the nation states particularities in Europe must seem almost absurd. At best Gilroy may act as a wise go-between, opening up venues even for a reasonable togetherness.
So he summarizes his belief that a black Atlantic could be an instrument in political and cultural transformation: “The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through this desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. These desires are relevant to understanding political organising and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national political cultures and nation states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe.”[13]

Some brief comments on Gilroy’s usage of the chronotope Black Atlantic
There are three comments at the moment that needs formulating. First, in Gilroy’s presentation there is a clear emphasis on the other side of the Atlantic, so to say. This could easily be ascertained regarding the other black scholars presented in his book as well (Martin Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, etc.). However, this need not be so. What I find exciting is that the notion is just as relevant for those still remaining on the continent of Africa, not least those who live in South Africa. It is a myth to say that real Africa is only on the continent of Africa. The continued brain drain from Africa to Europe and America speaks for itself. The African intelligentsia today are often to be found in the west with some also in South Africa. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not come easy. It is not possible to understand what is taking place on this continent if one does not see the continued movements across the Atlantic (and Mediterranean). And it goes for the very needy as well as for the very clever. There is a continued dependence of Africa on what is on the other side, for better, for worse (and for the moment one can actually leave new players like China and Brics aside). The challenge is of course for Africa to take on the enormous potential to influence what is on the other side and not only focus on the old dependency syndrome, leading to renewed calls for decolonization, but the one does not exclude the other.
Second, Gilroy does not aim at doing away with the doubleness that is there. He actually declared from the beginning that his hope was that “the contents of this book are unified by a concern to repudiate the dangerous obsessions with ‘racial’ purity which are circulating inside and outside black politics. It is, after all, essentially an essay about the inescapable hybridity and intermixture of ideas.”[14]
And yet, his whole book seems to go in another direction. It is about knowing and understanding the vital role played by African and black people in forming what is today Europe and America (not only the USA). Another way of expressing the underlying idea is to say that an emphasis on black consciousness is necessary. White west may loathe any such talk as black Atlantic, and that is just the point. Whites (not least the political and economic power structures in the US, the current president included, not only the president elect) are still living in denial when it comes to the crimes against humanity that have been committed against blacks coming over the Atlantic. There is therefore a direct link between Gilroy’s discourse and South African insistence on black consciousness, but this is, for various reasons, not spelt out in his book.[15]
The third comment, and an unavoidably important one at that, is how theology would relate to Gilroy’s notion of Black Atlantic. You can certainly do as Gilroy does, deal with the cultural and literary politics. Gilroy also talks about the church, and it is basically about that hidden place where the slaves could find solace for a while, undisturbed by the master, and the church as the place where black could articulate their creativity, one of the very few places where this was possible.
This is a major question I agree and here I will only point out two to me unavoidable comments which have a direct bearing on theology. The first is the theological claim of the preferential option of the blacks. The other is the theological claim that the church is catholic.
One would have heard that to Jesus it was about giving the poor the privilege to make judgements on the world, as he said the kingdom of God would be theirs (Matthew 5.3, Luke 6.20). But, and here western theology is under severe judgment, it is not only about Jesus feeling sympathy with those who are in trouble, it is definitely not about mere charity. In terms of theology it seems that Jesus’ pronouncement regarding the poor, the persecuted (and who would be more in the mainstream than Africans/the blacks who underwent slavery through the Middle Passage and/or severe, ruthless colonization on the very continent of Africa) is a statement also about himself: as you now suffer, I am also going to suffer, even unto death. And the theological key in Christian theology is this identification and has come to mean a preparedness to suffer likewise, and (in order to stave off Protestant purists) that such preparedness is constituted by grace alone. You may call this sacrifice, sacrificial.
The second point is linked to the first in the sense that the end result of Jesus’ ministry was not to serve one category only but to serve all. Even the rich need to hear and receive the gospel (the story of Zacchaeus, Luke 19). That is also why the church is said to be catholic. This is a strong statement about being for “the common”, “with regard to the whole”. This concept links the idea of God as father of all with God as identified with those who are at a disadvantage. The concept is totally anti-race and anti-ethnicity as decisive identity markers.
The history of the church and the blacks is one long litany of failure, and the writing on the wall is particularly visible in the US. In other words, Gilroy is coming up close to some, fundamentally important theological statements.
The early church, before the establishment of the Constantine state church apparatus in the 4th century, sometimes was able to make this catholicity very explicit. The following quote from the second or third century speaks for itself:
“For [the Christians] do not inhabit cities in some place of their own, nor do they use their own strange dialect, nor live their own sort of life… Rather, living in Greek or Barbarian cities, according to the lot of each, and following the local customs, in clothing and dwelling places and the rest of life, they demonstrate the amazing and confessedly paradoxical character of the make up of their own citizenship. They are at home in their own countries, but as sojourners. They participate in all things as citizens and they endure all things as foreigners. Every country is their homeland and every homeland is a foreign country.”[16]
Let me then sum up what should have to be a lengthy theological argument. This early church explication of being a Christian, i.e. being a catholic, may seem to stand in stark conflict with any talk about black consciousness. However, this is not so. Rightly understood, it is the other way round. And that is why the chronotope of Black Atlantic could be found to be a superb servant in the serious attempt to be or become catholic in an authentic way.



[1] See footnote 5.
[2] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003 (1993), 4. Gilroy, who is British (European) and black begins his book with the following words: “Striving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness. By saying this I do not mean to suggest that taking one either or both of these unfinished identities necessarily exhausts the subjective resources of any particular individual”, ibid, 1.
[3] Ibidem
[4] Ibidem
[5] “A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented…”, M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. And trans. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981, 426, ibid 225. Chronotope is of course derived from the Greek words chronos, time and topos, place, therefore one could say it is integrating history and geography into one reality (my comment).
[6] Ibid 14.
[7] Ibidem
[8] Ibidem
[9] Ibid 16.
[10] Ibid 17.
[11] Ibidem
[12] Ibid 19.
[13] Ibidem
[14] Ibid xi.
[15] A similar discussion one can find in Lawrence Burnley, The Cost of Unity. African-American Agency and Education in the Christian Church, 1865 – 1914. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2008, for example in the last chapter “For the sake of unity: A time to integrate and a time to separate”, 265ff.
[16] Epistle to Diognetus 5:4-5, in The Apostolic Fathers, volume 2. London: Heinemann, 1959, 358ff; also in Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground. A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 92.