The decolonization of African thought and African studies
Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and the cover of his 2018 book.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

The decolonization of African thought and African studies


In a masterful lecture, Ndlovu-Gatsheni, professor and chair of epistemologies of the global south at Bayreuth University (Germany), laid out the intellectual history of decolonization in Africa and African studies and the many “turns” within it.


“The cognitive empire is that form of imperialism which invades the mental universe of its victims, in the process imposing particular knowledge systems, displacing others and consequently shaping the intellectual consciousness of its victims.”*

UCLA International Institute, August 16, 2021 — “I want to look at the ‘decolonial turn’ as a long intellectual movement seeking to free African studies from colonialism and global imperial designs, as well as trying to free [it] from the straitjacket of area studies and the current global economy of knowledge within which there is always the uneven intellectual division of labor,” said Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, professor and chair of epistemologies of the global south at Bayreuth University (Germany), at the 2021 James S. Coleman Memorial Lecture of the UCLA African Studies Center in early June.

That division of labor continues to see African scholars more focused on empirical research than theorization in an international academic system that privileges European thought, theories, languages and publications as the “standard” for international scholarly work, he specified.

In a masterful lecture, Ndlovu-Gatsheni laid out the intellectual history of decolonization in Africa and African studies and the many “turns” within it. He focused specifically on four such component turns — colonial, nationalist, Marxist and postcolonial — to trace the continuing effort by Africans to redefine scholarship about Africa.

“Professor Ndlovu is at the leading edge of a growing number of African scholars who are currently building on Black Marxist thought, studies of racial capitalism, subaltern studies, African literary criticism, critical social theory [and] postcolonial theory to deconstruct the historic legacies of colonial knowledge in the global south and to de-provincialize the critical power of its indigenous epistemologies,” said ASC Director Andrew Apter.

The scholar’s most recent books include “Decolonization, Development and Knowledge in Africa: Turning Over A New Leaf” (Routledge, 2020); “Rethinking and Unthinking Development: Perspectives on Inequality and Poverty in South Africa and Zimbabwe” (Berghahn Books, 2019; coedited with Busani Mpofu); and “Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization” (Routledge, 2018).

Overcoming the cognitive empire

Throughout his remarks, Ndlovu-Gatsheni cited the work of three generations of African and diaspora African scholars and thinkers — and of decolonization theorists worldwide — who have addressed the political, economic, cultural and epistemic issues of decolonization. Most importantly, he insisted that decolonization means coming to grips with issues related to the theory of knowledge (epistemology).

Using the idea of “cognitive empire” to highlight the issues at stake, Ndlovu-Gatshein said, “The cognitive empire is that form of imperialism which invades the mental universe of its victims, in the process imposing particular knowledge systems, displacing others and consequently shaping the intellectual consciousness of its victims.”*

Citing philosopher Veli Mitova of the University of Johannesburg (“We live in an epistemically colonial world and that is no secret”), he argued that the cognitive empire invented the modern world as we know it. “One can even hark back to the work of Steve Biko, when he [said that] the most important weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the control of the minds of the oppressed,” he said.

The historian described the cognitive empire as “very chameleonic — perhaps behaving more or less like the current coronavirus: always mutating, trying to invisibilize itself and trying to take various guises. … [I]f we don't understand the cognitive empire, it will be strange for us to be talking about decolonization almost 60 years after the political decolonization of the 20th century.

“We are living now in a moment of resurgent and insurgent the decolonization of the 21st century,” he said. “[T]here is a return to the question of the incomplete and the unfinished project of decolonization. And there are also stronger voices about the continuation of the cognitive empire — that it needs to be confronted now.”

Four turns: colonial, nationalist, Marxist and postcolonial

The study of Africa began as a colonial enterprise written by European scholars that made Africa the “other” in relation to Europe, rather than a subject in its own right, explained the historian. Post-independence, “African studies” was created in the geopolitical rivalry of the Cold War and continued to be dominated by white American and European scholars — perpetuating a tradition that marginalized African voices and priorities in the study of the continent.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni traced an arc of intellectual thought in which scholars in Africa intellectually responded to decolonization by attempting first to define Africa and its history from a nationalist perspective, then used a critical Marxist economic approach and — following the interruption of a neoliberal period — moved on to a postcolonial approach that borrows from European theories of post-modernism and post-structuralism.

“The colonial turn actually provoke[d] the nationalistic turn,” said the speaker. Although he found the nationalist turn problematic, the historian said it had advanced decolonial thought. “[Malawian historian and writer] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza … enables us to understand the nationalist turn as the site for a new narrative liberated from the epistemic colonization of Europe, a turn of nationalist struggle to remake history, not within the terms of their own choosing or from the pristine past, but out of the very and continuing violent encounter with Europe,” he said.

This first turn presented a challenge to colonial historiography and sought to spark what Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah called an African Renaissance that would forge new national histories and national identities that centered Africans, ideas that came to be associated with the Ibadan school (Nigeria). Yet Ndlovu-Gatsheni observed, “The tendency was actually to want to be included in what [Frantz] Fanon will call a European game, rather than literally dismantling it and creating something new.”

A Marxist turn followed, which the speaker perceived as essentially interconnected with the nationalist turn. This critical economic approach flowered in the Dar es Salaam school (Tanzania) and attempted to Africanize the educational curriculum and even the disciplinary base of knowledge by establishing new fields, such as development studies, he said.

“It is within that context that you also see the formation of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA ) in 1973 — again, populated more by leftist thinkers who are working within the political economy perspective,” continued the speaker.

“CODESRIA … becomes the premier institution which produces some of the most influential books in thinking about African studies from Africa. I’m thinking here about books by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, such as ‘Manufacturing African Studies and Crises’ in 1997, and his two edited volumes [‘The Study of Africa,’ volumes 1 and 2].”

Although he identified the next phase of the decolonial turn as the period of the neoliberal “Washington consensus” and structural adjustment of the late 1970s and 1980s, Ndlovu-Gatsheni mentioned the period only in passing. Most African scholars view this period as a moment of crisis in African studies, he explained, leading Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazuri to famously pose the question: “Who killed the African intellectual?”

Ndlovu-Gatsheni concurred with sociologist Julian Go’s conceptualization of the current postcolonial turn as two or three waves of scholarly ideas (or perhaps two waves and a “tail”). This turn has had a problematic encounter with African studies because it originated in European theories of post-modernism and post-structuralism and was thus critiqued as a “Eurocentric tale,” he remarked.

Yet, said the historian, these theories introduced useful concepts for drilling deeper into decolonization. He pointed to such ideas as the invention of Africa and social construction, together with analyses of power that reach beyond a binary of domination and resistance, a “complexification” of relations between the metropole and the colonies, and notions of entanglements, hybridity and mimicry.

In Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s view, the epistemic task before African studies today involves rethinking how African universities are conceptualized, the curricula they offer, the languages in which they teach, the publishing requirements of faculty (e.g., articles in peer-reviewed international journals published in European languages) and even methodological standards.

“Instead of just relying on theories from somewhere, we need to make sure that we generate the concepts and the theories from Africa,” he said.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni observed that African scholars were returning to the ideas of [Kenyan writer] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. “He was saying [that] we need to calmly and consciously look at what imperialism has been doing to us, to our view of ourselves in the universe. And he went on to say, when we talk about decolonization, we’re talking about the search for a liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves and the other selves in the universe.

“[A]ll that we're trying to do is actually to make sure that we produce relevant knowledge. And also [that] we see ourselves clearly in the universe. And the only way you can see yourself clearly in any space where you are standing, [is to] know where you are standing,” commented the historian.

When asked if the decolonial turn necessarily involved issues of gender and the work of women scholars, Ndlovu-Gatsheni responded, “The short answer is that there is no decolonization without de-patronization. Patriarchy was part and parcel of coloniality… there is no way you can turn that upside down without doing deeper, serious work of de-patronizing.”


* Ndlovu-Gatsheni drew explicit links between his concept of “cognitive empire” and similar ideas expressed by other African scholars and writers, such Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “metaphysical empire” and “colonization of the mind,” V.Y. Mudmbe’s “colonial library,” Robert Gildea’s “empire of the mind,” Ashis Nandy’s “intimate empire/ intimate enemy” and Aníbal Quijano’s “colonality of power” and the work of other Latin American scholars on the coloniality of knowledge.


Published: Monday, August 16, 2021