TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Liberation without Reason? Zimbabwe and Enlightenment

Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass. —Immanuel Kant

As an act of reflexive thought, the question “What is Enlightenment?” may be its very own enlightenment. Foucault’s reiteration of Kant’s question revolves around this issue of reflexivity. Putting aside the Enlightenment’s audacious projections of the future of humankind, Foucault zeroed in on what he deemed the emblematic disposition of the modern: self-critique. In its microcosmic tenor, the question zeroes in on the problematique of the relation of the self to the self, and of the self to the other. In a Kierkegaardian sense, it proposes an ironic relationship both to one’s self and to one’s other. Sapere Audere is envisioned as a bi-directional activity.

Strangely enough, as interrelated as Zimbabwean post-colonial discourse has been to western thought categories, it is rare to find a serious consideration of the problematic of self-constitution and freedom, especially regarding the emancipatory goals of the Liberation Era.

As in most cases in Africa, the emancipatory project in Zimbabwe has been called the Liberation Movement. Surviving mostly as an era, Zimbabwe’s Liberation Movement has not acquired the value of thought. And while perhaps it is late in the day for such an acquisition, the reinvigoration of the Liberation Movement in Zimbabwe as a predecessor to the current onslaught of violence, I believe, leads inevitably to another question: “What is Liberation?”

The indiscriminate call to violence and acquiescence to it by ZANU-PF officials, war veterans, and ZANU- PF’s youth militia shows us a side that has only been documented by a few Zimbabwean memoirists and intellectuals. Historically, there has been a complex web between the general emancipatory goals of the Liberation Era (succinctly: one man, one vote; land reparations; and racial integration) and the authoritarian implementation of these goals. Whether this has any bearing on the meaning of “Liberation” has not been investigated at all.

With the likelihood of pending electoral defeat, Mugabe’s slogan has been, “We will return to the bush!” And while the invocation of the “bush” or the “Chimurenga War” (War of Liberation), may be nothing but a misuse of the Liberation Movement’s legacy, it is difficult to find any commentary that counters Mugabe’s representation of this period, appealing to the Liberation Movement itself for an orthodox exemplification of its emancipatory ethos.

In fact, the present outcry of human rights abuse is rather a young trajectory, grounded in the present (a present of fifteen years) in the good and sensible fortune of NGO-affiliated lawyers and civil servants, and not an appeal to the Liberation ethos.

I am not at all suggesting that the Liberation Movement was devoid of noble actions, deeds, and sacrifice. After all, it did not fail to deliver on independence. (Here, though, the role of negotiations in the emancipatory process—considering the guerillas did not have the capacity to win the war and the white supremacist government was under international and economic pressure—has been unduly underestimated.) Picking up on Foucault, the challenge of the present seems to be one of seeing the limits of the movement, the limits of Liberation as thought. Why this has not been part of the intellectual agenda of Zimbabweanists should disturb us. There are two reason I find to explain this.

Part of the cause of the inability to make a genuine and profound turn to thought, has been the tendency of Zimbabweanist intellectuals to take their intellectual leads from African revolutionaries and politicians—e.g., Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, or Robert Mugabe. Intellectuals have thus performed the task of technocrats and managerial intellectuals, who observe their domains—history, economics, literature—as pre-determined discourses of the dominant revolutionary discourse, without a serious consideration of the ethical limits or intellectual depth of these discourses. If considerations have been made in the Zimbabweanist discourse, it has mostly been in the aftermath of crisis (e.g., the death of Herbert Chitepo, Gukurahundi, The Willowgate Motor Scandal, Operation Murambatsvina), not in the reflexive projection or estimations of the discourse itself.

Another part of this has been the special attachment Zimbabweanists have had to Marxism. (An intellectual history of this has yet to be written.) This has, in an unspoken manner, tended to suggest that Marxist revolution is most suited to black aspirations for Liberation.

Hence we see in the studies of history and economics the central focus on the peasant and proletarian. In the most generous sense one could concede that in the context of an agri-based society and economy, with a majority of its population living in rural areas, the categories of the peasant and proletarian class are the most viable categories of the rural dweller. However, the predication of the peasant/proletarian—or as I like to call it, “the peasantization of Zimbabwe”— has undermined the capitalistic and liberal social formations of the Zimbabwean as whole (including the modern national structure of government and law, the economy, education, and cultural hybridities that have affected even rural life and identity).

To demonstrate what I mean, I will take an example from Zimbabwean historiography. History is hardly exempted from philosophic critique, nor are historical narratives, no matter how naïvely rendered, void of conceptual and theoretical import that informs the self-constitution of its subject. However this has been taken for granted in Zimbabwean historical studies.

Terrence O. Ranger and Norma J. Kriger’s debate on the relation of the colonial Zimbabwean rural dweller to the black guerilla’s during the Liberation War, is predicated on understanding Liberation in Marxist revolutionary terms. So whether the so-called peasant class complied voluntarily with the black guerilla’s (Ranger) or was coerced (Kriger), three things are implied.

First, that Liberation is revolution in the terms of Marxist socialist discourse, allowing (politically in an authoritarian sense, intellectually in terms of ideology) no other definitions and articulations of Liberation.

Second, the anthropological conception of the aspirants of Liberation is viewed in relation to their capacity for liberation activity that corresponds to the Marxist revolutionary trope.

Third, the emphasis on the peasant—the least educated in a society—becomes the dominant way to conceptualize the black Zimbabwean anthropos, which disallows for a pragmatic—that is, self-constructed—formation of intelligence and thereby new forms of scientific, societal, or intellectual sophistication. Sophistication—not the same here as hybridity—is viewed as the fancy and idiosyncrasy of the petit bourgeois, having no bearing on ideas of human freedom.

What are the consequences of such a limited discourse?

Liberation is viewed as process that requires no reflexive disposition, without a rational deconstructing or structuring capacity. Cogito and Reason are absented from the discourse of Liberation (surprising, considering the role of negotiations and political rhetoric). The liberation process is a “discovery” (cloaked essentialism) of an inherent nature in black identity that happens to correlate to peasant/proletarian agency. (This converges well with ZANU-PF’s argument for a socialist state during the 1980s, predicated on the notion that black societies were inherently socialistic.)

And while Kriger’s discourse may point out the complexity of the “peasant class” in its relation to capital (their interest and value of it), to gender and democratic processes (that are more complicated than Ranger’s complicit and somewhat passive representation of them has allowed), the insistence on the revolution/peasant inscription of the rural site and identity begs the question: why has there been at all a push to insert the rural in a Marxist narrative? Why conceptualize the rural class as peasants of the revolution? Could there be more effective language to inscribe and name Zimbabwean subjects and their relation to Liberation?

As this has not been the case, Liberation, so far, has thus been a central tool of political ideology. Ranger himself has pointed out how the state-run television station (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) has used his works to create a narrow black nationalist historical narrative that leads directly to ZANU-PF’s present manifestation. This hi-jacking of Liberation by the political has resulted in a form of blackmail that is no longer tenable.

The blackmail has, for a while now, gone along these lines: To be for Liberation, one must be for ZANU-PF. To be against ZANU-PF means to be against Liberation. Due however to the present onslaught of violence, the choice may now be simple enough to be against ZANU-PF. Should Zimbabweans now insert MDC in place of ZANU-PF: to be for Liberation, one must be for MDC?

Without establishing a discourse of serious conceptual reflection, Zimbabweans have endangered any possibility of a discourse of human freedom that extends beyond political machinations, and that could instead inform the political (What Achille Mbembe calls, “an integrated philosophico-theological inquiry systematic enough to situate human misfortune and wrongdoing in a singular theoretical framework”).

Rightfully, due to the dire situation, appeals to external human rights monitors are warranted. Yet they will remain temporal without the serious-mindedness of self-critique that seeks to project a more profound way of seeing the Zimbabwean human self in relation to its colonial past and post-Mugabe future.

MDC’s quitting the run-offs, has re-situated the dilemma of Liberation into the fragile hands of ordinary citizens. We shall see if the revolutionary tenor that has dominated implicitly or explicitly Zimbabweanist discourse will have any place amidst this reality. I believe that the tenor of humanist protest, of J’accuse, will become more evident and apparent.

One wonders if this is itself one of the failures of the Liberation Era, an inability to ground resistance more deeply and broadly than in a political economy of reparations?

Lest we forget, the humanist element was a part of the early black nationalist tradition in colonial Zimbabwe. For instance, the legacy of the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress. While it tended toward gradualism, SRANC leadership—Thompson Samkange—was deeply concerned with establishing an ethos of black nationalism that was multi-cultural, multiracial, and respected the rule of law. Its own gradualistic limits were motivated by the very realization that revolutionary reparations could not realistically translate into an equitable society as it is generally popularly purported. This of course was a part of its demise against the rise of the populist Socialist-Marxist movements in colonial Zimbabwe (and across the world).

Zimbabwe’s crisis is a late, but also a future, warning to Africa (more significantly its immediate neighbor, South Africa), which has been tempted toward fast tracks and idealized visions of post-independence (e.g., Thabo Mbeki’s “African Renaissance”)—and which has had little courage to exact the same harsh critique towards its post-independences as it has done to its colonial era.

We must face the fact that what has been popularly purported and intellectually endorsed in Zimbabwe, now shows a limited and unrealistic understanding of human morality and tragedy. Yes, even the morality of the oppressed.

However, let Zimbabweanists have no more illusions. For even Liberation with sophisticated thought is no guarantee of human liberation (as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taught in regards to modern Europe). Yet this should not deter thought. Instead, it should issue thought that attempts at all times to be aware of its limits.

Some recent Telos blogs on Zimbabwe:

“Repression in Zimbabwe and the South Africa Connection: An Interview with Zvisinei C. Sandi”

Russell Berman, “Zimbabwe Elections and Violence”

Emmanuel Sigauke, “The Zimbabwean Response: Passivity or Strategy?”

Zvisinei C. Sandi, “Zimbabwe after the March 29 Elections: A Faultless Coup?”

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