“We can’t ignore history but it shouldn’t be a legitimating factor for the present moral position or an excuse to engineer the human condition today. Politicians should be focusing on lifting people from their present economic misery not on blaming the past.”
“Forgiveness does not mean forgetting but it does mean not allowing memory to impact on the way I relate to others in the present.”
“Building on the visions of Nelson Mandela, I propose forgiveness as a way to liberate the African imagination from the feeling of moral integrity and the consequent lack of will to modernise socio-political institutions.”
Chielozona Eze of the Department of African Literature and Cultural Studies at Northeastern Illinois University and STIAS fellow was talking about his latest book project which will examine the political and social effects of Africa’s prioritisation of the experience of colonisation in its response to the world, and analyse the role of Mandela’s notion of forgiveness in Africa’s path to modernity.
“It has been customary to suggest colonialism, imperialism, racism, and other abstract isms, as responsible for Africa’s unenviable socio-political and economic condition,” he said. “Whereas these play their roles, I fault the erroneous sense of moral rectitude, rooted in African post-colonial identity politics and perfected by some African leaders.”
“The first premise is that the West is evil, the second is that Africans are oppressed, the conclusion is the moral authenticity of Africa. This simple binary, seemingly insignificant, constitutes a major reason things keep falling apart in African societies.”
Eze referred to Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment which he used to express the act of feeling the past injury over and over. “Judgement is produced in the process – the person who hurt you is evil therefore you are the opposite,” he said. “This is what I refer to as the syllogism of the wounded psyche – which I believe is manifest in a particular form of thinking in post-colonial African discourse. I want to trace the origins of this thought process.”
“I believe these states of injury produce a moral rectitude among Africans which is sometimes counterproductive and even subversive,” he added. “There is an incontestable notion of the evilness of the colonisers against which the colonised project their putative goodness. These illusions of moral excellence are against African interests. They constitute an undermining mechanism and we should consider how it could be defused.”
Eze used examples from Mbeki’s AIDS denialism in the late 1990s, the #FeesMustFall protests and the Zuma and other presidencies to advance his arguments.
“An estimated 300 000 people died of AIDS before Mbeki changed his mind about the existence of HIV and the need for an African solution of garlic, beetroot and lemon juice to cure AIDS.”
“In an incident in 2016 at the University of the Western Cape students hijacked a discussion panel which included well-known names. They accused the panel of being sell outs and agents of white imperialism, and of colluding with the forces holding them down but, in so doing, they lost the opportunity to publically articulate their legitimate concerns about the material poverty they were facing.”
Eze’s book will encompass a detailed philosophical analysis of some of the seminal works of African thinkers as well as some of the figures in African and the African diaspora political and intellectual history including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Frantz Fanon. He gave the seminar audience a reading of his chapter on Chinua Achebe’s most famous novel Things Fall Apart which he used to “to analyse the contours and effects of the syllogism of the wounded psyche”.
“Okonkwo, the central character, a leader of the African Igbo community of Umuofiais depicted as Africa’s first freedom fighter but he never evolves beyond his reactionary attitude, he never develops a critical consciousness. His actions are those of a firefighter – there to fight, justified by his woundedness, justified in the name of the people, obsessed with resistance.”
“The moral imagination of the wounded psyche is simplistic,” continued Eze. “It finds only wrong in the world, focuses on the evil of the other rather than the common humanity of all, sees history as cast against it. Unfortunately this applies to many post-colonial leaders – they are not producing institutions to encourage human flourishing just actions to get back at the enemy.”
“This narrative is like a curveball – a snake that bites its own tail.”
In discussion Eze highlighted that this is not only an African story – “but I have found a common thread in the countries I’ve studied – a common condition of humiliation at the hands of the West leading to a consistent pattern of response.”
But Eze believes that Mandela has given Africa a tool to fight this recourse. “According to Mandela forgiveness is the first step then care, empathy, common good.”
“We defeat the wounded psyche by employing forgiveness – not forgetting the past but not seeing the world from a position of pain. It’s about understanding the power of freedom, being objective , dispassionate, making human flourishing the goal of all endeavours, and the pursuit of common good the guiding principle.”
“As an African intellectual, I realise the danger of appearing to absolve the colonialists,” he added, “but I am fanatical about social justice, economic fairness and addressing the human condition from all its perspectives.”
“Politicians and governments have to lift their people from the untenable conditions they live in but don’t have to continuously accuse white colonialists of having done X and Y in order to do this.”
“We also have to deal in realities. Solutions to issues are either good or not, no matter their source.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw