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Tendayi Sithole’s Mabogo P. More: Philosophical Anthropology in Azania

Tendayi Sithole’s Mabogo P. More: Philosophical Anthropology in Azania
Tendayi Sithole’s Mabogo P. More: Philosophical Anthropology in Azania

Mabogo Percy More is a philosopher who describes his work as “Azanian Africana existential philosophy” (110). Born in 1946, More was one of the few Black professors of philosophy during apartheid in South Africa. He has produced an important body of work—including Biko: Philosophy, Identity and Liberation (2017), Looking through Philosophy in Black: Memoirs (2019), Sartre on Contingency: Antiblack Racism and Embodiment (2021), and the forthcoming Noel Chabani Manganyi: Being-While-Black-and-Alienated in Apartheid South Africa (2024)—which has only belatedly received the recognition it deserves. In 2015, he received the Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association, but in South Africa, he has faced decades of professional recognition denied, notwithstanding recent efforts such as a November 2023 virtual workshop sponsored by the University of Fort Hare’s Center for Leadership Ethics in Africa—in preparation for a forthcoming special issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy—dedicated to his work. (Here, I am not a disinterested observer: I participated in this recent event and will contribute to the special issue, as did/will Sithole. Furthermore, More’s Sartre on Contingency was published in Rowman and Littlefield’s “Living Existentialism” series, which I co-edit.)

Tendayi Sithole’s Mabogo P. More: Philosophical Anthropology in Azania is the first book-length discussion of More’s philosophy. It is an important and compelling book, which makes the persuasive case that More’s work is, as the subtitle indicates, philosophical anthropology in Azania. Philosophical anthropology has, since Foucault’s critique of Sartre, long been treated as a relic of an episteme unable to extricate itself from the metaphysics and teleology of liberal humanism (though Foucault’s critique occludes Sartre’s own criticisms of liberal humanism). Africana existential thought, embodied in the work of figures such as Lewis R. Gordon, LaRose T. Parris, or More himself, has placed philosophical anthropology at the forefront of living, contemporary approaches to existentialism. On this view, philosophical anthropology is the study of what it means to be a human being, especially as articulated from the perspective of those whose humanity is denied. It thus foregrounds the lived experience of being Black or doing philosophy in Black, perspectives which are generally denied significance in an antiblack world. As Sithole argues, More’s work is dedicated to a long-standing and ongoing struggle against antiblack racism in South Africa, and defined by the priority he accords to the freedom of Black persons to define themselves on their terms in order to rehumanize themselves in the face of dehumanization. Although Sithole’s few references to universalism carry a negative connotation, ostensibly aimed at the false universalism of an antiblack world, More offers a philosophical and practical vision of a universal, emancipatory horizon to guide liberation struggle. This vision Sithole names, in the South African context, Azania, “the name that signifies freedom” (13).

Sithole provides a broad overview of More’s philosophy, which ranges from exploring his revolutionary teaching style to his considerations on mortality. In Chapter 1, Sithole draws a comparison between More’s teaching and the pedagogy and praxis of Paolo Freire and Enrique Dussel, highlighting how More, by grounding his “revolutionary teaching” in Black lived experience in an antiblack world, challenges the canon of philosophy while encouraging collective reflection and the recreation of knowledge (much like the consciousness-raising efforts of the Black Consciousness movement)—an exercise that is not merely philosophical, but the reclamation of Black life denied. In Chapter 3, he examines More’s work between South African philosophy (which, in the main, either defended apartheid or refused—and still refuses—to treat race as a philosophical problem, thus signaling complicity with the status quo) and his homes away from home: the Caribbean Philosophical Association, with its project of shifting the geography of reason toward the struggles of the oppressed and the Global South, and Philosophy Born of Struggle. These chapters situate More’s philosophy in relation to postcolonial studies and decolonial studies, which More doesn’t necessarily do himself, as well as Africana philosophy.

I believe that the keystone of Sithole’s work is the second chapter, “The Phenomenology of Azania,” which draws on two fundamental essays by More: “Fanon and the Land Question in (Post)Apartheid South Africa” (2011) and “The Transformative Power of Lewis R. Gordon’s Africana Philosophy in Mandela’s House” (2019). Both are critical reflections on the transition from apartheid South Africa to what More calls “post-apartheid apartheid.” In both, More registers how the “negotiated settlement” and transition of political power from the apartheid regime to the African National Congress (ANC) under Nelson Mandela foreclosed revolutionary, emancipatory potential futures. In “Fanon and the Land Question,” his analysis takes as a point of departure Fanon’s remark that emancipation of the oppressed from without (that is, by the master) leaves the values and institutions of the master largely intact. More does not apply this remark to mean that the Black masses and the ANC were merely passive participants in the process of transition (as some commentators interpret Fanon’s claim), but that due to internal and external pressures, the apartheid regime pursued the recognition of the humanity of the Black person and the legitimacy of the ANC on terms conducive to the white ruling classes (175). Observing the power imbalances between the two parties, he argues that the “historic compromise” between the ANC and the apartheid regime led, much as Fanon predicts in The Wretched of the Earth, to “pseudo-independence” or “flag independence.” More contends that true national independence requires the reappropriation of land. While the ANC delivered a settlement with constitutionally guaranteed rights, it abandoned the party’s call for the reappropriation of land. As a result, “the new constitution restored black people’s right to own land, but not the land itself” (181, my emphasis).

Sithole summarizes “since land is life, as More firmly asserts, this life is denied in the ‘new’ South Africa” (80). Noting that this “new” South Africa, or what More refers to as “Mandela’s House,” has perpetuated or even deepened inequalities present during apartheid, Sithole defends Azania—the name chosen by the Pan-African Congress and the Black Consciousness movement to replace the colonial name of South Africa—as the rightful name of a political horizon for true independence. For, as Sithole notes, settler colonialism involves not only the dispossession of land and the exploitation of the Indigenous population, but also the power to name and control the terms of discourse and meaning. Therefore, when More describes himself as an Azanian Africana existential philosopher, there is a transformative force and explicit political commitment in this description. Sithole advances the discussion by contrasting More’s philosophical and political project not just to apartheid or post-apartheid developments in South Africa, but also to settler colonialism, a term that More does not typically use, but ought to. Nonetheless, it is imperative, he writes, “to take More seriously who says land is the base—say, the fundamental basis through which the conception of Azania is predicated” (79).

“Mandela’s House,” on Sithole’s account, names the coexistence of a nonracialist, liberatory mythology with liberal consensus and an ongoing project of settler colonialism. He describes present-day South Africa as a “racist-settler-colonial-segregationist-apartheid-nonracial-constitutionalist-apparatus” (59). At first glance, it may appear that the transition of power in 1994 ended the settler-colonial project, but this transition largely left economic power in the hands of the white capitalist class; indeed, the negotiated settlement between the apartheid regime and the ANC “resulted in the ANC taking political power and land, capital and resources remained in white hands—thus racial inequalities deepened—the crown of it all being that South Africa is now the most unequal society in the world along racial lines” (68).

Given that racial inequalities have deepened in post-apartheid South Africa, engendering this “post-apartheid apartheid,” Sithole punctures the “liberatory mythology” that has been created by and around Nelson Mandela, who is seen as a leader that transcends race. It is Mandela’s liberatory mythology that undergirds the constitutional and discursive nonracialism in South Africa, which asserts that de jure removal of racial bars has resulted in a de facto elimination of racism. The Black critic who calls out racism is accused by whites of fixating on race, and is negatively contrasted with Mandela, who is treated, as More observes, as “a euphemism or code for deference, patience, forgiveness, reconciliation and absolute love of whites” (quoted on 71).

To put it bluntly, Sithole contends that Mandela’s liberal humanism—as presented in his book The Long Walk to Freedom—falls into bad faith. As shown by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Antisemite and Jew as well as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity, there are many ways that an individual may fall into bad faith, that is, that they may deny their freedom or responsibility within a situation. For Sartre, human freedom is an activity of transcendence that transcends its facticity, but this transcendence is always to some degree resisted by a “coefficient of adversity” within a situation. One falls into bad faith by denying the facticity that shapes one’s transcendence or by minimizing one’s responsibility by overemphasizing facticity. For Sithole, Mandela’s House is “not built on his rules” (72), but rather it is “built on bad faith” (62). Although he draws on More’s analysis, Sithole argues that More should have given “an account of the idea of the house as the ante-1994 phenomenon. This would give a richer account of showing that there is no radical break” between apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa (67). Hence Sithole’s account begins with an analysis of the secret negotiations opened in 1988 between Mandela (as the lone representative of the ANC) and the apartheid regime.

Sithole criticizes how Mandela portrays his interpersonal interactions with members of the apartheid regime in a sympathetic light, humanizing his oppressors, despite the fact that they are responsible for the racist dehumanization of the Black masses. He notes that such passages are often read as representing the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. However, like More, Sithole maintains that Mandela’s liberal humanism is in bad faith. First, when Mandela reports his interpersonal interactions, he does not properly recognize how the structural power imbalances within these negotiations ensured that they would proceed on terms favorable to the apartheid regime. Sithole comments: “not only is Mandela appealing to the moral conscience of his oppressors. He claims to know how they feel, or even, their perceptions” (62). In Sartre’s terms, we might say that Mandela treats these interpersonal relationships as entirely transcending the concrete situation shaped by an unequal balance of power. Second, Sithole examines Mandela’s account of his release from prison, when he is overly concerned with meeting and thanking his white jailers and their families; Sithole juxtaposes this concern with Mandela’s description of the cheers of the Black masses as “a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts” (quoted on 63). He then observes that the spirit of race eliminativism or nonracialism in Mandela’s House “should be understood in relation to the sentimental attachment to his oppressors than his fellow oppressed. The kind gestures he was willing to perform, thanking them, and thus having to be worried about those who jailed him and not being overjoyed by the embrace of his very own is the matter of concern” (63). Here, in Sartrean terms, Mandela disregards that his oppressors freely chose to uphold and defend apartheid, which denies that they could have transcended the situation of apartheid; instead, they are sympathetically humanized against the horizon of an anonymous structure of oppression. In sum, Sithole does not deny that the end of formal apartheid brought some political change to South Africa; he demonstrates that the liberal consensus and liberatory mythology of post-1994 South Africa occludes and forestalls the revolutionary horizon of true independence named, in More’s work, Azania.

My main reservation with Sithole’s analysis has to do with his attempt, in Chapter 4, to fit More into the mold of Camus’s rebel. More, in Sartre on Contingency, applies Sartre’s concept of contingency to a thoroughgoing critique of antiblack racism. He contends that Sartre himself speaks to antiracist praxis because “unlike many white philosophers of his time and even after, Sartre gave a sympathetic ear to the writings and voices of black thinkers” (219). Camus, by contrast, on the most charitable reading, could hardly muster more than ambivalence about the Algerian revolution. These are hardly arbitrary political differences between the two. Instead, Camus’s The Rebel is saddled with considerable teleological and metaphysical conceptual baggage that I consider to be intrinsically Eurocentric and counter-revolutionary.

That said, I do not think this is necessarily Sithole’s concern, nor should it hinder understanding the concrete dimension of More’s thought that he seeks to capture. (Furthermore, from what I can tell, Sithole completed his manuscript before More had published Sartre on Contingency). In other words, Sithole provides a programmatic reading of Camus, relying on the first twenty pages of The Rebel, which follows the methods of Noel Chabani Manganyi or More in adapting elements of European existential philosophy to the South African colonial context. This is evident when he argues that the rebel rejects the liberal script of reformism or liberal consensus, or that “the rebel is informed by the value of oneself (self-respect) and standing for something (principle)” (138) or “the abstraction of the black is what is changed by the rebel to be a living embodiment” (140). In other words, I agree that More affirms the value of the self (which is crucial for Black consciousness in an antiblack world, in order to combat dehumanization) and that his work is resolutely principled (such that, unlike many academic philosophers, More is willing to explicitly affirm the right of the oppressed to wage armed liberation struggle). However, I want to emphasize that More establishes a principled bar that Camus’s figure of the rebel, who in many ways is little more than a conscientious objector within a liberal consensus with which he is complicit, cannot meet.

I don’t think it’s pedantic to debate how More ought to be situated within the field of existentialism because I think it has important ripple effects in existentialist studies, if not philosophy more broadly speaking. The discipline of philosophy may be finally beginning to cast a critical perspective on settler colonialism, but it often remains entangled in unexamined assumptions it shares with the liberal consensus on this subject. More draws on Sartre due to Sartre’s commitment to anticolonialism, and Sithole draws that discussion into a critique of settler colonialism and narratives of reconciliation, while exploring liberatory, anticolonial alternatives. These are all avenues that should be explored, within Sartre studies, existentialist studies, and beyond. I have raised these criticisms precisely because Sithole’s book is an indispensable guide to More’s philosophical anthropology in Azania.

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen headshot

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen is the APA Blog’s Diversity and Inclusion Editor and Research Editor. She graduated from the London School of Economics with an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy in 2023 and currently works as a Marketing Assistant for a wine start-up in London. Her philosophical research interests include conceptual engineering, normative ethics, the philosophy of technology, and questions related to living a good life.

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