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Decolonisation and its Discontents: Rethinking the Cycle of National Liberation

by | September 22, 2021

The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.  


What do we mean when we speak about decolonisation? Despite an endless stream of op eds, essays, features, panels and books on the subject, there seems to be little agreement on what exactly we want to achieve by ‘decolonising’ something. Confusion about the term is constitutive of contemporary conversations. And to clarify what is at stake in the debate necessitates posing other questions. What is our relationship to the institution or discipline we want to decolonise? Are we merely asking for reform? Do we want to abolish it altogether? Or is decolonising a method of critique, intended to expose the colonial and racist foundations of a particular discipline, discourse, or institution? And, crucially, how do contemporary movements for decolonisation – emerging almost exclusively from universities, museums and arts institutions – relate to the historical process of decolonisation enacted by the national liberation movements of the twentieth century? 

Universities have been at the forefront of recent discourse around decolonisation, and a debate, led by discontented academics and student-activists, is ongoing, around trying to imagine what a decolonised education might look like. Yet even with a focus narrowly on such institutions, things aren’t much clearer. In their introduction to Decolonising the University, the volume’s editors write that decolonisation ‘involves a multitude of definitions, interpretations, aims and strategies’. Various approaches we might consider together as ‘decolonial’ seem to share some common ground. For example, they offer a ‘way of thinking about the world which takes colonialism, empire, and racism as its empirical and discursive objects of study’. Further, these discourses propose ‘alternative ways of thinking about the world and alternative forms of political praxis’. But while such descriptions might encompass much of what we could mean by decolonisation, they remain rather vague and indeterminate.

This is no surprise: calls for the decolonisation of the university have emerged from vastly different structural contexts, and have therefore emphasised different strategic methods and substantive aims. One characteristic such struggles have unfortunately shared, however, is that their language has been readily embraced and neutralised by the neoliberal university. Here I use ‘neutralised’ in Asad Haider’s sense, in ‘Emancipation and Exhaustion’.

A force which renders opposition ineffective. It is distinct from the potentially moralistic idea of co-optation, which presumes some authentic belonging of the object. … Neutralisation comes from the top. It contains and redirects opposition into the harmonious diversity of the system. 

The RhodesMustFall (RMF) protests which erupted at the University of Cape Town in 2015 provide a useful example of how the university was able to embrace a symbolic form of decolonisation, while sidestepping structural concerns and neutralising radical opposition to the status quo. What emerged as a movement which sought to confront a historically white,elite institution with regard to its links to colonialism and apartheid, and to take it to task for its failure to address racial discrimination on campus, was soon reduced to a demand for inclusion into the institutional structures of marketised higher education. How this happen?

In ‘Destruction Styles: Black Aesthetics of Rupture and Capture’, Thulile Gamedze offers insight into the process of neutralisation that took place at UCT. While the protests did culminate in the removal of the Rhodes statue, Gamedze argues, the university-funded spectacle of lifting it off the UCT campus was an anti-climatic, rather than a catalysing, political moment. The aesthetics of this decolonising gesture can be compared – unfavourably – with the toppling and drowning of the Colston statue following the BlackLivesMatter protests in Bristol last summer. In that city, ouncillors recently passed a motion for a commission of inquiry to investigate the idea of a ‘reparations plan’ to address the city’s historical involvement in the slave trade. For Gamedze:

This comparison serves not to detract from the necessity of Rhodes removal, but rather to emphasise the fact that the insurgent act need not be defined purely by its outcome but should be read also with regard to the extent to which it attends aesthetically to the historical or political problem at hand. 

At UCT, power was effectively taken out of the hands of students and handed back to the university administration through a symbolic ‘decolonising’ gesture. This enabled the university to pay lip service to a limited version of decolonisation, while criminalising those protestors who refused the ‘proper/colonial channels of negotiation’ and whose more radical decolonising tactics included, for example, the occupation of Azania House, the administrative centre of the university.  

The minimalist version of decolonisation embraced by UCT, essentially equating it with symbolic gestures and diversity initiatives, was clearly expressed in the March 2019 report on RMF by the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Committeeformed in 2016 in response to the protests. While the report corroborated claims that racism and discrimination had been normalised at the institution, rather than addressing the structural issues highlighted by calls to ‘decolonise the university’,  it chose to focus on the plight of better qualified academics being passed over for employment and promotion in favour of white academics. And while the critique of racial bias in hiring practices is, of course, perfectly valid and important, the report’s language could hardly have been further from structural critique  ‘In relation to these micro-aggressions’, as it put it, ‘the evidence received by the IRTC points to a systematic suppression of black excellence in recent years’. One could hardly imagine a more blatant attempt to use the language of decolonisation to bolster the narrative of individual advancement and ‘excellence’ that is at the very heart of the neoliberal university. With all traces of its radical history erased, all that remained was a sanitised,depoliticised version of ‘decolonisation’. It might as well have meant nothing at all – or business as usual. As Rahul Rao puts it in ‘Neoliberal Anti-Racism and the British University’:

For all the attention that has been devoted to transforming structures such as curricula and hiring practices, an equal amount of energy has gone into initiatives such as mentoring schemes and workshops driven by the defeating aim of enabling Black students and staff to more comfortably inhabit those structures. 

In the UK, as in South Africa, universities were able to use the language of decolonisation for PR purposes, while simultaneously handing out zero-hour contracts, and/or firing precariously employed racialised staff. So given the power of the neoliberal university to neutralise the decolonising impulse, how can we demand a more substantive and radical decolonisation?

One answer is that we must place the redistribution of resources at the centre of any decolonising project. Was it not FeesMustFall – the movement that emerged in the wake of RMF in 2016, whose demands included more scholarships, scrapping a proposed increase in student fees, and bringing campus workers in house, that really took hold at South Africa’s public universities, where the student body is mainly Black and working-class? It is true that FMF hasn’t turned out to be the serious challenge to the post-apartheid political order that many hoped it would. For all that, its move towards a broader anti-capitalist politics laid the foundation for a new round of protests, with students explicitly rejecting the South African state’s new Austerity Budget – which includes cuts to healthcare and education funding – and calling for an end to the police violence that has been used to crack down on student and working-class protests. 

By making such demands, students are not only aligning themselves with those opposing austerity as a supposed path out of South Africa’s looming economic crisis, or those lamenting the blatant corruption of the ANC government, but also with the 34 miners killed by the South African Police Service in the Marikana Massacre in 2012. (The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a non-executive director of Lonmin at the time, and sanctioned violent police action against the striking miners.) This is precisely the sort of connection to broader struggles against neocolonialism and imperialism that decolonising the university needs. What we are seeing in South Africa might be the start of that process. But to fully understand what movements for decolonisation are seeking to undo, what it is they are fighting for and/or against, we must go deeper into an analysis of knowledge production and the political economy of imperialism, to show just how the institutions we intend to decolonise are structured by colonial hierarchies. The museum, with its tangled history of ethnographic research, colonial theft, violence, and imperialist exploitation is a good place to start.  




Decolonising the Arts: Towards a Museum of Colonialism

On 19 May 1931 Michel Leiris – then a depressed twenty-seven-year-old poet who had recently broken with surrealist circles in Paris – joined the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an ethnographic mission organised by the Ethnological Institute at the University of Paris and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, as a secretary-archivist. Encouraged by his psychoanalyst, as well as by the mission’s lead ethnographer, Marcel Griaule, Leiris embarked on a journey across the African continent, from Senegal in the West through other parts of the French, British and Italian colonial empire, and eventually the Horn of Africa. The main purpose of the Mission, Brent Hayes Edwards writes in his introduction to Phantom Africa, the experimental autobiography/ethnography developed from Leiris’ daily diary entries on the expedition, was to gather African art and artefacts for the collections of museums in Paris. On these grounds, the journey was a great success. Griaule and his team returned with over 3,700 objects, including Dogon statues and Ethiopian church paintings from Gondar, the former imperial capital and site of the Fasil Ghebbi fortress. 

But Leiris’ diary also makes clear the darker side of the Mission’s research. On 6 September 1931, while visiting the city of Bla in modern-day Mali, he writes the following.

The hiding place is revealed: to the right are indefinable forms made of a sort of brown nougat that is actually coagulated blood. In the middle is a large calabash filled with assorted objects, including several flutes made of horn, wood, iron, and copper. On the left, hanging from the ceiling surrounded by a bunch of calabashes, is a nebulous bundle covered with the feathers of various birds. Griaule, who fingers it, thinks there is a mask inside. Annoyed by these people’s dilly-dallying, we quickly come to a decision: Griaule takes two flutes and slips them inside his boots, we put things back in place, and then we leave.

The passage vividly captures the nonchalance with which European ethnographers stole artefacts, and justified their theft as required for scientific research. At other times, however, Leiris seems cognisant of the  despicable nature of the acts committed by the mission in the name of ethnography. (In his entry on 7 September, he admits that he is ‘keenly aware of the enormity of our crime’.) But despite the realisation that the work amounts to theft, none of the researchers conclude that it is wrong. ‘The looting continues’, Leiris writes following the incident in Bla, ‘as does the research’. For the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, ethnographic research and colonial theft are inextricably intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. 

The publication of the English translation of Phantom Africa in 2017 coincided with a growing interest in the idea of decolonising museums and art galleries, a process which might involve the return of some such stolen artefacts to their places of origin. In 2018, a report by Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr and the art historian Bénédicte Savoy urged the French government to return any artefacts that were unlawfully (that is, violently) acquired, if the governments of formerly colonised countries demanded their return. Emmanuel Macron responded by pledging that France would repatriate twenty-six artefacts to Benin-City, now the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria, by 2021. In Germany, there are similar concerns about the Ethnologisches Museum, whose collection is soon to be transferred to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a mega-project that has cost upward of €677 million. The Forum’s construction has been met with protests, most notably from the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against Humboldt Forum, who argue that it is an ode to Germany’s colonial past – a past which includes the genocide of Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia between 1904 and 1908, when an estimated 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were murdered in a campaign to subdue an anti-colonial uprising.

But in the cases of the Humboldt Forum and the Benin-City Bronzes held by French museums, there has been little progress. It has recently been announced that the Benin Bronzes in the Ethnologisches Museum will be returned to Nigeria by autumn 2021, but whether this will occur is an open question. Such hesitation can be attributed in part to the colonial assumptions that continue to structure how the global North views the museum. As the artist Coco Fusco puts it,

[c]ontemporary repatriation among institutions, curators, and some government officials bespeaks a view of Africa that is still informed by racist ideology and imperial hubris.

This is strikingly clear when we consider, for example, the excuses that governments and museums make for their refusal to return stolen artefacts, including the all-too-frequent claim that African states cannot be trusted to care for these priceless objects. (There are, in fact, plans to build a new museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art, in Benin-City, to house returned Bronzes.) Despite recent efforts to rebrand themselves as ‘sites of world culture’, museums in the global North remain the grandiose monuments to imperial violence that they were when Leiris and the Mission Dakar-Djibouti conducted their research. 

But beyond the issue of  repatriation, the question of what a decolonised museum might look like remains unanswered. The Museum of British Colonialism (MBC), a grassroots organisation that tries to ‘restore and make visible suppressed, destroyed, or underrepresented histories relating to British colonialism’, offers the following definition of decolonisation on its website. 

Initially, decolonisation referred to the process that former colonies underwent to free themselves of the colonial supremacy and gain their independence. Today, the term has become much more than that: a philosophical, moral, social, spiritual, and also activist call that points to the fact that we are still subject to the ideology of colonialism. 

The focus of this ‘museum’ is not the creation of a ‘decolonised’ physical space that pairs stolen artefacts with critical commentary by scholars and artists, as Dan Hicks suggests in Brutish Museums, or the return of objects to their original sites. MBC instead urges us to question and challenge the power relations that determine how cultural institutions are run. Who do they serve? What is their purpose? Why do they prioritise certain knowledge(s) over others? Who makes decisions about what is presented and how it is displayed? And, most importantly, where are the silences? As Françoise Vergès writes,

[e]rasure works not by being noisy, but through a pedagogical discourse that tells a story which is not inexact per se, but which rests on certain things being covered up and thus forever forgotten … To decolonise means to learn to see again. 

By asking such questions, we can begin to highlight the inequalities that institutions continue to uphold in the present, and uncover the role they play in reproducing colonialism in its new, reconfigured form. But does this process suffice to create something that might be called a decolonised museum?

The colonial hierarchies which cultural institutions reproduce are not reproduced only by epistemic erasure or theft. In an interview with Epoché, Vergès warns us that we cannot ‘forget that our political, feminist, radical, environmental debates are made possible because women of colour are cleaning the world’. Decolonisation, then, is not limited to making visible histories of slavery, colonialism and imperialism; it also means learning to see the work that racialised and gendered workers are doing to make the museum or the gallery  as physical spaces, available to us all. The very people who make it possible to interact, discuss and organise in museum spaces or art galleries are generally those only informally employed by such institutions, and subjected to the worst working conditions. The proposed mass lay-offs of front-of-house staff at the Tate and Southbank Centre during the Covid-19 crisis are a case in point. If we want to decolonise, we will have to take into account the many such precariously employed workers, whose plight continues to be sidelined by the very institutions portraying themselves as the vanguard of decolonisation. 



Decolonising Decolonial Studies

Surveying debates on decolonising the museum, the art gallery or the university, one gets the sense of an institutional tendency to shift the terrain of decolonising from political economy to the more abstract question of decolonising knowledge(s). What is the theoretical basis for this shift? The focus on epistemic decolonisation can largely be attributed to the Decolonial Studies school (DS) around the Argentinian linguist Walter Mignolo, whose work on the ‘geopolitics of knowledge’ has been influential in a range of academic fields. While the discourse encompasses multiple strands of writing on colonialism and epistemology, DS scholars share a set of theoretical positions, including Enrique Dussel’s anti-universalism, Walter Mignolo’s geopolitics of knowledge, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, and Sandra Harding’s standpoint theory, an epistemic approach which argues that research must begin with the perspectives of the most oppressed and marginalised, since they are socially situated in a way that gives them a positional advantage in gaining certain forms of knowledge. 

Most importantly, however, DS builds on the concept of the coloniality of power first articulated by Aníbal Quijano to describe a ‘matrix of power that produces racial and gender hierarchies on the global and local level, functioning alongside capital to maintain a modern regime of exploitation and domination’. For Quijano, coloniality is a mode of power that has its roots in two historical processes: the codification of difference (i.e. superiority/inferiority) in the idea of race; and the establishment of new modes of control which made labour and resources available for capitalist accumulation. Such formulations are, of course, nothing particular new. But it is Quijano’s linking of modernity and coloniality in a singular matrix that makes up his major contribution. What this matrix enables us to see is that coloniality is the other – dark – side of modernity – the inevitable outcome of an epistemological frame that is inextricably tied to the colonial project, and enables it to survive in reconstituted forms.

The work of Mignolo and other DS scholars supposedly offers a way out of the oppressive bind of Quijano’s modernity/coloniality matrix. As Mignolo explains in On Decoloniality:

If there is no modernity without coloniality, if coloniality is constitutive of modernity, if the ‘/’ [in the triad modernity/coloniality/decoloniality] divides and connects, then decoloniality proposes the undoing of modernity. That is, decoloniality implies demodernity. At the same time, modernity/coloniality engender decoloniality. So there would be no decoloniality – and decoloniality would not be necessary – if modernity/coloniality had not created the need to delink from the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality. 

For Mignolo, and his frequent collaborator Catherine Walshl, decoloniality seeks to posit new ways of ‘thinking, sensing, believing, doing, and living’ that de-link from the Eurocentric knowledge production of modernity. The aim of DS, then, is to enable a reconstitution of knowledge on the basis of ‘epistemic pluriversality’: the coexisting epistemologies and practices of the multiple worlds that the cultural and linguistic Other inhabits. In doing so, they are pushing back against modernity, which relies on a philosophical anthropology that, to borrow a phrase from Sylvia Wynter, overrepresents European man as if it were the Human itself, and consequently subjugates those who have been categorised as subhuman according to colonial logics.

It is important to note that the DS concept of de-linking does not correspond with Samir Amin’s position that nations in the global South should delink from imperialism in the sphere of political economy. Rather, delinking here takes place exclusively on an epistemic level. This is because, Mignolo and Walsh argue, decoloniality delinks from the knowledge of political theory and political economy, and the corresponding subject-formation these knowledges entail. There is here a sharp distinction between colonialism as it is commonly understood, and the more abstract phenomenon of coloniality. As Nelson Maldonado-Torres puts it in ‘On the Coloniality of Being’:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administration. 

Amin, they argue, was engaging in a project of ‘dewesternisation’ and trying to fight coloniality on its own terms (those of the nation-state), thus failing to challenge what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the ‘epistemic empire’ that has continued to exist despite national liberation. DS thus elevates the purity of the decolonial project above all else, seemingly ignoring the constraints of actually-existing post-colonialism in actually-existing capitalist modernity. (How is it possible to do without the nation-state in a capitalist system of nation-states?) What is derogatorily referred to as the ‘post-colonial Western tradition’ supposedly has nothing to offer. Decoloniality, as it is proposed here, emerges as the only true decolonial praxis. 



Whatever its insights, there are various aspects of DS that are, at best, unconvincing, on both theoretical and political grounds. For example, its epistemological framing of ontology asserts the primacy of knowledge in the creation of the modern world, positing that concepts are themselves constitutive of reality. As Mignolo writes: 

What matters is not economics, or politics, or history, but knowledge. Better yet, what matters is history, politics, economics, race, gender, sexuality, but it is above all the knowledge that is intertwined in all these praxical spheres that entangles us to the point of making us believe that it is not knowledge that matters but really history, economy, politics, etc. Ontology is made of epistemology. That is, ontology is an epistemological concept.


[coloniality] is written not by guns and armies but by the words that justify the use of guns and armies, convincing you that is for the good, the salvation, and the happiness of humanity. Such is the task of the rhetoric of modernity. 

DS argues that the denial of human status (and of being) to the Other is fundamentally the result of the coloniality of knowledge. Because thinking is being (at least according to the famous Cartesian formula), epistemic denial or erasure amounts to an act of ontological denial. But DS theorists do not mean the same thing by ‘ontology’ as do most philosophers, i.e. that it is the study of the nature and possibility of being. For DS, ‘ontology’ instead refers to being itself. As the late David Graeber writes in an essay responding to the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, whose ‘decolonial anthropology’ rests on a similar understanding, theorists of the epistemic turn ‘adopt a tacit ontology which seems indistinguishable from philosophical idealism’. Thus, changing the world, for them, ultimately simply means changing the terms of the conversation. And while Mignolo insists that his de-linking does have a material dimension, it is never quite clear where exactly this materialism appears in his theory.

While DS might sound plausible at first, there is a certain tension between the emancipatory aims to which it pledges allegiance, the theoretical framework that it proposes, and its proponents’ positionality in the international (and intellectual) division of labour. What are the implications for anti-imperialist struggle in the global South if those at the forefront of challenging the Eurocentricity of knowledge production are based in the resource-hoarding universities of the global North ( especially the US)? Is there not a danger of reproducing precisely the kind of epistemic coloniality from which we are trying to de-link? And what are we to make of DS’ reliance on a deferential version of standpoint theory, whose narrow focus on ‘spokespeople from marginalised groups’ could, as Olúfemi O. Táíwò has argued, prevent us from bringing those voices into the centre whose exclusion DS claims to be fighting against?

Táíwò is by no means the only one concerned with the ‘elite capture at scale’ enabled by the distorted standpoint theory he calls ‘standpoint deference’. In ‘Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonisation’, a forcefully argued critique of DS, the Bolivian Anarcho-feminist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui takes aim at a Latin American 

intelligentsia that strikes post-modern and even postcolonial poses, and to the US academy and its followers who built pyramidal structures of power and symbolic capital – baseless pyramids that vertically blind certain Latin American universities – and form clientilist networks with indigenous and black intellectuals.

These intellectuals, she argues, are a mere caricature of their Western counterparts. And much like the scholars they criticise, they have a superiority complex which enables them to look down on their indigenous peers. Using the idea of ‘internal colonialism’, Casicanqui shows how Mignolo has built a ‘small empire within an empire’ – a formation that perpetuates coloniality in Latin America by ‘enthroning’ decolonisation within the academy. In his unapologetic appropriation and depoliticisation of the work of radical indigenous scholarship – like that of Cusicanqui – Mignolo thus marginalises scholars and activists from the debates that they themselves started and in which they are still engaged. This in turn limits the imaginative power and emancipatory potential of decolonisation.

DS thus reproduces a ‘conditional inclusion’ – a sort of ‘second-class citizenship that moulds subaltern imaginaries and identities into the role of ornaments through which the anonymous masses play out the theatricality of their own identity’. By reducing indigenous peoples to the marginal status of minorities, ‘noble savages’ or ‘guardians of nature’, scholars like Mignolo and Walsh effectively exclude them from modernity and the crucial struggles that are waged within it. By contrast, while Cusicanqui concedes that ‘modern history meant slavery for the indigenous peoples of America’, she nonetheless insists that this does not mean that modernity itself cannot be a site for the articulation of counterhegemonic indigenous projects of modernity. There remains a possibility for the creation of what Cusincanqui calls a ‘more organic’ modernity – one that does not create an absolute dichotomy between modern and indigenous epistemologies, as Mignolo and Walsh often do. 

On closer inspection, then, DS turns out not to be an emancipatory discourse at all. In fact, if one is inclined to take any perspective that holds on to even the smallest commitment to the idea of revolution, it is openly reactionary. In The End of Cognitive Empire, de Sousa Santos goes so far as to proudly proclaim that the epistemological turn in DS is a reversal of Marx’ famous statement in Thesis Eleven of the Theses on Feuerbach, that philosophers have interpreted the world, but that the point is to change it. 

[Marx’] thesis would become the cornerstone of Western-centric critical thinking, claiming the centrality of the concept of praxis as the synthesis between theory and practice. Almost two hundred years later, it is imperative that we return to interpretation, to reinterpret the world before trying to change it. 

Certainly, the relationship between thought and revolutionary action has long been a concern of Marxist thought – as, for example in the post-Althusserian work of Étienne Balibar, Alain Badiou or Jacques Rancière. But the idealism of DS is, to borrow a phrase from Rancière, ‘a philosophy of order’, a reactionary theoretical discourse which affirms the academic hierarchy of intellects and positions while perpetuating the institution’s functioning. The political economy of knowledge in which DS operates is a far cry from the premise of equal capacity for thought which animates the post-Althusserian conception of emancipatory politics as a mass politics. How exactly DS is supposed to help us fight state violence, racial oppression, labour exploitation, military occupation, or imperialism more broadly, remains a mystery.

There have, of course, been attempts to integrate such considerations into a DS framework. The decolonial critique that comes out of this engagement is perhaps best exemplified by Cusicanqui’s own research perspective, which she has described as defying the capitalist global economy while simultaneously offering a way out of the trappings of Andean patriarchy. As such, it is a mode of critique that is, as Macarena Gomez-Barris puts it in The Extractive Zone, ‘both rooted within and disindentified from coloniality and Andean “tradition”’. Such approaches recognise that indigenous and African-descended peoples in the Americas are not static representations of an idealised past, as Mignolo seems to suggest: rather, they are contemporary and active participants in the remaking of modernity. The answers to coloniality aren’t to be found in a static form of Otherness or indigeneity. And even less so when the conception of the Other offered is one which mimics the essentialist prejudices that DS scholars are, so they claim, trying to unsettle. 



Rethinking the Cycle of National Liberation

DS has often been accused of ignoring the work of indigenous North American scholarship, so it is unsurprising that one of the most critical texts about the epistemological turn comes from this tradition. In their much-lauded article ‘Decolonisation is not a Metaphor’, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang concede that it is important to encourage and enable critiques of colonial epistemologies. But they also insist that ‘critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism’. Tuck and Yang argue that the use of decolonisation as a metaphor for any struggle against imperialism has turned it into an ‘empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation’. In using decolonisation as a metaphor, we risk overlooking the complexities and struggles of indigenous people in settler-colonial contexts, as well as how people – including those minoritised by the settler state – might be implicated in the project of settler colonialism. The question of what decolonisation means, then, ‘must be answered specifically with attention to the colonial apparatus that is assembled to order the relationships between particular peoples, lands, the “natural world” and civilisation’. And in the North American case, this means focusing on the most urgent task at hand – that of forcing the relinquishing of stolen land.

The main targets of Tuck and Yang’s critique are DS, postcolonial studies and the national liberation movements of the twentieth century. But the interpretation of anti-colonial critique they advance is simplistic at best. For them, the anti- to post-colonial project doesn’t strive to undo colonialism, but rather to remake it and subvert it’. Further,

[t]he postcolonial pursuit of resources is fundamentally an anthropocentric model, as land, water, air, animals, and plants are never able to become postcolonial. They remain objects to be exploited by the empowered postcolonial subject.

Anti-colonial nationalism, for them, was simply an expression of a postcolonial subjectivity that inevitably descends into resource nationalism. (Resource nationalism is here juxtaposed with an idea of nationhood based on the belief that ‘natural resources’ are not resources, but gifts from the land.) Indigenous conceptions of sovereignty and the nation are thus inconsistent with those of the national liberation movements, whose aspirations for an independent nation-state did not reflect indigenous articulations of a decolonised world; these, they argue, would be based on the principle that, to borrow Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s formulation, ‘Aki [land] is encompassed by freedom, a freedom that is protected by sovereignty and actualised by self-determination’.

But Tuck and Yang at times seem to disregard just how important the link between the indigenous movements and other anti-imperialist struggles was and still is. We might, for example, look to the indigenous internationalism of the delegation of elders from Canada’s Six Nations, the Oceti Sakowin, Hopi, Panama, Guatemala, the Amazon, Mexico and Chile that addressed the United Nations in Geneva in 1977. As Nick Estes explains in Our History is the Future, the delegation travelled to Geneva with hopes of gaining recognition as sovereign nations at the UN – a status their nations had long been denied. With support from the Non-Aligned movement, the Soviet Bloc and various other national liberation movements, the delegation was able to ‘provincialise the influence of North Atlantic powers to dictate their diplomatic relations “outside” the settler colony’, and effectively lay the foundation for the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. This episode illustrates that even though the struggle for indigenous rights could not be subsumed by anti-imperialism, the movement was nonetheless engaged in the same process of ‘worldmaking’ as the national liberation movements – a project that was not limited to nation-building, but sought to imagine a world altogether free of colonial hierarchies. 

It is mistaken to assume that the entirety of the national liberation tradition did not have any egalitarian or democratic aspirations beyond the establishment of an independent nation-state. Much like DS, Tuck and Yang suggest that it is somehow possible for anti-colonial (or decolonial) struggles to do without the nation-state in the context of capitalist/imperialist modernity. And while one can agree with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that the nation-state is a ‘poisoned gift’, and that there are, of course, problems with the state form, one cannot chastise movements struggling for control over it. The point, then, is not to dismiss anti-colonial movements that have fought for an independent nation-state, but to suggest that the struggle cannot end there. Capturing the state is not an end in itself, but a tragic necessity – one which does not necessarily limit the horizon of national liberation.  

While the anti-colonial worldmaking of the national liberation movements did indeed, of necessity, given the geopolitical and historical context, culminate in projects that re-enforced the nation-state, as Adom Getachew argues in Worldmaking after Empire, they nonetheless ‘began as an effort to rethink sovereignty’. She writes that

[w]hen we examine the worldmaking aspirations of anti-colonial nationalism, we can move beyond the preoccupation with nationalism’s illiberalism and parochialism to consider the specificity of the animating questions and contradictions of anti-colonial nationalism.

Getachew insists that the ‘vision of an anti-imperial world had different articulations before the rise of self determination and might yet be remade in new languages and modes’. In other words, ‘alternatives to the nation state persisted at the height of decolonisation’. So, if this is the case, is it not worth exploring what these alternatives were, rather than brusquely dismissing the contributions of national liberation movements by attributing to them a simplistic understanding of the nation-state?



The crisis of the postcolonial state – especially the African state – has long been a controversial topic, with scholars and activists trying to make sense of why exactly the horizon of national liberation movements failed to expand beyond a narrow defence of the nation-state after independence. This question also animates the recent work of John Saul, Mahmood Mamdani, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba and Michael Neocosmos. But while they all locate the root of the crisis in the construct of the nation-state itself, they offer conflicting diagnoses of which component of that configuration – nation or state – is to blame for the present crisis. Neocosmos, for example, traces the crisis back to the conflation of state politics and emancipatory politics in the imaginary of anti-colonial nationalists. For Wamba dia Wamba, the unraveling of nationalist revolutions is the result of a failure to democratically empower popular forces that could challenge state and party. Mamdani, by contrast, argues that it is, in fact, the nation (especially the reification of ethnicity inherited from indirect rule) and not the state that is to blame for the crisis of the postcolonial nation-state. 

The complexities of each position are beyond us here, but it is worth noting the depth of the frustrations with what has become of the promises of independence, and a shared concern about the possibility of a truly emancipatory and democratic politics in Africa. (Democracy here referring not to the project of legitimising class rule, i.e. liberal democracy, but to that of strengthening independent forms of organisation and community solidarity to challenge class rule.) As Wamba dia Wamba argues in ‘Experiences of Democracy in Africa’:

The new pharaohs of our independent countries, giving themselves the title of ‘founding fathers of the independent nation’ will use the theory of the primordial unity at the origin of the community as a key to justify the perpetuation of their dictatorial bureaucratic power (that is claimed to be the reproduction of the old and original community power). The process of unification through struggle is, by them, declared alien to the temple of ancestral authority that nation’s new architects attempt to build around themselves. Even new mass uprisings, in line with the process of unification through struggle, are said to be formed from the outside. 

Or, as the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah succinctly put it his 1968 novel The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born:

So this was the real gain. The only real gain. This was the thing for which poor men had fought and shouted. This is what it had come to: not that the whole thing be overturned and ended, but that a few blackmen might be pushed closer to their masters, to eat some of the fat into their bellies too. That had been the entire end of it all. 

In the novel, Armah is channelling peoples’ frustrations with how colonial power relations snuck in through the back door after formal independence. In the neocolonial situation – which has been, unfortunately, the culmination of  most national liberation – the state is formally independent, but not truly sovereign, and it is directed by outside interests. This process works through the capturing of the nation-state by a neocolonial elite who are loyal to and/or work with the imperialist bourgeoisie, and who cloak themselves in the language of the nation to disguise their role in the perpetuation of imperialism. The unfinished process (or ‘exhausted cycle’ as Haider might put it, following Neocosmos) of national liberation has left in its wake nation-states characterised by exploitation, extractivism and neo-colonialism, trapped in an imperialist system that ensures that surplus value still makes its way back into the hands of their former colonisers and the local bourgeoisies.  

This might seem like obvious evidence for the thesis that national-liberation movements inevitably led to a minimalist defence of the nation-state, along with its extractivist logic. But, as John Saul rightly asks, where do certain honest and responsible leaders fit into this narrative? Saul is thinking here of Eduardo Mondlane, the first president of Frelimo, who was killed when exiled in Dar es Salaam in February 1969, at the height of the independence war. Mondlane was a revolutionary leader who was deeply concerned with the democratic potential of the anti-colonial struggle, and whose writing and practice show that he was committed to the idea of the ‘ongoing creation of equality’, to borrow a phrase from Neocosmos, Wamba dia Wamba and Rancière. In a moving passage from The Struggle for Mozambique he writes that

[in the liberated zones] the work of a good poet in FRELIMO will be read in the camps by militants, by people drawn from the exploited masses who in the past were simply the subjects of poems by poets they had never heard of. Now those who can read, read aloud for those who cannot, and a wealth of literature is in reach of all those who have a minimum grasp of Portuguese. This gap between the intellectual and the rest of the population is closing. And this in turn has brought a new dimension to political poetry which has lost its tone of lament and gained new revolutionary fire.

In his essay, Saul further shows that Mondlane avoided the imposition of a rigid dogma and hierarchy when he was president of Frelimo and that his ‘Marxism-Leninism remained framed … by an insistence that Frelimo’s political project cannot exist outside of or above the Mozambican people’. This doesn’t sound like the kind of postcolonial subjectivity that Tuck, Yang or Mignolo so vehemently reject. 

We might also, for example, read Amílcar Cabral – who was assassinated in January 1973 before Guinea-Bissau and Cape-Verde gained independence from Portugal – as concerned with the interconnection between sustainable agricultural development and the anti-colonial struggle. As artist Filipa César has argued, ‘the results of Cabral’s agronomic work – his care for the soil and attention to its processes and transformations – not only informed the organisation of the liberation struggle, but were crucial to the process of declonisation’. Cabral, an agronomist by training, emerges as anything but a resource nationalist whose decolonising agenda encouraged an instrumental relationship with land. In his work as an agronomist for the Portuguese colonial government, Cabral was simultaneously conducting an agricultural census of Guinea-Bissau and studies of colonial land exploitation, which led him to envision an ‘ecology of liberation’ that would become a crucial part of his anti-colonial politics. In the case of Cabral, can we really claim that a revolutionary whose first job in Guinea-Bissau was conducting an agricultural survey and setting up a state-run experimental farm, which sought to, as César puts it, ‘emancipate people and repair the land’, was only concerned with capturing the extractivist colonial state apparatus?

In her autobiography, My Country Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria, Andrée Blouin, recounts her life as part of the anti-colonial struggle in the Central African Republic, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Blouin would  undoubtedly have described herself as part of the national liberation tradition; but the title of her book is itself an implicit critique of the nation-state, and of the limited and traditionally masculine view of the nation – that of identity as territory – which draws maps and establishes belonging. Blouin was certainly often held back by her gender, and unable to impact as she wished the post-independence politics of the countries whose national liberation struggles she dedicated her life to, but she nonetheless emphasises that national liberation movements were not examples of simply failed decolonisation, but sites where a multiplicity of different and often conflicting conceptions of decolonisation were articulated. And it is certain that perspectives such as those of Mondlane, Cabral or Blouin pointed to a different outcome than the seemingly ‘inevitable’ one. 

When we speak about decolonisation today, we should understand that we have something to learn from such attempts to articulate a truly decolonising practice, one which does not eschew serious discussions of self-determination, sovereignty and, yes, of the nation-state itself, in favour of a purely epistemic decolonisation. If, that is, we are willing to listen. 



Kevin Ochieng Okoth is a writer and researcher living in London. He is a corresponding editor at Salvage.