Olivia U. Rutazibwa (1979) is doctor in de politieke wetenschappen en voormalig Afrikaredacteur bij MO*.
The corona pandemic blows the lid off the idea of Western superiority
Olivia U. Rutazibwa looks at the spread of the corona virus in Europe from a great distance as she is on a writing retreat at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies (JIAS) in South Africa, where a national total lockdown was declared on March 26th. While she’s there to write and dig into books and the past, she sees how in these extraordinary times, it’s the outside world, and especially the ones beyond the West, that will teach us about alternative solidarities.
All the way from South Africa I look at how COVID-19 leaves a trail of panic in the Western world. World maps of the virus show that in comparison, African countries have so far been affected less or more slowly. I touch wood while typing these lines. Because, even though the virus does not seem to distinguish between the human bodies in which it dwells, it nevertheless operates according to a logic of (historical) geopolitics and wealth.
There is, after all, still an astronomical difference between the various healthcare systems in the world. Between the state-led systems and the more private ones in the West, and the historically weakened systems in the so-called Global South. Everywhere, the impoverished survival or health is most directly impacted by the absence of a collectively organised health care and social security system.
On top of all of this, worldwide, there are glaring differences in peoples’ living conditions. Self-isolation looks decidedly differently with access to piped water and soap, a dwelling or a room to yourself, than if your everyday life unfolds without all this; in one single room shared with the whole family or several housemates. Think: slumlord-ism in the West, townships here in Johannesburg for instance; or prisons, all over the world; the dehumanising refugee camps in Europe and elsewhere. I hold my breath as COVID-19 is bound to make its appearance also there, and in large numbers.
The West is incapable to learn from the rest of the world
The corona crisis shows us more than the inequalities that we already know but fail to address meaningfully. Rolando Vazquez, a Mexican decolonial thinker in The Netherlands, commented on his Facebook wall how the evolution of the corona crisis signals dewesternisation.“Walter Mignolo (Argentinian decolonial thinker, o.r.) the dewesternization you have been talking about is unfolding”, he wrote. “The COVID-19 is marking an important geopolitical change, many Asian countries are clearly coming out as better organized and more capable than the West to deal with this large scale crisis. The West in turn, although having a warning of more than a month in advance, failed to listen and learn from Asian countries. These are real practical implications of the eurocentrism many have been studying for so long. The developing disaster in western societies could have been avoided. The information was there clear and loud. The geopolitics of knowledge, the epistemic privilege and arrogance, the impossibility of learning from and listening to other regions of the world and even to the south of Europe is becoming blatantly and painfully clear. (Of course dewesternization should not be confused with decolonizing, this is another topic.) The geopolitics of knowledge, who learns from who, who is seen as being in or out of history, is forcefully changing. I see, the COVID-19 emerging as the historical marker of a reconfigured world-order.”
The Corona crisis shows us more than the inequalities that we already know but fail to address meaningfully
And indeed: the geopolitics of knowledge including a globally embraced Eurocentrism become visible and tangible in the way the virus descended unto the African continent. Most (registered) cases followed directly from contact with Europe – not China; it took a really long time before all flights from Europe to Africa were grounded.
Similarly, we’ve seen on the European side of this equation a slowness that defies all logic to decree lifesaving, drastic measures. In that hesitant atmosphere there was of course no spontaneous reflex to at least protect the more impoverished countries with relatively few cases, with a pre-emptive protective outward travel ban. Could this not have been something for those Western Secretaries or Ministers of International Development Cooperation to come up with?
The idea that the corona crisis shows how the West engages with knowledges touches upon the issues I came to research and write about here in Johannesburg. I am looking into what follows from the statement that it is both undesirable and impossible to decolonise international development (studies and practices). In my search for answers to pressing societal challenges and what anticolonial solidarity could look like opted for a methodology that I call epistemic Blackness: centring the experiences and insights of people of African descent (in Africa and the diaspora) as a place from which to make sense and know our social world.
Epistemic Blackness is, like all forms of knowledge, an endless source of knowing. In my book I focus on philosophies and practices of dignity, self-determination and society building from Rwanda, Somaliland and (Black) America, alongside the manifold insights from thinkers like Angela Davis, Thomas Sankara, Gloria Wekker, Steve Biko, Françoise Vergès, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Aimé Césaire, Sylvia Wynter, Amilcar Cabral, Hortense Spillers, Walter Rodney, Maboula Soumahoro, or the in Cuba based OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) and the related periodical Tricontinental,…
Especially the last example reminds us that there could well be a marked difference between ‘traditional’ North-South solidarity and solidarity between people who are in the same boat, share a common enemy or history of oppression. Maya Angelou, for instance, writes in her autobiographical novel I know why the caged birds sing: ‘Although there was always generosity in the Negro neighborhood, it was indulged on pain of sacrifice. Whatever was given by Black People to other Blacks was most probably needed as desperately by the donor as by the receiver. A fact which made giving or receiving a rich exchange.’
OSPAAAL also reminds that it is often difficult to separate this type of horizontal solidarity from the political and ideological. As such, throughout the year, Cuba observed official days of solidarity: “Day of solidarity with the Congo, with the Korean people, with the people of Guatemala, of Vietnam, of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, Japan, Angola, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Mozambique, Laos, Palestine, …” The posters advertising these days were invariably in four languages: Arabic, English, French and Spanish. Together, they are a powerful testament of those pages that are so often erased from our globally Westernised history books.
Yet, looking at how Cuba is assisting countries like Italy in these Corona times, show how at the same time there is also room for solidarity otherwise, beyond ideology.
Ultimately this is what epistemic Blackness or anticolonial thought is about: less about skin colour or rigid identities, more about (erased) insights and experiences of people on the receiving end of oppression and poverty. The value of these insights lies in the fact that they are almost never centred in how we understand or address challenges in society.
A choice between life and death
This takes us back to the words of Rolando Vazquez on the geopolitics of knowledge and the pandemic. What are the new forms of solidarity that come to the fore? How can we make sure that the existing, historically rooted inequalities are not reinforced but rather mitigated or rolled back now that everyone is in danger? From (individual) hoarding to newly created neighbourhood committees to assist the vulnerable and seniors next doors – this pandemic will reveal infinite ways of being in solidarity.
The Corona pandemic blows the lid off the idea of Western superiority
The history of International Development Cooperation thus far has taught us that where we choose to get our knowledge from is literally a matter of life and death. Eurocentrism and Whiteness have for centuries decided who gets to live and survive, and whose death we do not even mourn; when we declare states of emergency or disaster, and when not. To reflect on who we consider experts and who not, which knowledges we value, becomes then one of the many ways in which we can break the murderous White/Eurocentric bias of the past and the present.
The Corona pandemic blows the lid off the idea of Western superiority. The situation is too serious to find any joy in this or read some cosmic poetic justice in it. Too many people, everywhere in the world – including those who we know and love – are at risk.
But we can make the conscious decision from who and where we learn. In these special times, I focus on the incredibly rich and varied ways in which people come together – even in times of ‘social distancing’ – to help each other live and survive. I find insights about anticolonial solidarity between the lines of this global calamity – because the individual and local community initiatives painfully and sharply highlight where our structures and national and global systems of governance murderously fall short. Back in the days as much as today.
This op-ed was originally written in Dutch and published on March 23, 2020 by MO* Magazine here.