UJ’s Prof Peter Vale on Southern African languages and legacies

​​Prof Peter Vale is the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS) and a Professor of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He penned an opinion piece Southern Africa is hobbled by the language and legacy of its histories which was first published on The Conversation Africa on Sunday, 21 February 2016.

Southern Africa is hobbled by the language and legacy of its histories

One of the many intriguing ideas of the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was this:

the limits of my language means the limits of my world.

Does this explain the failure to see the gathering gloom across southern Africa?

Consider three issues that should be troubling about the region but which remain largely hidden from public sight.

First, agriculture production is in crisis. As the UN World Food Programme recently reported, 49 million people in southern Africa will be affected by the worst and most severe drought in 35 years.

Secondly, a torrent of migration continues: much, but not all, is drawn to South Africa where, as the New York Times recently claimed, there may be 5 million migrants.

Thirdly, political instability is pervasive. Less obvious instances of this are Swaziland where domestic politics, for all the claims to Swazi exceptionalism, remains feudal. In nearby Lesotho the struggle for scarce resources has brought murder to the very streets of the capital.

Diplomatically, these places are called “trouble spots”, but it is more difficult to choose a euphemism when talking about Zimbabwe. On any political (let alone, actuarial) chart that country’s president – now in the 92nd year of his life – should be discussed in the past tense. And, if this opinion is judged to be too hard on a man who was once regarded as a liberation hero, it needs to be pointed out that diplomats in Harare openly speak nowadays of the “post-Mugabe era”.

Three inter-linked languages

Invariably these, and other, challenges to regional order are addressed by three inter-linked languages – each has differing priorities while each relies on the same analytical categories.

These have their origins in the late-19th Century capture of the region’s politics by a language which aimed to secure the primacy of sovereign-centered states. Its primary goal was not to promote nationalism – this was to come later – but to advance the cause of British imperialism.

The fact that sovereign-centered borders remain the primary categories in ordering the region is testimony to the power of this language. And this points to one of history’s many ironies: the intense nationalism of the liberation movement, if anything, reinforced the hold of colonial mapping.

As the call for liberation deepened, southern Africa (and much the rest of the world) was seized by the language of the Cold War. Here, a simple binary thinking – encouraged by irrational fear of global destruction – turned the region into a mirror of the global divide. The east/west divide became a code for the politics between black-ruled states and the residue of colonial thinking.

At the Century’s end, a new language arose. This promoted the market: it argued that the purpose of the sovereign state was to service global capital in the belief that economic growth will trickle down to the benefit of all.

Here, too, historical irony was at work – the region’s sovereign states mattered, but only because markets matter more!

Carried by nice-sounding words – accountability, governance, rights-based regimes and the like – the force of market-centered language trumped an idea that, perhaps, was ripe to rethink the analytical categories that had organised the region for a century and more.

But this language effectively paralysed regional multilateralism that had promised growth, protection of rights and security.

There is no better example of this paralysis than the 2011 decision by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state to disband the SADC Tribunal – effectively a regional court. This happened after the judges, drawn from the region, held that Mugabe’s land seizures violated the rule of law.

As was pointed out at the time, its disbandment reflected SADC’s priorities – the subordination of new understandings of regional order and multilateralism to the sovereign interests of individual states.

The need to move beyond sovereign-centered grammar

This example shows that changing the sovereign-centered grammar of southern Africa – and the resulting politics – will not be an easy task.

But can we speak about the region in a different way? Will this make a difference?

The drought, especially, suggests that the region’s lived reality is increasingly at some distance from the categories used to explain it. Moreover, as a flight to Maputo recently reminded me, places which are often thought to be at the edges of the region are only a heartbeat away from places that are said to be at region’s centre.

Very often this inter-connectedness and the region’s seeming vulnerability give rise to security fears. Often, too, these are constructed by the categories which are readily at hand.

These must, however, be recognised for what they are – burdens of a sagging language.

To meet southern Africa’s mounting challenges requires not more of the sovereign sameness, persistence with the old categories, but an imagining of a regional future that looks beyond the familiar, the routine, the everyday. In short, it requires a new language.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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