Response to Richard Pithouse

Writer: Athi Mongezeleli Joja

Image: Africa Research Institute

In a recent Mail & Guardian Richard Pithouse published another of his dishonest articles titled, The ANC is Misusing the Land Question. Pithouse prefaces his thesis by way of a sequencing of historical events that trace collective resistances against the commodification and dispossession of land. Perhaps his voyage from antiquity to the present isn’t only to refresh our memory of the historical longue duree of the struggle against privatisation of public and conquered land but also to pepper his annotations with a dash of scholarly vigour it deserves. This kaleidoscopic choice of events typically begins with running commentaries on the histories of the mother countries and towards the end somewhat climaxes, as always is the case, with the classical discourse on how in Africa these dreams explode into nocturnal monstrosities. Suppose Pithouse’s earnest inclination is to compose a trace of shared struggles and that it is inconsequential that his departure point is the colonial centre, the West. In fact, through this universalist reach, a systematic mission of elisions and falsifications is under way – a deadly ideology of conquest hiding behind a semi-conscientious objection.

If, as the decolonialists say, we begin to think from where we are, then Pithouse’s locus of enunciation is unambiguously clear. But again, as history tells us, the European prosthetic gods through their exercise of racist universality rendered “the world” as its sole property. It is not just the beginning, but also the ending. From this view, it is not hard to see why Pithouse’s historiographic portrayal defiantly flattens world histories into a linear narrative and agreeable conclusions. It should indeed astonish you, how in a single broad stroke, this man seamlessly treks from British Civil Wars to Haiti (1804) and Kenya (1950s) with shocking ease and arrogance of a universalist stricto sensu. And when he arrives at this tremoring tip, his cane lunges into the air, resuming his demeanour as the heir to the old clerical disciplinarians.

First, for Pithouse there seems to be a rupturous discontinuity between trajectories of Haiti’s and Kenya’s especially and the call for “expropriation of land without compensation” that President Jacob Zuma and his faction in the ANC unwaveringly support. Secondly, dragging Haiti and Kenya, whose rallying cry was indeed “land or death”, the Professor weaves unbridled and discombobulated theses of lies – aimed at rubbishing the call – were our liberal constitutionalism and democracy get awkwardly turned into the teleological end of these rebellions. Thereby in a stroke of uncritical generality implying that their fight for national sovereignty and freedom, finds its expressions away from the call for expropriation. In his own words Pithouse says: “In a noxious ideological move, the ANC’s failure to address the land question has frequently been misrepresented as consequent to the Constitution and popular struggles as consequent to white or foreign plots.” After pointing out this problematic, Pithouse laments further that therefore there’s very “little chance that land will be allocated on the basis of a democratic and social logic.” One is tempted to respond that if by “democracy and social logic” Pithouse refers to the coercive constitutionalist frame, so be it.

The magnanimous portioning of distortions cannot simply be located in the professor’s streamlined and linear sequencing of events, in which Europe and Africa are treated quite flatly and bereft of nuance. One would even say, cut. Rather, it is also linked to how Pithouse’s project is deeply and unrepentantly consistent with the colonialist logic that subtends the racist constitution which bolsters white privileges predicated on black dispossession. The fact that Pithouse and former apartheid president PW de Klerk, sanctimoniously exonerate the constitution in the persistent protection of stolen land, isn’t accidental. That is, not only does he clandestinely reveres the legislation of plunder, he also pardons the extent to which it circumvents justice. In this way Pithouse propagates the fiction that the constitution of De Klerk makes provision for radical redistribution of the conquered masses of black people. The problem isn’t structural, but lack of the efficiency in the part of the ruling party.

In the same breath, one needs not to rehash the tired argument about how the ANC negotiated and reconciled us blacks into the racist status quo here. No abstraction needs to be concocted as the last 23 years have shown where the loyalties of the ANC lay, despite the plethora of “human” rights it supposedly negotiated for. Bargaining with our land, was equally dehumanizing as it was public execution of black souls. More than the ANC’s cowardice, exists in this fraudulent pamphlet of death the persistence of an undead colonial ethic, felt in the Cape and in Marikana – cases Pithouse conspicuously bypassed. If anything, the compromise enshrined in the constitution is an extension of the Freedom Charter written by white leftists, which ensured that traces of their violent conquest of land were eviscerated.

The logic of our liberal constitutionality frames post 1994 subjectivity and sanctifies its racist structure of unperturbed imperialism. This self-denying terror, which Pithouse consecrates, hides itself in racist humanism and its brittle rights. With this level of intellectual dishonesty, Pithouse not only wields his cane to reconstruct histories, which is also to say erase black histories as Hegel did. Consequent to his ideological propensity, much like the capitalist, colonialist and missionaries who dispossessed and commercialised black lands for personal (re white) gain, Pithouse reaches into the archive with a machete and butchers black histories in service of white imperialism. Consider his inclusion of Haiti and Kenya into this narrative, and how these obvious stories of black radical resistance have been destroyed, emptied out, are here returned to blacks as alibis to reinforce white supremacy. Of course, to make his case of deliberate confusion he refers to the revolution’s most palatable leader, Toussaint Louverture, citing a letter he wrote in 1797 that slave relations should be retained. In trying to construct this palpable invention, Pithouse tactically refrains from mentioning Dessalines, the leader who in the wake of 1804 takes over and corrects Louverture’s blunders, and subsequently radicalises the Haitian revolution. Beginning with destroying the liberal universalist posture of his predecessor, Dessalines’ Declaration of Independence (1804) unambiguously condemned what today we’ll call the liberal constitutionalist logic which prides itself of putting a bandage over a festering wound of slavery. Dessalines undermined the “democracy,” Pithouse hides valorises, when his Constitution in 1805 stated that only Haitians had right to land.

Same with the Mau Mau rebels of the 1950s led by Dedan Kimathi, whose army of warriors with their rusty machetes left behind only silent screams of their oppressors. No amount of white’s hold to title deeds acquired through terror, perturbed them. After all, weren’t colonialist in Kenya calling Kimathi a tyrant? So, its baffling why these struggles become part of Pithouse’s list, if not for unscrupulous reasons.

Thus, the notion of returning of and to the land is a common reference amongst black nationalists of various persuasions. Therefore, there can hardly be a “misuse” of the land question which begins by stating that land must be returned without paying for it. More so from a critic whose leanings are obviously ideologically consistent with the insistence of ensuring things don’t change. If there’s a misuse, not only in an empty rhetorical sense but also in real ownership terms, it lies within the constitution’s own retention of colonial theft. Lest we forget, Pithouse has interesting proclivities of a slave catcher; channelling blacks to the racist DA and then calls it, democracy. This use of radical black theory for white supremacist ends needs to be properly scrutinised for the carnage that it organizes with impunity. Indeed, to paraphrase Aime Cesaire’s well known dictum – if you scratch a little bit on the skin surface of every benevolent and radical white intellectual you will always find the resilient layer of a neatly concealed fascist.

Whether Zuma’s faction might be simply be pulling a huge joke on us about the land question and radical transformation, it is neither here nor there. What is rather salient and indeed incumbent upon black people, is to take that rhetoric as seriously as possible by making infinite and impossible demands for the return of the land. That whites like Pithouse feel perturbed by this turn of phrase and the threat of it becoming real, is more motivation. Land or death. We will win!


Athi Mongezeleli Joja is an art critic.


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