HomeOpinionThe geopolitics of ignorance: Part 2 …COVID-19 pandemic and global south perspectives

The geopolitics of ignorance: Part 2 …COVID-19 pandemic and global south perspectives

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By Prof Artwell Nhemachena 

This article was originally presented as a lecture at the University of South Africa Decoloniality Summer School on January 15-19 2024 

THE advent of convergent or disruptive technologies and decoloniality has to be future-oriented precisely because the empire itself is shape-shifting even as we are sitting here to discuss matters of coloniality today. 

As a shape-shifter, the empire always designs and invents new alluring ways of colonising others. But it is only through foresight that we can comprehend the new ways through which the empire is retooling its designs. 

Without foresight, we remain doomed to ignorance. In fact, we risk sleepwalking like zombies into new forms of coloniality. Much like scholars speak of diversity, coloniality is also not singular in form – it has its own diversities. 

Decolonial warriors see the world of coloniality in Chinua Achebe’s sense of it being a mask dance which is best viewed and understood by shifting positions. 

In other words, resistance in decoloniality need not only be resistance to the colonial past and present but also to the colonial futures which are emergent in nature. Empire does not only colonise the past and the present; it also colonises the formative futures of others. 

In this regard, subjects on futurology, anticipation studies, expectation studies, foresight studies and horizon scanning are pertinent to decolonising imperial futures which continue to be foisted on the continent of Africa. 

But, as I said above, to decolonise the African futures, it is imperative to decolonise the Western metaphysics of presence, in Derrida’s sense, and the attendant narrow focus on the past and present of African lives. 

The Western metaphysics of presence account for the geopolitics of ignorance wherein African universities have tended to focus on teaching the past and the present in ways that banished African comprehensions about the kinds of plausible future that are worth designing and inventing on the continent. 

Africans need to design and invent their own vaccines and other medicines – but to do so, we need to first of all understand the African histories of designs and inventions. 

Instead of only thinking in terms of geographies of reason, it is imperative to specifically think in terms of geographies of designs and inventions. 

Similarly, instead of asking the question whose knowledge counts, it is necessary to ask the question whose inventions count in the world? 

The problem, of course, is that through biopiracy and patenting, global capital not only manufactures ignorance but it also weaponises ignorance such that some regions of the world suffer spells of ignorance. 

Indeed, much like nuclear bombs, ignorance is a weapon of mass destruction when it is strategically manufactured and cast to enslave the minds of others who are made to believe that they have no alternatives to Western vaccines. 

Billions of minds in the 21st Century have stopped dreaming and inventing because the masters of ignorance have cultured them to only slavishly follow the dreams and inventions of others who make huge profits out of the spells of ignorance they cast in the world. 

The point here is that Africans have had indigenous ways of vaccinating 

themselves against pandemics even before the colonisers arrived on the continent. Yet, many of us have become ignorant of what methods of vaccination or ‘variolation’ were used by precolonial Africans. 

African doctors and nurses need not only know how to inject vaccines into African bodies, but they need to be able to design and invent vaccines. 

The duty of African universities does not necessarily lie in the production of knowledge on how to inject vaccines, but in the production of designs and inventions which can be patented. The world does not actually compete so much in the mere production of knowledge for knowledge’s sake but it competes in designing inventions, including vaccines.

Of course, some among us have hundreds of publications to their credits, yet none of the publications may amount to an invention. Imagine if all of such publications were actual [patentable] inventions and not mere innovations. 

Using foresight studies, the anthropology and sociology of anticipation, I wish to argue that decolonial thinkers need to not only seek to decolonise the past, and the present – but that they must also endeavour to decolonise the future on the basis of imaginaries enabled by developments in technoscience. 

Sadly, many Africans are increasingly outsourcing their thinking to new technologies without caring to ask what happens to the human mind when it becomes cultured to outsourcing its business of thinking. 

Besides, Africans are increasingly cognitively offloading their memories to new technological devices without asking what happens to the human memories when they are cultured to offload their business of retaining archives of human experiences. 

And imperialism is delegating its tasks to algorithms such that we are increasingly witnessing algorithmic racism. 

In a world where Africans are denied intellectual property rights to their indigenous knowledge which is subjected to biopiracy, it is ironic that already there are debates on how to grant intellectual property rights to artificial intelligence (AI). AI will very soon become acclaimed inventors in a world where Africans have no inventions to their credit. 

While geopolitics more conventionally maybe understood in terms of the spatial distribution of bodies that are killable, the geopolitics of ignorance should be understood in terms of cartographies of strategically manufactured ignorance which explains the connections between ignorance and colonised geographies in the world. 

Of course, ignorance differs in its density between different regions of the world, with some occupying regions of high density of ignorance, medium and low densities of ignorance. 

Perhaps, Africans must begin to seriously ask themselves in which densities of ignorance they reside, beyond physical residential ones conventionally categorised as high-density, medium-density and low-density residential areas. 

Residence is not only a matter of geographical or physical locations: it is also a matter of densities of ignorance which may not be visible to the naked eye because one may reside in a low-density geographical area but nevertheless occupy a high density of ignorance and vice-versa. 

The enslaved and colonised peoples have historically occupied regions of high density of ignorance, not because they could not invent and create knowledge but because it was strategic for slaveholders and colonisers to manufacture ignorance in those regions. 

Although slave owners described enslaved Africans as disingenuous, uncreative and ignorant, the same slave owners patented inventions by the enslaved Africans in their own names; arguing that since they owned the slaves, they, therefore, also owned the inventions by the slaves. 

Fast forward to the 21st Century, a map of the countries which produced COVID-19 vaccines, and those which did not, would show what I mean by geographies of ignorance in the world. 

There is a fundamental difference between knowing how to use and knowing how to invent – and it is knowing how to invent which counts in a world of patents and intellectual property rights. 

Knowing only how to use inventions is inconsequential and would fall into the realm of ignorance. 

The offhanded dismissals of African ‘cures’ for COVID-19 indicate what I call the geopolitics of ignorance wherein, for purposes of monopolising profits from vaccines and other medicines, some regions of the world are quick to dismiss alternative medicines and vaccines from other parts of the world. 

Of course, Africans have had the equivalence of vaccines in precolonial times, but in the 21st Century, we are made to believe that there are no African alternatives to vaccines produced in the global north. 

We are told that Western science is always in the service of humanity, in spite of the evidence that such science was also used to eliminate anti-apartheid activists as reflected in the ‘Operation Project Coast’ which was a top secret chemical and biological weapons programme of the 1980s, instituted by the South African apartheid government (about which Gould reports). 

We are unfortunately advised to forget the crimes of Western science – and only remember the good things which such science does for humanity. This is part of what I mean by the geopolitics of ignorance. 

As part of the geopolitics of ignorance, the colonial government in the then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, ordered archeologists to state that the great precolonial architectural feat at Great Zimbabwe was built by Phoenicians rather than by indigenous Zimbabweans. This is what I mean by the geopolitics of ignorance. 

Also, as part of the geopolitics of ignorance, colonialists ignored the feats of irrigation engineering by precolonial Africans, including in Nyanga. 

Instead, colonialists chose to describe the precolonial Africans as illiterate, irrational, illogical, prelogical, as without science, without jurisprudence, without laws, without courts, without history, without civilisations and without notions and practices of ownership of resources. 

Indeed, colonised peoples were also described as indistinct from non-humans, and Western writers, including Pliny, described some of the colonised peoples as having no heads, as having eyes on their chests; others were described as having one big foot, each, which also served as an umbrella when it was hot or raining. 

For Pliny, the hapless creatures which the colonised people were would supposedly simply sit down and raise the big foot for an umbrella when it was too hot or raining. 

Indeed, other Western writers described the colonised as having tails, and as cannibalists who could not distinguish between human flesh and beef, for instance. 

This is part of what I mean by the geopolitics of ignorance when, for strategic reasons, colonialists cast some regions of the world as ignorant. 

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