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

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

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

By Professor Artwell Nhemachena

LADIES and gentlemen, colleagues and friends, it is my honour to stand before you to speak about matters of ignorance in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic which ravaged the continent of Africa, as it did other parts of the world, at a time when we least expected it.

Because Africans have been trained to always expect and wait for imperial ‘saviourism’, they have been condemned to a state of perpetual ‘waithood’ — not only waiting for pandemics and epidemics to strike them but also waiting for saviours from elsewhere to design and invent vaccines to save them.

Those struck by ignorance are condemned to a state of perpetual ‘waithood’. 

In the Shona language, they describe it in terms of the stupidity of ‘garandichauya’ (implying the stupidity of perpetually waiting by a bus stop for someone who has promised, in bad faith, to come back).

Might we think in terms of the coloniality of saviourism and the coloniality of ‘waithood’ in order to begin to think beyond African lamentations around vaccine nationalism, including the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines by some Western countries?

Underlying lamentations about vaccine nationalism lurk the colonial vices of vaccine ‘saviourism’. Africa cannot decolonise by perpetually shopping for saviours.

In order to avoid the pitfall of perpetually waiting for saviours, Africans need to take charge of their future. Indeed, we are being warned that more virulent pandemics and epidemics are coming.

Having been educated in the Western tradition, with narrow emphasis on metaphysics of presence and an emphasis on grasping the past and the present, anticipating futures, including the emergence of pandemics, has become a rarity among many of us who seek to decolonise the past and present even as we are often mortally afflicted by ignorance of African future.

African Renaissance and Africanisation need not be merely about African past and present but they should also be a fortiori about African future as well as designs and inventions that are necessary to realise such futures and to forestall problems that appear on African horizons.

Put differently, many of our universities teach us to understand and handle the past and the present, yet the curricula do not teach us to scan the African horizons for plausible emergent futures so that we can anticipate events and design inventions ahead of time.

Unfortunately, coloniality teaches Africans to believe that there should be no hurry in Africa – and indeed, sadly, I have often heard some fellow Africans reassuringly repeat the phrase: ‘There is no hurry in Africa’.

Yet we all know that COVID-19 vaccines received emergency authorisation because, elsewhere, people realise the imperatives of hurrying where it is necessary to hurry. 

And of course, even the production of COVID-19 vaccines did not take the traditional five -10 years because people elsewhere in the world have been anticipating pandemic and epidemic emergencies even before the world got struck by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contrarily, our African universities are perpetually in the left lane, in slow motion or in a state of ‘waithood’ when it comes to designing inventions that help Africans, in this case to deal with pandemics and epidemics.

Indeed, to ensure that Africans relax in a state of ‘waithood’, coloniality advises Africans not to reinvent the wheel – and such advice is given even as global capital is ironically busy inventing, reinventing and reengineering humans, including through the ongoing emergent 21st Century technoscientific interventions.

In fact, while global capital advises Africans not to reinvent the wheel, the same global capital is reinventing and inventing spouses in the form of humanoid sex robots for humanity. 

The human itself is being reinvented in a world where Africans are ironically denied spaces to invent medicines, including vaccines.

The COVID-19 pandemic should have taught Africans that it is insufficient to decolonise knowledge but that it is imperative to decolonise inventions as well. 

Colonial Africa’s experience confronting the Spanish flu a century ago provides historical lessons for the COVID-19 response today.

To know and to invent are not synonymous and so, apart from knowing about a pandemic or epidemic, one has to proceed to design and invent vaccines.

Indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic, various media were deployed to disseminate knowledge about the pandemic even as global pharmaceutical corporations, through patents, kept the formula for inventing and making the vaccines away from Africans.

Geopolitics of ignorance, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, is not necessarily that Africans did not have knowledge about pandemics but that Africans have manifested ignorance about how to design and invent vaccines.

Because it is inventions, and not mere knowledge, that are patentable and have economic value, I argue here that it is not merely the Africanisation of knowledge in general that is valuable to Africa, rather it is the Africanisation of designs and inventions, in this case of vaccines, which will help African universities and societies to safely delink and deimperialise.

As was evident in the COVID-19 pandemic, Africans could not delink and deimperialise because they were ignorant of how to design and invent their own vaccines. Consequently, Africans were forced into geopolitics of ‘waithood’ wherein they had to wait for vaccines to be designed, invented and produced from elsewhere in the world.

Without its own designs and vaccine inventions, Africa was also vulnerable to geopolitics of philanthropy which is a function of the geopolitics of ignorance on the part of the subjects of philanthropy. 

When one cannot invent, one has to wait for the philanthropist, or otherwise of those who can invent – and this is the problem in Africa where universities impart much knowledge, including indigenous knowledge but without a specific focus on training students on matters of design and inventions.

It would, for instance, be useful for African universities to teach the history of African designs and invention, the sociology and anthropology of African designs and inventions, the economics of African designs and inventions, the philosophy of African designs and inventions as well as the law of African designs and inventions, among other pursuits. 

These would assist Africans decolonise designs and inventions, including those that constitute the power base of global pharmaceutical corporations which, through global ‘corporatocracy’, are dictating what vaccines must get into African bodies.

Africans can have visions, be they about Africanisation, decoloniality, African renaissance, Afrocentricity and what not, but such visions will not take them anywhere if they do not put in place futuristic designs and inventions for the concretion of their visions.

The idea in decoloniality is not only to possess a vision but also to craft relevant designs and inventions to translate the vision into the realm of everyday life relevance. 

The difference between decoloniality and dreaming is that decoloniality requires such designs and inventions in addition to the visions, but in a dream, one may be seized only by visions without designs and inventions. 

In other words, decoloniality must be translational.

Thus, while Europe and North America were already developing, designing and patenting nanotechnologies, including nano medicines and nano vaccines, which have made it possible to produce COVID-19 vaccines in record time, Africa did not have its own designs and inventions in spite of the existence of thousands of universities which are imparting knowledge to students on the continent.

Knowledge has to be relevant not only to geography but to designs and inventions to expectations and anticipations about African futures. 

In this sense, it is necessary to put in place African de-imperial designs and inventions that speak to African futures.

Those who do not pay attention to their future cannot decolonise because colonial politics is not only spatial or geographical in nature; indeed, there is also what is called colonial chronopolitics which refer to how time is colonised such that some people are denied a future.

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