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Prof Zondi Inaugural Lecture: Amilcar Cabral and Theory as a Weapon of the Oppressed
25 April 2018

Amilcar Cabral and Theory as a Weapon of the Oppressed

An Inaugural Lecture, 21 April 2018

Siphamandla Zondi, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria


Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Prof Duncan

Dean of the faculty of humanities, Prof Vasu Reddy and the entire deanery of the faculty to watch

HoDs present Colleagues and friends


An inaugural lecture is a moment for reflection on what one might contribute to the growing scholarship and to charting new intellectual territories in the time and space that it is given.

It is also a moment to accept the honour of being appointed into the faculty for purposes of building new and useful knowledge, mentoring a new class of thought leaders and sculpturing a critically empowered citizenry.

I am therefore grateful to the university and faculty leadership for this opportunity.

Now, there is an saying of the Kikuyu people of east Africa that goes: “They who adorn themselves, know that they are about to dance.” Yes, indeed I am adorned not in this material, but in thoughts and utopia, in questions and considered hopes, in aspirations and concerns for the purpose of adding my step to the dance that all of you make in the process of building a new better liveable society.

Our shared concern is, I know it should be, how to make this world human, fit for humans to thrive, and suitable for human exploits. In Malawi, the old have long been saying: “Take care of the earth, not because it was handed down to you by your grandparents, but because it was lent to you by your great grandchildren”. Yes, our duty is to leave this world with better ideas and better circumstances than we found, so that the future humans can attain better lives.

So, let me dance for, as the Igbo of Nigeria say, “They who are carried on the back of others, shall not know how long the journey to the town is.” Let me take my steps in the dance with destiny for me as part of people for whom to dance was an act of resistance in a world where black beauty, black agency, and even to be black is a problem, as WEB du Bois puts it in his one-century old Souls of Black Folks book. Let me dance on behalf of those for whom to dance is to demand back their claim to humanity, is to reclaim their ontological density, against centuries of muting, denigration and condemnation.

I cannot but wish to be as I do the dancing with the destiny long buried below the rubble of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, neocolonialism, and globalization that modernity built. For, the Nilotic Turkana people remind me daily that “However long a log of wood stays under water, it just does not become a crocodile.”

Let me dance here. I wish to dance right here within a university that for many I dance with resembles a prison without high-tech security mechanisms, deep- seated fear of crossing lines, more fear of authority than love for society and the academic project, more scorn for leadership than admiration for the vision of the future, more fear of the black body as a violent type than an embrace of the precious opportunity of being in Africa. I dance carefully knowing as many of my people do daily here of the thorns of being watch as if a monkey in the cage, watched carefully behind bars we exit in relief and enter with trepidation.

I speak with a heavy heart for it is hard to be black, conscious and belong to a Westernized untransformed university. So, speak not as I but as a “we” my community, the world that shapes me in the midst of the world that shames my people, for we have to say yes, there are moments when we can speak frankly and honestly in spite of the danger of such a step in this place. It requires one to be in a transe of a sort so as to not feel the thorns all over the place; it needs skills of a Mandiko acrobatic dancer who prances around sharp stones on the dance floor as if just a dance formation.

If I were Professor Sylvia Wynter or black boys in the US, killed for being black, I would say: University of Pretoria, I can’t breathe! How do I dance artistically when in a proverbial prison where it is difficult even to have a seminar on a black issue?

I the drums of a South Africa that is not transformed hurt my dance formation. The South Africa that is out of step with age old dream of freedom, liberation and emancipation, a South Africa that is but a mere version of an expanded apartheid and colonialism rather than the decommissioning of them. A South Africa where mere changes of power every five years (democrazy) has become a substitute for the birth of a new human, a new society, a new world that liberation meant.

Let me dance, all the same. If I misstep, please understand. Let me dance lest you should say as the people of northern Mozambique often say: They who cannot dance say that the dance floor is thorny.

Let me dance. I will begin with my argument…


This lecture seeks to contribute to efforts to decolonize the world, its knowledge, power and being. A critical part of this is to break bread with the neglected and silenced revolutionary and radical thought born of the terrible predicament that the south faces as manifest in the on-going patterns of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment as well as the concentration of global power in the North. This is because we must move from demanding decolonial paradigms shifts to showing how we transcend epistemic imperialism by demonstrating the value of thought outside Eurocentrism. In this case, we look closely at the thinking of the late revolutionary thinker and activist in mid-20th century Guinea-Bissau because he sought very early in the independence period to call attention to the need to liberate not just the concepts of political and economic power that were the basis for subjugation (imperialism), but also cultural and mental realities that helped maintain the scandal of coloniality on a world scale to this day as well. This lecture distills from Cabral's Weapon of Theory essay three critical Afro-decolonial theoretical principles for use in understanding the political predicament in Africa and the south today.

The concept of predicament is commonly used to refer to a plethora of problems and multidimensional challenges facing African countries. The concept suggests that while these challenges can be named in their discrete ways, in many respects they are a set of interrelated problems. The predicament, we refer to, manifests as poverty, socioeconomic and cultural inequality, underdevelopment, unemployment, violence and wars, corruption and abuse of political power, ecological degradation, crass materialism, personalization of politics, dictatorship and autocracy, social dissonance, exclusion and marginalization, and so forth. It manifests in the image of Africa as a continent synonymous with failure, despair, disintegration and anguish, remembering how European philosophy and theory is implicated in the creation of the myth of Africa as a dark continent and how this translated to people without souls, lands without people (empty lands), nations without culture/civilization. It manifests in the most cruel type of racism which is reserved for people of African descent everywhere in the world. It manifests in a sense of damnation, the condemnation of Africans and people of African descent into hellish a zone of nonbeing.

In a 1972 series of lectures, the eminent Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui (1979) uses the concept of ‘the African condition’ in the sense the word condition is used in the medical domain, pointing us to this predicament we refer to above. In the first lecture, he explains this point this way:

Let us assume Africa has come to my clinic for varied medical tests on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Europe’s rape of her body and her possessions. I have therefore called this series of lectures The African Condition for two major reasons. One is diagnostic. To some extent this series is about Africa’s aches and pains: what is Africa’s state of health after 100 years of intense interaction with Europe? I also chose the title because it echoed the philosophical phrase “human condition”. Africa is in part a mirror of the human condition. But in a mirror the left hand becomes the right hand and vice versa. The mirror is both a reflection of reality and its distortion. The mirror is a paradox.

The predicament is complex, multifaceted and deeply akin to a medical condition and also mirrors the human condition. It is a paradox in the sense that it both reflects and distorts the reality. This is an important point theoretically because it removes the veneer of simplification when deploying the concepts, predicament and condition. It is not a metaphor of simple extrapolation and similitudes, but a concept that captures the complexity of the predicament. Secondly, all the problems named earlier are not the condition but the aches and pains as symptoms of deeper predicament lying deeper underneath. They manifest a fundamental condition that must be treated if Africa is to return to full normality (normalcy) in the family of peoples and continents of the world.

The idea is diagnostic in methodological terms in the sense that it seeks to understand what lies behind manifested problems or what is in essence the actual nature of the problems. It is an invitation to cast a penetrating examination into the problems in order to understand them deeply. It is similar to what Aime Cessaire (1972) suggests in plotting a way to understand colonialism, its impact and lasting legacy on societies in the global south. In his essay, ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, Cessaire invites us to understand phenomena through a critically diagnostic methodological framework built around asking a specifically profound question about foundations and true essence of phenomena. The understanding that Cessaire establishes in respect of colonialism is an outcome of a deeply critical methodological posture of his study, one that takes us to the foundational logics of colonialism in all its manifestations and legacies. I regard his understanding as profound because it reveals something foundational about the problem of colonialism.

With specific reference to the phenomenon he was investigating, which is colonialism broadly, he posed a deeply critical methodological question in the following way: what fundamentally is the problem with colonialism? It is a question that seeks to understand the essentials of the problem at hand, in this case colonialism. This is different, for example, from a common research question: what is the problem with colonialism and its aftermath, what problems has colonialism caused, what benefit or costs it constitutes and so forth. These questions that we have commonly asked as scholars, observers and activists alike have also got us far down the line of understanding colonialism. They have helped us arrive at insights on how colonialism led to dispossession and oppression, to acculturation, capitalism and socio-economic inequality and other structural deficits bedeviling our legally independent nations today. We have come to understand colonialism as a crime and an injustice. Colonialism produced a colonial education, health, spatial development, infrastructural development marked by unequal patterns in people’s access to services. All these are important insights. Weak states, poorly prepared elites, terrible terms of integration into the world order and others have also come out asking “what is the problem with colonialism?”. These insights explain much about the fact that the present is imprisoned and the future is haunted by failures.

But what Cessaire (1972) suggests as a methodological question takes us a lot further and deeper into our insights on a phenomenon, which in our case is the African predicament. He posed the question that is about the problem at the foundations of problems of colonialism, the mother of problems, the fundamentals of the issue, the condition behind the pains and aches on Africa’s body. It suggests that if understood deeply the essence of colonialism is beyond what it manifests itself as. It is accepted that the manifestation of the problem mentioned above can be understood without the problem behind them being understood, leading to problem- solving tendencies in mainstream theory (such as liberalism, constructivism and so forth). These theories seek to understand and fix the manifested problems without contemplating re-imagining the world and therefore decommissioning the world in which the predicament is born.

If we improvise the specific question, it would be phrased as follows: what fundamentally is the problem of/with governance in this or that area of Africa, what fundamentally is the problem with feminization of poverty in Africa, what fundamentally is the problem with Africa’s marginalization in world trade and investment, what fundamentally is racism and tribalism today, what fundamentally is African integration and so forth. What fundamentally leads to personalization of leadership and the vanished promise of democracy? Why fundamentally has democracy not led to development? Why has development not led to demoracracy in spite of all theorizing that promise an end of history?

In our case, our concern is the African predicament that has persisted now for just over five decades, manifesting in state failure, state alienation, failure of national development, failure of social compacts, inequality and poverty. Therefore, our longstanding question is what fundamentally is the African predicament because this leads us to understand how it came about, how it is scafolded and how it is maintained and perpetuated. We are concerned with understanding the foundations of our problem because such understanding is necessary for a radical departure, for fundamental transformation of society to happen. The African predicament is the pervasive problem that traps Africa in a series of unending problems. It is in the fact that there was independence, democracy and liberalization of economy achieved led lead to shattered expectations and deferred dreams. It is the fact that this continent seems just not to achieve its liberation and freedom, manifesting in full experience of development, economic prosperity and enduring stability and security. It is that Africa simply just can’t break out of vicious cycles of difficulties and problems.

Amilcar Cabral and Radical Thought-leadership

In search for answers to this fundamental question, this paper engages insights in the work of Africa’s most profound radical thought-leader, Amilcar Cabral. Cabral epitomizes thought leadership in the postcolonial South in that he combines both the commitment to thinking or theorizing change in society and putting into practice though activities his thoughts on radical transformation. He was both a theorist for the radical struggle for freedom of the oppressed and an activist engaged in street actions to bring about freedom. In this way, he also interweaves his personal politics (biopolitcs) and the geopolitics of knowledge. He combines value and significance of practical activism in the form of political organization and mobilization, on the one hand, and the use of thought that is designed to challenge the conceptual basis of the oppressive system.

This is consistent with anti-colonial/anti-capitalist resistance throughout the South. In a magisterial work entitled Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott (1985) explains how peasants in Asia undertake insurrections, revolutions and rebellions in a manner that statistics and mainstream literature on uprisings conceals rather than reveals.

Without stating it as such, but clearly this work addresses itself to the question: what fundamentally is the role of the peasant in revolutions credited to working and asset owning revolutionary cohorts of peoples? Scott’s concern is that peasants come into the picture in the literature when they do something drastic and menacing. They appear only as anonymous crowds behind often elite leaders to whom the successes of struggles are ascribed. Hidden behind the fetish for top leaders, formal organizations, banners and formal documents, peasants are shown in this book to have been the real force in breaking the back of colonialism and colonial capitalism, and have become able agents of the struggle against neoliberal order (Scott 1985: xv).

Scott’s work discloses just why it is important to understand these lowly actors in history as thinking, social beings with that double capacity in their agency: to think/theorize and to do/ practice. Escalating their doing is difficult because the agency of the oppressed is hidden by complex technologies of the oppressor including erasing them out of the story. The uncovering of their thoughts as weapons in their struggle is much more complex given that even their mundane acts of resistance are either hidden, erased or minimized in the record. But it is clear from this and other works (for example, Nzongola-Ntalanja 1987). On the basis of insights from extensive ethnographic study of peasants and their resistance, Scott alerts us to the interface between actions and intentions; the consciousness that gives birth to new thoughts and actions, a cycle of action and counter-action between thought and action and between theory and practice. In this, the difficulty is that the relationship between thought and behavior or conduct is not a simple linear cause-effect binary, but rather a complex multi-directional relationship. Quite often intentions and thoughts are not achievable and the actors adjust them in the course of action, thus complicating the theory-action relationship. Therefore, circumstances, the conditions of the struggle, impinge in the relationship between thought and action, theory and practice in the course of struggles of the oppressed. In the end, Scott (1985) discovered just how critical this realm of consciousness and theory is as the basis for the formation of solidarity among actors in resistance, the choices they share, the outlook they have even before and irrespective of their practical actions. He concludes, “How, finally, can understand everyday forms of resistance without reference to the intentions, ideas, and language of those human beings who practice it?” (Scott 1985:38). In this sense, theory becomes a vital weapon of the oppressed alongside practices our attention is so easily drawn to. The practical is an important focus in the effort to shift and move paradigms about knowing and practices. The theoretical realm is also critically important in this effort to alter the geography of reason so that we see the conditions we study more authentically and justly being closer to how those involved in such conditions might see them.

It then arises from this discussion that in the process of decolonizing thought we also change the methodological questions that frame our thought and search for meaning from what people did to what fundamentally they did during resistance. This compels us to understand their consciousness acquired as basis of the struggle and/or as an outcome of the same, how this related to what they did and did not do and complicated dynamics that explain such a relationship. The assumption that theory leads to action is challenged by the very fact that the thinkers-activists behind many of our struggles needed both simultaneously, namely theory that preceded conduct and conduct that leads to theory in a complex interface. This is why in this paper, we seek to understand how Cabral formed his theoretical theses, as part of understanding how the thought-leaders or thinkers-cum-activists form their consciousness as a source of their conduct and as a repertoire of their experimental actions. Much has been missed due to our failure to think through this theoretical and methodological conundrum. We are concerned with the construction of theory in Cabral’s life as a process to be likened to a soldier preparing their spears and shields for their struggle to be free. This requires that we focus on the social factors/forces of the subject’s position in society because social being conditions social consciousness. There is only a limited space to do this in this paper but also because we intend to present a few theoretical principles that Cabral constructed to guide and rationalize his attitude to activist conduct.

Born on 12 September 1924 in Bafata, a small town in Guinea-Bissau, Amilcar Lopes da Costa Cabral became one of the foremost leaders and thinkers in a global anti-colonial struggle. He thus also became a thought leader on fundamental revolutionary change in modern/colonial world society. He is known for founding and leading the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), as an independence movement that led the struggles of the peoples of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde to their independence in 1974 after liberating various areas in these two colonized territories over a period since 1963. The organization used under his leadership a combination of mass mobilization against Portuguese colonialism and structured political and military campaigns to bring down the colonial administration t. However he would not live to see this moment of victory in the independence struggle because the Portuguese intelligent agents worked with disgruntled PAIGC members to abduct him on 20 January 1973, later fatally shooting him in the hope that this would discourage the liberation movement that had already liberated two thirds of the territory. But his death inspired an even more gallant and steadfast battle that eventually led to independence a year later.

By the time Cabral was killed, his influence in gallant efforts of the mass movement he led, theoretical insights he generated and ideological innovation had extended well beyond Guinea and Cape Verde, even beyond Lusophone parts of Africa, to the whole of Africa and the global south generally. He had already influenced thinking and the strategies of others engaged in struggles for freedom. He had the honour of being a household name in the world but like Mandela the terrorist a problem, a Communist, a trouble maker and perhaps the biggest threat to Portugal’s role as an imperialist and colonial force in world being shaken by liberation struggles throughout the south as well as internal contradictions within the world system, as evidenced by the 1973 energy crisis and its ramifications. It is in this context that he comes to be regarded as a key figure in the building of the tricontinental movement that lead freedom campaigns in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, and in Asia. This is a movement that needed careful thought to lead and to sustain. It needed ideological clarity and theoretical outlines to enable these various contexts and diverse peoples to find common ground for their struggles (Nzongola-Ntalanja and Lee 1997).

This is the period when the proverbial winds of change forced the colonial system to retreat, rethink or to make concessions to the forces of anti -colonial revolutions. Far from the ideal for which freedom movements existed, yet these changes were much more profound than it may be thought. Anywhere in manifested itself, the colonial project could not be sustained on the basis it was conceived. Crude colonial power could no longer be applied without consequences for big colonial empires. The colonial as originally conceived had become bankrupt just as the colonial economic enterprises had experienced financial bankruptcy in many cases. The moral bankruptcy of the idea of colonialism was obvious. These changes thrust the global south into the centre of world affairs in ways not foreseen. This demanded innovative thinking and effective cooperation within the south. The need for fresh versions of revolutionary thinking to support action in the context of major changes was felt. The internal dynamics and externalities both called for new thinking about the moment and its implications. It was in this political ferment that the likes of Amilcar Cabral, Sekou Toure, Thomas Sankara, Aime Cessaire and Frantz Fanon emerged as the voices of liberation.

It was at a tricontinental conference in Havana, Cuba, in 1966 that Cabral delivered his groundbreaking essay entitled The Weapon of Theory. It was in the gathering of liberation and mass movements from the three continents of the south that Cabral so accessibly outlined what were shared challenges and imperatives facing all of them. These came to constitute the very conceptual glue that held together the tricontinental solidarity movement and by extension the radical posture of the global south wherever it remains to this day. It is very important to note that though Cabral does not say much about it, the methodological option of theory as a weapon for revolutionary thought by the subaltern is insightful and potentially groundbreaking for those seeking ways to understand the predicament of the South anew. This is so in two ways, at least. The first is to rescue thought leadership from the moribund debate about theory and action dichotomy by placing the two on the same plain as mutually enriching weapons of revolutionary thought leadership. Secondly, it also helps us transcend in this regard the second false dichotomy between a theorizing elite and acting ordinary people expected to translate that theorizing into action. In this way, Cabral invites us to contemplate theory not as a conception of weapons of struggle but as weapon and conception at the same time. In this sense, the theory is as fundamental to the fight for the just cause of freedom then and now as are actions we take concomitantly. The actions we take are an expression of theory and vice versa, and therefore none between institutional leaders and the rest of the cadreship of institution are just involved in theory or just action alone.

The rebirth of the human

So, in Cabral’s comment on the Cuban revolution and its significance, two things are worth underlining. The first is that he speaks about that revolution as the creation of actions taken, especially the physical uprising in 1959 but also as the thought that formed part of that action. The second is that as a result this revolution sought not just to install a new government and new economic programmes, but more fundamentally “a New Man, fully conscious of his nation, continental and international rights and duties”. Therefore, the revolution is about a new life and a new man to bring about and live such a life. This idea of a new man presupposes a human that has a new consciousness, a new embrace of human dignity and rights, and new commitment to fulfill duties humans have towards each other and the earth. The human conceived this way is intended to challenge in fundamental ways the conception of the human into beings with rights and privileges and non-beings with some rights and lots of duties in colonial humanism. It thus undermines the very ontological logic that is the basis of Euromodernity as a whole.

It is a common feature of rebellious thought from the South and Africa in particular to consider the problem we face today to be an outcome of the impact of the colonial process upon the very idea of being/doing human. This idea that beyond the fragmentation of the territory, the division of the nation and the bastardization of the economy, the colonial project also dehumanized both the colonizer and the colonized in ways yet to be fully eradicated to this day. For the colonizer to drive the transformations of society the way the western man did until the end of colonial administration, he needed a transformation of his own being from being a man into being an imperial man, a particular kind of human being suitable for the cruel task of conquering, dominating, suppressing, disparaging, dehumanizing and deceiving other beings outside his “race”. Cessaire (1985) says that colonization decivilized the colonizer; it degraded him to buried instincts of violence, race hatred, and cruelty. It damaged the human being that exalted himself into an imperial man with authority over other human beings in far off lands.

The actions of this corrupted human being would produce others as corrupted differently, being dehumanized into sub-beings that are dispensable, disposable and barely living. It is now trite to state that the colonial project was as much about territorial conquest and economic exploitation as it was about denuding the colonized of their ontological density, calling into question their very claim to humanity. It was to reduce them from human beings into things, into native, kaffirs, coolies and slaves. The thingification of the colonized gave colonialism its genocidal character.

With a political consciousness born of the same circumstances as Cabral, Sylvia Wynter (1976) thinks extensively about how the transformation of the modern European into an imperial man is at the heart of modernity’s problems and the problems it created for the subaltern of the world the imperial man created. This took in a series of periods that represented the mutation of a socio-economic vision of the world. In the first one, the European man became a Christian man. “On the chain of being”, writes Wynter (1976:82), “he stood between the angels on the one hand and the animals on the other.” In this chain of being, the man can make themselves whatever they wish, either high as angels or as low as beasts. Human order resembled the natural work the pope, the king, the nobles and the rest of the people in a stable pattern, with the earth as the centre of universe.

But with the “discovery” of the so-called new world that the European man would come to control lock, stock and barrel, there was what Wynter (1976) calls retotalisation in which the Christian man became a western man ruling over the earth not via religious theology but secular ideology and theory. Western man became the norm of the man, the man implied in the human story, in theology and in science and theory. The rest of the people were transformed into natives, the lowly other close to beasts than angels. Wynter (1976) points out that in the European socio-cosmic vision of world social order continued to resemble the natural order but in a transformed fashion so that just as the sun was recognized as the centre of the natural order, the West paralleled this centre on earth. Thus, just as the non-Western lands became the frontier, jungle and nature, the non-Western man became a savage, the heathen, a monster and a cannibal of the ethnos in this vision and theory of the world. So, “In creating themselves as the norm of men, the Western bourgoisie created the idea of the Primitive... they created the idea of their own negation.” (Wynter 1976: 83). This created a situation where the native existed as a problem as WEB du Bois (1903) formulated this in Souls of Black Folk, it is an existential conundrum in and of itself. It appears as a disaster because it is supposed to be hidden in plain sight, to be a nonentity a la Frantz Fanon (Gordon 2007).

It is this invention of the non-western man as a savage native, a monster black, and a despised heathen that needs to be undone or destroyed in the process of redeeming the world from the socio-cosmic vision of death, the secular ideology and theory of death by which the non-western man was reduced into things and their lands into property under the total control of the western man. Ending this coloniality of being leads to the birth of a new man, “fully conscious of his National, continental and international rights and duties” as Cabral put it. Wynter referred to the creation of a new human through the decommissioning of the super-human and his invented other. It is about the reincarnation of the man. Such is essential for the renaissance of societies robbed of their value and dignity.

Shouting in Burning Houses.

Secondly, Amilcar Cabral’s scientific observation of struggles and revolutions led him to a simple but profound observation: namely, there are two zones in every struggle- the struggle against the enemy outside (struggle one) and the struggle against what lies within (Struggle two). There is a struggle aimed at, preoccupied with, seeking to dethrone, seeking to weaken and bring to its knees, the enemy outside, the system out there. This struggle is much written about and discussed. A vast literature at the time had been generated on the nature of this enemy (imperialism) and its manifestation, the conduct and behaviour of the enemy, its normative make-up, its strengths and weaknesses. Material had been written on this basis about how to defeat this enemy in different circumstances, how to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses and how to mitigate its strengths. The enemy is clearly identifiable because it is out there and is met at places of encounters, the frontiers of the struggle. This struggle comes up against challenges related to the unequal balance of power, relative strengths and weakness between the enemy and the agents of the revolution, international environment and alliances that are formed by the enemy side. As Cabral (1966) says, this is a struggle that was significantly discussed in gathering, written about in the literature and heavily in the minds of activists, leaders and strategists. Even the programme of the Tricontinental Conference was heavily dominated by aspects of the struggle I. This struggle is explicit. In the case of Guinea, the option that was to pick arms and engage in an armed struggle that Portuguese control to its knees.

But the second struggle is much more complex and difficult to fight because the enemy is not out there but in here also. Whatever its origins and whatever the varied influences that shape it, in Cabral’s terms, this enemy is internalised. This is the struggle that Cabral suggests is “fundamental” though not explicit. “We refer here,” he said, “to the struggle against our own weaknesses,” says Cabral (1966: n.p.). He went on to propose the empirical basis for his observation that leads to this idea as follows: “...our experience has shown us that in the general framework of daily struggle this battle against ourselves... is the most difficult of all, whether for the present or the future of our peoples.” Because the agents of the struggle are fighting for a better future, if they do not win this struggle II, they risk keeping it alive to the point where it sabotages the futures that get shaped from time to time. The agents of the struggle became the carriers of the enemy that sabotages the objectives of the struggle. This conjures up a picture of a bewitched person who is focused on battling the external challenges and only to find that the victory against them turns out to be half-a-victory because the struggle II within remains unwaged or not won.

Cabral goes into indigenous wisdom to draw from it a proverb that represents his theoretical claim. “When your house is burning, it’s no use banging the tom-toms.” The metaphor of a burning house in this context is profound for it suggests that a fundamental weakness in all struggles for freedom is that they have been waged on burning houses. We have been shouting down imperialism in all its manifestations through the windows of a burning house. We have waged armed struggles and international isolation of the enemy in struggle I while sitting in burning houses. We have hoped and prayed for a new society where the freedom of the human is guaranteed and cherished while looking through the cracks of a burning house’s door. The metaphor of a burning house suggests suffocating circumstances that are systemic, the erosion of the capacity to fight, and the dissipation of the energy for the struggle.

Of locality and elaboration: your hot waters must cook your rice

The third principle in theory as a weapon is that of locality as the essence of initiative, action and conduct. It is the principle that emphasizes the importance of the context in giving essence to the character and nature of a thing. Though of potentially universal relevance and application, the phenomenon in the course of social-political action gains its essential significance through local elaboration. All socio-political phenomena needed to have their essence expressed through localization even when they are similar in different contexts and cases. There is therefore no phenomenon that is complete in essence and expression unless it is placed and or applied in a local context. All phenomena are essentially local ultimately either because of their origins or because they have to respond to local conditions and demands.

Locality is about the context from which we speak. It is about the place where we do whatever we do as part of our agency in the socio-political agency. It may be expressed as a local socio-political context of all phenomena. It also gives significance to the idea of endogeneity as well the importance of the indigenous as well. By this we mean that locality establishes the principle of seeing things, expressing things and exercising agency from where we are. It is to recognize the context of locality as a reference point that helps frame what is and what is not, what can and what can’t be. This is what endogeneity implies. Secondly, we mean that it is in this context that the indigenous, our particular tools and technologies of our particular history also get recognition as capable of framing how things are and how they are understood.

Cabral (1966) employs this double principle as a weapon of theory for radical struggle by using an indigenous proverb that reinforces the idea of locality as also endogenous. The saying goes: “no matter how hot the water from your well, it will not cook your rice.” Therefore, Cabral thus accepts that this principle is one that indigenous Africans have known and operated by for ages. His principles about affirming locality is drawn from indigenous philosophical precepts that have been neglected in the course of the expansion and domination of western modernity. The very idea of speaking through the indigenous African idiom and proverb is revolutionary in the context of erasure and silencing of thought outside the realm of the western man, that assumption that no knowledge existed outside Eurocentric rationality, that indigenous ideas and concepts are actually mere primordial tradition. This means locality as a principle of thought and theory is in effect a subversion of Eurocentric rationality and its claims to universality because it affirms locality as the very basis for knowledge production, it is the basis for knowledge assimilation or importation and impartation.

This particular saying makes a simple statement of principle concerning socio-eco- political phenomena, that what we draw upon must address our local problems, respond to the demands of our locality, from we are derive value ultimately. When such is understood and used, then the international implications and application of such action or thought would not be lost. Our hot well must be of true value when they can cook our rice. All thought emerges in the realities that are particularly local and is then regarded as situated. It generates in response to the local issue, but soon has relevance beyond the locality. This has implications for our theoretical understanding of agency in that it means the local is a sure ground from which to build or derive agency. Agency that can used in our response to the world or problems and opportunities present is best built on locality as a site for the production, redefinition and application of principles, values, and practices. All meaningful acts of agency are therefore fundamentally local and perhaps inspired by the indigenous in our locality. At least, our agency must be inspired by or designed to respond on the basis of the local idiom, practically and metaphorically speaking.

Agency finds its essence to the extent that it is born of, derived from and meant to respond to, the local exigencies. This principle of theory also has implications for importing and borrowing ideas, concepts, theories and practices- the need to make them local. The principle is not averse to borrowing or importing ideas, practices and theories but that the process must be informed by and be based on the principle of locality. We borrow in relation to the demands of and imperatives of locality. The imports are internalized in the basis of how they fit into the farming of things in the locality of things. This is the direct opposite of what Paulin Houndtondji (1997) describes as extraversion, the tendency to Import thought and theory but transforming locality in order to fit the imported. Within Eurocentric modernity we actually export the elements of raw local data in order to important compete theories, ideas, principles and so forth from the west. In this sense, the encounter between the local and imported takes the form of the cracking, the weakening, the subversion, and even the erasure of the former. In this sense, localization requires the death of the endogenous- local and the emasculation of the external.

What the principle of locality establishes is the opposite in that the encounter between the local and external is conditioned by the framing context of the local. Thus, the external converts or morphs into an adapted thing in the process of assimilation to conditions set by the local/ endogenous simply because it is being used to address the local conditions, to respond to the local demand. It is an encounter by which external and local merge in each other in order to make sense in and fit in the local context.


As my dance with the idea of theory as a sword, a shield and perhaps a charm medicine to conclusion, let me state again the idea. The idea of theory as a weapon of the oppressed is central to Cabral’s approach to the struggle for freedom.

Understanding again that ancient African wisdom in the idiom: “borrowed water nay fill your stomach, but it will not quench your thirst”, Cabral forces us to reverse extraversion with endogenously thought ideas that have global application in similar circumstances. It is part of that orientation where actors in the struggle are not just activists galvanizing people onto the streets in peaceful resistance or to the trenches in armed struggle, but they are also theorists at the same time challenging the conceptual basis of the enemy or the phenomenon. While the literature covers the practical work of activists, it hardly deals in detail with the thinking that informs and is informed by resistance activities. This paper seeks to address this gap by discussing Cabral’s use of theory as a weapon, an instrument in the struggle for liberation in Guinea with general application through the South. The central principles of this idea of theory as weapon are outlined and analyzed with the hope that they can then be applied to predicaments in Africa and beyond.

Departmental Vision.

Lest you say I am a stranger dancer, let me announce that I am located in the Department of Political Sciences here, working to shift the geography of reason, to subtle rebel against the idea that we must just be consumers of waters from afar, that we only teach what is produced elsewhere, that we are condemned to mimic Yale, Oxford, Soborne or Humboldt. This exercise is a contribution to the decision of the Department of Political Sciences to not only find and adopt material that helps us diversify, Africanize and decolonize the curriculum and pedagogy, but to also encourage our scholars to get involved in generating the decolonizing material needed. In the Department we seek to respond in practical ways to the decolonial turn including by discovering silenced and neglected texts from the South, do practical research in the alternative thoughts and learning/teaching material.

Secondly, we have committed ourselves to develop outcomes-based teaching and learning methods, so that at every learning stage the learning outcomes relate to carefully chosen cognitive and intellectual skills incrementally implemented from first year to postgraduate study.

Thirdly, we have decided to focus on the mentorship of people into critically empowered citizens able to play a transformative role in society both while being students and after graduation. This entails the set of cognitive skills that transform students in the central agents of the teaching and learning process, and in confident, competent and creative young people keen to get involved in inventing new ideas rather than merely consuming knowledge from elsewhere.

Fourthly, we have decided to invest in the capacity enhancement of our staff members, both informally and formally. We have also decided to improve the diversity of our staff.

Fifth, we want to build ourselves into a centre of excellence in research and citizen mentoring in political fields locally and internationally. We wish to attract research chairs and funded centre of excellence to the department.

We hope to succeed by sheer ingenuity and because we refuse to stop dreaming and dancing in the direction of the southern multimodal drum heralding the rising of the sun at midnight. Join us, let us drum and dance together.

I wish to thank the dean and his deputies, fellow HoDs, colleagues in the field, my students and most importantly my wife and kids for their support.


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- Author Zaphesheya Dlamini
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