No Humans involved: An Indigenous hermeneutical critique of white supremacy

“We have encountered a race of red ants” (Kunene p 211)

“He reported to the Assembly: my lord the country is infested with bad bugs” (Kunene p 207)

“Africans believe in the inherent goodness of man” (Biko)

“I give you these elephant tusks. They are gifts to you and your families. Shaka accorded to them these bequests. Still hoping by kindness and generosity. He might cure them of their greed. Else convert them to the Zulu religion of generosity and selfless giving. But such people are too far gone in their ways” (Kunene p 217)

“When the Europeans left Europe they had already lost sentimental attachment to themselves and to humanity” (John Henrik Clarke)


This paper is a critique of what I consider to be the most devastating aspect of white supremacy, namely the fiction of “white civilization” and its concomitant Eurocentric definition of what it means to be human. The fundamental objective in this regard is to demonstrate that whites in their conquest of the indigenous people have proven that they are not human. They are not human in the sense envisaged by the Indigenous conquered people. In order to fully solidify my thesis, which is the non-humanity of whites, I will rely on the philosophy of Ubuntu, which is the philosophy of the indigenous people.

The kind of philosophy of Ubuntu that I will rely on is not the kind that is “produced prolifically” by the very people who in terms of this very philosophy are not batho or abantu. These are white academics who don’t even speak a single language of the indigenous people and  who are also not embedded in and don’t even understand the culture or setso or isintu (which whites dismiss as non-existent due to their spurious claim that the indigenous people lack reason and are therefore part of nature; as asserted, for example, by the white philosopher Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History) of the indigenous people whom their ancestors conquered in the wars of colonial conquest. This is indeed a flagrant demonstration of white arrogance in the form of what Ramose designates “the right of conquest”. The political and moral lesson to be drawn from this analysis is that in order to fully liberate ourselves, as indigenous people, we need to “return to the source” as posited by Cabral. By this return, I imply drawing critically from the wisdom of our ancestors. This is in line with my postulation that the struggle for national liberation as posited by Lembede in his exposition of African Nationalism is inter-generational. As John Henrik Clarke would put it, “for a people to be free, there must be a sacrificial generation”. Lest we forget and anger our ancestors/the living dead, let us heed a warning by Chinweizu in his piece on Ancestors Anger:

O paragon of self-contempt With a genius of suicide! For two and a half millennia Driven by brainwashed shame, They have bleached their black identity, Scraping it off like shit from their fine skin; They have scrammed from their black identity Like a man fleeing his menacing shadows! And like whales Demented by sea-borne infections in their brains, And are panting for white theologies From St Peter’s From the Ka’aba, From the Kremlin. Like beached whales, They have fled their habitat, Fled their dark sea waters Polluted by humiliations; They are lusting for sacred waters They hope will whiten their souls.

That one claims he is an Arab. He now wears around his neck A fake genealogical chain Linking himself to the Quraish. Look, look at him now! Look at what air he wears! He feels his worth increased In the sight of his alien god: And when he bites off his African tongue, And stutters in Arabic, He is giddy with divine pride At being able to address his fellows In “the language of God himself! And when he dons the Arab turban, And nails Arab name to his brow, And bows in obedience to mecca, Five times a day like a lizard, Dramatizing thereby his allegiance To the Arabs and their homeland, He feels the gate of heaven opening for him! He hears the trumpet of Angels Blowing a fanfare to welcome him!

That other one, At morning assembly each day, Lustily chants The identity of his desire: ‘Our ancestors, the Gaul, Were blond-haired and blue-eyed!’ But he was not taught to ad: ‘Were half-naked and lived in caves.’ Yet his face, this strange Gaul, Has nothing blond, Has nothing blue, Is ebony Black!

And the third, Less crude, more cerebral In his flight from his identity, Declared with bright-eyed passion: ‘I am deracialized; And I am denationalized! The God of the Dialectics, of Historical Materialism, is color and nation blind. From the mud of primitivism, He lifted me into the astral planes, And showed me the Universal Father! I have done my dialectical ablutions, I stand naked and purified All ready to approach his alter. Do not taint me with black identify; Taint me not with parochialism! I must cross that grand threshold; I must stand under the radiant gaze of Prophet Marx, I must join the mass of assimilation into the Universal!’ And another of that sad lot, Deranged by the world’s contempt, Grabbed a white boy by the collar And sputtered into his face: ‘I have bleached my face like yours; I’ve adopted your white names; I’ve defected to your white religion; I’ve whitewashed my ancestral tree. Why won’t you treat me like an equal? Why do you treat me like a dog? ‘O dear dear, ‘the white replied, If you spit on what you are, Why should I not do so? If you flee from what you are, And crave to be what I am, Doesn’t that show that what you are is inferior to what I am? Who would treat his mimic like an equal? Do you think I am dotty like you? (Chinweizu p 1 -2, My italics)


The Coming of the europeans…..

“He solemnly told his councilors at the Assembly: Through a vision I saw nations emerging from the ocean. They resemble us but in appearance are the color of pumpkin-porridge….They carry a long stick of fire. With this, they kill and loot from many nations……A veritable race of robbers and cannibals” (Kunene p 206)

“Have you judged correctly these bloodthirsty foreigners? Such people dig deep into a nation’s life. They strip the wealth and power that once was its greatness” (Kunene p 216)


Although there is abundant literature on the arrival of whites on the African continent as traders with Africans as their equals with several admissions on the part of the europeans of the advancement of the Africans, for example the UNESCOS HISTORY OF AFIRCA. In this paper I want to focus on the ‘south African context” and begin with 1652 as a period marking white colonial conquest and the formative stages of white supremacy which still terrorises the indigenous people to this day. The date 1652 marks the period of white settlement and thus the commencement of white settler colonialism, which is still with us today despite the rampant myth of democratisation and non-racial liberal constitutionalism which are nothing but disguises of white supremacy.

I have briefly laid down the historical foundation of white colonial conquest; I now want to focus my attention on the ideological dimension of this conquest which is the whole point of this paper. Perhaps the most important fiction which was used by whites to rationalise colonial conquest is that whites are the human as such. By this, whites described and regarded themselves as superior human beings. Because they regarded themselves and they still do as superior human beings, they arrogated to themselves the right to “humanise” which they called to civilize the indigenous people whom they regarded as not human. The whites designated this process “white civilization” which was a “gift” to the so-called savages.

When one reads Van Riebeck’s journal one finds shocking descriptions of the indigenous people as animals. This is what Magubane in Social construction of Race and Citizenship in South Africa has to say in this regard:

Van Riebeck discourse on the indigenous peoples of the Cape, the San-Khoi, is contemptuous. It put them outside the pale of humanity. Even before he was based in the Cape, he had warned the VOC in a memo, that he found the San-Khoi to be dangerous savages. .They are by no means to be trusted, being a brutal people living without conscience. (C. Louis Leipoldt 1936: 90). In various entries in his Diary, Van Riebeck, referred to the San-Khoi as dull, stupid, and odorous and as black stinking dogs.. (Ibid.67) Wouter Schouten viewed the Khoi as heathen and Biblical descendants of Ham. [A]lthough descended from our father Adam, he wrote, [they] yet show so little of humanity that truly they more resemble the unreasonable beasts than man having no knowledge of God nor of what leads to salvation. Miserable folk, how lamentable is your pitiful condition! And Oh Christians, how blessed is ours. (Cited Elphick 1977:195). The Khoi language was compared to the cackling of geese or clucking hens. (Magubane p 5, My italics)

So far we have established the antagonistic relation between two significant concepts of the human and the animal which were attached to race as a result of white settler colonialism. Why did whites regard themselves as the human as such and the indigenous people as animals? This is because in terms of colonial discourse and colonial imaginary, whites claimed that they, and they only, have a rational faculty or reason. Thus, in terms of eurocentric definition of the human, reason or the rational faculty makes one to be human, thus its absence reduces one to an animal. Thus, the white race is human because it is rational, so it claims. The indigenous people are regarded as a race without reason, thus not human. This is basically the fundamental essence of racism. In this context, racism is the fact of doubting the humanity of the indigenous people conquered in wars of colonial conquest by the conquering white settlers.

In a nutshell, racism is white supremacy. White supremacy is anti-black as explained by Lewis Gordon in Her Majesty’s Other Children, in the sense that first and foremost the humanity of blacks is questioned by whites who take for granted their own superior humanity. This questioning of the humanity of blacks reduces them to animals. Thus, at the fundamental core of racism is who defines what is human, who is human and who is not human. For whites or the Europeans, as the conquering colonial settlers, to be human is to be rational and since they are the only ones who are rational they are the human as such. And because they are the human as such, it is their duty to “humanise”; that is to make human those they regard as not human. This is the self-image of whites as the saviours and redeemers of the cultural Other, as explained by Ani Marimba in Yurugu. The cultural Other who is perceived by whites as an animal is basically but a repository of their negative projections about themselves. Anything which is bad which may tarnish their self-image is projected onto the cultural Other, who in many instances introjects (i.e. internalises) it and as a result thereof accepts the status of the animal. In other words, whites’ self-identity is parasitic; its stability and coherence depends on denigrating the cultural Other. There is some kind of sadistic narcissism in the construction of white self-image, whites derive pleasure about themselves and who they are through humiliating the cultural Other. This is the psychological violence which is imbricated in white settler colonial terms, categories, norms and values.

In categorising themselves as the human as such, whites called the duty to “humanise” the so-called non-human indigenous people “Whiteman’s burden”. This is how whites imposed their definition of what it means to be human; which is still dominant today. Perhaps the most deleterious aspect of white colonial conquest is epistemicide. This briefly defined is the attempt to obliterate the indigenous people’s knowledge, values, norms and identity through assimilation of the indigenous people into whiteness which masquerades as the universal.

In other words, colonial conquest is at the same time a cultural warfare which whites declare against the indigenous conquered people. The other main objective of this paper is to reverse the invidious effects of epistemicide. In order to do this, I want to heed Cabral’s exhortation of the “return to the source”. This call for the return to the source is also affirmed by the African philosopher Tsenay Serequeberhan in his book called The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy. This book has influenced the title and content of this paper. In another paper called Karl Marx and African emancipatory thought, Serequeberhan postulates that:

To the extent, then, that national liberation is the overcoming of the colonialist interruption of the history/culture of the colonized it is a process of returning ‘to the source’ out of which the colonized spun their existence prior to being colonized. But what does this mean? What is the ‘source’ towards which the ‘return’ is directed? This ‘return’ is not a question of going back to some original archaic past, rather it is a question of appropriating the cultural forms of existence that have endured against colonialism and re-instituting them in the context of the present day actuality of the modern world. It is a question of retrieving and re-calling “the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope” (Serequeberhan p 177)



I conquer, therefore I “humanize”.

“Paradoxically Europe undertook the domination of the world and of Africa not in the explicit and cynical recognition of its imperial interests, but in the delusion that it was spreading civilization and humanizing the world.”(Serequeberhan p 178, my italics)


So far this paper has foregrounded two important concepts, namely the human and the animal. I want to now add the third concept which is conquest. I want to further expand on the relation between these three important concepts. In this regard I want to analyse the issue of how white colonial conquest was justified through the spurious declaration by whites that they are the human as such. And that since the indigenous people are regarded as not human, whites have the duty to humanise them.

This is the essence of the fiction of “white civilization”. In this section I want to critically analyse this fiction of “white civilization” with the view to debunk it from the perspective of the indigenous people. I will rely on the language and philosophy of the indigenous people to explode this fiction of “white civilization”. This is why the “hermeneutical” in the title of this paper becomes important. The significance of the “hermeneutical” lies in the fact that I want to rely on the living-dead’s or ancestors’ experience and reflection on white colonial conquest. This is what Serequeberhan has to say in this regard:

Thus, as Okere has demonstrated, in terms of the historicity of European thought and the contemporary discourse of African philosophy, the hermeneutics of African philosophy or African philosophical hermeneutics sees itself, on the level of theory, as the critical-reflexive appropriation and continuation of African emancipatory hopes and aspirations. As Frantz Fanon pointedly observed in 1955 in the context of his native Martinique, the concrete political process of anticolonial confrontation and political emancipation is a “metaphysical experience”. It is the lived historicity of this “metaphysical experience” that the hermeneutics of contemporary African philosophy makes the object of its reflexive discourse. This is also what Amilcar Cabral refers to as the “return to the source” in and out of the lived context of the African liberation struggle. From what has been said thus far then, the locus of philosophic reflection and reflexivity is the concrete actuality and the phenomenal historicity of lived existence. (Serequeberhan p 6)

In doing so I want to foreground the fact that the Indigenous people have a definition of what it means to be human, who is human and who is not, which preceded the advent of racism/white supremacy. This is my conceptual attempt to reverse the effects of epistemicide as I have already alluded to above. Mazisi Kunene in his book called Emperor Shaka The Great, and specifically in a chapter called “The white strangers”, discusses how our ancestors viewed the spectacle of white colonial conquest which the white settlers euphemistically designated “white civilization”. So my approach is hermeneutical in the sense that I draw from Kunene’s formulations of our ancestor’s experiences and reflections on the so-called “white civilization’.

How did our ancestors define what it means to be human? For the purpose of this discussion I will rely on the philosophy of Ubuntu. I will use our indigenous languages which capture this indigenous philosophy. As it is well-known by now, there is an intimate relation between a particular philosophy and language that is used to articulate the particular philosophy. In my project of reversing the effects of epistemicide I will heed Serequeberhan’s advice when he posits that:

In view of all of the above then, African philosophy has a double task: de-structive and constructive. In this it is a practice of resistance, for it is engaged in combat on the level of reflection and ideas, aimed at dismantling the symmetry of concepts and theoretic constructs that have sustained Euro-American global dominance. It is a resistance focused on challenging the core myths of the West–its self-flattering narratives–in terms of which its domination of the earth was justified. The practice of African philosophy is consequently internal to the very process through which the formerly colonized world is presently reclaiming itself. It is, in this sense, a concrete practice of resistance. In its constructive aspect the practice of African philosophy has to engage in the systematic and critical study of indigenous forms of knowledge and “know-how,” both practical and theoretic, focused on a critical “return to the source” which, as Amilcar Cabral points out, is a lived-process of re-claiming the possibilities of our history from within the concrete concerns and issues of that history. This “return” is aimed at systematically sifting through and appropriating, in terms and out of the exigencies of the present, aspects of our pre-colonial and colonial heritage of indigenous and hybrid knowledge. In this regard, and among other things, we–those of us engaged in African philosophy–have to be willing to learn from and critically study the concrete practices of various African liberation movements and struggles. (Serequeberhan p 46-47, my italics)

I will also heed Mafeje’s admonition that Africanity is combative ontology and epistemology .This is what Mafeje had to say in this regard:

We would not talk of freedom, if there was no prior condition in which this was denied; we would not be anti-racist, if we had not been its victims; we would not proclaim Africanity, if it had not been denied or degraded; and we would not insist on Afrocentrism, if it had not been for Eurocentric negations. (Mafeje p 108)

In other words, I will use our own Indigenous ways of being human, knowing and defining as counter-hegemonic discourse to extirpate the supremacy of white definition of humanity. In terms of the philosophy of Ubuntu, we say motho ke motho ka batho. This means that you affirm your humanity by recognising the humanity of others. As Ramose puts it:

Although the English language does not exhaust the meaning of this maxim or aphorism, it may nonetheless be construed to mean that to be a human be-ing is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establishes humane relations with them. (Ramose p 272)

According to this philosophy one is human to an extent that one establishes humane relations with other people. To be human is not necessarily anatomical; the main concern here is one’s character and ethics. In other words, maitshwaro a gago determines whether you are human or not. Thus depending on maitshwaro a gago, you are either motho (that is human) or you an animal, meaning a phologolo. In order for one to be motho one has to have botho. As motho with botho, you qualify to live among batho.

When, and if, you behave like a phologolo you then deserve to be excluded from the community of batho. So, fundamentally speaking the main issue here is the ethical as opposed to the anatomical or physiological. Thus, anatomically speaking you can have all the features of the human, but if you act like a phologolo you are not motho. In terms of Kunene’s formulations of the reflections of our ancestors, there is what one can call the physiological descriptions of whites. Perhaps the dominant physiological descriptions are “the race of the glowing ears or the pumpkin race and those with the colour of pumpkin-porridge”.

My main concern is not with these physiological descriptions of our ancestors regarding whites. But my main concern is with their ethical description of whites during their encounter with them. The dominant category our ancestors used is makgowa. Our ancestors made a distinction between makgowa and batho. In terms of this distinction makgowa ga se batho, i.e. whites are not human. This is the reason why we can say as indigenous people that lekgowa le le nale botho.i.e this white “person” has botho or is human. This is an indirect postulation that in general makgowa don’t have botho, thus are not batho.

Let us now historicise this philosophical analysis. John Henrik Clarke once posited that “civilization is the ability to co-exist with other people in relative harmony”. If civilization is indeed this ability then one has to have botho to be regarded as civilised. Remember we postulated that motho ke motho ka batho, which means that one must affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others. The combination of motho ke motho ka batho and Clarke’s definition of civilization makes it clear that one can only co-exist with other people in relative harmony, provided one first affirms one’s humanity and then recognise the humanity of others. In other words, if you lack botho you cannot at the same time be civilised.

This is very important to comprehend because part of the deception of the so-called “white civilization” is to claim that the indigenous people lived like animals in a “state of nature”. If you follow Thomas Hobbes in his book called Leviathan, then the “state of nature” is a situation wherein “life is brutish and short”. Where there is chaos, domination, atrocities and destruction of one man by another, basically a state of war. “White civilization” posits that it makes the indigenous people who are animals or live like animals in a “state of nature” to make a transition from this state to a “civil society” in which there are rules, law and order and rational human beings. Of course this is in line with evolutionism which, in racist terms, regards the indigenous people as stuck in the “dark ages” prior to their contact with the so-called “civilizing whites” who in their missions of conquest are said to be spreading light.

Historically speaking what are the dominant traits of white colonial conquest as far as the indigenous people conquered in wars of this conquest are concerned? The answer is chaos, domination, destruction of people and cultures and lack of law and order which whites claimed don’t apply to the indigenous people. So how can whites civilize the indigenous people through this kind of conquest? To answer this question we have to look at whites, whiteness, conquest and civilization in the light of the philosophy of Ubuntu as explained above. Historically speaking we know that one of the dominant results of conquest is genocide. If white conquest is a form of civilization and the recipients of this civilization are killed, who is going to be civilized? If you choose not to kill but dominate can you at the same time affirm the humanity of the dominated? The point I am getting at is that whites who proclaimed that “I conquer therefore I humanise” they, themselves, lacked humanity; and that conquest is just a spectacular display of their animality.

In other words, psychologically speaking whites are diphologolo which projected their bophologolo or their mode of being onto batho they conquered in wars of colonial conquest. What whites did was to “turn the tables around” by characterising as animals those with botho in order to project a lie about who they really are into the world. And this explains why our ancestors used zoological terms to describe whites. The living-dead used descriptions such as “a race of red ants”. This simply means that our ancestors did not regard whites as human. For our ancestors white colonial conquest meant that as batho we are infested with bad bugs (Kunene p 207).

Thus, settler colonialism, whites and whiteness are an epidemic which as batho we need to liberates ourselves from, lest we fail to sustain ourselves biologically. As the living we must stop idolising whites and whiteness which were clearly despised by the living-dead. The silly tendency of aspiring to whiteness including bleaching our skin and speaking like whites needs to stop. Whites should never serve as role models for humanity. As Fanon in The Damned of the Earth stated:

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe? That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind. Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. Europe now lives at such a mad, reckless pace that she has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running headlong into the abyss; we would do well to avoid it with all possible speed…..When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders….Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth…Comrades, have we not other work to do than to create a third Europe? The West saw itself as a spiritual adventure. It is in the name of the spirit, in the name of the spirit of Europe, that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds the four-fifths of humanity. (Fanon p italics)

I want to conclude with the advice that as batho we should never extend our ethics and philosophy of Botho or Ubuntu to whites, especially after establishing that they are not batho or abantu. As Kunene explains:

Their hearts are as hard as a grinding stone. They receive for their gifts more than they give (Kunene p 215). And finally: Shaka accorded them these bequest. Still hoping by kindness and generosity. He might cure them of their greed. Else convert them to the Zulu religion of generosity and selfless giving. But such people are too far gone in their ways. Generosity itself stimulates in them new stratagems. (Kunene p 214-215)

This is what Jacob H Carruthers in Intellectual Warfare states about Dessalines:

Dessalines asserted that never again would a European enter Haiti as a proprietor or colonist. He also raised the question: What have we in common with that bloody-minded people? He continued by asserting: Their cruelties compared with our moderation…plainly tell us they are not our brethren, that they will never become such. (Carruthers p 27)

In terms of the philosophy of Ubuntu or Botho, Ramose posits that there is an ethical thesis that states feta kgomo o tshware motho. Ramose argues that this thesis:

means that if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life. (Ramose p 753)

Indeed white colonial conquest was a stark contradiction of this ethical thesis. Whites clearly preferred wealth to the life of the indigenous people. This is how Kunene explains how the living-dead were surprised by the views on land:


For, indeed, life among foreigners is not like that of the Palm Race. People kill their own friends and relatives for land! … How can one man possess land as though it was life itself? Is land not the vast endlessness where man lives? (Kunene p 215, my italics)


One of the greatest British imperialists, Cecil Rhodes once proudly proclaimed that “I prefer land to niggers”. The descendants of white colonial conquerors still “prefer land to niggers” as they continue to own large acres of land in a form of farms (treating the indigenous people who work for them like animals); while the indigenous people are concentrated in areas and live under conditions that are not fit for human beings, to paraphrase Motsoko Pheko.

White-owned mining companies continue to pollute the air and water of the indigenous people all in the name of white wealth, in the process infecting them with diseases which undermine the coherence of Triadic Ontology (Being consisting of three levels namely the living-dead, the living and the yet-to-be-born) by killing the living, thus preventing “the Beautiful ones from being born”, to paraphrase Ayi Kwei Armah. In the final analysis, I want to conclude by affirming that:


Today, my resentment at the doctrine of race superiority, as preached and practiced by the white world for the last 250 years has been pointed to with sharp criticism and contrasted with the charity of Gandhi and of the coloured minister [Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.] who lead the recent boycott in Alabama. I am quite frank: I do not pretend to “love white people.” I think that as a race they are the most selfish of any on earth. I think that the history of the world for the last thousand years proves this beyond doubt. (W.E.B. DuBois, “Whites in Africa After Negro Autonomy”, my italics)


By Masilo Lepuru


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