Reflections on Human Rights Discourse and Emancipation in Africa in the Twenty-first Century

Cross border transporter

This Cape registered cross border transporter was seen at Beitbridge with this precarious load: in July 2010, Zimbabweans were sending their worldly possessions back home as a precaution against losing everything again in xenophobic attacks.

By Professor Mike NeocosmosCentre for Humanities Research UWC, South Africa

At the very time when it most often mouths the word, the West has never been further from being able to live a true humanism – a humanism made to the measure of the world (Aimé Césaire).

Whoever is engaged in popular struggles for democratic emancipation in Africa today is confronted with an immediate problem concerning human rights.  While on the one hand a discourse of rights is seemingly necessary for thinking democratisation  given that the state regularly flouts these, on the other human rights seem to refer to a discourse mainly propounded by neo-liberal interests whether local or foreign.  Several repressive regimes in Africa and elsewhere (Zimbabwe, Sudan, maybe Cote D’Ivoire, Iran) oppose a discourse of nationalism to one on human rights.  As an activist, one finds oneself in a seemingly irresolvable discursive contradiction between human (predominantly individual) rights and national (or group or identity) rights.  At times this contradiction is central to government itself.  For exampling in Thabo Mbeki’s South African government, a central contradiction appeared in the form of a commitment to neo-liberal conceptions of rights on the one hand along with a sensitivity to national and racial oppression in Africa on the other. This was reflected in government reactions to a number of different issues including Zimbabwe. In fact this contradiction is arguably constitutive of the subjectivity of the new South African bourgeoisie itself.  On the one hand their private accumulation is premised on an adherence to neo-liberal precepts including human rights, on the other a sensitivity to racism and to a lesser extent to Western hegemony in African affairs is also evident.  The manner in which the vagaries of this contradiction were navigated explains much regarding Mbeki’s presidency (Neocosmos, 2002).

But this contradiction is not one which an emancipatory vision should accept, in South Africa, Zimbabwe or anywhere else.  I will argue here that this is a contradiction which emanates fundamentally from within state ways of thinking politics, and that to transcend it one should situate oneself outside state thinking.  In fact both sides of this debate deploy forms of politics which are ultimately depoliticising. What I mean should become clearer as I proceed with the argument. I propose to do this through a discussion of Human Rights Discourse (HRD).   The nationalist discourse deployed by the ZANU-PF regime is evidently a state form of nationalism: it is both selectively anti-imperialist (after all economic connections with multi-nationals are not resisted) and not so in a way which proposes a popular democratic way of addressing what used to be called ‘the national question’.  Nationalist rhetoric is therefore combined with the systematic oppression of the people.  In fact arguably nationalist discourse is deployed purely opportunistically in order to acquire short term support.  Raftopoulos states quite clearly how nationalism as expressed in the ‘land question’ and the oppression of the people are combined in Zimbabwe: “the ‘sobering fact’ that needs to be kept in mind about the period… from the late 1990’s to 2008, is not just the massive changes on the land, but the widespread state attack on the citizenry of the country that has been the modality of the politics of land.” (Raftopoulos, 2009:58).  The form of nationalism deployed here conforms clearly to state nationalism, not a popular liberatory nationalism of a Fanonian type for example.

Civil society struggles in Africa today are said to operate within a discourse of human rights linked to a linear conception of history: (e.g. authoritarianàdemocraticàradical democratic) whereby popular forces push in one direction and the state pushes in another within a more or less agreed understanding of what politics consists of.  But if the concern is emancipation, there can be no conception of emancipation which does not break fundamentally with the state’s way of conceiving and engaging in politics. For example, in emancipatory politics, political principle must be consistently opposed to corruption; in particular it must be understood that corruption is not simply about individual politicians stealing money, but much more fundamentally about not distinguishing state from market and capital; in this sense there is no fundamental difference between the Zimbabwean state and the subjectivity of empire, despite the fact that the state in Zimbabwe may in other ways be out of sync with global hegemonic politics.

In democracies the right to rights is only available to certain groups of the population; others – usually the weakest and poorest – do not possess the right to rights and are regularly subjected to state violence.  As The French philosopher Jacques Rancière (2006) insists, the idea of a ‘democratic state’ is an oxymoron.  All states can only be oligarchic.  It is just that some states are forced to adhere to the rule of law and to respect rights to a greater or lesser extent due to a history of popular struggles. The point must be to think popular politics as human emancipation, not to be limited by a subjectivity which focuses on adhering to a supposed Western ideal.

We should never ever forget that given that in Africa the state acquires its legitimacy primarily from the West and only very much secondarily from its people, the conflict as a result of which people are experiencing the destruction of their livelihoods and increased repression is at bottom one between state and empire.  This should be apparent from the fact that the African state – which has been singularly unable to genuinely represent the nation since independence – owes its survival primarily to whether it conforms to Western precepts. Today this means whether it is labelled ‘democratic’ or not by the West, i.e. whether it fulfils a number of measurable criteria and not by whether democracy is rooted among the people.  After all during the period of the so-called ‘Cold War’, ‘democracy’ and its attendant notion of ‘human rights’ was never the main criterion for judging African states; arguably the centrality of human rights in the assessment of African states only became central after 1975.  It has been argued that this emphasis was the result of an explicit strategy by the United States in its attempt to respond to the USSR’s popularity on the continent (Mamdani, 1991), but it can also be shown that this emphasis became dominant after the end of ‘Third Worldism’ in Europe; i.e. after the end of the view of Africans as agents of their own liberation and hence the apparent end of their contribution to forging alternatives in world history (in particular with the end of the Vietnam war). The disillusionment of student radicals in particular with the post-colonial state led to the replacement of the idea of Africans as subjects of history by the notion of Africans as victims of history, incapable of exercising agency: victims of natural disasters, of pandemics, of oppressive states, and ultimately of their own supposedly authoritarian cultures.

The Kenyan intellectual Wa Mutua has outlined this point extremely clearly. For him we can understand the politics of human rights in Africa through a metaphor of savage-victim-saviour.  Indeed Wa Mutua shows that the ‘victims’ of the ‘savagery’ of the African state (which it is assumed has its roots in African culture as the state is supposedly ‘neo-patrimonial’, ‘prebendal’, ‘venal’, etc) require their ‘saviours’ from the West.  As Wa Mutua explains, “although the human rights movement arose in Europe, with the express purpose of containing European savagery, it is today a civilizing crusade aimed primarily at the Third World… Rarely is the victim conceived as white” (2002: 19, 30).  The metaphor of a ‘civilising crusade’ is particularly apt as a formalistic conception of democracy, disconnected from any popular roots in African culture and simply grafted onto a largely untransformed colonial state, is at the heart of the West’s current relations with Africa and Africans, in the same way as a ‘development mission’ had been at the core of these relations post-independence and a ‘civilising mission’ during the colonial period itself.

The contemporary context of empire has been identified by the Indian scholar Partha Chatterjee as a ‘democratic empire’.  Chatterjee (2004) has stressed the role of international NGOs in spreading human rights discourse which, he argues, forms one of the main pillars of imperialism today.  It is important to emphasise this point here as these NGOs are constitutive of the currently hegemonic conception of democracy and human rights.  It should also be recognised that in the new form of imperialism it is not simply that the power of governments to make decisions on their own economies is undermined; even perhaps more importantly, national sovereignty is being undermined by human rights discourse.  This takes a number of forms including the trial of gross violators by the International Human Rights Court in the Hague and the propagating by international NGOs (Amnesty International, Oxfam, MSF, etc) of Western conceptions of human rights.  The connection between empire and human rights is explained very clearly by Chatterjee as follows:

Liberals are now saying that… international law and human rights must be established all over the world.  Where these are violated, the guilty must be punished, without undue regard for the privileges of national sovereignty.  If the leaders of states themselves have little concern for the law, if they themselves ride roughshod over the human rights of people, then why should the excuse of national sovereignty be allowed to come to their rescue?  In that case human rights would never be established.  What is needed, therefore, is the drafting of a global code of state practice and the creation of international institutions to monitor and implement this code…  The liberal democratic countries must come forward to accept their responsibility in creating the institutional space for the operation of an ideal global sovereignty. The name for this sovereign sphere… is empire. (2004:98).

Of course, if the responsibility of Western democracies extends to ensuring that democracy and the rule of human rights is to be accepted throughout the world and if there is any (obviously misguided) resistance to such acceptance, then democracy and human rights must be imposed by force if necessary as in Iraq and Afganistan. Chatterjee (2004:100) continues:

The theorists of the new empire have talked of still more wonderful things.  This empire is democratic.  It is an empire without an emperor.  The people are sovereign here, as it should be in a democracy.  That is precisely why this empire has no geographical limits. This is not like the empires of old where territories have to be conquered by war to add to the size of the empire.  Now empire expands because more and more people, and even governments, looking for peace and for the lure of economic prosperity, want to come under its sheltering umbrella.  Thus empire does not conquer territory or destroy property; rather, it encompasses new countries within its web of power, makes room for them in its network.  The key to empire is not force but control.  There is always a limit to force; there is no limit to control.  Hence empire’s vision is a global democracy.

However this is not all, while supra-national courts such as the International Court of Justice in the Hague – which undermine the ability of nations to construct a culture of accountability of politicians to the people – are set up by agreement between states in multinational fora such as the UN, there is also another much more subversive and insidious aspect to the establishing of the hegemony of HRD: the  operations of ‘international civil society’ so-called.

If the protection of human rights is a function of empire, then that task is being carried out not simply by the international courts.  It is being done daily, and diligently, by numerous such international NGOs as Amnesty International, Médecins sans Frontières, or Oxfam, whose able and committed activists probably have never suspected that they are, like little squirrels, carrying the sand and pebbles that go into the building of the great bridgehead of empire.  But that is where the ideological foundations of empire are being laid (100-1).

Not surprisingly then, donors and NGOs (domestic or foreign) are playing the politics of human rights along with the United States.  In this context then, allowing one’s politics to be guided by HRD is to construct a vision founded on the power of empire.  This is the opposite of thinking an emancipatory future.  But given that the authoritarian state stresses a state nationalism, how are we to think a way out of the contradiction in order to make emancipatory politics possible?  In order to answer this question we need to understand that HRD depoliticises politics. This is most clearly the case as HRD does not consider people as political agents but rather insists on producing juridical agents.  Appealing to the law in order to claim one’s rights not only individualises, but it shifts the domain of struggle from politics to the state’s law and transforms people with agency into passive victims so that  their wrongs can only be redressed by a trustee.  Human rights discourse undermines rights as it undermines people’s capacity to engage in independent politics as the thought of politics is weakened: people no longer think politics but think the law.  The question of the use of the law vs the use of the street to achieve one’s ends is simply a tactical question and not one regarding the thinking of politics.  Thinking HRD leaves the state as the ultimate legitimator and arbiter of one’s choices.  The politics of human rights is ultimately a form of state politics.  It is not possible to think emancipation in this manner for the state cannot emancipate anyone.

Rather a politics of emancipation should be using categories such as justice, equality and freedom in which an Idea of equality is constructed, not as a future goal but as a practice in the present. HRD is an impoverished understanding of justice and equality: in the words of Arundhati Roy (2010), ‘justice, that grand, beautiful idea has been whittled down to mean human rights’.  The dominance of HRD is also an indication of the weakness of the popular forces not of their strength; it is rather an indicator of the dominance of state politics in thought and increasingly of imperial political solutions in practice.  When we talk HRD we are in fact demanding a new relation between citizens and state; but we need to transcend both the thought of citizens – to talk in terms of people in general (including say foreigners and all ‘non-citizens’ or ‘lesser citizens’ which the state – any state – regularly excludes on and off from citizenship rights) – and the thought of the state itself in order to talk of justice, freedom and equality between people.  In emancipatory politics the notion of the citizen must be transcended and replaced by people who think, i.e. people who combine agency with an Idea so that the reference point of such politics is not the state but the Idea in practice (e.g. the idea of equality).  Citizenship, from an emancipatory perspective, is not about subjects bearing rights conferred by the state as in human rights discourse, but rather about people who think (an Idea) exercising political agency through their engagement in politics as militants/activists and not as politicians; in this manner, citizenship which implies a relationship between citizens and state is itself transcended (Neocosmos, 2006).  The starting point of any emancipatory project in Africa – anti-imperialism founded in popular democratic struggles – is quite simply unthinkable through HRD.   Democracy and rights can therefore never be defined by the state without being compromised.

In this context it is interesting to reflect on the political causes of the ongoing xenophobic violence in South Africa for example.  If we are not to reduce such forms of violent discrimination to economics (poverty, inequality etc), a procedure which removes any notion of agency from thought, we have to begin to account for how Africans are systematically ‘othered’ in that country, and how state discourses and politics of ‘othering’ have not been challenged by alternatives (political or intellectual).  The main obstacle to the development of political alternatives to xenophobic exclusion has been precisely a state conception of citizenship which excludes people on the basis of a certain understanding of indigeneity, and the dominance of a politics of human rights which had the effect of demobilising people by insisting on the state as the only resolver of political contradictions, through the juridical system in particular.  In that country it has been the absence of alternative politics to state thinking which has produced an inability to conceive a different way of thinking rights as political agency.   ‘Human’ rights discourse shifts the emphasis from rights as popular agency to rights as state delivery to passive recipients of state largesse. The state then sees itself as representing interests, in this case the assumed interests of passive citizens.  Whether passive citizens in the eyes of the state, or victims in the eyes of the international NGOs of empire, the people of Africa are denied their agency by HRD.  Rather we should always bear in mind that emancipatory ‘politics begins when one decides not to represent victims… but to be faithful to those events during which victims politically assert themselves’ (Badiou, 1985:75, my translation).


Badiou, A. 1985 Peut-on Penser la Politique? Paris : Seuil

Chatterjee, P. 2004, The Politics of the Governed: reflections on popular politics in most of the world, New York: Columbia University Press.

Mamdani, M. (1991) “Social Movements and Constitutionalism in the African Context” in Shivji (ed) State and Constitutionalism: an African debate on democracy, Harare: SAPES Books.

Neocosmos, M. 2002 “Democracy, Rights Discourse, National Healing and State Formation: theoretical reflections on the liberation transition in Southern Africa” in M. Neocosmos,  R. Suttner and I. Taylor Political Cultures in a Democratic South Africa, Nordic Africa Institute, Discussion Paper 19.

Neocosmos, M. 2006 “Can a Human Rights Culture Enable Emancipation? Clearing some theoretical ground for the renewal of a critical sociology”, South African Review of Sociology, 37 (2): 356-79.

Neocosmos, 2010, From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: explaining xenophobia in post-Apartheid society, Dakar: Codesria.

Raftopoulos, Brian, 2009, ‘Response to the Mamdani Debate’ Bulletin of concerned African Scholars, No 82, Summer, 57-59.

Raftopoulos, Brian 2010, ‘The Global Political Agreement as a ‘Passive Revolution’: Notes on Contemporary Politics in Zimbabwe’, The Round Table, 99: 411, 705-718

Rancière, J. 2006, Hatred of Democracy, New York, London: Verso

Roy, A. 2010b, ‘The Trickledown Revolution’

Wa Mutua, M. W. (2002) Human Rights: a political and cultural critique, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Fri, February 4 2011 » Human rights, Zimbabwe Review

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