Since 2015 and the #RhodesMustFall movement in Cape Town, South Africa, as well as its counterpart student movement at Oxford University in the UK, the question of the relevance of decolonisation to higher education has become quite prominent across Global North universities. Before this upsurge of interest, my academic work had been majorly concerned with the effects of incomplete decolonisation of African polities, for example, continued education dependency and humanitarian interventionism. However, with the increased focus on decolonisation in UK higher education, I became extremely frustrated with what I saw as the inadequacy, misunderstandings, and misuses of decolonisation as a practice and logic. I feel that these arose, not only from adamant refusal to engage with the questions thrown up by decolonisation, but also from the lack of a conceptual foundation to engage with those same questions.

In response, in Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge: Reflections on Power and Possibility (published by Bristol University Press 2023), I wanted to reposition the conversation by defining that conceptual foundation, as well as finding the needed language to engage effectively with decolonisation. Therefore, I take a temporally and spatially wide look at the present state of law, its knowledge structure, and its relation to colonisation-decolonisation. In other words, in the book, I link the current political and social climate of the world, especially racial injustice, global inequality and climate change, not only to historical events like exploitative colonisation and the trade in enslaved Africans, but also to the development of the fundamental concepts that we use to understand the past and present of the world we live in. Essentially, I want us to consider the possibility that this history means that the tools that we have been attempting to use to understand the world and repair current harms are either insufficient to the task and/or even complicit in producing misunderstanding and harm. My proposition is that we need to change the lens through which we understand the present, by looking to the past, so we can craft better futures for us all and the earth upon which we at present just precariously survive. To survive at all, we need new ways of thinking, being and doing in the world.

How I Did I Come to Decolonisation?

I came to decolonisation, as a topic of study, before and within my study of law, as a reaction to my disillusion with the law. As a cosmopolitan child in the ’80s, just 20 years out from the major wave of African independences, I witnessed the global anti-apartheid movement. I read books written by writer-scholar-politicians who were pillars of the anticolonial and decolonisation movements across Africa from the ’50s to the ’80s. Some of these people trained as lawyers. So, from quite early on, the study and practice of law pointed me to its liberatory potential for ending continuing colonial logics as well as other global harms and injustices. So, I, like many others before and after me, came to the law school, because I heard freedom and justice and peace in its name. However, in time we all learn, though often not so explicitly, that the coloniser’s justice is not justice for the colonised. We learn that the claim of the universal translatability of the English word  “justice”… is an extraordinarily presumptive one’(Gordon 2013: 70). We all learn that peace is not equally distributed. We all learn, eventually, that freedom for those racialised below the abyssal line is not the same for those racialised above it. Now, we could suggest that legal education opens students’ eyes to the true nature of the law, especially when the focus of legal education is on black letter or doctrinal law. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tells us, ‘The common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky, but the articulate voice of some sovereign’ (Southern Pacific Co v Jenson 1916: 222). Student disillusion it could be suggested then, is caused by false expectation. They want the law to do the things that it is not designed to do. However, this statement by Holmes not only tells us what the law is, but also invites us to consider what is possible within legal knowledge. Where does power reside? Whose voice articulates it? What is sovereign in this world?

How Does the Book Respond to These Questions?

My focus in this book is to rethink global structures and temporal patterns of power through the lens of a history in which race and colonialism are entangled with the production of the law that we teach, research and practice. In other words, to borrow a quote from the movie Tenet [2020]“‘What’s happened, happened’. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.” What’s happened, happened. The question left for us in response is twofold. Firstly, what actually happened? A response to this question recognises that our traditional reticence in law schools to engage deeply with legal history often leaves vital truths ignored. Secondly, once we understand and uncover this history, we have to appreciate that we must do something, faced as we are with the reproduction and acceleration of racial injustice, extreme poverty and inequality, as well as environmental devastation. A return to history reveals the fact that within law schools we have an incomplete understanding of and engagement with the orders of power laid down by the colonial enterprise and its adjuncts. Yet, these orders of power have, since their inception, circa 1492, persistently attracted varied demands for their dismantling – i.e., decolonisation. How can the Law School respond to these enduring demands?

In the book, I begin to question some of the fundamental concepts of legal knowledge – what they really mean, what they are, how they came to be, and how we can use them differently in the present and the future. For this, I focus on some key conceptual issues that I believe legal academics (in particular but everyone else in general) should be thinking about if they want to adopt decolonisation in their work – as both a theory and a praxis. My focus here is on unsettling three foundational legal concepts – the body, space, and time. I also think it is important to think of these conceptual issues as a cumulative lens to understanding the law in the present as a product and producer of a particular history and present whose trajectory undeniably includes and is entangled with racialised enslavement as well as exploitative colonisation – their continuities and their afterlives. Understanding the foregoing signals both the spatial and temporal breadth of colonialism-decolonisation, but also means that we must accept that decolonisation has had, continues to have, and will always have its own meaning outside of whatever we call what we do with our curricula. In saying we are “decolonising our curriculum”, we are merely borrowing decolonisation’s framework. So, if we want to engage effectively with decolonisation, our goal must always be simultaneously within the law school and beyond it. In essence, we must work from where we are to reinvent the boundaries of possibility and build new flourishing worlds in which we all may thrive. I believe this is what we in Law Schools owe our students and the world – a commitment to put into action, work that goes beyond declarative statements of inclusivity and equality. To paraphrase Ruha Benjamin, we need to imagine and craft the worlds all of us cannot live without, just as we imagine the undoing of worlds many on this planet cannot live, cannot move, cannot breathe, within.

Originally published on the SLSA blog

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