Postmodernity and Africa: In the Balance

Marguerite A Peeters FAITH Magazine March - April 2008


 Is postmodernity a chance or a threat for non-Western cultures? Does the apparently irreversible and forceful trend deconstructing modernity and some of its abuses (colonialism, rationalism, individualism, deism, naturalism, authoritarianism, the contractual mentality, a flawed approach to “sovereignty” and so on) mean that the hour of once colonised countries has come and that they will be given a real voice and be able to realise their aspiration to determine themselves freely? Is the global crisis of modern government and institutions an opportunity for non-Western cultures to draw from their own traditions to govern themselves? Or is postmodernity another Western cultural imposition in an anti-Western disguise? To what extent is the radicalism which is driving thedeconstruction of the Judeo-Christian tradition threatening to deconstruct non-Western cultures as well?

 In my previous piece in this magazine (November, 2007) I drew attention to the importance of attentively monitoring the current convergence of Western postmodernity and the rise of non- Western cultures under the influence of globalisation in all its forms. The two processes feed into each other. The “global ethic”, initially drawing mainly from Western postmodernity (which is already, in and of itself, highly complex, and far from stable), will become a yet more complex phenomenon. Such complexity may eventually make post-modernity self-evidently incoherent. It may be that people will then be compelled to go back to reality, truth and common sense. Such a trend could be a positive opportunity for both Western and non-Western cultures alike.


 Words, concepts, values or practices such as consensus building, governance, diversity, sustainability, peer learning, gender equality, win-win or solidarity belong both to “Western postmodernity” and, to some extent, as we shall discuss below, to African traditions and contemporary African aspirations. Both are “anti-Western” in different ways: postmodernity, as we have seen in my above mentioned article, reacts against modernity, which has been the hallmark of the West for centuries. And non-Western cultures have resented modern paradigms, which they have experienced as an imposition from outside deconstructing their cultures and traditions. Yet people living in the non-Western world do want growth, progress, social order, security, which were supposed to result from theputative establishment of modern democracy.

 Aware of the cultural decline of the West and of the weakening of Western civilisation, non-Western cultures are sitting on the fence: seduced by modernity, wanting to participate in the process of globalisation, they also want to remain faithful to their identity. Against this backdrop, postmodernity comes in, surfing on globalisation, originating from the West but appearing anti- Western, deconstructing modern tenets on the one hand whilst seeming to offer non-Western cultures opportunities on the other. Postmodern paradigms are arriving in the non-Western world at a time when they seem to correspond to what people aspire to. The convergence of these factors creates a situation of confusion and incoherence which will sooner or later become explicit. Do Africans want to buildrepresentative democracy and legitimate government institutions? Why then does the West now pressure them to partner with Western NGOs and impose “governance” as a new condition for development aid?

 Let us give a few examples of the ambivalence of the current situation in Africa:

 Regional integration and the construction of the African Union (which imply the deconstruction of the modern paradigm of national sovereignty): they appeal to Africans who have suffered from the colonisers’ imposition of borders they often consider artificial and they seem to respond to their desire to recover their African character and unity. But it threatens their own culture insofar as regional integration is largely instrumentalised as a step towards global governance with a postmodern (and therefore neo-Western) global ethic.

 Partnerships (which imply the deconstruction of hierarchies and authority): Africans desire a relationship of fraternity with their Western development counterparts and they hope for genuine manifestions of Western solidarity. The reality is, however, that Western “partners” are not disinterested and often have ideological agendas: Western partners are not the brothers that Africans hope to find in them. Partnerships threaten to tie Africans with postmodern strings to a decadent Western civilisation.

 Governance (which, as explained in my previous piece, implies the deconstruction of modern-style government, of the social contract and of the value of representation): Africans want to be treated as equals; they are not sure that “democracy” is the way to go: democracy tends to break their traditions and so far hasn’t delivered order and socioeconomic progress. The idea of “reinventing government” appeals to Africans. But “governance” is in practice itself governed by Western NGOs even if it more directly co-opts Africans at the grassroots. And the post-modern idea that “the world is flat”, that there is no hierarchy, no authority, no given order, no truth, is leading Western civilisation to self-destruction.

 OTHER ANGLES Consensus and consensus-building (which imply the deconstruction of the winner-looser or majority-minority binary opposition, but also of search for the truth): it appeals to Africans who have a deeply rooted traditional sense of community and of participation and who have been taking decisions by consensus for centuries. But in practice “consensus-building” has proven to be a new, Western way of imposing a deconstruction agenda on all.

 Freedom to choose (which implies the deconstruction of “norms”, whatever they be): naturally Africans want to determine themselves freely. But in postmodern radicalism, the freedom to choose has become a right used against nature, the anthropological structure of man and woman, further deconstructing conscience and the notion of good and evil.

 Gender equity or equality: generally speaking there is a desire in Africa that the equal dignity of man and woman given to them by the creator be more fully honoured on that continent. But the gender ideology deconstructs motherhood and the anthropological complementarity between man and woman, turning the woman into a mere “citizen” with rights she must learn to claim.

 Postmodernity (which implies a deconstruction of modernity): it appeals to Africans who have suffered from Western interests, rationalism, intellectual abstraction, selfish individualism and colonialism and wish for authentic “solidarity”, a postmodern value. But postmodernity hides a post-Judeo-Christian agenda and a culture of irrationality.

 Africans should be aware of these new dangers and of the need to distinguish their aspirations and postmodern paradigms.


 The void created by postmodern deconstruction in the West calls humanity to a new start. So far western civilisation, on its own, seems to have proved incapable of finding a way out of its crisis, which is in the process of being globalised. Below we list some of the West’s needs and why we think non-Western cultures might well provide for them:

 There is a need for a certain return:

 – to a sound anthropology:Postmodernity reacts against modern paradigms such as power and against the primacy long given to reason over the conscience and the heart, which has led to rationalism, a Western abuse. Rationalism and its lopsided anthropology have left a deep imprint on Western cultures, sterilising them, marring them with abstraction and constructivism, even affecting negatively the notion of “universality” and what we used to call “values” and “universal values” (isn’t the concept of “values” itself a construct?). While postmodernity reacts against “philosophy” and intellectualism, exalting the “freedom to choose”, it does not search for the truth and in fact thrives on the mere “possession” of “knowledge” and on individual “empowerment”, thereby retaining pervertedelements of Western cultures that many in Africa have rightfully resented. In Western cultures, human reason has largely stopped being at the service of love. African cultures have not radically divorced reason from conscience (the search for what is real, good and true), or from the heart (love). African rationality, “wisdom” and “intelligence of the heart” open a path towards a rediscovery of a sound anthropological approach to reason as connected to conscience and the heart, and away from both modern rationalism as well as postmodern irrationality.

 – to reality and common sense:Postmodernity claims human reason is unable to access reality as it is. By contradistinction, most African traditions have a deeply rooted sense of reality, of what is concrete, and their aspirations, we would argue, are healthy and born of common sense. As postmodernity on the one hand, and technological developments on the other, threaten to enslave humanity to a world of dream and virtuality, people more than ever feel a longing for what is real. They are disposed to welcome African common sense as a gift that they themselves want to receive.

 – to the sacred and to the sacredness of life:In the West, rationalism, deism and naturalism have led to a humanism without God and to a form of atheism which does not exist in non-Western cultures. “Empowered”, autonomous and self-sufficient individuals have lost their sense of the sacred. In indigenous African cultures, nature is seen as coming directly from God. It is called “creation”. Rediscovering a sense of the sacred is critical for the West.

 – to gratuitousness and to the disinterested character of love: The contractual mentality and its multifarious products, such as the notion of “interest”, have deeply perverted Western cultures, which now find it hard to rediscover the selfless, gratuitous nature of love. Cultures which more readily speak about “alliances” than about “contracts”, such as African cultures, have a greater sense of the gratuitous nature of love in human relationships. They have a chance to share this gift with the rest of humanity thirsting for a re-introduction of love in culture.

 – to brotherhood, fatherhood and motherhood:In Western cultures, individualism and “Republican” values have reduced the individual person to a “citizen” with “rights”, seeking his or her own “empowerment”, a citizen who is not first and foremost a member of a family. In African societies, the neighbor is treated primarily as a brother, as a father, as a mother. The family is recognised as the basic cell of society. In some parts of Africa, each woman, even unknown, even unmaried, is called “mother” and each man “father”. Will the West come back to these fundamental anthropological dimensions, or will Africans turn into western-style “global citizens”?

 This piece is a development upon a report issued last October by the IIDD.  

Faith Magazine