Olerato Mogomotsi, Philomathia Scholar
Which aspect of Black history, be it a person, event or movement, would you like people to learn about this year?
I would like to lay caution regarding pointing to a single moment, person or movement in history that we should to as a singular epistemic resource of the black experience, simpliciter. Black History, in both how we engage with it and how we understand it, is in constant flux and debate itself, primarily due to the complexity that is laden in the ontology of Blackness that we are still teasing out. Rather, I would want us to focus on engaging the current unfolding of Black history as “Black present”, laden in the realities of the fights that black people are still having to wage to be seen as full beings in an continually exclusionary othering world, today. To understand black history, engage with the Rhodes Must Fall Movements, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the intersectionalities of the Patriarchy Must Fall Movements are currently still ongoing. This is because, Black history is still unfolding and is ever present in the distress, exhaustion and call to action by Black people today. Black history is ever present through the contradictions of the racialized society that we as Black people are still finding ourselves attempting to find a resolve to, after a long history of subjugation and exclusion in the global order, today.
Who are your BME role models and why?
I’ve always been weary of the notion of role models, primarily due to the fact that you are never fully aware of the full extent of an individual human being to state unequivocally that you are inspired by “who they are”. Nonetheless, I am inspired by the notable acts that some people have done and their evident motivations for them. Notably, I am inspired by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a prolific African philosopher in many fields of philosophy who has produced many notable works which are finding themselves penetrating the predominantly Western-hegemonic philosophical body of language, whilst making use of African ideas and concepts in a philosophically rigorous academic manner. He simply inspires me in this regard because I seek to position myself in a similar way, regarding the place I seek to occupy and the contribution I seek to make to the field of philosophy.
What would racial equality look like to you?
Given the implied high contextuality of this question, I want to focus rather on what I think might bring about racial equality within the context of South Africa, with the hopes that the suggestion might contribute to how racial equality may be attained in other contexts where racial inequality is a pervasive social illness.
I would like to take an opportunity to “call a spade a spade”, as the saying goes. Simply and rather bluntly put, racial equality can only come about through what is currently barely existent: Substantive White accountability. White, while referring to the race, can also be understood as a catch all term for all those who, to varying degrees, find themselves to be direct systemic beneficiaries of whiteness and racial liberalism skewed against the affording of redress to the sufferings of people who are found outside of the parameters of whiteness. Within the context of South Africa, the world bastion of racial reconciliation, I have observed that it is mostly Black people who find themselves doing the heavy lifting in ensuring an equitable coexistence with white people. It is rarely the case that it goes the other way round. It is easy for beneficiaries of whiteness to remain comfortable in the privilege of their whiteness, to a point where they are comfortable with the ambivalence with the awareness that they are part of a system which benefits them and often systemically continues to exclude people of colour from equitable participation. I take the position that Black people have done quite a lot of work already, and are still trying to do so, because for Black people, it remains an ontological emergency that we our humanity be seen to be equal to that of those who are beneficiaries of whiteness. Given this position, it is important that White people ask themselves what they can do, begin to put action to their consciences and also start banding together to bring about tangible change. For long, it seems that the need for racial equality has been seen as the imperative of Black people alone. As a result, this perception has shaped the assumption that it is only Black people who must bring it about. This has informed the current sentiment of many white people sitting on the side lines, hoping that those who carry the burden of racial inequality will also be the ones who can resolve it by themselves. This is essentially a sentiment that needs to be abandoned quickly, which would require the perpetrators of racial inequality, whether knowingly or merely complicitly, to fully embrace the yoke of bringing about racial equality, should they truly be committed to it as they claim in their liberal ideological convictions.
Why did you choose to study your subject?
I decided to study an MPhil in African Studies because I wanted to engage more rigorously with the varying contexts, conversations, ideas and concepts that are born from the African continent. Primarily being a philosopher, specialising in the areas of ontological phenomenology, political philosophy, ethics and social epistemology, the interest in African modes of thought and debates is considered to be pivotal to how I engage, philosophically, with questions aimed at understanding what it means to be a being-in-the-world; what it is to be an African being in the world. My research project, which focuses on the ethics of reconciliation centred memorialization in South Africa, brings together these philosophical interests quite neatly into addressing matters important to the contemporary South African context. More specifically, as reflected in my choice in the research project, I needed a space to engage these ideas outside of the traditional analytical philosophy canon, which at times, as Charles Mills has pointed out, finds itself preoccupied in idealism and tends to be wilfully ignorant regarding the urgent need for addressing the complex concrete realities that marking an unjust world. This space, I believe, rested in a parallel pivot into African Studies, as a form of enlightening myself to doing things differently- with a hope that I can transfer what I learn in African Studies and harness it into doing philosophy in a way more inclusive of the African contribution to the world.
How did you feel coming to the UK for your postgraduate studies?
I was very excited to do my postgraduate in the UK. Since my undergraduate, my friends have heard me speaking about coming to Cambridge to study for my Masters or my PhD. As such, in many respects, the move to studying in the UK felt like a natural progression in the fulfilment of my academic aspirations. Being here, I can say that I am enjoying the experience of a different context, the networks that it is opening me to, the worldliness that it’s inducting me into and makes me feel truly part of the international academic community. I believe that my previous postgraduate education at the University of Cape Town set me up very well to feel at home academically in the UK, too.
What does this opportunity mean to you?
I see coming to Cambridge as an opportunity to establish myself as an academic with credible depth of knowledge. It is crucial that we be honest about the access and epistemic resources that attending a historically privileged institution such as Cambridge can provide for people like myself, who find themselves having to work extra hard to prove their worth to the Western episteme in order to build what may be seen as credible academic careers. Here, the honestly lies in understanding that for a African black gay person like myself, institutions like Cambridge will remain inaccessible and as a result, the British elite epistemic centre will remain largely inaccessible. As such, I partly seek to make it an existential possibility for many like myself to see themselves as being full academics in their own right, irrespective of background, by being part of the many black Cantabs who have come before me to break the glass ceiling that is accessing these institutions. It is a foot in the door into an epistemic community, which itself, opens doors to many others.
The other important aspect of this opportunity is the widened perspective that it will provide me. There is arguably both intrinsic and instrumental value in one consistently pushing themselves to expand their epistemic horizons. A change in context, moving to a different country and to a different university, opens me up to perspectives, discourses and realities that I would not otherwise have access to, should I have remained in South Africa.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
As Black people, queer people, Africans, we are continually fighting to simply Be. Therefore, it is important to radically make rest part of the Black condition too, as a way to start imagining and living in the possibility of an existence without a fight.