Listening to the voices of the oppressed: lessons from India and South Africa

The Other Universals Project aims to bring together scholars from all over the world to interrogate the question of oppression and discrimination by focusing on the views and perspectives of marginalised peoples. It aims to inform, if not completely shift, the conversation about oppressed peoples to these peoples speaking for themselves. Phila Mfundo Msimang reflects on the three-day workshop.

This project brought together a number of local scholars working on topics across themes of race, gender, and identity among others. They came to hear presentations from Shivani Kapoor and Gopal Guru on issues of caste and Nijah Cunningham on black radicalism and Caribbean thought.

The relationship of black radical thought in the Caribbean has obvious connections to the continent, and particularly South Africa, in the different ways thinkers in that diaspora have proposed to deal with the legacy of colonialism and global white supremacy. But what was surprising to some were the points of contact between the internal struggles in India and the internal struggles in South Africa after each country’s independence from Britain.

Despite their histories and politics being significantly different, some aspects of the ‘post-colonial’ response to internal strife and inequality in these countries share a likeness in how injustices remained continuous and were sometimes reinforced in sadly ironic (or hypocritical) ways. India gained national independence from Britain in 1947, yet internally the oppressive caste system continued and was reinforced by a new Indian elite through social, religious, and economic means. This resulted in the deliberate exploitation and degradation of targeted demographics of the Indian population.

South Africa gained its national independence from Britain in 1934, yet people of British and European descent continued to whittle away the rights of ‘non-Europeans’ in a process which culminated for many in the thorough and systematically legislated disenfranchisement of all non-Europeans through apartheid. The point of apartheid was the elevation of a targeted demographic at the expense of the rest of the population through exploitation.

Some often overlooked complications are revealed during the presentations: similar to the origins of the South African liberation struggle, we find humiliation and social exclusion of the Indian elite made them realise the necessity of a freedom struggle, although that freedom did not necessarily extend itself to all members of society. In the case of caste, similar to race, we find a strong sense of the entanglement of oppression with traditions, politics, and class.

The three-day workshop illuminated questions through a sociological lens, and seemed to put forward the challenge: since this is the world as it has been, how can we act to make it better? How can we understand the influence of complex sociocultural systems, along with economic social mobility, in the entrenchment of these systems of injustice? More importantly, given what we know, how can we undo them?

The workshop emphasised the importance of the oppressed developing their own voice to bring their insights into questions of their own servitude and freedom. Professor Guru alluded to this in explaining the importance of the growth of Dalit intellectuals in the Indian university speaking on these issues, not only through the lens of theoretical learning and training but also through experience. Presumably, this opens up the opportunity for a better understanding of how current theory relates or fails to relate to the realities of caste prejudices and discrimination as is practised in Indian communities.

The benefits of a global discourse across the communities of the oppressed, most particularly communities in the Global South, show themselves in the Other Universals Project. In understanding the links, connections, and similarities between the systems of oppression and discrimination afflicting the world today in their historical context, maybe we stand a better chance of undoing them as a community of others.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.

Featured image via the Other Universals Project on Facebook