‘Imagination is everything’: Paul Gilroy chats to The JRB about race, land and South Africa’s role in overthrowing the racial order

The JRB’s Academic Editor Simon van Schalkwyk spoke to UK academic, historian and philosopher Paul Gilroy, who was in Johannesburg recently for a conference at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

Simon van Schalkwyk for The JRB: You’re a more frequent visitor to South Africa than people may realise. What is it that first drew you to the country, and has that initial interest been sustained over time? Do your impressions of South Africa change during each visit?

Paul Gilroy: I first came to South Africa looking for hope. It sounds corny, but I was raised in a world that sought moral and political guidance from the Struggle. That was an environment that looked towards the dismantling of apartheid as a practice that would influence or even steer the future political course of the planet.

I had been taken to King Kong, the musical, as a child by my parents, and exiled South Africans were very much part of my youth in London. I heard the rioters in Notting Hill in 1976 chanting ‘Soweto, Soweto’. I never expected that I would live to see the transformation of the country, but I knew its fate was central to the moral conscience of the whole world. I represent a generation that looked to South Africa to lead a conversation about how the structures and habits of any and all racial orders might be overthrown; how new civic and governmental habits might be created that were antithetical to the cruel, racial divisions required by colonial rule. Of course my expectations have had to be readjusted, but I still think there are resources of hope to be unlocked from the situation here. They are more important than ever because they show that conversations about overthrowing the racial order do not have to be dominated by the peculiarities of life in the United States and the export of those perspectives on racial difference to everybody else.

The JRB: I’d like to risk notions of South African ‘exceptionality’ or ideas about our much-vaunted and recently contested post-apartheid ‘miracle’ in order to find out what you think about South Africa’s place in the global imagination now. Does South Africa still have something to contribute to debates about race and democracy, especially since it seems to have followed almost perfectly Frantz Fanon’s idea that the ruling elites in emergent ‘post-colonial’ democracies tend to mimic the strategies and tactics of colonial regimes?

Paul Gilroy: You’re right to underscore the problems that Fanon anticipated, especially because these days most of his readers manage to overlook those prescient observations. I would feel very uncomfortable if my enthusiasm for the political potential here sounded like hollow reassurance of South African exceptionalism. The recent political leaders of South Africa seem to have turned sharply away from any cosmopolitical conversation with the rest of the world, especially if it concerns discussions about the overthrow of racial orders and the building of new structures that are not colour-coded and race-friendly.

At the same time, it’s been interesting to watch commentary on the situation in South Africa begin to appear again in the outpourings of the ultra-right in Europe and the United States. Lately, there’s been a renewed focus on the problems experienced by the overdeveloped world’s beleaguered white kith and kin with regard, above all, to the fundamental issue of land. This is important because it symbolises the experience of white victimage that is now at the centre of an emergent ‘identitarian’ movement galvanised online by repellent figures like Katie Hopkins and Lauren Southern (1). The ruling, postcolonial elites mimic the sleazy habits and share the appetites of their corrupt, colonial predecessors. That repetition and those continuities can themselves be a lesson—even an opportunity—to appreciate the limits of any identity articulated only in racial form.

Do you think that whatever made South Africa exceptional—or whatever contributed to the belief of its exceptionality—has been demystifed and we’re now pretty much in step, in almost every way, with a number of troubled democracies around the world, many of which have seen a shift toward the increased ‘permissibility’ of racism under the guise of euphemism, or, more troublingly, as an openly-declared political positions of the far- or ‘alt’-right?

Paul Gilroy: The short, disturbing answer to your question is probably yes, though demystification is not the word I would choose. It might be even more disturbing to speculate that there are ways in which your nominally ‘postcolonial’ transformation has left you not merely in step with troubled democracies elsewhere, but actually placed you ahead of them in the way your social, political, economic and cultural habits are being revised by the divorce of capitalism from democracy and the relocation of power away from the Atlantic basin. I have noticed the icons of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging being venerated among the universal symbols of online white supremacy, assimilated into the generic notions of white identity that are animated in the virtual and immaterial racisms that suit the digital environment best. There is also a generic black identity in circulation too. The idea that some groups of people are incorrigibly innocent is perennially appealing to its beneficiaries. That allure of permanent innocence knows no human boundaries.

The JRB: It’s interesting to me that this shift towards the right has, in South Africa, spawned racially (or perhaps ethnically) insular political positions, public activism and media. I’m thinking of outlets such as Dan Roodt’s PRAAG (The Pro-Afrikaanse Aksiegroep or Pro-Afrikaans Action Group), the arguably more moderate Afriforum, which styles itself a ‘civil-rights organisation’, and, on the other hand, the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party and other radical forums for Black African interests such as Black First, Land First. I was struck by a news report about Khoisan activists heading to Parliament to demand aboriginal rights to land. Another story concerned calls by the Khoisan to distinguish themselves from ‘Coloured’ identity (in South Africa, this term, which is derived from apartheid-era nomenclature, describes and has been claimed by people of mixed racial and ethnic heritage largely located in the Western Cape). Are we seeing the end of hybridity and multiculturalism as viable political and ontological options?

Paul Gilroy: All parties to this vexed conversation have learned to articulate their particularities in anthropological language just as the central object of that discourse, ‘man’, has had the stone placed belatedly on his final resting place. Fanon was right in demanding imagination from us as the key to a new humanism. Whatever his US-pessimistic misreaders might now say, he endowed our curiosity with the revolutionary power to make a new humanism both powerful and attractive. Let us hope that the narcissism of minor differences starts to look different when the water runs out.

The JRB: The question above recalls the opening lines of your book The Black Atlantic:

Striving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness. By saying this I do not mean to suggest that taking on either or both of these unfinished identities necessarily exhausts the subjective resources of any particular individual. However, where racist, nationalist, or ethnically absolutist discourses orchestrate political relationships so that these ideas appear to be mutually exclusive, occupying the space between them or trying to demonstrate their continuity has been viewed as a provocative and even oppositional act of political insubordination.

What, then, do you make of the suggestion that strategies and tactics for political opposition have changed significantly? Foregrounding rather than gliding over the question of race, for example, has emerged as a useful tactical category with which to lobby arguments (or to ‘orchestrate political relationships’) about, say, reparations in the USA and land reform in South Africa. (Recently South African MPs passed, with an overwhelming majority, a motion to review a section of the Constitution to pave the way for the expropriation of land without compensation.)

Paul Gilroy: I consider myself a pelagic thinker—a humble practitioner of theory at sea-level. It’s probably banal to say that the issue of land is fundamental here as it is in all of the world’s (slowly recovering) colonial nomoi. Only a transformed relation to the land can restore the evasive quality of dignity to your democracy.

However, foregrounding the question of race will not assist you in that ambition. That can only lead to the reification and ontologisation of race in line with US habits and priorities that are now disseminated and enforced online. On the other hand, foregrounding the question of racism might release other more useful possibilities and potentials. Here, I will sound like a dinosaur to those who prefer to trade in concepts like ‘antiblackness’. I dislike that US rhetoric because it dissolves, in an instant, all the sticky engagements with particular histories and local ecologies of belonging. We fought for decades to place the focus upon how racism assembles racial actors in over-determined circumstances, situations that needed to be grasped in their complex particularity and then accounted for at a different level of abstraction as structural phenomena. I am not ready to see all of that flushed away because it demands a few trips to the dusty old library. This lazy, flattening jargon about black and brown bodies drives me nuts.

The JRB: The WiSER conference you recently attended was titled ‘Entanglements and Aftermaths: Reflections on Memory and Political Time’, where ‘political time’, to paraphrase WiSER director Sarah Nuttall, refers to the persistence rather than the closure of histories in post- and decolonial contexts. What, briefly, were your thoughts on the proceedings?

Paul Gilroy: That was a rare event enabled by an inspired, north–south institutional partnership. It was stimulating and special because the centre of discussion was not dominated by a bunch of people from North America belatedly encountering a world of scarcity that challenged their habitus of plenitude. I learned a lot from some fantastic presentations. We really listened to each other. WiSER is a jewel and this city is a difficult but great place from which to think about our perilous predicament and the future of the planet.

The JRB: South Africa’s recent context has seen the public sphere become the site of frequently racialised personal and political forms of contestation and conflict. Our particular political time has been troubled by, say, the presence of colonial monuments such as a statue of Cecil Rhodes, or political attempts to demolish recent histories in favour of a ‘floating nostalgia’ for an idyllic past that arguably never existed. I’m thinking, here, of our new President Cyril Ramaphosa’s desire to sidestep the implications of the Zuma and even Mbeki administrations in order to call back to a ‘Mandela moment’, and a version of the ‘rainbow nation’ despite recent re-evaluations of Mandela’s legacy and clear fissures in the multicultural project of the last twenty years. All this, it seems, in aid of the promise of a utopian future premised on an economic vision that seems to be merely a kind of updated version of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (!). What does one do when ‘political time’, as these instances of South Africa’s contemporary moment suggest, seems to be of very little interest to the ruling class?

Paul Gilroy: The haemorrhaging of history from our lives is not just an issue for our rulers. Actually I think their tasks become significantly easier with its loss. In other words, that deficit has real costs for the forces of resistance and dissent. Primarily, this is an effect of the increased technological mediation of politics. You experienced an early and important example of what this means during the Bell Pottinger state capture debacle. The deployment of AI, machine learning, smart bots, and so on, the gaming of Facebook and Twitter algorithms, is not only making political behavior predictable for the first time, it is making it manipulable to an unprecedented extent. There is still some hindrance to the transfer of online mobilisation offline into the street, but the practitioners of these unsavoury political arts are refining their game plans even now. They are getting very good at conducting psychological operations, spreading dis- and misinformation, hiding their footprints and creating uncertainty at key points. This makes them hard to identify and even harder to oppose. How many people in our governments even have the expertise to comprehend what these non-state actors are doing to us?

The JRB: During your talk at Wits you spoke fondly about Hugh Masekela as part of the ‘soundtrack of counterculture’ in the UK, and recalled, as you mentioned above, how crowds at a protest in Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, inspired by the news footage they had seen of the Uprising in South Africa, started spontaneously chanting ‘Soweto, Soweto, Soweto’. In conversation, you mentioned that on your return to the UK you will be joining the picket line in the ongoing lecturers’s strike against pension reforms. Do you see the protest succeeding or do you feel that the mode of protest—bodies on streets—is a tactic that has run its course?

Paul Gilroy: Brother Hugh Masekela meant a lot to me. As a DJ, I learned that there were many of his tunes from different eras that would always draw a big reaction from the crowd. He was, in a way, the first Afropolitan. That musicians who cut The Boys Doin’ It were from all over Africa. The results of their collaboration still move me—sad old man that I have become.

Our cities are saturated with cameras, facial recognition software, number plate recognition systems, and so on. All the seductive power of what our police commissioner before last used to call ‘Total Policing’. We must be very careful not to claim too much for those tactics of public protest. My wife, Vron, and I were held outside the Bank of England during the demonstrations against the G20 on the day that the police killed Ian Tomlinson with impunity. I don’t want to sound defeated or resigned, but I got very tired of being ‘kettled’ by the police (2). Unlike the football fans and the yout’ dem, the left and the fluffy legions of middle-class dissenters really aren’t prepared to fight back. On the whole, they will just take their beating and then be shocked and outraged afterwards. Our police became adept at using the juridical language of rights, health and safety to warrant their spiteful violence. The epochal events on Westminster Bridge in 2010 (3), when the students’ fees demonstrators were kettled outside Parliament while the vote took place, have been chronicled by Dan Hancox (4). I’m sure they are a factor in the turmoil taking place in our educational institutions today. Shortly after that, the demonstrators who had been held for hours without water in the centre of London lost their case in the European court, which said that the police behaved proportionately and that no deprivation of liberty had, in fact, taken place (5).

As for demonstrations as a general tactic, there are many ways of becoming visible or present and demanding recognition. Some of them afford better opportunities to manage the terms of that visibility than the hostile BBC and the other mainstream outlets will permit. Around the Grenfell killings and the Finsbury Park attack, new media actors like Novara have started to become important. Their interventions have also been crucial in building the success of Jeremy Corbyn and, so far anyway, holding his fractured bloc together. In order to hit his electoral targets, he has revived the old line that police are essentially just ‘blue coated workers’. We’ll see how well that serves his utopia in the long term.

The JRB: In passing, again, you mentioned that we were probably confronting the prospect of the end of the university as we know it. Do you still hold to this view? What alternatives are there for the project of higher education?

Paul Gilroy: Perhaps this is another instance of South Africa being ahead? I would be more hopeful if I worked here that education might be seen as a public good, not only in individual and corporate terms. In Britain, we are using our current struggle over pensions to try and alter the wider terms of debate about the value and virtues of free university education, as well as the public mission of higher and further education. My retirement from full time teaching isn’t very far away. I hope then to be part of a properly free university. Imagination is everything.

The JRB: Finally, could you share some of your recent reading with us? Are there any books you’re currently recommending?

Paul Gilroy: Mostly, these days I reread old books like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Docker from 1973 and Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement from 1960. Neither of them were familiar to me when I wrote Black Atlantic. It would have been a much better book if I had known them. I love Henry Dumas and I’m writing about him in my new book, but his work is all out of print. I’ve been preparing to do some public dialogues with Linton Kwesi Johnson during the next few weeks so I’ve been looking closely at his oldest and earliest work. Of newer stuff, I have been reading Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities and Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity. They are both from the US but really useful nonetheless.



(1) ‘Far-right activists are teaming up with white supremacists to exploit South African politics’, Media Matters
(2) ‘A history of police kettling’, The Guardian
(3) ‘Kettling has radicalised Britain’s youth’, The Guardian
(4) ‘Britain’s policing: Kettling 2.0 and the Olympic State of Exception’, Open Democracy UK
(5) ‘Human rights court backs police “kettling”’, The Guardian


Paul Gilroy and William Kentridge in conversation on ‘Africans in war’ and Kentridge’s new performance piece, ‘The Head and the Load’, at The Centre for the Less Good Idea, Art on Main, Johannesburg, Feb 2018:


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Header image: Lola Paprocka

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