A [Post]Coloniality of Visibility: Problematizing “Coming Out of the Closet” in an African Context

Moses Mphatso
9 min readApr 25, 2018
Student Leader and Activist Nompendulo Mkatshwa, challenging the spectacle, leading the protests of the Fees Must Fall movement within a wider context of education decolonization struggles in South Africa. This movement is particularly powerful because female and non-female presenting activists made themselves visible in the formal spaces of protest in South Africa but on their own terms and largely in subversion to prevailing classifications of who activist persons are and how they mobilize. Many were black queer womxn and non-binary activists.

The informal or non-formal zones which I discuss further down in the article are not devoid of violence. Rather, violence is not choreographed within rubrics for public-presenting performances which are the basis for postcolonial political formality. My interest in this piece is how persons in the African post-colony (in particular, Malawi) navigate these formal and informal spaces as intersecting landscapes given the prescriptive powers of the postcolonial state which produce the terms by which persons are rendered visible.

Colonial Governance: How it Classified and Formalized African Identity

Colonialism involved different formats of power mobilized by European satellite states on the African continent in order to render what was to the colonizer an African landscape (inclusive of its people) governable. The concerns surrounding colonial notions of governability entailed the feasibility as well as the sustainability of the replicated European zones and spaces from which Africans were excluded; the feasibility and efficacy of raw material supply chains from extractive industries through corridors (roads and rails) which ultimately led back to European capitals; the practicalities associated with the suppression and repression of dissent from the African majority whose discomfort was growing as colonialism expanded; and finally, the generalization or aggregation of the African populations into pseudo-anthropological categories replete with notions about temperament, labor or work propensities and other projected predispositions about African people which were conveyed or elaborated through colonial umbrella concepts such as ethnicism, traditionalism and tribalism. To the colonialist, Africa was thus an environment comprising of anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic nature — all of which constituted the raw material environment from which colonial society would be constructed, and from which, once so constructed, it had to be fiercely and diligently guarded.

Through the eyes of my grandparents, my parents, uncles and aunts, colonialism — as they have described it to me — was experienced as a mechanism by which the African person would see externally generated attributes thrust upon them by the European satellite state, and then finding those same externally generated attributes being used as the social, political and cultural materials by which a formal identity would be fabricated for the African’s coerced relationship with that state. So that, once a classification was forced upon a colonially categorized group of people, that classification would then become a basis and the terms upon which the classified group would be granted a relationship with the colonial administration or state.

How Colonialism Formalized its own Classifications of African People

The most general of such classifications, for instance, were that Africans were disease-ridden and incapable of proper hygiene. This justified policies of segregation as a way of protecting European settlers from Africa’s diseases transmitted through African carriers; and which in turn became colonial variants of the separate but equal doctrine, manifesting with severely skewed patterns of public funding in health, education, sanitation, housing and other critical infrastructure along with strict protocols for policing the movement of Africans outside of their established bantustans. The manufactured squalor that ensued would then serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy, energizing stronger emphasis on separatist public policy.

Another general classification however viewed Africans as uniquely suited for hard labor under inhumane conditions — this was a colonially practical position (and indeed a racist one) for rendering some segments of the African population a pool of cheap labor and for positioning them higher on the colonial hierarchy in relation to European bureaucrats and other Africans outside that pool by minimally plugging them into the colonial cash economy.

From Colonial Classifications and Formalizations to Forms of Visibility

From there grew multiple forms of visibilities as generalized or aggregated Africans were made to formalize, under different classification regimes, their relationships to the colonial society and its state. These were the formative basis for class differentiation (a continuum of the savage, on the one end, and the civilized, on the other end, African). Eventually it led to the creation of the African civil society class which would agitate for decolonization even as it maintained an unwavering commitment to the colonial state, its governing apparatus along with its artificially constructed nation and borders provided its European personnel was jettisoned: These would be the roots of some African nationalist movements.

Painting of a Colonial Servant attending to a Mistress. Punishment for this “privilege” to live in European areas or zones was always close at hand in spite of the higher colonial standing extended to Africans who lived in close proximity to European settlers in relation to other Africans not afforded that “privilege”. Source: Detroit Metro Times.

But the point here is this: postcolonial visibility has antecedents in colonial regimes of forced classifications so that the very basis by which African persons could be rendered visible before the state was built on formalizations of wholly fabricated identities. There were those Africans, for example, who — having been “judged” as better educated — could acquire permissions to live closer to, walk or pass through or work in zones designated for Europeans (these were the low-end assistants, clerks, clerics and low-level bureaucrats).

And then there were those who could only traverse such social boundaries seasonally to tidy the bushes growing along streets and roads, and to work the yards of European zones. Others were domestics who lived in servants’ quarters inside those zones, recruited to care for the children of European settlers, clean their homes, assist their wives at home-fixing, and work as permanent garden boys. And so on and so forth. Subversion in some forms thus involved the refusal to formalize colonial descriptions about the African self in order to enjoy greater relative visibility before the colonial state as a designated colonial subject.

Invisibility as a Type of Colonial and Postcolonial Subversion and Resistance

Freedom in this form of subversion would thus connote expressing power over one’s self by deliberately rendering oneself invisible before the colonial state’s gaze and especially through insubordination to the materials (political, cultural, economic, gender and social) used for fabricating the formal colonial African identity. I contend that this form of subversion continues to be an integral part of postcoloniality and the postcolonial experience — to the extent that certain forms of politics, in the various avenues of contemporary struggle, which assume that visibility (or coming out of the closet) is the only way by which people manifest resistance might be overlooking African historical specificity and superimposing a dynamic of resistance borrowed from non-African contexts in which exclusion and its dehumanizing brutality was and is when people are rendered invisible.

In those contexts, visibility is the ultimate form of resistance because it imposes a demand upon the society and especially the state to extend its protective instruments to those rendered invisible and thus excluded from its protections (the basis upon which the state’s subjects are humanized). It is from here that perhaps we are able to understand why a new visibility in the West is often met with expectations for a new category or classification which signals and symbolizes formal registration, recognition and then potential formal protection upon that process by which a new human subject is established. I will surmise though that this tendency too is becoming fraught and problematic as long-held criticisms in LGBTQI and African-American circles are beginning to enter the so-called formal spaces.

I suggest that an inverse dynamic could be (but is not exclusively) at work within postcolonial contexts where classification could be associated with colonial legacies of formal identity impositions — so that escaping or circumventing instruments of classifications allows some persons greater freedoms over their selves within unclassified, uncategorized zones or spaces away from the prescriptive gaze of the postcolonial state. Here, I am aware that I am suggesting at least two ways of invisibility.

One: The power of the individual to remain undesignated by a state.

Two: the idea that postcoloniality allows for a definition of privacy wherever a state’s gaze is absent as opposed to privacy as the absence of spectators (other members of the society) which has relegated its meaning to the household.

Under these two points, people can be in communal privacy wherever they and/or their activities are unclassified, so that the private sphere and public sphere demarcation used to describe Western society collapses in the context of African postcoloniality. (There is thus an apparent power and agency activated by persons to sometimes render themselves invisible, from state sanction, classification and scientification.)

Additional Features of the Postcolonial Formal Landscape

Going further, postcolonial social and political discourse too is burdened with layers of respectability politics which buttress public-presentability performances (which is fundamentally heteronormative). These emanate from respectability spheres in religion (largely Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions), traditionalism co-opted by anti-colonial African essentialism rhetoric (such as claims that homosexuality and fluid sexuality is unAfrican), eclectic contemporary movements whatever they might be which are opposed to non-heteronormative arrangements, and other such discourses which govern public presentability. Upon rendering or being made to render oneself visible while being non-public presenting, one assumes a position in opposition to and as a target of political and social forces as well as discourses which are functionally intended to primarily police this public-presenting formal postcolonial space: that is, the space which was colonially imposed as formal and whose politics follows a predetermined rubric as a basis for the kinds of performances which characterize and saturate it, and thus produce its respectability.

In this image, the brutal spectacle of the colony intersecting with slavery in Brazil: artificially constructed subjects of the colonial state are differentiated from each other relative to European colonialists. The distances of differentiation are demarcated and registered by this grotesque violence. The contention of this article is that colonial and postcolonial resistance can take the form of disavowals of this grotesque spectacle through invisibility: the agential power to render oneself and one’s spaces out-of-bounds for such forms of violence which are enabled by the state’s gaze. Source: Claudia Salcedo, Pinterest.

Final Remarks: Rendering One Self Invisible as a Disavowal of the Formal Postcolonial Spectacle

As the beginning of my analysis suggests, the postcolonial space is itself artificial because it grew out of imposed conventions aimed to assist the colonial project prior to the birth of the postcolonial state and its nation. In this reading, therefore, invisibility is not simply a retreat from a predominant arena of political life in the postcolony — rather, it can be (perhaps more importantly) a general resistance to, subversion(or even a disavowal) of, an artificial platform of spectacle, respectability and a wholly artificial postcolonial politics altogether. It could be a sphere whose genetics precludes vast ranges of African being and complexity from transmission, representation and inter-engagement.

Real politics perhaps rests elsewhere, in those domains which are invisible to the postcolonial state, its formal spectacle and its attendant prescriptive formalizations of identity: In the zones of the occult — to borrow a term from Frantz Fanon. Invisibility might thus be one way, on this postcolonial landscape where people navigate formal and informal spaces, that the spectacle and its violence can be undermined.

The challenges here could thus be as follows:

Firstly, for the African person whose living experience is of the postcolony, what sorts of reflections, personal conversations and political decisions go into determinations about whether or not to enter formal spaces? I ask this question bearing in mind that formal spaces are also demarcated by class, for example, which also severely determines the types of mobilities (social, political, sexual, and others) available to persons in the postcolony.

Secondly, being that state-society — artificial as it might be — does exist and does function as the formal platform for visibility and therefore formal decision-making, are there ways in which we can talk about how people in different socioeconomic and political strata enter and exist these spaces on a daily basis? (Keep in mind that the second question establishes the roots of postcolonial lived experience in the formal space not because of its primacy but because this is were people are visible in ways that our present forms of investigative tools which are modeled after state apparatuses of seeing can see such persons. Hopefully, this provides us an entry point to the informal space were people dis-aggregate or de-generalize themselves. Where people can just be.)

And finally, that in speaking of the informal, we should guard against importing prevalent definitions obtained from non-African contexts which, in a contrary manner, envision informality at worst as pathological and at best as a form of political, social and economic exclusion which needs to be grafted into the larger formal platform: In our case, this would be in tandem with bringing even more uncolonized African ways of being and spaces into the postcolonial rubric, and thereby engendering and accelerating a neocolonialist project. Here, I suggest that we see African informality as primary, and that it was only rendered pathological due to specifications of how to make the African environment (inclusive of its people) governable for colonial ends — the complexities of which (re)produce the postcolonial spectacle.

Just a thought.



Moses Mphatso

Closed-minded, Monocular, Tedious Company & Staggeringly Boring