Decolonising Suffering: On Precarity and New Imaginative Subjectivities

In a recent keynote address at the Bergen Exchanges on law and social transformation, Divine Fuh, the Director of the Institute for Humanities Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town, presented the complex interplay between decolonisation, suffering, and new imaginative subjectivities. The keynote address, titled “Decolonising Suffering: On Precarity and New Imaginative Subjectivities” touched on critical questions about how to enact transformative change in eradicating suffering within the context of decolonisation. The keynote was followed by insightful commentary from Oumar Ba of Cornell University and Yumba Kakhobwe from the University of Pretoria.


Fuh’s keynote commenced by contextualising the session within the framework of the Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP) and its relevance to international development and philanthropy. He highlighted the interconnectedness of decolonisation and suffering, focusing on their relevance in contemporary discussions about human dignity and well-being. Fuh’s presentation drew attention to Cape Town, a city known for its beauty yet marred by deep contradictions, where he saw a movement catalysed by confronting suffering.


The address emphasised that suffering and decoloniality are intricately linked concepts, both with the potential to reshape our understanding of the world. He referenced a provocative act of protest involving a public display of suffering through the desecration of Cecil J. Rhodes’ statue, which aimed to bring visibility to the plight of marginalised communities living in shacks and townships. This act was intended to challenge colonial narratives, acknowledging the suffering that lay at the core of the decolonisation movement.


Fuh’s talk explored the notions of suffering and smiling as mechanisms of agency and resistance in the face of challenges. He highlighted how marginalised youth in various African contexts deploy these strategies to reimagine subjectivities and cope with the difficulties posed by states, economies, and globalisation. Fuh suggested that suffering and struggle are intertwined in the lives of these communities, and they often use these experiences as tools to navigate their realities.

The keynote also examined linguistic and conceptual challenges in grappling with suffering. Fuh pointed out the limitations of certain conceptual regimes that hinder our ability to see suffering from alternative perspectives. He described the decolonial project as an exercise in human dignity and pluriversality, emphasising that decoloniality seeks to foreground other life worlds and forms of seeing. Fuh further discussed the importance of “seeing” as an act of recognition and transformation, drawing from scholars like Judith Butler and Hamid Dabashi.


Following the keynote, Oumar Ba and Yumba Kakhobwe offered thoughtful commentary on Fuh’s presentation. Ba touched on the concept of people and how decolonisation is an invitation to expand the boundaries of humanity, urging us to consider whether Europeans can truly bear witness to the suffering of others. Kakhobwe raised questions about the ethical implications of interventions aimed at alleviating suffering, emphasising the need to involve marginalised communities in shaping solutions and reframing interventions in ways that empower them.

The Q&A session highlighted the complex intersections of suffering, decolonisation, and human rights. The conversation accentuated the need to move beyond good intentions and critically examine the impact of interventions. It also stressed the importance of listening to marginalised voices, challenging our own subjectivities, and understanding the limits of current conceptual frameworks.


Lastly, the keynote address and subsequent discussion highlighted the significance of approaching suffering and decolonisation as intertwined processes that demand both critical analysis and empathetic engagement. Fuh’s presentation challenged us to transcend existing conceptual boundaries and engage in deeper reflection to pave the way for more equitable, just, and empathetic approaches to human dignity and well-being. The keynote address, along with the valuable insights from Oumar Ba and Yumba Kakhobwe, offers a compelling call for continued exploration and collaboration in the realms of academia, activism, and social change.