To reform or to start again? An argument across the south

In Kuala Lumpur 24-26 January 2009 there was a south-south event titled The International Conference on Hegemony, Counter Hegemony and Alternatives to Hegemony: Implications for the South. This event was part of a ‘scholarly collaboration program’ between three major academic networks across the South – CODESRIA, APISA and CLACSO. The participants represented a tri-continental range of views, with particularly strong representation from Nigeria, Malaysia, Colombia, Mexico and Argentina.

The session began with an introduction by the organisers, Hari Singh (Malaysia), Adebayo Olukoshi (Nigeria) and Alberto Cimadamore (Argentina). They contextualised this initiative within the  sense of discomfort that the only way colleagues in the South could learn about each other’s counties was through northern centres, such as the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The aim of this event was to share ideas about the hegemonic relation of North towards South in a broad manner, including perspectives beyond international relations.

So the conference began with a discussion of ‘verticalism’ which explored the cognitive dimension of the South. In discussion, the Western orientation towards the highest point in the landscape was countered by a Botswana perspective, where the top of the hill is considered a lonely place far from the centre of power in the valley. And the Western focus on the setting sun was also differentiated from the Pakistani poetry in praise of the rising sun. This phenomenological approach to the idea of South seemed a fruitful dimension of comparison.

The first of many debates began with the Colombian situation. There were strong differences over whether FARC guerrillas were a spent force in Colombian politics, with one arguing that they had lost support through their violence and another claiming that the issues they represented were still relevant, even though they were denied by the middle class elites that dominated politics.

The second and parallel debate concerned the issue of language. It was proposed that languages in different regions needed to be consolidated around a lingua franca, such as Hausa in West Africa and Swahili in East Africa. This consolidation was seen as necessary to develop regional capacities, though it was countered by a defence of linguistic diversity. This argument seemed to reflect an ongoing division between the realist and romantic positions in the South – whether the answer lay in adapting existing structures of power to Southern interests or in dismantling those structures in themselves.

China was a dominant topic in the second day. It began with a critique of the damage that Chinese imports had inflicted on the Nigerian textile industry. Almost all textile factories have now turned to vegetable oil production.  Part of the problem seemed to lie not just with the Chinese, but also Nigerian entrepeneurs that too often sacrificed quality for the sake of low price. The discussion developed around the hope that China might provide an alternative hegemon to the United States. But it seemed that China had little interest in competing with the US for global leadership, and was simply looking to further its own interests. In the course of this discussion the positive dimension of hegemony was revealed as the promise of a leadership that would seek to establish common interests. The broad argument between reformist and revolutionary positions raised the question whether the solution was to establish a new fairer hegemon or try to find an alternative to hegemony per se.

During the course of these discussions, questions were often raised about the meaning of South. What is the ideological link between countries of the South? Is there a common interest beyond contestation of the global hierarchy? It seemed in this context that the idiomatic use of the word ‘South’ played a important role in opening up the problem of global equity. ‘South’ provides a more neutral identity than the negative concepts such as ‘developing’ or ‘third’ world. But giving identity to this ‘South’ is an important challenge that still lies ahead. Future discussions are likely to be around the ethical dimension of the southern perspective.

Finally, there was discussion about Australia’s position as a country of the geographical South yet of the Global North. Australia’s ongoing perspective on these issues, particularly from a Pacific point of view, was warmly welcomed.

Presenters included Franca Attoh Chitoh (Nigeria), Olga Castillo-Ospina (Colombia), Romer Cornejo (Mexico), Jerónimo Delgado (Colombia), Gladys Hernández (Cuba), Brendan Howe (South Korea), Ijaz Khan (Pakistan), Bárbara Medwid (Argentina), Lipalile Mufana (Zambia), Kevin Murray (Australia), Kolawole Olu-Owolabi (Nigeria), and Kenneth Simala (Kenya)

The paper on ‘verticalism’ is available here.

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