April 23, 2022
Suffocation: Motlatski Khosi, Divine Fuh, Angelo Fick, Desiree Lewis

This conversation moderated by Catherine Burns features Motlatsi Khosi, who is a lecturer at the University of South Africa in the department of philosophy, practical and systematic theology; and Divine Fuh, who is a social anthropologist and professor from Cameroon, and director of HUMA, the Institute for Humanities Africa based at the University of Cape Town. They are joined by Angelo Fick, who is currently the director of research at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute. Lastly, we have a presentation from Desiree Lewis, a professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape. All these speakers give presentations that tap into anthropological issues that hinder breathing, both physical and figuratively.Here some take away points from these presentations: 

Watch the full conversation here and keep reading for key quotes by each panelist.

Motlatsi Khosi

  • My presentation seeks to understand how theory can act like breath; it needs to make sense of new ideas when others consume our ways of thinking. These consuming ideas are of those in service of maintaining dominant power structures.


  • I argue that the teaching and collective learning acts as the breath; it acts against structures that will choke our existence, either knowledge, producer or its consumer, those with value, and those without. 

  • We must first understand that the world we live in thrives off its ability to squeeze us into moulds of existence that seek to perpetuate systems of power. 


  • This explains the cause of Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall student protest movements to “Africanise” universities. Here, the students’ experiences on campus are alienating even when they're in their own country.

  • In the US Black Lives Matter protest the slogan “I Can't Breathe” is used to highlight the systemic violence against black bodies by police. 

  • Eric Gardner, a father who has been described by his friends as a neighbourhood peacemaker, was killed by police. While apprehending him they used a chokehold that killed him. It’s an example of how black bodies are no longer seen as human and only as threats. 

  • Decolonisation is a means by which academics are responding to the questions and the function of the university and other such institutions that govern our lives. 

  • The legacy of this violence can be seen in those recovering from colonialism, who are relegated to the realm of third-world or emerging economies. Their experience of colonialism and modernity is one that has left them without land, resources and autonomy over their own lives.

  • The collective learning experience can be a means in which we break the imposing systems; it is through learning together, that we can manifest some breathing room.

Divine Fuh


  • I've titled this talk “Nerds, Bullies and Nannies: Breathing care into the post-Covid University”.

  • In the past years, I've become interested in the feminist ethics of care, but also around knowledge production and decolonisation. 

  • Suffocation is the best way to describe the experience of knowledge production, of higher education, and the university across Africa and across the world. 

  • The university is choking, and is choking for several reasons. One is decolonisation, colonisation and colonial continuities, which explains this movement for decolonisation and the coloniality, which takes up a lot of time to explain why alternative epistemology is important.

  • We are choking because of epistemic violence and these are issues that have been raised for years.

  • John Smith talks about the importance of numbers. The university has become a place to produce numbers: a number of students, produce a number of papers, to have a citation index, to have downloadables, to have clicks. The consequence is that the university has become a kind of an asylum. 

  • Mental illness and mental health has become one of the greatest challenges of this space. In fact, it has become almost an institution that can be defined as a kind of a pathology that we need to treat. 

  • We need to radically change the cultural practice and also the purpose of the university.

  • Care, and precisely a feminist ethic of care, can become a central organising principle for the university and the purpose for the decolonial university context.

  • The university's purpose is to humanise and to prepare, and train humans to humanise other people, which means that we work towards building better humans and building a better society. 

Angelo Fick 

  • The dying words of a man being murdered in full glare of cameras, “I can't breathe” became the rallying cry across not just the United States communities affected by that structural violence and racism, but around the world among people calling for significant system overhaul.

  • The global pandemic that has challenged Homo sapiens reminded us in other ways how the metaphoric breathing, we all supposedly are free to do in the post-Cold War age, was actually highly constrained.

  • In the abnormal times of pre-Covid South Africa, millions found it difficult to breathe under the polluted waters of a corrupt state and a society organised to enrich the plutocrats even further, and to neglect the needs of the growing precariat.

  • We are not because we think; we are because we produce and consume. 

  • Metaphoric breathing. The freedom of being fully human promised by South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution is over-determined by class and its intersections with race, gender, sexuality, and education, among other things. This is after all, a femicide society, a society of massive rates of life chances curtailed for the poorest majority. 

  • Therefore the possibility of our future breathing does not lie only in the science or technology but also in the role of the imagination of the artistic. 

  • We need institutions for those new ways of breathing because the existing ones stifle our breaths, sometimes metaphorically, but sometimes tragically, as has been shown, also, literally. 

Desiree Lewis

  • I'm interested in everyday human engagements with food in relation to efforts to transcend anthropocentrism; these efforts are often associated with post-humanist academic inquiry, but I describe this inquiry as breathless.


  • Many indigenous epistemologies are connected to the embodied knowledge that I focus on.

  • In many indigenous knowledge – such as yoga, Buddhism and Confucianism – ethics, knowing, and being are fused, and this fusion is often seen to be facilitated through breathing and a kind of suspension of thought. 

  • Since eating, growing, cooking, and buying food so obviously reveals connections between the human and the nonhuman, this relationship is a crucial one. It can allow us to explore both transgressive and conservative (broadly put) responses to the human/non-human connection. 

  • Yet the meanings of what is due can't be separated from a mediating context in which certain human behaviours and certain senses of self are symptomatic of consumer cultures. To say “I am not me without certain things” doesn't necessarily imply a recognition of the agency of things.

  • One is the spontaneous way in which certain human subjects try to establish connection with food as matter and life beyond them, and so transcending, limiting the sense of I’m trapped in a specific body.

  • These pauses, which metaphorically could be described as breathing, may not be as limited as we often believe them to be. They may be embedded in our memories of practices around and feelings about food.