“We are here because you were there — in search of a new humanity”


Coloniality and neo-coloniality are words that are not foreign to me, as for many other people with intertwined histories. I am symbolic of the latter: the diaspora still affected by colonial traces; the offspring of Moroccan parents who hail from a country that achieved full independence in 1956.

I might stand before you, a Dutch woman of African Amazigh Moroccan decent, looking unscathed but nothing is less true. Like many things in life, things are not always what they seem. It is not because I happen to have heard these terms over the course of the years I have been walking around in academia; they entail different meanings and consequences. Consequences that have had, and unfortunately still have, a profound effect on the construction of my own African identity and that of many other fellow Africans. There are deep-rooted painful and personal meanings, effects and a legacy, which run as a sharp thread through multiple generations in my own family. And I as a child of migrant parents embody them all.

To explain this I shall focus on two specific cases, namely that of the two Spanish exclaves in Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla. These two exclaves are located on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar.

ceuta melilla
Image by Anarkangel, via Wikimedia Commons

There are of course many more examples from other African countries and continents one can give, but seeing I am granted a limited amount of time I cannot cover them all.

I wish I could say that the forms of colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism regarding Africa all belong to the past. Certainly some forms do belong to the past and we should definitely leave them behind us and move on; although we must be cautious while doing this. It is imperative that we take a critical look at the different meanings we ascribe to these terms, carefully consider what we leave behind and in what manner we move on.

The force that positioned me

The sociohistorical and geopolitical periphery of colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism is what eventually led to me being born in the Netherlands. It is the force that in part positioned me — and in a sense all of us — where I am today. For more than 400 years Ceuta and Melilla have been under Spanish control. The cities used to provide posts for trading and protection for Spanish ships between Africa and Europe. During the 1930’s the Spanish dictator Franco even launched his campaign for the civil war from these cities. In 1956 when Morocco gained independence Spain refused to give Ceuta and Melilla up. Up until this day these two North African cities are under Spanish rule; a piece of Europe in Africa. A part of my family lives in Nador (a region next to Melilla) and also in Melilla. Like Ceuta it is a place that hyper visualizes coloniality. Time to time I am confronted by the reality of these “colonies” or exclaves as the Spaniards would say. Let me show you a short video of the daily reality at the border of Melilla:

We see on the one hand African migrants that try to reach Europe by crossing the fences at the border, and on the other hand poor local Moroccan inhabitants (at the end of the video) trying to make a living by carrying loads up to 100kg or more over the border to the Moroccan side. They are both often treated inhumanly, severely beaten and abused. On more occasion than one African migrants are transported by the Spanish and Moroccan (border) police without any regard to their human rights. Oftentimes they are beaten, transported to the middle of the Sahara by Moroccan authorities, and sometimes even killed. How much of the human capital and talent is lost through these situations, one can only wonder.

Colonial difference: distinguishing the human from the non-human

What comes to mind here is what Walter Mignolo calls the “colonial difference” in the formation and transformation of the modern/colonial world system1. It is a space where a form of the coloniality of power is enacted. It is enacted through the relations of power that exist even after the formal relationship (in part) of colonialism is over. This coloniality of power has profound negative effects on many levels; for example the African migrants and poor Moroccan inhabitants being assigned inferior positions and that have to be kept out of Europe by any means. Under difficult circumstances they are pressed to demeaning positions making them lower than the social superiors.

A fact of the matter is the installment of border fences made of a razor wire barrier that cause serious injury to migrants who try to cross the border; a border that is severely militarized. From 2005 the Spanish government decided — after protests of human rights activists — to remove the inhumane razor wire barrier, but on the Moroccan side the razor-sharp barbed wire has been placed alongside all the border fences. It is important to note that the funds for this endeavor came from Europe. It shows the economic power dynamic that Western governments can have on an African state to keep Africans in their place. These conditions create modes where political independence seems  an illusion. It is coloniality; the powerful reduction of humans to inferior animals. It disallows humanity in distinguishing the human from the non-human.

It is a web of different relations that are cultural, economic and existential that emerged in the wake of political independence. There are various lines of this coloniality and neo-coloniality to be found in the world, one being Western multinationals and their relations to African states. And as Walter Mignolo would state:

The colonial difference is the space where local histories inventing and implementing global designs meet local histories, the space in which global designs have to be adapted, adopted, rejected, integrated or ignored2

Thus the geopolitics of knowledge and the coloniality of power are not an affair of the past or even of one place in the world. Although we cannot easily compare the different colonization and decolonization processes of different continents around the world, we can look at the different power dynamics that also have an influence on the diaspora and analyze them critically. It is a matter of seeing the relations, how we produce, choose to talk about and view coloniality, neo-coloniality and decoloniality. It is political independence and thus neo-coloniality that partially gives the nefarious idea that newcomers do not really belong in the Netherlands for they have an independent country. These particular set of lines of neo-coloniality define our identities on a political, existential, sociological and economic level. Is it possible to rework these lines of neo-coloniality and in what manner? Who is allowed to talk about these issues and in what manner? Thus in relation to these influential lines of neo-coloniality one can also wonder what the freedom of speech means, and for whom exactly this freedom is applicable? And my last question to you:

How do we save ourselves and find our own humanity?

About the title

In the 1970’s postcolonial ‘immigrants’ drew attention to Britain’s economic requirements and colonial past and used the phrase ‘we are here because you were there’ to remind Britain of its historical, economic and social ties. The phrase ‘in search of a new humanity’ is from Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 52.

About this lecture

I gave this short lecture on 17th January 2017 at the event Is Colonialism Still with Us, organised by SBS International and Amsterdam United.



  1. Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), ix.
  2. Ibid.
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