[Documents menu] Documents menu
Message-Id: <199804300956.LAA09094@proton.idasact.org.za>
Date: Thu, 30 Apr 1998 12:01:50 +0200
Reply-To: nuafrica@listserv.acns.nwu.edu
Sender: owner-nuafrica@listserv.acns.nwu.edu
From: "Sean Jacobs" <sean@idasact.org.za>
To: "NUAFRICA: Program of African Studies Mailing List" <nuafrica@listserv.acns.nwu.edu>
Subject: Re: UCT Debate

Is African studies to be turned into a new home for Bantu education at UCT?

By Mahmood Mamdani, 22 April 1998

Text of remarks by Professor Mahmood Mamdani at the Seminar on the Africa Core of the Foundation Course for the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cape Town, Wednesday, 22nd April, 1998, 2.30 p.m. The Chair, The Vice Chancellor, Members of the Administration, Colleagues and Friends

I would like to make a preliminary remark before going to the matter at hand. I refer to statements in the press by the highest administrative authority of this university. I do not know to what extent these have been reported accurately. But I do know that these are the kind of statements which tend to intimidate individuals and stifle debate. Debate is the lifeblood of intellectual activity. That the highest administrative authority in the university should seek to give a verdict on an intellectual debate even before it has been joined is indeed unfortunate. For that reason, I urge you to set aside those statements, to ignore them, at least for the duration of this seminar.

Teaching Africa in a Post-Apartheid Academy

The key question before us is: how to teach Africa in a post-apartheid academy. To answer this question, I will begin with some remarks on how Africa has been taught in the past. Historically, African Studies developed outside Africa, not within it. It was a study of Africa, but not by Africans. The context of this development was colonialism, the Cold War and apartheid. This period shaped the organisation of social science studies in the Western academy. The key division was between the disciplines and area studies. The disciplines studied the White experience as a universal, human, experience; area stdues studied the experience of people of colour as an ethnic experience.

African Studies focused mainly on Bantu administration, customary law, Bantu languages and anthropology. This orientation was as true of African Studies at the Uniersity of Cape Town as it was of other area study centres.

Introductory courses in African Studies usually followed a three-fold division. Part One would cover Africa before the White presence, then would follow Africa under White control, and finally, there would be a section on Africa after the departure of the White Man. The moral of the story, implicit or explicit, would be that things fell apart once the White Man departed.

The meaning of Africa would change with the beginning of white control. Africa would cease to be the entire continent. North Africa would become part of the Middle East, considered civilized, even if just barely. White-controlled Africa in the south would be considered an exception, an island of civilization, studied separately. Africa, popularly known as 'darkest Africa', would refer geographically to equatorial Africa, and socially to Black Africa, or Bantu Africa, or Negro Africa, variously so-called.

I would like to say a few words about my own work. I wrote a book in 1996 called Citizen and Subject. One of its objectives was to locate South Africa in the African experience. I argued that the South African academy, even when it was opposed to apartheid politically, was deeply affected by it epistemologically. "The notion of South African exceptionalism," I wrote, "is a current so strong in South African studies that it can be said to have taken on the character of a prejudice." (p. 27). In my first seminar at UCT in November of 1996, I said the following: "To create a truly African Studies, one would first have to take headon the notion of South African exceptionalism and the widely shared prejudice that while South Africa is a part of Africa geographically, it is not quite culturally and politically, and certainly not economically. It is a point of view that I have found to be a hallmark of much of the South African intelligentsia, shared across divides: white or black, left or right, male or female." (p. 3-4, Social Dynamics, Summer, 1996) My point is simple: At no point did I hide my views. I spelt them out both to the UCT Selection Committee that interviewed me in early 1996 and to over 100 members of the Faculty who came to my opening seminar in late 1996. Noone should claim surprise.

Let us now come to the design of the Africa core course in the Faculty's Foundation semester. Let us look at the lecture outline so I may make a few observations.

One, the course is divided in three parts, titled pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. But the headings are mis-leading. Part 2 actually does not begin with colonialism but with the European slave trade. The study of colonialism really begins with lecture 15 in week 8. The pre-colonial section is actually half the lectures in the course. The point is that the periodization is highly racialized. Part 1 is Africa before the White presence; part 2 is Africa under White control, and part 3 is Africa after the White Man relinquished political control.

A second observation. Once slavery begins in equatorial Africa and the White presence in South Africa, South Africa ceases to be part of the course. In fact, both north and south Africa move out of the picture. The focus of the course narrows to equatorial Africa.

The relevant question at this point is: Could this course have been designed differently? Are there other ways of teaching the African experience that could have formed the starting point for the Africa core of UCT's Foundation Semester? My answer is: YES.

The starting point of a different curriculm, a deracialized curriculm, were forged in the academy in independent Africa. In the course design that I prepared before I was suspended from the course in early December, 1997, and in the paper I have circulated for this seminar, I suggested 4 crucial debates which could provide the starting point of framing a new de-racialized curriculm. An awareness of the debates would have transformed each of the three parts of the substitute course that was put in place after I was suspended in December 1997.

Debate One: Is a Historical Sociology of Africa Possible?

The first debate was sparked off by the work of the Senegalese scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop. Diop was concerned about how to arrive at a knowledge of Africa before the White presence. Part of the then prevailing wisdom was that, since Africa had few written languages, there were few reliable sources of knowledge -- mainly archaeology, maybe oral history -- for the study of Africa.

Diop's problem was one of sources of knowledge. Was it possible to go beyond archeological sources which illuminate the distant past, from a million years ago, and oral history, which cannot go any farther than a hundred years, and link these two through other forms of knowledge? How do you reconstruct the middle ground to give historical depth to the African experience?

Diop looked for written sources in languages other than those European, mainly Arabic sources before the Moroccon invasion of Timbuktu in the 15th century. He also explored linguistic evidence. On this basis, he wrote an outline historical sociology of West Africa for the millenium between ancient Egypt and the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Debate Two: Historicizing Gender

I want to link Diop to one of his sympathetic critics, Ifi Amadiume. Ifi's work focuses on the history of gender relations. Starting with a distinction between biological sexuality and social gender, she argues that the history of gender in Africa is not the same as that in Europe. In the process she raises the larger question of the historicity of the African experience. In doing so, she moves away from both Euro-centric and nationalist or negritude historians. Ironically, both Euro-centrists and nationalists were content simply to point out that Africa too had cities, an urban life, specialized crafts and international trade. Her preoccupation, as that of Diop, and the generation of historians like Wamba-dia-Wamba, Mamadou Diouf and Mohamed Mbodj, whether they agreed with Diop or not, was to illuminate the specific trajectory -- or trajectories -- of the African experience. Like Diop, Amadiume too is concerned to go beyond archaeology and anthropology and construct a historical sociology of Africa.

If taken into account, these two debates would have transformed the content of parts 1 and 3 of the substitute course. It would have made the first part truly inter-disciplinary, instead of being confined to archaeology. It would have undercut the essentialist notions of an unchanging African economy and society that are central to the readings in part 3.

While debates 1 and 2 problematize the long duree of African history, the relevance of debates 3 and 4 lies in that they problematize the colonial experience.

Debate 3: Reconstructing Africa from a Political Economy and Civilizational Perspective

It is well known that higher education in equatorial Africa has been mainly a post-independence achievement. As the new intelligentsia in the post-colonial academy reached out to one another, they formed a continental network, called CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Research in Africa). This network provided a forum for debate, a springboard of ideas that could provide a starting point for reshaping Africa as an object of study, this time decolonized and deracialized. A key intellectual contribution to this project came from Samir Amin. In the article I circulated for this seminar, I point to 2 key readings of Samir Amin, which I think illuminate the relevance of his contribution for an introductory course on Africa.

The first reading that I thought important was his 1972 article in the Journal of Modern African Studies. In this article, Samir Amin proposes a way of thinking of Africa, particularly its equatorial and southern parts, as a differentiated unity. The article is written from the standpoint of political economy and it looks at Africa as a contradictory unity of modes of productions, demarcating, for example, labour reserves from peasant economies.

The second reading is the first chapter of his 1976 book, Unequal Development. This time, the standpoint is that of civilizational processes, not political economy. The chapter is concerned with the impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on the civilizational trajectory of Africa. What, he asks, was the civilizational consequence of the fact that the Atlantic Slave trade undercut the trans-Saharan trade and the Indian Ocean trade? How crucial was this develpment in the production of Africa as not only sub-Saharan but also continental (adrift from the Indian Ocean islands)? In historicizing it, he problematizes the notion of sub-Saharan Africa: Africa is not a given, we make it as we make our own history.

While Samir Amin tried to build a differentiated notion of Africa from a political economy and civilizational perspective, the 4th debate I have in mind pursued this same project from a political standpoint.

Debate 4: Reconstructing Africa from a Political Standpoint

The Dar-es-Salaam debate that followed the publication of Issa Shivji's writings in the 1970s focused particularly on the nature of the state and political processes. One outcome of that debate, in the 1990s, has been to locate apartheid within the African colonial experience. The argument is as follows: Did not apartheid, as a form of the state, seek to reproduce race as an identity that would unite its beneficiaries and ethnicity as an identity that would unite its victims? To that extent, should apartheid not be understood as the generic form of the colonial state in Africa, rather than being an exception to it? Also, should we not understand the political identities that colonialism tried to institutionalize as neither positivist (that they exist), nor ideological (that they are invented) but historicized as institutionally reproduced?

My argument is that UCT's introductory course on Africashould have been structured around these four debates. If that had been the case, the first wo would have problematized the long duree, and the last two the colonial experience. If you look at the reading list of the substitute course actually taught in the faculty, you will find none of the key African intellectuals in it.


The required readings in the substitute, instead, come from a single course text, called Africa, and edited by Martin Phyllis and Patrick O'Meara,. Originally written in 1976, it was revised twice, first in the 1980s, and then in the 1990s. Its structure was, however, cast in 1976: that Africa is equitorial and Bantu. Subsequent revisions were informed by debates in the American academy: leading to an emphasis on political economy in the 1980s, and urbanization and gender in the 1990s. Needless to say, the revisions left its core orientation unchanged.

In my view, it was a mistake to look for a single text for the course, for the simple reason that African Studies is radically in need of revision that no single satisfactory text exists as yet.

Why then did the course team adopt a single text? Most likely, because it was the easiest thing to do given that they had little time on hand. For those of you who have read Martin Hall's response to my paper, you will recall that Hall was approached to become a part of the course team in early December, 1997, exactly when I was suspended from the course. He says he didn't begin work until mid-January. So, instead of putting together a collection of articles from diverse sources, something that would have required both expertise and time, they looked for a single text; in my view, that was an easy, lazy and irresponsible option.

A Response to Martin Hall

One member of the team that put together the substitute course was Martin Hall, who has circulated a response to my critique. I would like to present a point by point consideration of his views.

1. First, allow me to redirect your attention to my key question: why did the focus of the substitute course narrow to equitorial Africa with the beginning of the slave trade?

Martin Hall doesn't answer this question. He does not answer it because the narrowing takes placewith parts 2 and 3, which he tells us were not his responsibility. He tells us he had nothing to do with designing them, and yet he claims all along he tells us the course was team-designed!

Instead, he defends his own turf, the first part of the course. So he presents a defense of archaeology and misses the point of my central criticism. For my criticism was never that archaeology is unimportant. I had raised Diop's central question: can we go beyond archaeology and oral history and find other sources of knowledge in our understanding of Africa's history? Is it possible to construct a historical sociology for Africa, as is constructed for other parts of the world?

I still think that the exclusion of a historical sociology from part 1 was something forced on Martin Hall. The absence reflects a key weakness of the History Department at UCT. That department has made choices over the past decade, so that it has noone with a research focus on equatorial Africa. This is in sharp contrast to UWC, whose History Department invested resources precisely in that field. This is why I called on my colleagues to set aside their narrow cliquish comeraderie, their patronizing and matronizing attitudes, and tap the rich intellectual resources at UWC.

This is why when I was asked to design the course in early October of last year, I turned for assistance to Dr. Ibrahim Abdullah, a historian at UWC. I said in my paper that he prepared bibliographical suggestions for me, and guided my reading on the historical sections. I should have acknowledged more: for the fact is that he was the person with whom I bounced ideas every time I wrote, or re-wrote, the draft of a section of the syllabus.

2. The second point in Hall's response relates to my second question: Why did the course team ignore all the key debates in the post-colonial African academy? Hall has three different answers to this question, each equally unsatisfactory.

He begins by saying (p. 5, para 1) that the reverse was the case, that he actually taught students the importance of debate and evidence. This, of course, is not the point. My question is about particular debates, those debates in the African academy which established the possibility of decolonizing and deracializing the study of Africa.

I was initially thrown by Hall's second attempt to answer this question. In the 2nd para of p. 5, he brings out a long list of African names he says are referenced in the text the students read. It is like someone producing a long list of names in an intellectual debate on Freud, Marx, Einstein, etc. and protesting that someof his best friends are Jews! One would dismiss this as a trivial and patronizing gesture if it were not also revealing. For Hall shows a half-baked familiarity with these sources. I will cite the most damning instance. The list of African authors he says students read about included Ki-Zerbo and Olderogge, who he writes are from Rwanda. Now, Joseph Ki-Zerbo is from Bourkina Faso, not Rwanda, something most historians around this continent would know since Ki-Zerbo was the editor of volume 1 of UNESCO's History of Africa. And Olderogge, I believe, is not even an African. He is a Russian, a member of the Russian academy who wrote the first Russian study of the West African jihad. A little learning, as the English say, is a dangerous thing.

I found Martin Hall's third attempt to answer this question actually the most revealing. Students, he says in para 3 of p. 5, were "were not assigned primary sources for the first five weeks," and wonders "at which point in the curriculm students should be required to make use of primary sources." When I read this, I was appalled at Hall's notion of a primary source. A primary source is a source closest to an action. In the language of an anthropologist, a primary source is a native informant. The distinction between a primary source and an intellectual is that a primary source reports, narrates, is the source of empirical data in the first instance, whereas an intellectual sifts through this, analyzes, synthesizes and theorizes. Now, what makes Martin Hall an intellectual, and Cheikh Anta Diop a "primary source," or a native informant? The idea that natives can only be informants, and not intellectuals, is part of an old imperial tradition. It is part of the imperial conviction that natives cannot think for themselves; they need tutelage. That this notion should have found fertile ground in apartheid South Africa with its project of Bantu education cannot be surprising. But why should it flourish unchecked in a post-apartheid academy whose ambition it is to be a world class African university?

We need to put this in context. For the same Martin Hall who writes of natives as informants in one place lavishes praise on Diop at another. Clearly, Hall cannot help acknowledging Diop as a towering intellectual in his conscious moments. But these moments are punctuated by lapses, each a sort of a twitch, returning him to the prejudice that natives can be no more than informants. I suggest we leave further analysis of this to psychologists.

Hall says students read of Diop in his book, and he cites the relevant section in footnote 6 on p. 4 of his paper. Listen to what students read of Diop in Martin Hall's book. They read of "the work of Negritude historians such as Diop (who) ... has emphasized the importance of Egypt's past in understanding the full sweep of Africa's history, and of Africa's contribution to the history of the Mediterranean and Europe." I have two observations on this. Since when did Diop become "a Negritude historian"? It is also clear that Hall has accessed Diop through the North American academy, and not through post-independence African debates. As I observed in my paper, "While the debate around Diop in the North American academy has revolved around his claim that ancient Egypt is the core civilizational archive of African history, Diop's larger significance lay in the more general question he raised: whether history before the arrival of the White Man could be understood as a social history (a historical sociology), or whether the limits of our understanding were the limits of archaeology, however unreconstructed." Hall, having missed Diop's larger significance, passes on that lag to his students.

3. We come to Hall's third line of defense. He has a long section statistically describing the students taking this course, underlining the fact that they are mainly from disadvanteged backgrounds. My question is: so what?

If this is meant as a justification of imparting skills through a foundation semester, that is not under discussion here.

But Martin Hall's long digression does raise a question that I am sure Hall never intended: Why is this disadvantaged student body being fed a disadvantaged curriculm? Is UCT in the process of creating its own version of Bantu education?

4. Hall's final defense is to turn to student evaluations. He gives us the results of a student poll. Students loved the course, he says. And students, I suppose the implication is, could not possibly be wrong. My view is different. I think Martin Hall has given us a self-serving interpretation of the poll.

I have argued that the problem with this course is the result mainly of what the course team left out of the course, not of what they included in it. My critique is mainly about what they did not teach, not about what they did teach.

Students only know what they were taught; they do not know what they were not taught. If a course confirms student prejudices, prejudices instilled through Bantu education -- that Africa lies north of the Limpopo, and that this Africa has no intelligentsia with writings worth reading -- and if the students say they love the course, do we have anything more than successful Bantu education? Now taught to Black and White students in the same classroom, rather than in separate segregated facilities?

Student appraisals cannot substitute for a peer review process. Only demagogues would trade in one for the other, trying to silence critics by waving student appraisals in their faces. Who does not know that every enlightened dictator habitually organizes popular referenda while silencing critics through perks or punishment?

The Role of Expertise in a University

I want to deal with the final point in Martin Hall's response, because I think it deserves consideration on its own. Hall argues that there is no room for expertise in a democracy. He posits two alternatives: either there is 'professorial control' or 'a democratic model of participatory course planning and teaching.' (last para, p. 13). And he holds up the substitute course as a model of participatory design. I have already pointed out that when it comes to taking responsibility, he takes responsibility for only the first part of the course. He says literally nothing in defense of parts 2 and 3. Is the claim to participatory planning and teaching any more than posturing?

But I want to examine the theoretical significance of Hall's argument, the argument that opposes the recognition of expertise to a democratic process. What are we to make of this latterday Luddite position?

Universities, I hope we all agree, are about the pursuit of excellence, the reason why universities like to recognize, honour and encourage expertise. That, in my view, does not rule out democracy in an intellectual setting, for democracy combines acknowledging expertise alongside keeping it open to question, professorships along with peer review. This is why scholarship needs to go hand in hand with humility. Expertise is never final. Debate is never closed. This whyVice Chancellors should resist the temptation to close debates administratively, and why -- inspite of Hall's claim -- intellectual leadership is not the same thing as intellectual hegemony.

So long as intellectual activity is pursued within institutional boundaries, its organisation hinges on decisions which impact on the lives of others. Who is qualified to make these decisions? Who is qualified to design a course syllabus? Anyone?

Let me bring this closer to home. When the university established a Chair in African Studies and recruited an academic from outside, was that not saying the university lacked expertise in the field, I might add, for understandable historical reasons?

Is not that why you invited this same person, the holder of the A C Jordan Chair in African Studies, to write the syllabus of an introductory course on Africa in October 1997?

Why then, when three of your members disagreed with him, instead of calling a meeting to discuss that disagreement, you, the Assistant Dean, suspended the person from the course the day before he was to hand you the final syllabus?

To your credit, you recognized a mistake had been made and apologised. In the meantime, you had put in place a substitute course. When your Chair in African Studies told you the substitute introductory course on Africa was seriously flawed intellectually and morally, you turned around and accused him of wanting to establish intellectual hegemony!

He has elaborated his critique of the substitute course and its three parts. In the face of the critique, Martin Hall has defended the first part. Noone has defended the second part, nor anyone the third part. And noone even admits to having designed the whole course. I would like to ask: Who designed the overall course? Anyone? Or did three persons design 3 separate parts and just slap them together?

Is participatory democracy the name of a new game in which faceless people can make decisions and hide behind the wall of democracy to avoid accountability? Is participatory democracy turning into a slogan for defending faceless decision-making? Are we in a brave new world where democracy is the swansong for a regime of non-accountability, a non-transparent regime?


I am aware that sections of the press have tried to sensationalize this debate, and package it as a race issue. I am also aware that some in the university have helped them do so. I want to be honest. Race is not absent from this issue, but this is not a question that pits black against white. Broadly, it is a question about curriculm transformation, and about who should be making these decisions. Narrowly, it is a question about how Africa is to be taught in a post-apartheid academy.

Students are being taught a curriculm which presumes that Africa begins at the Limpopo, and that this Africa has no intelligentsia worth reading. This version of Bantu education, of Bantu Studies called African Studies, is already being taught to every entering student in the social sciences, and will be compulsorily taught, force-fed, to every first year social science student from here on unless we, the faculty, say no.

I say that the faculty has a right to decide what students will be taught, not just how they will be taught. This decision is normally made through appointments. By all means, appoint as Professor of African Studies the person whose vision of African Studies is in accord with that of the Faculty. But having done so, for all our sakes, leave that person room for intellectual creativity and intellectual leadership -- whoever be that Professor of African Studies!