Affirmation of academic colonialism

Suren Pillay : A SECOND LOOK

Academic seminars have a reputation, not completely unfounded, for being staid, boring affairs in which crusty old professors, and younger wannabees, share and debate jargon with mild civility and polite banter.

But recently I attended one that had the tension of a dramatic performance, and the raunchiness of a rock concert, in the sense that no punches were pulled, and not just one female member of the audience looked as if she was about to fling her knickers on to the stage.

The occasion was the much-awaited public seminar by Ugandan academic and AC Jordaan Professor of African Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Mahmood Mamdani. He delivered his critique of the current Introduction to Africa component of UCT’s new foundation course.

Mamdani’s talk honed in on the response of Professor Martin Hall to previous criticisms Mamdani had made of the course. The seminar was the culmination of months of tension and debate around the content, scope and depth of the African studies course, which saw Mamdani suspended from the organising group, then apologised to and subsequently criticised in the Mail & Guardian, by the vice-chancellor, Mamphela Ramphele, in what many feel to be a severely questionable managerial manoeuvre.

Mamdani’s main criticism is that the current foundation course replicates previous colonial conceptions of African history and Africa as economically, socially and politically synonymous with equatorial Africa or Africa ”between the Limpopo and the Sahara”. Southern and North Africa are excluded in conceptions of Africa, as currently taught to students.

Mamdani also strongly criticised the reading list as devoid of the seminal works of members of the African intelligentsia whose work forms the basis for the key debates taking place in contemporary African Studies. Hall had responded to this accusation by listing a number of African academics who are referenced in the readings of the foundation course.

Mamdani conceded that ”I was initially thrown by this”, but soon illustrated the general lack of familiarity of South African academics with the rest of the continent, when he pointed out that one of the academics was, in fact, not from the country Hall stated, and was an internationally known historian who has written a volume on Africa for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Another was not even from Africa, but a renowned Russian academic.

Furthermore, the central text of the course was a single textbook designed for North American students and first published in the 1970s. Not only did the textbook repeat the colonial periodisation of African history, but it was also out of date.

Mamdani’s paper was welcomed with rapturous applause by the majority of the capacity crowd who packed into the African Studies seminar room, after braving a wind-swept and wet Cape afternoon.

Nadia Hartman had the not so enviable task of having to respond to the devastatingly effective delivery. She proceeded to explain that Mamdani had altogether misrepresented the aims of the foundation course, explaining that research at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and a number of other European institutions, whose data, when coupled with the work of researchers at UCT, had resulted in the current structure of the course. If ever we needed confirmation of Eurocentricism!

She did not respond in any way to the content issues raised by Mamdani. The overall structure of the course, after all, is not the issue in dispute.

After a short lecture on pedagogy, without any reference whatsoever to any developmental work undertaken on the continent, members of the audience became increasingly agitated and fidgety and downright bored.

As if to underscore the sentiment that there is a lack of understanding, Professor Charles Wanamaker rose and instructed the audience to stand and stretch because he could ”sense that people were getting a bit restless”.

Wanamaker then challenged Mamdani’s critique, saying that he (Mamdani) had responded to ”a skeletal course outline”. Yet, the course outline does illustrate the course as it is being taught, with the readings that are being used.

We are told by Wanamaker that he still believes that Mamdani’s problem is that he ”does not understand the needs of first- year UCT students”, and so he had to submit to the wise counsel of his learned peers, we presume.

Is that what colonial governments said about their ”subjects” ruling themselves? I mean, what experience did they have of governing? They should rely on ”our” tutelage!

Mamdani likened the course, and this kind of ”expertise”, to extending ”bantu education” and ”native development”.

It was fascinating to watch staff members at UCT, both black and white, shake their heads profusely in agreement. One had the sense of a great pressure release valve slowly opening and cobwebs and dust within the hallowed halls and ivy-ensconced buildings becoming slightly disturbed.

It was also easy to see those who were not endeared with the criticisms Mamdani was making. A heartfelt plea by a member of the audience to Wanamaker really summed up the problem for me. She said: ”Why didn’t we say, ‘We don’t know … we don’t know.”’ This is precisely the reason Mamdani seems to have been irked.

Sections of South African academia refuse to admit that they do not know everything, and to have some African academic come in and tell you so must be quite irritating. As Mamdani said: ”A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Not that he claims to know everything, but he is part of the post-independence intelligentsia, and his contact with and knowledge of the Africa that we as South Africans have been isolated from is immense.

Notwithstanding this, he indicated that he did not and could not design a course on his own. He turned to the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) history department because ”no one at UCT’s history department has as their research focus equatorial Africa”.

To this, Nigell Penn of UCT’s history department later retorted: ”All the gems of UWC’s history department graduated from UCT,” and that UWC had ”copied” their course design. Just when we thought the ”natives” were doing something good on their own!

The fall-out from this seminar should be immense, that is if it is not choked by the powers that be. One senses that those people who were invigorated by the courage of Mamdani, who feel ”outside in the teaching machine”, will not allow that to happen.

As he himself responded to the young lady who asked whether this was his resignation speech: ”I always keep my options open … but I do not run away.”

Suren Pillay is a lecturer in political science at the University of the Western Cape

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