The ghetto in the ivory tower

I am often asked the question: why a centre or institute of African studies in an African university?

Should the academic study of Africa not be mainstreamed within the disciplines in an African university? Why retain an anachronism from the “ancient” past of ­colonialism and apartheid?

I realise that each African university—in all good conscience—will have to answer that question for itself, but there is still a serious question here that requires more than blanket dismissal.

The question gets asked in several ways and the spectrum of ways of asking runs from the puzzled ignorance of some scholars to the condescending arrogance of others. These major attitudes at the ends of the spectrum encapsulate the ways in which the question crops up and they deserve attention.

There are those who ask it with a genuinely puzzled ignorance of what these institutes really do—like asking a scholar in a centre for American studies or Canadian studies what he or she really focuses upon. Here the implicit assumption is this: amid the proliferation of disciplines where the study of Africa (or America or Canada) is done, what is it that you really do that is different from these?

This is the benign, truly intellectually inquiring form of the question.
In instances such as this, and because I am located within a centre for African studies within an African university, I pause and patiently explain, rather like other scholars in niche intellectual fields tend to do. And I feel this current of satisfaction when I have been able to do this.

However, others ask the question with a tone of knowledgeable confidence that African intellectual production or—as is more often the case—intellectual production on Africa has become recognised beyond the need to band together to defend and legitimise it.

There is often a sneering tone in the asking that is somewhat bothersome for its insinuations, a tone that one discovers sooner rather than later is laden with the arrogance of the expert in the clichéd and the conventional.

Here the question is not about what you do—it is not really a question seeking an answer. It is one to which the answer is already presumed to be known. To appropriate what the theorist Frantz Fanon says about “the fact of blackness”, the question comes loaded with history, battered with tom-toms, already predetermined from without.

At this point, you are tempted to throw the question back at your dishonest interlocutor with the contempt it deserves. But then you realise that those who have been short-changed by the history of knowledge production do not have the luxury of silent rebuttal. So here we go again.

Underlying this second manner of asking the question is the conventional wisdom that African studies emerged out of the marginalisation of Africa within the disciplines.

Because Africa was not present at the “tea party” where the fragmented self-understanding of knowledge was consolidated in disciplinary formations, there was no African history, literature, sociology, philosophy, et cetera, to speak of. African studies, by this partial historical understanding, became the holding house for all those denigrated knowledge that had been excluded from scholarly attention, the ghetto within the ivory tower.

Against this historical background, the coming of political independence and liberation should surely mean that the study of Africa has been mainstreamed within the disciplines and therefore the rationale for a centre of African studies should inevitably disappear. A centre for African studies in these postcolonial times is therefore seen as an anachronism, a retrograde retention from the past, something that should be shed like the evolutionary tail. If you have been finally let through the democratic door of knowledge, why lock yourself out? This, in a nutshell, is the summary of this attitude.

As condescending as this attitude may seem, let me say again that this is the more benign form of this second approach. There are of course the more extreme, dramatic expressions of this that I often refer to as the conspiracy and contamination theories. These range from claiming that African studies is the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, a field constructed and consolidated by white males as a form of surveillance of an area of the world, either as a handmaiden of the civilising mission or as an agency of ideological control.

Between the righteous pontifications of right and the pretentious liberalism of the left, you are given a plethora of historical evidence of how contaminated African studies is as a field of scholarship. What is often left unsaid in most of these positions is the contaminated origins of all of the fields of knowledge that we all find ourselves in. More importantly, they ignore the agency of African intellectuals themselves and those Africanists not beholden to these agencies of control who located themselves within this field and, within the conflicted and contradictory nature of all such undertakings, push forwards its frontiers.

We need to remind ourselves as often as we can that the struggle against marginalisation and objectification within the domain of knowledge was not simply a struggle for seamless integration, as the liberal mind likes to think. It was more fundamentally a struggle for epistemological decolonisation, to use the lofty phrase of anticolonial nationalism; it was a struggle to interrogate and reconfigure the enabling paradigms and methodologies that undergirded the entire enterprise of disciplinary knowledge as it evolved within the academy.

Nationalist leaders of all hues never tired of insisting that the struggle against colonialism was not simply a political struggle but also a knowledge project. Insisting on the agency of the subjugated means more than just a little more African history or a touch of African literature here and there. It involves a re-examination of the protocols through which historical or literary knowledge is produced and their deeply rooted foundations in exclusion and Othering. For those of us who have been beneficiaries of that earlier struggle, we need to be reminded that now, more than ever, that project is more imperative.

I began by saying that every university in Africa has to answer for itself. At the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, my colleagues and I have tried to place that question and the knowledge project it entails at the centre of our intellectual work. We have sought to claim this epistemological space built on the recognition that what a university really transmits is not only the various contents and objects of knowledge but that the manner in which the objects of knowledge are ordered and organised matters.

It is the authority of this ordering that certifies us as universities and as academics and this, ultimately, is what we transmit to our students and to future generations. All the elaborate bureaucratic structures that we erect around what we do revolve around this central function of universities.

In the courses we teach we endeavour to prioritise and problematise the production of knowledge about Africa, be it within the disciplines, in public culture and in the intellectual and popular cultures that constantly generate “facts”, representations and images of Africa. We insist that there is a canon of work ordered around these issues that should and must be the object of intense theoretical attention in its own right beyond the fractured offerings available elsewhere.

Professor Harry Garuba is director of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies, the future of which is under discussion. This is his edited version of the paper he presented at the launch of the African Studies Centre at the University of Michigan in the United States in March 2009

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