Grasping difference

The debate around the Centre for African Studies (CAS) at the University of Cape Town is really about the perceived need to institutionalise difference. As such it is an issue that all historically marginalised ways of being different encounter when they become fields of study—such as African studies, gender studies, queer studies and so on.

What kind of institutionalised autonomy is needed to demarginalise the historically marginalised? Much is being made of the difference between “closing” and “disestablishing” the CAS—a difference probably exaggerated by the pro-CAS lobby and trivialised by UCT administration.

We can perhaps best come to grips with this important difference by bearing in mind Frantz Fanon’s statement that “every human problem must be considered from the standpoint of time”.

Implicit in both the pro-CAS and the administration positions are two models of what it means to produce knowledge of Africa, the legitimation of proceeding in a specific way, a comment on the transformation of the South African knowledge-scape and a shadow that invites criticism of the model itself.
Because both models are temporal in the sense of being functions of a specific political and intellectual climate, we need to critically engage them both.

Those in favour of retaining the CAS make two claims—one universal, the other historical. Universally, the centre is the equivalent of an American centre for American studies or Canadian centre for Canadian studies—a logic ultimately rooted in the racialised sovereignty discourse of Western modernity that takes as a point of departure either the Western nation state or racialised differences such as the “Western” andd the “African”. This origin of the CAS is as inescapable as it is problematic, and how the pro-CAS model deals with the ambivalence is not always clear.

The second, historical claim is that the CAS is necessary given the historical marginalisation of Africa, its people and their knowledges. Only institutionalising the difference will protect Africa(ns) from further knowledge imperialism.

The relation between the universal and historical claims is simple: where an African university, unlike its American or Canadian counterparts, can no longer afford such a centre, the historical claim still militates against either closing or disestablishing it.

What the UCT administration seems to underestimate is that there can be no talk here of a simple practical solution to a practical problem (“budget concerns”, “sabbaticals”, “pooling of resources” and so on)—as if such a gesture would not resonate deeply with the historical marginalisation of (the study of) Africa.

But the pro-CAS discourse is haunted by a very specific ambiguity. While institutionalising African studies may foreground knowledge transformation and demarginalisation, it generates conservative implications. After all, if Africa is studied over there in the CAS, why should we feel compelled to do it over here in the philosophy department?

Of course the CAS will defend itself against this accusation by implicitly relying on the universalist argument. But that is inadequate because, as Foucault reminded us, we may often know what we do and even understand why we do it, but we are never in control of that which what we do does. Much as the CAS may contest this conservatism, it can do nothing to counter the effect of institutionalisation, namely the impression that the study of Africa happens “over there” where it poses no real threat to discursive dominance “over here”.

The argument for “disestablishing” the CAS, on the other hand, is modelled on the idea that the political geography of transformation in South Africa has fundamentally shifted—as is suggested by the name of the proposed new super-school, the “new school for critical inquiry in Africa”. While the CAS was explicitly a centre for African studies, the new school offers to (merely?) locate critical inquiry in Africa—as if, being at UCT, it could be anywhere else.

At best this renaming escapes the problematic “area studies” legacy of African studies while promising to give substance to UCT’s “new mission to be an Afropolitan university”, as the university’s vice-chancellor, Max Price, put it (”No threat to African centre”). At worst, it will be haunted by the ghost, implicit in this model, that the struggle against marginalisation—to which the CAS was the answer—is over. The shift to a celebratory emphasis on Afropolitanism implies that it may be; the very recent (in intellectual terms) debacle involving Mahmood Mamdani implies that it certainly is not over.

We can usefully conceive the parameters of this debate by recognising a Fanonian tension at work. On the one hand we must engage Africa beyond the Manichean logic of Africa/West and celebrate “Afropolitanism”. This we can do by insisting, to paraphrase Fanon, that “Africa is its own foundation” and that the meaning of being African will remain limited as long as we keep departing from a negation of Western ideas about Africa. On the other hand, we also have to recognise the need to see the dialectic of recognition through—which means, for now, negating and contesting but also institutionalising the differences necessary for that process of recognition to unfold.

In short, the aporia or unresolvable paradox here is between wanting to speak from a position beyond the dialectic of recognition and knowing that only a dialectic of recognition can get us there. The question that UCT has to address is this: will the proposed “new school for critical inquiry in Africa” strike this aporetic balance?

All South African universities are grappling with these questions one way or another. Rhodes University, which has never had a centre for African studies, recently introduced its “Thinking Africa” project. Opting neither to institutionalise the difference as African studies nor to simply entrust intellectual transformation to a quasi-voluntary general curriculum review, the project seeks to re-imagine postgraduate studies along the lines of teaching-led research projects.

Duke University’s VY Mudimbe, author of such classics as The Invention of Africa (1988) and The Idea of Africa (1994), will launch “Thinking Africa” at Rhodes in July.

Leonhard Praeg is assistant professor in the department of political and international studies, Rhodes University, and the 2011 coordinator of the “Thinking Africa” project. This article will appear in the project’s first quarterly newsletter this month. For more information on “Thinking Africa” and its newsletter, email

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