A right space for African studies

Why is the debate on the organisation and institutionalisation of knowledge produced in and on Africa so complex?

The recent debate on whether the University of Cape Town should incorporate its Centre for African Studies (CAS) into a larger interdisciplinary school of critical studies under the aegis of “Afropolitanism” or whether it should let the centre retain its autonomy raised at least two issues relevant to all (South) African universities.

Firstly, what kind of argument can effectively counter the relentless neo-liberal corporatisation of the university, the endless “cost-cutting,” “pooling of resources” and “streamlining” of operations? (These operations seem tohave become the core business of the university.)

Secondly, how can we conceive and drive the process of transformation towards a curriculum that will offer students a quality education in the sense that it will equip them to live in their socio-political reality?

I want to focus on this second issue. What is or should be the place of African studies in the post-colonial university? Firstly I think that the temporal and historical division between a pre- and post-colonial Africa is not very helpful here.

After all, it’s not as if nothing has happened in Africa since the formal end of colonialism and it is certainly not the case that the mission of the University of East Africa in the 1960s was the same as the mission of the contemporary South African university.

To address the issues at hand we have to start by replacing that simplistic two-fold historical division with a more nuanced, four-fold epistemic division in the production of knowledge on and from Africa.

By “episteme” I mean, following Foucault, a certain regime of truth, a socio-political order of things characterised by a specific conception of the objective of knowledge production. The epistemic breaks advanced here do not simply follow each other sequentially as they do in Foucault’s The Order of Things.

Rather, they layer the historical discourse on and from Africa so that, instead of a linear succession of knowledge regimes, we have a successive but vertical layering of different orders. The old doesn’t go away; the new just gets layered over it. And it is this “layered-ness” of knowledge regimes that make the debate over CAS so complex.

The four knowledge regimes are the pre-colonial, colonial, sovereign and cosmopolitan. Because the concept of the pre-colonial is so complex I will only deal with it obliquely. In each of the remaining three epistemes the study of Africa has a different objective, at the heart of which we find an aporia or profound paradox peculiar to that regime.

First we note that any idea we may have of what “pre-colonial” means emerges conceptually from the category of the colonial and therefore remains, in our exploration of it, contaminated by the language of the colonial archive.

If colonialism was, as VY Mudimbe reminded us in The Invention of Africa (1988), an attempt to arrange Africa to reflect the West’s image of itself, then we are left with the task to re-arrange things fully knowing that every attempt to do so works both within and against Western constructions of knowledge.

I think of this as the aporia of the archive. The process that followed political decolonisation can be described in terms of two related processes: politically, state-making and intellectually, the recovery of pre-colonial modes of thought that, it was argued, could provide the intellectual foundations for post-colonial state-making.

The locus classicus of this was perhaps the “African Socialism project” that argued for the codification of pre-colonial modes of thinking and being into a contemporary ideology that could provide intellectual foundations for the post-colonial state.

In this sovereignty episteme, the politics is one of liberation and the objective of knowledge production consists in the recovery of the pre-colonial modes of thought such that the sovereignty of the political subject would be founded on the autonomy of the subject’s intellectual tradition. But these ambitions remained haunted by the aporia of the archive because both the political and intellectual projects were indebted for their articulation to the very language of Western modernity that it was resisting.

This manifested intellectually in the promise of establishing traditions of thought with their own disciplinary autonomy—an autonomy that would be institutionalised in centres for African studies and the idea of an Africanised university with an Africanised curriculum.

In effect, what we have here is a resistance to Western modernity that departs from and uses the very assumptions of that modernity against itself. It’s nonetheless a paradox, an aporia, of autonomy in which the quest for intellectual autonomy is as intellectually problematic as it is politically necessary.

The sovereignty episteme is followed by one that, depending on context and intent, we can describe in terms of “post-sovereignty,” “globalisation,” “cosmopolitanism” or “Afropolitanism”. Here, the university has become post-historical in the sense that its mission is no longer conceived mainly in terms of the politics of the nation-state.

Sure, we still want our institutions of higher learning to produce responsible citizens but (many of) these citizens are (also) going to live all over the world as part-time Africans. And even those who remain in Africa will have a second life in technology-based imagined communities.

Unlike in the debate on African Socialism, no one today truly believes that if we could only remember what ubuntu was we could found a whole new political project on that recollection. Instead of this sovereign aim, post-sovereign knowledge production has the additional objective of creating a sense of belonging: our students want to know that they are Africans and that they belong in the world.

What is most characteristic about the notion of “belonging”? Perhaps simply this: that I appreciate at once what is most particular and what is most universal about my existence. And herein lies the aporia of belonging.

To help students make sense of, for instance, the Rwandan genocide, I must not only convey a sense of moral outrage at what made this particular event possible, namely a history of colonialism and Tutsi complicity in perpetuating that legacy. I must also understand that event as representing the kind of collective violence we associate with the founding of political communities all over the world and throughout history.

Is collective violence like this exceptional and particular or unexceptional and general? Is it this or that? Well, that would be too easy. It is this and that and we have no choice but to condemn what is particular while also understanding what is universal about it.

What does all of this have to do with the question of institutionalising the study of Africa? Well, in light of the above, imaginewhat we are expecting from our answer: an institutional arrangement that embodies, represents and engages the politics of recollection, sovereignty and the cosmopolitan.

Of course everything would be a lot easier if the Western bias of higher education could simply be transformed overnight so that we no longer need an Africa Day because every day will be Africa Day.

But that’s not going to happen and until it does (if it ever will), we need to think very carefully about losing institutions like CAS that, problematic as their sovereignty politics may be, still drive us in the right direction.

Leonhard Praeg is assistant professor in the department of political and international studies, Rhodes University. This is a shortened version of his address at the UCT Africa Day panel discussion on “The Study of Africa in the Postcolonial University”

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