Still searching for the human

In thinking about the humanities in the academy, I do so against the backdrop of three photographs that held my attention during the past few weeks.

They are a remarkable aerial shot of Langa in Cape Town, showing the aftermath of yet another series of shack fires; the second is an image taken in Grabouw a few weeks ago, showing the violent clashes that resulted from racial confrontations. The third is the one taken by Benny Gool in 1994 of Nelson Mandela, in those heady, balmy days after our first democratic election.

As I think about these images, I am taken aback at the contrasts and struck by a sense of disbelief and bewilderment. I am at a loss to explain why the aerial image of a war-torn, fire-ravaged township is placed only on page three of a local newspaper—its inhabitants apparently too insignificant to be identified.

I am shaken by the rage on the faces of two men as they clash in Grabouw.
I struggle to reconcile this with the Gool image, which conjures up, in sharp relief, the euphoria I felt as I stood in the winding queues to finally make my mark on the 1994 ballot sheet.

I do not think I am alone in this bafflement. This was not supposed to be the story of post-apartheid South Africa as we danced, cried and sang our way to our freedom. We believed in the impossible and that the monsters—metaphorical and otherwise—had finally been banished. Like many, I believed that I was free at long last.

What I realise now, though, is that there are names of demons that I do not know. Many of us are disoriented in this post-apartheid world, unable to recognise and comprehend navigational points, afloat in a place and time where the actions of many are incomprehensible.

This is the context of any discussion about knowledge, knowledge practices and higher education in South Africa. To think about the humanities in higher education institutions is to focus on the study of the human and freedom. I suggest that the humanities are significantly more than a programme to develop a civil society and good citizens.

Rather, I suggest that we ought to think about the humanities as a field of thinking that critically analyses our world. This involves working through those difficult questions about who we are, how we live together in difference and what we consider the human to be, both in life and in death.

Particularly for us, with our oppressive past, there is no more central question than that of the human. And, given Africa’s history, the question becomes urgent when we talk about the study of Africa. Its centrality and urgency touch all of us who call ourselves educators in some form. Should not we, as educators across the academy, ask what precisely it is we are trying to do, what kind of country and continent we are trying to build and on what foundation it rests?

The question of the human and the humanities speaks about the past in the present and demands a radical look into the ways of life and sets of practices that we have created. In looking, it asks: Are we really free? It demands that we think through the lines between emancipation, liberty and freedom.

These are not simply academic projects, left to those with honorifics who are overly fond of words such as epistemology and discourse. Rather, the question of the human forces the humanities scholar in Africa to think about what it means to engage with the ordinary, the banal and the everyday. It demands thinking about our responsibilities and how we are to access and theorise about the lives and experiences of people who have never heard of Foucault and Fanon.

They are not self-indulgent questions either, for what the humanities scholar in post-apartheid South Africa theorises about from the relative safety of her office has very real implications for the ordinary man and woman who continue to live a life marked by an oppressive and racialised past.

The humanities scholar asks us to think about the reverberations of a past that refuses to subside. She imagines ways of recovery and repair and creatively grapples with the question of how we live. She asks us to think about science, technology and the human, for not to do so would be problematic in giving us a means without a certain kind of end.

She stresses, too, that the divide between humanities and the sciences has to be bridged and suggests, therefore, that interdisciplinarity offers a way out of the conundrum and the end to all these means is really the human. In short, then, thinking about the academy and its shape is really to think about the human.

The humanities scholar looks to the visual and dramatic arts, music and literature, in an effort to harness magic and surprise. She works with artists and understands their needs to find ways of communication that leave them, and others, with the idea that, somehow, something is different, that their world view has changed, even though they may not be sure what that change is.

Art has the most creative ­capacity to engage the imagination and it demonstrates that we do not have to work in the old categories. The creative arts, therefore, are central.

Art is not a sideshow; it is not entertainment or an indulgence for the elite. It is essential to who we are, because it speaks about what we lack and desire and what we can imagine ourselves to be. It allows us to think about power, memory, heritage and memorialisation beyond satisfying the political demands of particular public holidays.

The humanities scholar understands that the imagination allows us to think about new possibilities and practices that are outside conventional frames. She takes interdisciplinarity seriously and asks her colleagues across the academy to answer the question: What kind of country do we want to live in and what kind of continent and world do we want to be a part of?

She recognises the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences and suggests that we need to rethink previous genealogies, not only doing a different narrative or presenting an alternate history, but also how it gets theorised.

The questions of the past become valuable only when we think of them as what some writers have called an “effective critical history”. Through excavation and interpretation, thinking through those previously silenced archives will allow a new writing of the history of South Africa.

What the humanities critically offer is not only writing about the past, but also writing about the meaning of the past. In so doing, the humanities allow for theories about refashioning African knowledge.

The question “Who is an African?” is not going to be worked through science and technology, but through language, new archives and ways of life. We cannot begin to get new historiographies without new archives—and working on the visual arts and performance allows us to do that. This calls for the work of the imagination and dares this nation of ours to dream of infinite possibilities where we may yet be free and the dream of April 1994 be realised.

Siona O’Connell is a curator at the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town. This is an edited version of the paper she delivered at Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s conference, The Future of Humanities and Social Sciences in South African Universities, which he convened in Gauteng from March 28 to 30 to consider the “charter” report of his ministerial committee, chaired by Ari Sitas, sociology professor at the university

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