Concept of post-apartheid can help humanities debate

Early 20th-century students at Lovedale College. (IDAF Collection: UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye).

Early 20th-century students at Lovedale College. (IDAF Collection: UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye).

How should we respond to the expectation that the humanities will help to forge a concept of the post-apartheid in South Africa? From the vantage point of a Centre for Humanities Research at a university — the Western Cape — marked by the legacies of apartheid, this question provokes lively and even heated debate. 

We are mindful that our response, and the tone in which we respond, will have consequences for the humanities in years to come. 

As a result, we consciously opted out of drawing lines in the sand in the debate sparked by the two national reports on the humanities and social sciences in South Africa published in 2011, one by the Academy of Science of South Africa, the other (the so-called "charter") by a ministerial task team. Instead, we have chosen to focus our effort on elaborating a concept of the post-apartheid as a way of cohering our larger humanities inquiry and as a framework for reading the national debate. We have asked how rearranging the co-ordinates in the narrative of the humanities in South Africa may help us to exit the current impasse, in which  political sensibilities appear to be hardening around the question of race. 

This context has inspired us to work systematically on the way race and reason coagulate in the discourse of the humanities and in scripts of political subjectivity. The procedure, we find, requires a commitment to self-reflexivity, coupled with a desire to exit the impasse produced by race played out in scripts of nationalism and liberalism. 

In short, we aim to produce a reading of the humanities that adequately accounts for the pernicious force of race in society, discourse and institution — and to think ahead, out of the deadlock.

To this end, the situation into which South African humanities scholars are being invited perhaps resembles the one British scholar Stuart Hall described in a finely argued 1990 essay on The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities. Those familiar with the essay may recall its effort to remind us of how Thatcherism inadvertently recharged the humanities in an institutional setting weighed down by tradition, on the one hand, and overtaken by the global economic forces of the 1980s in Britain and the United States, on the other. 

While learning to live through Thatcherism, which ultimately reclaimed tradition to "exclude all of us", Hall's discussion of the rise of cultural studies through the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies remains a lesson about what is possible, in the midst of a now renewed crisis of the humanities, through small acts. Perhaps the most enduring thought that Hall leaves us with is that, although Thatcherism produced a specific crisis for the humanities, it also provided the humanities with the most fertile ground for its reconceptualisation. That, at least, was how the Birmingham centre manufactured a space, one that Hall described as "filled with rows, debates, arguments, and of people walking out of rooms". 

Against the defensive operation that Thatcherism provoked in the humanities, Hall posited the opportunity that Thatcherism offered for rethinking the work of the humanities in a context where history and theory brought each other to a crisis.

Uncannily, the study of the humanities in South Africa is today similarly caught in a crisis in which history and theory collide. How should we proceed under these conditions to elaborate a concept of the post-apartheid that serves to exit the impasse of race in our society?

I have long maintained that Silas Modiri Molema's The Bantu: Past and Present, written in 1917 and published in 1920, should serve as a touchstone in such an exit strategy. Molema was a founding intellectual of the ANC, a graduate of Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape, a medical doctor schooled in Scotland, home of the European Enlightenment, and a contributor of considerable significance to the critique of race that became a feature of a first generation of nationalist thinkers. 

With the exception of Jane Starfield's research, Molema's book has not received adequate critical attention. Its major orientation is towards a treatment of race in the midst of a rapidly forming segregationist state in South Africa and the global shock waves following World War I. With the horrors of war and the experience of exile as its backdrop, the book brings the category of race to a crisis by asking what happens if the idea of race is taken to its logical conclusion. 

In the final analysis, the very idea of race is brought to a crisis and its unsustainability revealed in scientific and philosophical reason, and in historical and ethnographic description. At one level, Molema seeks to inhabit the predicament of race, but only as a place from which he wishes to depart. At another, he systematically unravels the logic of race by undercutting the certainties of the morality and naturalism that transformed race into a condition of war in Europe. 

Ultimately, he suggests that if racial separation is going to be inevitable, then it should be just, fair and equitable. We should not read this merely at face value, but as a desire invested with fear and impossibility. The anxiety perhaps stems from the consequences of racial struggle at the heart of World War I and its implications for South Africa. 

Generally, there is a recognisable sense of anxiety in texts of critics of race, faced with the pending threat of segregation. For some, there is a sense of resignation. Noni Jabavu recalls such resignation in recollecting the last days of her father, DDT Jabavu. It is a narrative of sadness, in which a future without race seemed to recede. For others, like Molema, there is a sense of resentment brought about by the way liberalism laid claim to a moral-political high ground with the rise of apartheid, with little sense of the bleak future that awaited the vast majority of South Africans.

For those who claimed this high ground, he reserved a few choice words: "In these things, we shall look, and look in vain, for the much vaunted 'Western liberalism'. In vain shall we search the actions for the so-called high political morality. 

"We are reduced of necessity to the conclusion that politics has been dethroned and transferred from the region of speculative ethics to that of matter-of-fact realism, from the abstract law of altruism to the practical law of the strong — the survival of the fittest, down to the law which governs other animals, which governs the plants and even the destructive germs of disease. To this naturalism, which the same people think low, the civilised world has come down. Where then is morality?"

Citing Nietzsche, Molema proceeded to argue that such morality was merely "a sign language, simply symptomotology". If, as he put it, "liberalism and morality are hollow, meaningless words and egregious tricks, then as well might a thirsty traveller expect to get water from a mirage as the Bantu hope to find emancipation by that morality and modern liberalism". British liberalism, he argued, offered "nothing to the Bantu of South Africa except such morbid creations and fancies as 'the native problem'". 

This crisp formulation demands to be reread in our times, not only for the despair it registers, but also because of the fear it cautions about a future marked by a race war. Specifically, Molema was perhaps indicating that liberalism's ascendancy to the position of moral high ground would occur at the expense of anti-colonial thought, reducing such thought to mere hysteria. Stated differently, Molema was concerned that nationalist rendering of the problem of race would be appropriated and oversimplified by the supposedly superior moral claims of liberalism.

With hindsight, we can now see that Molema was not far off the mark when one considers how the "native question" subsequently played itself out in South African humanities discourses. But miss its mark it did. The thinking of a first generation of anti-colonial nationalists, unbeknown to Molema, would be taken up in a more pernicious synthesis that not only resulted in "the native question", but also in a theory of race that would contribute substantially to neoliberal doctrine after World War II.

Displacement is decipherable in the work of William Harold Hutt, professor of economics at the University of Cape Town and a regular contributor to Friedrich Hayek's Mont Pelerin Society. The Mont Pelerin Society was an international research group that brought together leading economists, philosophers, humanists and theorists after 1947 to think through the future of liberalism, even critique its underlying welfarism, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and various forms of state racism. 

Beginning in the 1930s, Hutt contributed a substantial point to neoliberal thinking when he suggested that apartheid was a product of white workers in South Africa who had driven up wages through trade unions that functioned to defend their specific sectional interests. This, he argued, foreclosed the labour market to what he termed "non-white workers." 

Instead of couching his argument entirely in economic terms, Hutt mobilised the story of race in South Africa to enhance neoliberal thinking. His views against Keynesian economics and trade unions would be echoed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, with both having recourse to advisers linked to the Mont Pelerin Society. Thatcher and Reagan, some have argued, had a more direct association with Hutt's thinking. Hutt not only sought to supplement 19th-century liberalism with a concept of labour, but also provided the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics with a theory of race that aimed to dislodge Keynesian economics and welfarism.

In the process, the critique of race was mostly restricted to the "native question" and the discipline of Bantu studies, where it would presumably brush up against reason and result in race relations rather than race war. Under apartheid, both proved to be part of the same logic. In relation to Molema's worry, the critique of his generation was being appropriated to a Chronicle of a Death Foretold for the black subject, who would be granted the elevated status of worker, but just short of the status of citizen. That difference was maintained through the benevolent gesture of trusteeship.

It was this rescripting of race that awaited anti-colonial nationalist thinkers in the 1930s. Their work was readily adopted as cultural studies in the discipline of Bantu studies oriented towards the so-called "native problem". Many of the texts of anti-colonial nationalism helped to launch the discipline of "Bantu studies", which ultimately elevated liberalism's standing in university discourse in South Africa. And with it, the question of race was stuck in the deadlock of moral claims, always available as such, rather than, as Molema may have preferred, a condition to think ahead.

Before our society is overwhelmed by a reassertion of race, and before it finds itself searching for a messianic voice of reason, or stakes out a moral political high ground, we might reflect on the question that Molema opened for us in 1920. What would it mean for the humanities to return politics to an ethics of becoming, to theoretical reason, and not simply to moral standpoint, polemic and hard-nosed realism? 

How, in other words, can we shift the question of the humanities from "what we must do?" to "what we can do?" What would it mean for the humanities to work towards a concept of post-apartheid where no such concept exists, as yet? 

And what would it mean for humanities scholars to consider what they share in the concept of the post-apartheid?

Professor Premesh Lalu is ­director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape

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