Post-colonial universities are trapped by their past
Professor Mahmood Mamdani returned to the University of Cape Town (UCT) on August 22 to deliver a lecture on Decolonising the Post-colonial University, 20 years after he left because of a clash with the curriculum committee over his proposed core course on Africa.
In September 1996, the Ugandan author and academic was appointed to the AC Jordan chair in African studies at UCT and became director of the Centre for African Studies in early 1997. In October that year, he submitted the outline of the core course for the foundation semester for first-year social science and humanities students. But the curriculum planning committee could not reach consensus over the proposed curriculum and pedagogy and he was suspended from the committee. This made him wonder whether African studies was being “turned into a new home for Bantu education at UCT”.
In 1999, he left for Columbia University, New York, where he became the Herbert Lehman professor of government and professor of anthropology, African studies and political science. He is also the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala.
So his return to Cape Town seemed to signal a personal triumph. He said he was “overwhelmed” by the welcome he received from an audience of students, lecturers and workers.
To applause from the audience, Mamdani revealed that, when somebody asked him why he decided to come back after staying away from UCT for so long, “I said, ‘because Rhodes fell’.”
Mamdani would add later that, when he came to UCT, he was amazed that fees kept rising after the collapse of apartheid. “To socialise education is to reduce fees, very simply,” he said.
Mamdani divided his lecture into two main parts: “theory” and “the historical context that shaped the post-colonial African university”.
He said theory is born of comparison and, although comparison did not originate in colonialism, it was during the colonial era that comparison made its greatest impact.
“The most comprehensive comparative work was carried out during the European colonial project. It is that work which is of concern to us today as we seek to define the problem of decolonisation.
“With the European colonial project, classification became global. In the heyday of European expansion, the 17th and 18th centuries, European intellectuals — Hegel, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Henry Maine, others — began comparing the European and the non-European worlds. The question was always the same: What was, and is, so distinctive about the West?”
Noting that comparing means classifying and mapping, Mamdani said Durkheim saw chemistry as “the master classificatory science” and, for Marx, biology provided “the most elementary unit of analysis”, much like the commodity within bourgeois society.
“Comparison requires a standard, the familiar, through which the not so familiar is understood, sometimes as not yet developed, other times as abnormal, an outright deviation. All ordering has a reference point. For those who did the classifying and ordering of everything around the world, the reference point was the West.”
For the second part of his lecture, Mamdani dwelt on the historical context that shaped the post-colonial African university, “both in its institutional form and intellectual content”.
He declared that the institutional form of the modern African university was not African and that there was “no connection between the institutions of learning we know of and celebrate in pre-colonial Africa, whether it’s in Cairo or in Fez or in Timbuktu, and the universities we live and work in today”.
The universities of modern or contemporary Africa, he claimed, derive from “the European model of a discipline-based gated community, with a distinction between clearly defined groups, administrators, academics, fee-paying students”.
According to him, “the birthplace of that model” was the Humboldt University of Berlin (established on October 15 1811), “a new type of university designed as Germany rethought how to recover from the defeat by France in 1810.
“Over the next century, this innovation spread over Europe and over the rest of the world.”
This was also true of the intellectual content, as the European Enlightenment gave rise to the modern social sciences and humanities.
He said the category “human” was forged by the European experience, “not the changing vision of a self-reflexive or self-revolutionising Europe but of a self-assertive, aggrandising, conquering Europe, expanding across the globe in a move which began with the New World, then Asia, finally Africa, seeking to transform and civilise that world in its own image”.
He said “the African university began as a colonial project” and was a top priority in the colonial civilising mission. “Properly understood, this civilising mission was the precursor, the original edition, of the one-size-fits-all project that we associate with structural adjustment programmes designed by the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank in the 1980s.”
“The university was the original structural adjustment programme,” he quipped.
Addressing his audience directly, Mamdani said: “If you regard yourselves as prisoners in this ongoing colonising project, then your task has to be one of subverting that process from within, through a series of acts which sift through the historical legacy and the contemporary reality, discarding some parts and adapting others to a new-found purpose — in short, decolonisation.”
He compared the colonial university — “the turf of the universal scholar” (excellence as universal, without regard to context) — with the nationalist university — “the home of the public intellectual” (relevant, contextual, place-specific) — by recalling how the reform movement of the 1960s unfolded on two very different campuses. Makerere University, established in 1922, was “the paradigmatic colonial university in Eastern Africa”, while the University of Dar es Salaam, established as an affiliate college of the University of London in 1961, before becoming affiliated to the University of East Africa following Tanzania’s independence in 1963, was “the flag-bearer of anticolonial nationalism”.
He sees these two contrasting visions as articulated by Ali Mazrui and Walter Rodney, both of whom engaged in spirited debates in both Kampala and Dar es Salaam.
But he cautioned against dismissing one side and embracing the other, noting that each represents a one-sided notion of higher education, and each one contains something of value.
However, in contrast to Rodney’s overriding concern with ideological orientation, Mazrui, as Mamdani explained, believed a university should be committed to “permitting maximum interplay between different interpretations of reality”.
In Tanzaphilia: A Diagnosis, a 1967 essay Mazrui wrote for Transition, an international magazine founded by the Ugandan-born Rajat Neogy in Kampala in 1961, he diagnosed a condition called “Tanzaphilia”. In Mamdani’s paraphrase, it’s “a disease, a political phenomenon, an opium of Afrophiles, a romantic spell which Tanzania cast on so many of those who have been closely associated with her, a condition particularly marked by Western intellectuals”.
Mazrui also recognised “a deeper epistemological reality”, which he termed a “mode of reasoning”, contrasting ideological orientation unfavourably with intellectual acculturation and style of analysis. Mamdani found it noteworthy that Mazrui was writing this in 1967, two years before Michel Foucault would theorise about discursive formations in L’archéologie du Savoir (1969; The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1972).
“To the distinction that Mazrui drew between ideological orientation and mode of reasoning, Rodney had no answer. Mazrui’s point was, of course, that though Rodney, like [Tanzania’s then socialist president Julius] Nyerere, may have an ideological critique of the West, he was speaking from inside that same Western tradition.”
Mamdani quoted Mazrui himself: “No amount of radicalism in a Western-trained person can eliminate the Western style of analysis he acquires. After all, French Marxists are still French in their intellectual style. Ideologically, they may have a lot in common with communist Chinese or communist North Koreans but in style of reasoning and the idiom of his thought, a French Marxist has more in common with a French liberal than with fellow communists in China and Korea. And that is why a French intellectual who is a Marxist can more easily cease to be a Marxist than he can cease to be a French intellectual.”
Distinguishing between a pro-Western attitude and a Western mode of thinking, Mazrui also wrote: “Applying this to Julius Nyerere, we find that someone like him can more easily cease to be pro-Western than he can cease to be Westernised in his basic intellectual style and mental processes and it is the latter quality which has often captivated Afrophile Western intellectuals.”
Mamdani disavowed the possibility of an African intellectual mode of reasoning, pointing out Kiswahili as the exception in East Africa, where it’s the language of primary and secondary education, but not at university, where it’s treated like a foreign language, with its own department of Kiswahili studies. Even then, it is not the bearer of a scientific or scholarly tradition, of high culture or legal discourse.
Unlike Afrikaans, which, for Mamdani, “represents the most successful decolonising initiative on the African continent”, having developed from a folkloric language to being the bearer of an intellectual tradition in less than half a century because of the patronage and support of vast institutional networks, ranging from schools and universities to newspapers, magazines and publishing houses, all resourced through public funds.
Mamdani suggested some solutions to perennial problems. Universities, he advised, should create centres for the study not only of languages (and families of spoken dialects) such as Nguni and Sesotho but also the literatures contained in them. He also called for the setting up of translation units to facilitate the translation of the best global, African and South African literatures into these languages. And he called for investment in academic units devoted to the deep (philological) study of African languages and literatures.
Idowu Omoyele is a student of the Graduate School in Humanities at UCT. Mahmood Mamdani delivered the 2017 TB Davie memorial lecture at the university