20 years after the ‘Mamdani affair’, the old adversary rejoins UCT

Almost 20 years after the esteemed Ugandan academic resigned following a clash over his proposed core course on Africa, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has announced the appointment of Mahmood Mamdani as an honorary professor.

The announcement of Mamdani’s appointment, which the university says asserts its “path towards decolonising the institution”, was made amid Africa Day celebrations.

In September 1996, the esteemed author and academic was appointed to the AC Jordan chair in African studies at the university 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. The faculty rejected the course.

What the university now calls a “heated falling-out” became known as the “Mamdani affair”. It prompted the scholar to ask, in a 1998 paper, “Is African studies to be turned into a new home for Bantu education at UCT?”

“Students are being taught a curriculum which presumes that Africa begins at the Limpopo, and that this Africa has no intelligentsia worth reading,” Mamdani wrote of the university’s approach to African studies.

“This version of Bantu education, of Bantu Studies called African Studies, is already being taught to every entering student in the social sciences, and will be compulsorily taught, force-fed, to every first year social science student from here on unless we, the faculty, say no.”

In 1999, Mamdani left for Columbia University in New York, where he became the Herbert Lehman professor of government and professor of anthropology, African studies and political science. He was president of the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa from 1999 to 2002.

He is also the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala.

READ MORE: Post-colonial universities are trapped by their past


Mamdani returned to UCT in August last year to deliver a lecture on Decolonising the Post-colonial University. When someone asked him why he had decided to return, his response was simply: “Because Rhodes fell.”

In April 2015, a statue of colonist Cecil John Rhodes — which looked down on the Cape Flats from the university’s mountainside campus — was removed from its perch following protracted calls from members of the #RhodesMustFall Movement.

At his 2017 lecture, Mamdani spoke on the historical context that shaped the postcolonial African university and said he was “overwhelmed” by the welcome he received from an audience of students, lecturers and workers.

In its statement, the university said Mamdani’s texts — such as When Victims Become Killers and Citizen and Subject — have become core readings for UCT students exploring the major debates on the study of African history and politics.

Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, director of the university’s Centre of African Studies, said Mamdani’s appointment is “profoundly significant”, especially in light of the pressure from the student movements for transformation.

Ntsebeza pointed out that Mamdani’s critical work is a source of inspiration students who are calling for a decolonised curriculum.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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