The Sunday News
IT is my informed guess that every self-respecting university in Africa has a Department of African Studies.
They have a Department of African Literature, African History or Department of African Languages within the furniture of their departments and schools.
All these departments are established and administered with African pride. The champions and operatives of these departments and schools carry themselves with the confidence of knowing that they are at least doing something about Africa, its history, literature, languages and philosophy in a world that is anti-African.
In that sense of honour and pride about doing something to centre Africa and its history in the African university most of us do not sense the irony that a Department of African Studies in an African university is a paradox in terms and in practice.
That African Universities have departments of African studies might be one telling sign that universities, in the first place are not or have not become African. They are still colonial outposts located in the African continent. A department of American, European or Asian studies in an African university makes a lot of sense as a signifier of the African university participating in world studies and universality of research.
Otherwise the centre of all studies in the university in Africa should naturally be Africa, its history, philosophy, literature, languages, development and all. Why should Africa be a visitor and occupy some special corner in what is supposed to be her own university if the university is not a colonial and imperial monstrosity?
The idea of Centres and Departments of African studies in the university in African is a colonial idea that does not only need to be understood but also needs to problematised. I seek to do that in this short instalment. Academic and intellectual institutions in Africa, just like political and social institutions, must clarify their identity and location in Africa, whether they are liberating institutions or they are perpetuating a colonial and imperial agenda.
A stand must be taken, for or against decolonisation, so that the task and course of liberation may be clear.
A Thing Called Area Studies
When academic disciplines were invented in the West, white people of that part of the world were studied as human beings that were a standard for other human beings.
The white person, especially the white man, was the template of a human being, the standard and the prototype.
Scientific racism invested much time and effort in trying to prove the truth of that racist myth, the myth that the white person is the human being par excellence, others are imitations.
Peoples from other parts of the world and their histories and places were studied as ethnic and exotic groups that were not an example of what human beings should be. For that reason, Africa, Asia and Latin America were studied in western universities in special Centres that were created specifically for the studies of people and places that were not European or American.
That is how Area Studies was born. Africa, Asia and Latin America were studied in the West as special and specific areas by those scholars that were interested otherwise they were not central to the western academy.
To study other people and places outside the West was for adventurers and intellectual tourists.
Some few anthropologists, sociologists, theologians and historians who took an interest joined Centres for African Studies, Latin American Studies and Asian Studies in the Western academy. Africa in particular was studied as a thing and a place with interesting or funny people and characteristics. Studying Africa and Africans was a kind of intellectual tourism and exoticism. It is Area Studies as a European and American academic discipline that created the idea and practice of African Studies, Asian Studies and Latin American Studies.
Centres for African Studies where ever they are found are actually creatures of racism and colonialism. My gesture here is not designed to deny that there are scholars in the departments of African studies that are doing great decolonial and liberatory work in African universities.
Some of the most decolonial departments that I have studied are departments of ethnic studies in American universities.
That is where one finds scholars from Africa, Latin America and Asia that challenge Empire from within its belly. What my gesture intends is to point to it that the idea and practice of a Department of African Studies in Africa is a colonially and racially problematic idea that must not only be understood but must also be problematised.
Area Studies was a kind of nativism and homeland mentality that reduced people to their villages and homelands while it gave Europeans and Americans the right and the confidence to study everyone in the world. European and American scholars, historians, anthropologists, sociologists and theologians were all over Africa writing books about natives and their ways.
There were no Africans in Europe and America studying whites, colonialists and imperialists and their ways. It is important that we know that Departments of African Studies in Europe, Africa and America were created by Euro-American scholars that were studying Africa and Africans as things and areas. For that reason, Departments and other institutions of African Studies must be decolonised, freed of their colonial and racist sensibilities and systems.
Under the academic and intellectual regime of Area Studies and its baby, African Studies, black African scholars in Africa were not really considered scholars. They were research assistants.
They were what Mahmood Mamdani called “native informants” literate locals that helped academic tourists from Europe and America to collect data and to understand natives. African scholars had experiences of their own people and history while the Europeans and Americans had theory and intellection. We must be careful therefore, in our Departments of African Studies that we do not continue to be native informants and research assistants but true theorists and intellectuals of Africa.
Being native informants and research assistants does not only refer to assisting Euro-American scholars in the research field or telling them about our people but it also means relying on their theories and concepts in trying to study and understand our own societies and selves. It is for that reason that I insist that, wherever it is found, African Studies should be decolonised, liberated from its genealogy and birth from Area Studies.
To decolonise African Studies and their Departments is exactly that, to liberate them from their colonial origins, systems and sensibilities.
These departments, as Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni would argue, carry a colonial and racist birthmark that they need to be liberated from.
We would rather put a decolonial tattoo on that colonial birthmark in order to erase and compromise it.
The Tribulations of Mahmood Mamdani
Sometime in September 1996, Mahmood Mamdani was contracted by the University of Cape Town in South Africa to work as a Director of the Centre for African Studies.
He took up the challenge and drafted a curriculum and some course outlines intended for the study of Africa by Africans. As soon as he tabled the plan before the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities serious problems arose.
He was made to realise, not in so many words, that he was not hired to actually carry out decolonised African Studies in Africa but to be a token, a mascot to keep the world seeing and thinking that Africa is being studied from an African perspective at the University of Cape Town after the demise of juridical apartheid.
Being Mahmood Mamdani, the artisanal scholar who wrote the canonical book, Citizen and Subject, he protested. He was immediately suspended from the course and other scholars, whites, were brought in.
All hell broke loose when the chosen scholars designed a course that was the same study of Africa and Africans that Area Studies and its kind of African Studies privileged.
Mamdani being the combative intellectual that he has always been, protested and put his protestations in writing, explaining what was wrong and colonial with the course that the scholars who replaced him were perpetuating. That fight became what is now remembered as the Mamdani Affair in the South African academy. In short Mamdani refused to participate in colonial and racialised education in Africa. He rememberably called the design of African Studies in the University of Cape Town the “Return of Bantu Education.”
He refused to be a black face that directed a centre that advanced a racist and colonial way of studying Africa and Africans in Africa. In that way, Mamdani set an example for scholars in the departments of African Studies, African Languages, African Literature, African History and African Philosophy in Africa.
It is so easy to be black and African but still dutifully serve colonialism and racism in the African University by failing to resist colonial academic and intellectual practices, tendencies, systems and sensibilities. Departments of African studies, in whatever guise cannot be demolished or abolished, but can be decolonised and liberated from their origins and birthmark of Area Studies and its racism, Eurocentricism and imperialism.
The names African Studies and African University or University of this and that other country in Africa do not guarantee that Africa and Africans are being respected and liberated in these institutions.
Scholars still need to look at their work, their daily routine and the ideas they valorise to check if they are not treacherous accessories of colonialism in the university in Africa.
– Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from The University of Pretoria, South Africa: [email protected]