Monday, 6 June 2011

The Cape must embrace its rich mix

by Achille Mbembe, Meg Samuelson, Sarah Nuttall and Grace Musila, The Cape Times, 7 June 2011

The Western Cape is one of the most creolised regions of South Africa.

A fulcrum between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds, it has never ceased to be a site where North-South, East-West axes and the land mass of the African interior collided and intersected, including during the long years of white supremacy and its wild dreams of racial separatism.

The city of Cape Town in particular is a living legacy of this entanglement of multiple worlds.On the surface, it appears a lazy, colonial settler town reluctantly fast forwarded into the 21st century. Like every colonial town, it finds it hard to resist the temptation of mimicry.A scandal of beauty in the midst of so much waste and ugliness, it has always been haunted by the secret envy of belonging anywhere except to this continent.As a result of which it obsessively clings to its anachronisms, its ossified forms of spatial segregation, its statues, even its street names, and today to the hard edges of its “soft apartheid”.

Underneath though, various communities not so much defined by their differences as by their mutual dependence, have been living cheek by jowl for many centuries.Under the sign of race, black, brown, white and all hues and shades have, at times in spite of their own will, invented a rich, syncretic social mosaic; an astonishing tapestry of human forms, an interlocking topography of cultures, sounds and senses not unlike what is to be found in places such as New Orleans in the United States or similar urban formations in the Carribbean.

But instead of owning up to this history as an asset for South Africa and for the continent, the city élite prefers to imagine this southern tip of the southern hemisphere as some appendix of southern California. In a formidable fit of mental extraversion, they think and act as if Cape Town was in the same position as Hong Kong before the handover to mainland China – an island of “exception” surrounded by chaos, incompetence, brutality and corruption.

For a long time, this country sought to distance itself from the rest of the continent. It pretended to be a European country in the African wilderness. It was willing to live with the African landscape and its wildlife, but it needed not forge genuine, human ties with Africa as a people. It traced its cultural genealogy to some distant lands and refused to recognise its own African-ness while at the same time claiming ownership of the space.

The Cape’s Janus face and its mental bifurcation (being here but imagining oneself as belonging somewhere else) stems back to its 17th century incarnation as a “tavern of the seas”.Then, the project of digging a canal across the flats and rendering the peninsula an island was seriously considered.The goal of this mad-cap scheme was to insulate the Cape from a dark interior with which it has subsequently had such a troubled relationship.A major site of apartheid experimentation in the heyday of white supremacy, the city is today saddled with a legacy of social fragmentation, persistent forms of segregation, and unsustainable levels of inequality.

Under the guise of technocratic governance and a better record of service delivery, it seems to be forging new, coded vocabularies of race-thinking, deferring the radical task of justice and transformation in favour of a politics of assistance.These days, class is made to work through race and race has easily morphed into – and survives as – class. The rich do the talk and the poor, stripped of dignity, do the begging and eventually pay with their lives.

The burden of a sad history of cruelty and dehumanisation is no longer shared, but squarely placed at the door of an incompetent and corrupt national black government.Yet, it is not as if this mobile and transient city did not possess the inner resources for its regeneration.It has one of the most sophisticated civic networks in the country. Its traditions of community life and grassroots activism are vibrant.Local government is relatively responsive and accountable to the public and to the citizenry. Corruption is more or less kept in check.The necessity of coalitional politics puts objective constraints on the “winner takes all” mentality so prevalent in other parts of the country.

Since the end of apartheid, new waves of African immigrants have been arriving in the Cape. Fleeing poverty and national oppression, many live precarious lives under the constant threat of deportation.They are permanently harassed on the streets. Many others come with capital and skills that could benefit South Africa’s society, economy and democracy.Formerly repressed cultures are re-emerging. There are new ways of sharing public space too. In this period of mobility, when premium is given to transnational connections, these are resources the region could harness.The dialectics of home and abroad has become a central dimension of processes of community-making and of modes of engagement with the world at large. More and more, desegregation occurs through trans-nationalisation.Unfortunately, the dynamics of cultural circulation and cultural desegregation are neither the object of policy, nor of research and writing.

The geography of these transformations is less and less tied up with the old European routes and more and more with those lateral and horizontal ones that lead to inland Africa, Oceanic Asia and its islands, China, the Far East and South America.The Western Cape could become a powerful laboratory and a fabric of this global world of the future.For this to happen, it would have to stop thinking of itself as the Minority Colony and fully embrace its location at the intersection of Three Worlds.It would also have to explicitly own the old failures and new dilemmas that this country faces as its own rather than as some putative “theirs” or as belonging to “them”.Its universities, its artists and its centres of higher learning could play a major intellectual and cultural role in un-crippling the region’s imagination and creativity, providing the Cape with critical vocabularies and concepts to transcend insularity, provincialism and nostalgia for a shameful and costly past. A first step in this direction would be to take the study of Africa more seriously than has been the case so far. This is what seems to be happening at Rhodes and Stellenbosch universities where two major initiatives aimed at “Rethinking Africa” from the Cape are about to be launched.

Part of this process, ironically, when looking from the Cape, requires thinking with the rest of South Africa and as an integral part of this country as well.These initiatives build on a rich and powerful Afropolitan archive of knowledge and ideas.It is an archive that was developed by Africans and their multiple internal and external diasporas over the ages, in dialogue with, rather than isolation from, other parts of the world. A critical examination of this archive is likely to help challenge retrograde assumptions about this continent while opening up fruitful debates around the Cape’s understandings of herself and her relation to Africa and the rest of the world.

The authors are the convenors of the “Locations and Locutions Lecture Series” at the University of Stellenbosch. The series will be launched this evening at 6pm by Rector Russel Botman.