Sunday, 26 June 2011

Thinking Africa from the Cape

by Suren Pillay, Thought Leader, 2011

Growing up in the Cape, we were taught that we were “Western”. How do we explain and undo this colonial sensibility? From my location at a university, there are two realisations from which to proceed. Firstly, the history of knowledge production, and the history of the organisation of knowledge — the ways we organise disciplines in this country — has a colonial and apartheid genealogy, and is dominated by Enlightenment thinking. We share this with the postcolonial world in the Middle East, in Asia and in Latin America. It is the post-independence inheritance of most of the formerly colonised world.

Secondly, I want to urge that we both accept and reject this feature of our intellectual inheritance. Not either accept or either reject, but both accept and reject. Simultaneously. That is to say, we can objectify our intellectual formation, put it in its place, and in its time — remind it that this a view from a particular part of the world that has become dominant in a rather sordid manner. But we also accept that we have, in the wonderful phrase of an Indian historian, “all been worked over by colonialism”. There is no way out of that history nor out of the Enlightenment. But there is a way through it.

In an essay called “Travelling Theory”, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said argued that ideas produced with a certain purpose and force in one place travel to other places, and can be put to work in these other places as is needed by that place. Ideas can be reworked, or as Frantz Fanon was to say “stretched a bit to fit our circumstances”. The point being acceptance, but crucially, not without sovereignty over our imaginations. Cultivating this sovereign sensibility over our imaginations is where the work of re-working resides.
For us in Cape Town, what does it mean to be aware of location? One response here recognises our national location as a kind of lament. Our African location is the name of a backwardness marked by how far it doesn’t correspond to the ideal. In the Cape this becomes trickier, because we think we are the developed, holding fort and surrounded by the encroaching undeveloped. The rest of the country is going to pot, or potholes, but we are doing alright. We have a university in the Cape that calls itself a world class African university. Of course, we also have a city that proclaims itself a world class city in Africa. I wonder if it is the world, as in most of the world, or if it is the world, as in the Euro-American world?

Much as when we talk of “the international community” we know we are actually referring not to the majority of the states of the world, but rather to the most powerful political bloc made up of a minority of states: the North. So world class is a clever way to sneak in the sentiment that we are in Africa, but we are up to European standards. This is symptomatic of the social evolutionism implicit in our ways of thinking — many of us still believe that a developed society looks something like Euro-America and we must develop towards it. We still accept the description of ourselves as less developed, and underdeveloped. In the old days, we were also defined by what we were not. We were non-Europeans. And we rejected that. Ironically today we are still defining ourselves in the negative.

Another kind of response, and the one I am sympathetic to, is premised not on hubris, but rather on humility. It is one that is in intellectual and material solidarity with most of the world, in the more accurate sense of that phrase. The world that is not living according to the unsustainable lifestyle of the Euro-American model whose cities we seek to replicate as signs of our modernity. From an ecological and environment vantage point this is a flawed endeavour anyway.

But also, if we follow that model then we are robbing ourselves of both possibility and of politics: to imagine anew the kind of intellectual agendas, the kind of institutions, the kinds of political community and aesthetics, that comes from a reflection on what it means to be in Africa, as the sign of possibility rather than only the name of a limit. And also what it means to be in a world with a shifting cartography of power, where the global coordinates are moving East, and South rather than West.

One of most encouraging features of the moment we are in is that we can debate and disagree over our cultural co-ordinates. Out of critique can come creation. Witness the wonderful effervescence. Of new writers, new artists, new film makers. We are creating new institutions, new programmes, new projects in the academy, in the humanities and social sciences. What we are talking about here then is vitality. Even as we disagree over what we are creating, over the names, forms and substances of these acts of creation, over the motivations behind them. This can happen because a political space has been opened up to do that, for this contestation to happen.

Let’s recall that the will to simplify us as one thing, as either native or settler, African or Western, urban or rural, this or that, has been central to colonialism and its modes of classification and thinking. And in our critical responses we have often continued along the same logic, simply inverting the dominant part of the binary in favour of its Other and calling that justice. It is an approach that has had disastrous consequences on this continent. But as scholars we should also be weary of our own theoretical hubris, to think that we create the world by simply thinking it anew, without recognising the contestations of power and hegemony required to reshape that world.

Acknowledging colonialism’s binary, we can also refuse the binary in order to sublate it, and fashion a post-apartheid future from an understanding of the concrete forms of our cultural, political and economic worlds, as we see them. For that reason, I don’t think we should aspire to be “world class”, because that would be to foreclose our possibilities, and limit the horizons of our imaginations.