Monday, 11 July 2011

On Thinking Africa: the perpetual question

by Siphokazi Magadla, Address at the opening night of the Frantz Fanon Fifty Years Later Colloquium
It was in our first Fanon reading group in preparation for this launch that I learnt that Frantz Fanon dictated most of his books to his wife Josie Fanon who was doing the typing. Richard Pithouse explained that it is perhaps because of this that much of his work is so declarative compared to usual strict academic language. Immediately I could picture this man pacing up and down his living room wondering loudly questions that would haunt us today in our own living rooms, “what does man want? What does a black man want?” Indeed Fanon continues to dictate us “towards a new humanism” as he puts it in Black Skin White Masks.

It would also be in this first session that one of the participants Corrine Knowles would voice her discomfort with the constant use of “man” instead of “humans” or “man and women” by Fanon in his writings. Was he just a product of his times a victim of patriarchy or did he truly believe that man spoke for both man and women? It was this slow unveiling of Fanon the man that more and more I understood what Thinking Africa was about. Then when a student of mine came to me afterwards and said that the reading group was the first time she saw Fanon as a human being. Just like all of us. Before I thought he was untouchable, she said. There was the answer to what we were laboring for to demystify knowledge production, to show our student that no one’s thinking is “untouchable.” Indeed as Fanon would state himself that to his eyes we must look for a “perpetual question” not answers. 
Thus the Thinking Africa project was born out of the commitment to the perpetual question. When Leonard Praeg wondered on a Friday afternoon on questions such as, “what if we stopped thinking about ‘teaching’ post-graduates and rather invited them to participate in our on-going research projects? What if teaching were a spin-off of working closely with an experienced researcher who is grappling with a problem?” Indeed Thinking Africa is an engagement with the time and the place of thinking. As Fanon asked loudly at a basic level what does man want?

Through the Thinking Africa institutional project we ask what is Africa the place in 2011? And what is the study of Africa for?
In doing this we are challenging and committing ourselves that we will wonder upon these questions about Africa the place and time with our students. Therefore the goal is to create a teaching and research culture in our postgraduate programme that locates the student at the center of knowledge making especially about how we imagine Africa. In inviting our students to wonder with us on what is Africa, we are opening to them a space of perpetual self-examination where no one is untouchable. We choose to call this teaching-led research and research-led teaching. Thinking Africa has three objectives, Profiling African Studies at Rhodes, increasing research output, and sharing knowledge and producing knowledge.
  • In Profiling African studies at Rhodes University, we are saying to our students that our location is important. The fact that we are in the small town of Grahamstown which continues to carry a violent history of its namesake Colonel John Graham is something of significance. Therefore what is Africa for a student at Rhodes must first be rooted in an ability to question whether Grahamstown is perhaps still locked in Graham’s 1812 or if we can sufficiently proclaim that the city has transcended Graham’s “proper degree of terror.”
  • Increase research output – in our commitment to place, we equally believe that Grahamstown and the whole of Africa should not be treated as if its difficulties and triumphs are somehow exceptional and specific only to Africa, rather we firmly believe that research on Africa should contribute both to our understanding of Africa and to our understanding of the broader human condition as Sally Mathews has argued.
  • Thus our third objective of sharing knowledge and producing knowledge is a commitment that collaborations between experienced scholars and a new generation of scholars will contribute to practical solutions to the various questions we ask about Africa, we are however cautious of reducing ourselves to being “problem-solvers’ of question about Africa as people like Mamdani continue to warn against a Consultancy culture at the university. We believe that through a commitment principled on “teaching-led research” and research-led questions we can simultaneously contribute knowledge that is useful to the urgent questions that face us on our daily basis, while contributing to the overall re-thinking of the normative questions about how we imagine Africa.
It is because of these objectives that we knew that a commitment to a teaching and research culture that says that our students must be able to produce knowledge that is based on local context as well as knowledge that is applicable to the rest of humanity, we have put together an incredible group of Thinking Africa associate fellows, some which are among us which is composed of national and international scholars. This is to give our students an opportunity to not only say that they can be our co-investigators we want to cultivate a culture that states that knowledge wherever, at Rhodes and globally is an always collaboration as scholars do not seek answers to the perpetual questions in isolation. Therefore just as Nigel Gibson does not need to be based in South Africa to think about Fanonian practices in South Africa, this opportunity for our postgraduate scholars to grapple with these big questions with experienced teachers and scholars is a lesson on how we must not allow place, that is our physical location, to place limits on our intellectual place.

However, despite challenging ‘place’ through the annual public lecture, colloquium and winter school which are fundamental to the Thinking Africa programme, we are reemphasizing that the classroom remains an important space where the big questions are born. We hope that the Colloquium, which is our classroom, re-emphasizes the importance of pacing up and down dictating questions with fellow scholars up to a point where we arrive at small conclusions about our humanism as Fanon did in his living room while Josie Fanon set in the room meditating with him. Just as bell hooks reminded us in “Teaching to Transgress” that “the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility”.

Through the book series that we have secured with the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press we are confident that the papers presented in our colloquium with echo beyond the walls that will cover us for the next day’s including the 13 week course “Mind of the Oppressed” that will be led by Richard Pithouse will be manifested into a book. A book that that we hope will help a young scholar doing African Studies in the Midwestern wilderness of Ohio University or in Mandela’s birthplace at Walter Sisulu University in Umthatha will read the book and be able re-think how they imagine Fanon’s legacy or the meaning of Ubuntu in Africa as our research project for 2012 charges us to do.

In conclusion, Thinking Africa is grounded in the principles of Fanon’s commitment to the perpetual question as he prophetically stated in his very first article “The North African Syndrome” that “it is common saying that man is constantly a challenge to himself, and that were he is so no longer he would be denying himself.” In the Invention of Africa, Mudimbe echoes this commitment to Socratic self-examination that is demanded by knowledge production and sharing when he states that “by necessity a negation of the present, and also a negation of self, it is, at the same time, the only critical way to self.” Indeed as Paulo Freire reminds us in the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that the “pedagogy of the oppressed, animated by authentic, humanist (not humanitarian) generosity, presents itself as a pedagogy of humankind. Perhaps this is Thinking Africa.