Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Viewing the continent from its tip

by Grace Musila and Meg Samuelson, The Cape Argus

Questions about how we engage, conceive of and receive Africa in the Cape – and of how the Cape positions itself in Africa – are vigorously argued over across the peninsula with the regularity and ferocity of the south-easterly winds. 

The Cape’s Janus face stems from its 17th century incarnation as a “tavern of the seas” that for years nurtured the fantasy of a canal dug across the flats to render the peninsula an island, separate from the continent with which it has since had such a troubled relationship. 

This location, manifest in its peculiar form of cultural and social schizophrenia while functioning as a fulcrum between east-west and north-south, offers a compelling vantage point from which to rethink Africa.
We have been provoked by local and international events into thinking about the possibilities and challenges of reading Africa from the Cape, and in this way coming to re-engage in new ways questions of Africa’s relationships with itself and the world. 

Recent events such as South Africa’s admission into the Bric(s) group and the so-called Arab Spring in North Africa, along with a shifting geopolitical axis in which the pendulum of global power is perceived as being poised to swing from the north-west to the east-south, confirm the urgency of a critical public debate on Africa and its locations and orientations. 

Opening these debates to the wider public through platforms such as the Locations and Locutions Lecture Series at Stellenbosch University and at other institutions, such as Rhodes University and Wits, creates a space in which to digest and refigure them. 

The theme that we, with co-convenors professors Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, have selected as the focus for the Locations and Locutions series this year is: “Which Africa, Whose Africa?” 

In probing these questions at this time, we join various institutions, intellectuals, cultural practitioners and members of the public who are challenging conventional, knee-jerk thinking about Africa, its borders and limits, its flows and circulations. This intellectual and cultural work is testing the limits of what we currently think – and how we can come to think differently – about Africa, our place in the continent, and Africa’s place in the world, while helping to craft critical vocabularies for an emergent generation of intellectuals in line with the Partnership for Africa’s Next Generation of Academics, of which Stellenbosch University is a founding member. 

The inaugural event of the Locutions and Locations Lecture Series on June 7 featured scholars Professor Harry Garuba of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, Professor Mbembe and Dr Suren Pillay of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. 

Focused on “Thinking Africa from the Cape”, the panel grappled with the question of what it means to think Africa from and through the Cape within the overarching optic of the series, which enquires into how our locations inform our locutions. 

Dr Pillay noted that the Cape region comes with a particular intellectual-historical baggage, most notably the dominance of a cultural sensibility that celebrates affiliation with the West, whether real or aspirational.
Among contemporary responses to this baggage are attempts to re-affirm affiliations with “Africa” that remain haunted by the anxiety of “Europe”. 

One manifestation is the ubiquitous tag “world-class African…” along with whatever institution or infrastructure is being referred to, such as “world-class African city”. This branding as both “world class” and “African” signals surrender to deeply embedded assumptions of Africa’s unworldliness, and acknowledges that the “world” whose standards are aspired to is in fact a Northern/Western world. 

The implicit plea is: “Look, we are in Africa, but don’t worry, we are up to European standards, we’re world-class African.” 

Pillay also warned against the over-compensatory gesture that fills the signifier “Africa” with everything, in an ironic reversal of Hegelian thinking that saw Africa as a blank, without history. 

He describes this impulse as “a kind of cacophonous banality that goes sometimes under the name ‘cosmopolitanism’; if Africa was the sign of nothing, it is now the sign of everything”. 

On his part, Professor Garuba reminded the audience of the need to historicise reflections on what it means to “Think Africa from the Cape”. He pointed to its history of racialised modernity and the attendant civilisational model best encapsulated in the Rhodes Memorial, which evokes a particular gaze upon and vision of Africa that harks back to a time “when the world was there for the taking and Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape lying at your feet waiting for the light of civilisation and commerce to shine over it”. 

While these modes of engaging with the continent may seem to be a distant memory, Garuba noted the continued deployment, in different guises, of these relationships to Africa today – among these, the diminishing control of African academics over knowledge production and research agendas in the face of what he termed “knowledge capitalism”. This “capitalism” manifests itself not only through the reduction of various universities in Africa into data-gathering centres – while the actual analysis and theories informing it come from elsewhere – but also in problematic networks that mirror commercial projects across the continent, “setting up shop” across the continent with little reciprocal critical engagement and collaboration. 

Far from offering simple, linear insights into the question of what it means to “Think Africa from the Cape”, the three panellists shared provocative, often overlapping thoughts, resisting the temptation of closure, definition and resolution. 

Indeed, as Professor Mbembe reminded the audience, the category “African” has always been a loaded one, often evoking an excess of meanings. 

The challenge, in his view, is to refuse a simplistic synonymy between the categories “African” and “black” and embrace a dynamic Afropolitanism that accommodates multiple genealogies, mobilities, entanglements and intersections. 

A second challenge lies in moving away from “a language of pastness” – often marked by an addiction to difference – to a future that dares to challenge the limits and complacency embedded in narrow conceptions of what it means to be “African”.