Monday, 14 October 2013

Freedom, Race and Social Cohesion: historical and contemporary African perspectives.

A Colloquium at UNISA 4th-5th March 2014

Call for papers

At the time when the 50th anniversary of attempts at African unity are being celebrated, it is perhaps also important to reflect on the general demands and struggle for freedom which underlay the pan-African dream and which African independence had promised its peoples.  Rather than merely celebrating an organisation of states, it is fundamentally important to reflect on the ideals which produced them and how they have been experienced by people since.  After all it was as recently as the 1980s that a Nigerian peasant was asking ‘When will independence end?’  (Raufu Mustapha, 1996)[1].  It is a sad fact that popular dissatisfaction with the state in Africa is widespread.

The so-called ‘second liberation’ of the continent which lay stress on democracy rather than on independence, announcing with much fanfare a Renaissance founded on a combination of neo-liberalism and good governance, has also not been able to produce the promised results as civil wars, xenophobic and ethnic violence and internecine strife have affected even the most democratic of African states.  Neo-colonial interference in African affairs has continued unabated, and not only in the economic sphere where the myth of the lack of African integration in the world economy has been used a pretext for even more plunder of African natural resources, although now taking different forms from the past.  In the ex-settler colonies of Southern Africa, racism has persisted, fuelled it seems by a neo-liberal  consensus which while creating a small but new wealthy elite from among the previously disadvantaged, has followed the rest of Africa in promoting a form of accumulation parasitic on the state.  Simultaneously levels of social exclusion do not seem to have decreased post-1980 but have persisted and even, in many cases, seem to have increased.  As a result, a number of commentators are talking of a crisis of social cohesion on the continent despite positive predictions on the economic front due to recent mineral discoveries.

Some argue that the problem lies with the self-serving habits of politicians, although it is rarely stressed that such politicians are regularly chosen by the people.  Others stress the need to build lasting institutions, while yet others insist that the problem is the fact that the state itself has not been rooted among the people, but has simply been grafted on a foreign system of domination - foreign not only in nationality terms but more fundamentally in the sense of an external imposition on popular culture, thought and society in Africa.  Within this overall context, it is important to submit many of the assumptions of the 1960s and 1980s to renewed critical scrutiny.  And in this instance, one can do worse than to refer to the critical analysis of the post-colonial state outlined in the work of Frantz Fanon.  Written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, precisely as African independence was being achieved continent-wide, Fanon’s mature work expanded on his youthful analysis of racial oppression in the metropole to examine not only the character of popular nationalist consciousness, but also the failure of post-colonial states to deliver on the freedom which they had promised their peoples.  Not only did Fanon notice the deterioration of the party of liberation from a popularly based organisation to one ‘lording it over the people’ but he vehemently decried the interests of the ‘national bourgeoisie’, the repressive nature of the new states and the tendency to xenophobic exclusion.

Since Fanon wrote, the continuities and discontinuities between colonial/apartheid and postcolonial/post-apartheid state forms have not always been analysed at sufficient depth; in this African scholars can learn much from other parts of the South.  Literature from India of the ‘subaltern studies’ school in particular asked the central question as to why nationalism in its various forms tended to simply reproduce the repressive features of colonialism which it itself had criticised.  In particular, given the fact that colonial societies never experienced modernity as a liberating process, but as one of exclusion and oppression, why were so many of its features simply adopted wholesale after nationalists came to power?  Is there something about modernity itself which makes oppression along a multitude of dimensions inevitable?  Is there something even about ‘scientificity’ itself which reproduces racism?  Is capitalism the appropriate category for understanding post-colonial Africa? And if so how is economic interest to be understood both within and between societies and nations? To what extent is class still a relevant concept and, if so, is it more than a simply sociological category with no political import?  Is there something regarding human rights discourse itself which - as Aimé Césaire noted - is simply hypocritical when connected with power and interest in Africa?  Indeed is analysing identity politics - the politics of interest - the proper way to think about freedom on the continent today?  Is a category of ‘social cohesion’ imported from 1950s American functionalist sociology the most useful way to think about the problems linked with social upheavals, or would a notion of ‘exclusion’ (and its opposite ‘inclusion’)  - social or political - be of greater use?

These are some of the issues and questions which this symposium intends to address at a high level of theoretical and empirical sophistication, including contemporary postcolonial perspectives.  To this end papers are requested on any topic pertinent to the general theme of the conference.  It is hoped to invite plenary speakers who have been thinking and writing about these issues for a long time and who therefore can provide parameters for thought and raise questions for general discussion.   The number of presentations will be limited so selection will be made on the basis of originality and intellectual rigour. 

It is intended to hold this 2 day colloquium during the 2014 Research and Innovation week at UNISA from 4th-5th March 2014

In the first instance a 250-300 word abstract should be submitted to Hanli Wolhüter ( by 30th October 2013.  Authors of selected abstracts will be informed soon thereafter.  Full papers will be expected no later than 31st January 2014.

[1] Mustapha, A. R. 1996, “When Will Independence end? Democratisation and Civil Society in Rural Africa” in L. Rudebeck and O. Tornquist (eds.) Democratisation in the Third World: concrete cases in comparative and theoretical perspective, Uppsala: The Seminar for Development Studies.