Nomalanga Mkhize, Business Day
IN 1998 eminent Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani put forward the following challenge to his colleagues at the University of Cape Town (UCT): "The key question before us is: how to teach Africa in a postapartheid academy?" This was in response to the hostile resistance he received when, as professor of the Centre for African Studies, he devised a curriculum that put at its centre African scholarship that many UCT academics had either never heard of, or whose significance they did not understand, largely due to the isolation of South African universities under apartheid.
That debate, known as the "Mamdani Affair", exposed the ignorance of many prominent, predominantly white South African scholars who, because of their racially privileged positions, had risen up the ranks without having to engage three decades of rigorous postindependence African scholarship.
No doubt, the Mamdani Affair is now a little embarrassing for UCT. It has become clear that Mamdani was right and his detractors were wrong. They were wrong not so much because they disagreed with him on the academic content of the course, but rather because there appears to have been a manipulation of administrative processes with the objective of scuppering Mamdani’s course simply because it did not reflect the tradition of African studies white South African scholars were accustomed to. Taken aback by the way in which the UCT academic laager closed ranks over the issue, Mamdani left for a more intellectually up-to-date institution in the US.
His departure was understandable, his peers were trapped, it appears, by their own "unknown unknowns"; they did not realise that they were completely out of touch with the intellectual currents on the rest of the continent.
The episode raised questions about the nature of the postapartheid curriculum, and of teaching "Africa" in universities with histories of racism. But it had deeper implications about the very claims of intellectual custodianship implied by the university project in postapartheid SA.
Are our universities fit to lead the "new SA" society intellectually? Should they aspire to?
Claims to intellectual leadership necessarily place moral and ethical burdens on universities. They cannot claim to be vanguards of an intellectual culture if they have no designs on improving the ethical outlook of a society.
If universities want to claim this intellectual custodianship, they bind themselves to a higher ethical standard. They also have to demonstrate how their intellectual commitment operates within the institution academically and administratively.
For example, if formerly white universities struggle with the small matter of their own transformation, why should anybody trust them to grapple with questions relating to society?
In what ways do universities differentiate themselves from other public institutions?
It is easy to characterise the African National Congress as being increasingly "anti-intellectual", as vilifying its critics and protesters, but how did our universities respond to student grievances and protests over the past four weeks? Can our universities be trusted to demonstrate contextually relevant, socially intelligent responses to pressing social questions when so many in their ranks seem to be struggling with basic sociological concepts such as "race" and what defines "racism"?