Imagining Collectives on a Bright Continent

Thoughts on the workshop Transitions and Translations: Africa in Local and Global Imaginaries

Last week Stellenbosch University hosted the first inter-African-national conversation between academics working in or around the fields of literature, linguistics and social anthropology.  The intention was to form a community of African intellectuals under the banner of PANGeA (Partnership for Africa’s Next Generation of Academics), in the hope of producing collaborations and partnerships.  But much of the discussion was taken up by the problem of what exactly Africa is, and, if it is something we can put our finger on, whether we really are a part of it.

Some interesting theoretical shifts are emerging. Meg Samuelson rejects a post-colonial understanding of the continent, imagining instead an Oceanic Africa, an entry and exit point caught in the middle of transatlantic, transpacific carriage since time immemorial. Kees van der Waal describes Africa as a palimpsest, where each layer of history affects the production of the next, where language (like people) migrates, adapts and evolves. Does this sound like a defence from those who are told they lack some essential quality of Africanness, or am I projecting? Achille Mbembe, who envisions an Africa without borders, asks questions that undermine essentialist notions of Africanness. He cites Cameroon as an example, asking: “For how many centuries do Africans have to speak French for it to become African?” and for that matter, Arabic, English, and Afrikaans . The truth is that the puritan pan-Africanist would have a hard time isolating a true strain of African.

That our intellectual tradition is equally so adulterated was a topic prickling under the genteel surface of the three-day workshop. Grace Musila, for instance, asked some tough questions about our conceptual tools. She argues: “There is very little critical reflection on the kinds of journeys these tools make, for example, on using Freud in an analysis of Kenyan literature.” But the origins of theoretical frameworks have little to do with whether or not they acquire an African branding.  What is it about Karl Marx that allows it to gain its local status? Lilian Osaki’s humorous account of her early academic career encapsulates some of this tension: “In our undergraduate courses, everything used to be Marxist. Anyone wanting to do something new was labelled ‘bourgeois’. Therefore, I sided with the Marxists.” Lilian goes on to describe the importance of appreciating texts for what they are, to recognise that a poem about a cloud is not necessarily about a workers’ uprising. Interestingly, she explains that in Dar es Salaam feminist ideas are not well received by her students; issues such as marital rape, for instance, are very contentious, but adds that when these ideas are encountered in Swahili the students become more approachable. Translation, it seems, is necessary for ideas to be received with hospitality. But this brings me back to Grace’s qualms about the direction of ideas. Beyond the idea of ubuntu, which at least in theory has achieved great fame, how much are African-originated ideas translated into English, adapted on foreign soil or among foreigners who find their way here? In many ways, Tom Odhiambo from Nairobi shares Grace’s concern. He too leaves us with uncomfortable questions about why Africa is not developing its own theory, and about over-dependence on inherited European traditions.  Are we guilty of theoretical pilfering, poverty, or just plain cowardice?

In the midst of this most interested exchange, something is tugging at the edges. The very stimulating flow of ideas is occasionally interrupted by the material realities of working on the continent – ones that threaten the relevance of our intellectual pursuits. The African Doctoral Academy, which on someone’s spider diagram (or bank statement) is somehow connected to the event, has been commissioned to do no less than develop research that will advance Peace and Democracy in Africa.  The powers that pay are demanding academy philanthropy, and here in the humanities we are clever at adapting our funding applications to look like we are an investment that will reap world peace. But as Leloba Molema speaks frankly about the difficulties of being a professional in Botswana (and I can vouch, in other places too) while supporting an extended family and carrying the burden of undergraduate teaching; and of the effects of only a hundred years of print literacy, I start to reflect on the gnawing material realities closer to home.

As Daniel Roux speaks about the grids, walls and structures which divide Cape Town, I can’t help thinking about my bi-weekly passages on the N2. Khayelitsha flashes in my peripheral vision – that place that I have to get past between here and there. I wonder if I really do want to build bridges, to physically cross divides and be confronted with difference, or worse yet sameness. Or if, perhaps, theorising Africa in my bedroom is a salve for a lack of experiential knowledge about real people who live in bodies and almost-houses down the road? I think also of my time teaching at Durban’s technical university, of the dismal failure of basic schooling, and of tutoring at universities where students of all sorts (clever and dim, wealthy, poor, and in-between) simply don’t like books – at least, not the sort with lots of words.  It seems like beneath the impulse for fresh, cutting-edge scholarship might lurk a guilty anxiety about a failure to transmit what we’ve already got, or a fear about the irrelevance of our field in the future.

As if “our field” was something corporate, unanimous and decided.  Leon de Kock and Sarah Nuttall get into a rather exciting spat about this very topic.  Sarah provocatively speaks about “opening the windows” to a future where disciplinary boundaries do not exist, while Leon stakes his claim to literature as “an allegiance of love”. I marvel that there is a need to defend the right to read and love literature. Could it be that it’s not only the youth who have forgotten how to relish words on a page, or to be amazed by plays of syntax, be moved by story, to surrender to empathy?  Literature may have become redundant, and so might we, but some of us will die reciting poetry to our illiterate loved ones. It is as though “the field” has reached a mid-life crisis: for some, it’s time for the equivalent of flashy cars and adolescent girlfriends – magazines, film, tweetable novels, blogs and the endless etcetera of public-private media.  We agree that we’re behind culture, that Google analysts understand the world better than we do, and we’re clambering to get a good God’s-eye-view. 


But if there was ever a time when intellectuals and institutionalised authority at large defined society, and were able to exert some kind of control over it, I am too young to remember it. It’s way gone. So what role does the academy serve beyond very basic literacy and vocational undergraduate degrees for those who can afford them? If we’re no longer a pillar of society, not able to serve its very mobile, global, commercial (pornographic) interests, do we have sufficient zeal and self-confidence to survive the decline of popular interest in what we actually do? Perhaps academia was always self-interested and solipsistic, a massive financial investment in a small minority, a means for little more than personal success. If it is possible for something to be essentially un-African, maybe university as we know it is exactly that.

As the world becomes more connected in many respects, the bigger picture keeps getting bigger, and the responsibility towards local realities are easier to ignore. It’s cleaner to read statistics from a computer than to touch a human but understanding ideologies and grasping the meta-structures, doesn’t seem to keep us together. Giving lifts strangers on the other hand (literally and metaphorically), is a way we might actually learn more about the world.  The simple questions, “where do you live?” or “what do you do?” are what’s missing from our discourse of enquiry. If I don’t think my neighbour is interesting enough to know, how close will I get to my academic “community” in Africa at large, geographically even further away?

Africa was always a European idea. While partnerships with universities are enormously valuable, I don’t believe we ought to try and squash our complicated localities into a broader conceptual continent, nor do I feel we need to forge artificial commonalities under the banner of “Africa”. Leon de Kock asked in his provocative presentation: “Are we really a collective, or are we a collection of disparate entities? … We inhabit an imaginative allegiance but we rarely talk to each other.” Not only do we rarely bridge these vast national gaps, but for most South Africans, immense chasms lie intimately close.  Here at home, the disparity of experiences, our un-knowingness about each other, lies like a dirty film over our skin. So by all means, let’s talk. Let’s learn: let’s read papers and visit homes.  But I would not advocate that we abandon our pursuit of the local too readily. No, Leon, we are not really a collective.  But we have been introduced, exchanged pleasantries, meaningful looks and contact details.  This could be the start.