Thinking Africa from the Cape

Report on the Locations and Locutions Lecture Series, Stellenbosch University.


In the first event of the Locations and Locutions series of talks (Stellenbosch, 7 June), all three speakers, Dr Suren Pillay (UWC), Dr Harry Garuba (UCT), and Prof Achille Mbembe (SU), unsettled any possibility of an unproblematic approach to naming, describing, or “thinking” Africa.

The theme of the series is Which Africa, Whose Africa? and it “seeks to promote critical awareness of, engagement with, African intellectual contributions to global knowledge” (Locations and Locutions online).

The inaugural panel, chaired by Prof Meg Samuelson (SU), dealt with the theme “Thinking Africa from the Cape”.

Pillay, from the Centre for Humanities Research at UWC, suggested that we think the position of Africa from the Cape according to what he called “acts of knowing” and “acts of being”.

He suggested that we need to think critically about our “acts of knowing”. The Western Cape, the position from which scholars in the Cape are “thinking” Africa, has historically had a sense of itself as exceptional. He noted that here, “Western” not only designated a geographical position, but ironically also an assumption of being “Western”, of belonging to Western culture. This sense of belonging to Western culture, Pillay noted, gradually spread from the colonial European minority groups to those who were colonised.

Recently, however, there had been a turn towards (re)claiming our “Africanness”, a trend visible in the renaming of things and also in the current fashion of “rebranding” by attaching the word “Africa” to everything, as in the phrase “a world class African University”.

Pillay unpacked this term by starting with the noun phrase “world class”. This begged the question: Whose world? Which world? The world as “most of the world”, or the world as “Euro-America”? Appending the phrase “world class” was a clever way of sneaking in that we are African, but an Africa that is “up to” European or American standards.

On the other hand, the term “African” tends to elicit unease. When thinking about Africa, people tend to conceive of it as either without a past, or without a future. Hence it is constantly perceived of as a site of intervention, evoking a desire to fill this empty signifier with everything. Pillay suggested that, if Africa was, in the past, assumed to be the site of nothing, it was now the site of everything.

He then went on to address what he called “acts of being”. To recognise what we are becoming is an act of creation. There is a kind of vitality underlying this creativity. However, he pointed towards two opposing impulses in our relation to knowledge.

On the one hand, the way in which we organised our knowledge was dominated by Enlightenment thinking. On the other hand, we try to work against this tendency in more or less critical ways. We want to both accept and reject this feature of our colonial heritage. There is no way out, but there may be a way through if we are able to recognise this as the site of our vitality. It was in this tension that our unique form of knowledge production was constituted. Pillay ended by suggesting that, to think Africa from the Cape, we needed a programme mindful of its location in this site.

The second speaker, Prof Harry Garuba of the Centre for African studies at UCT, suggested  that, in thinking Africa from the Cape in this post-colonial, post-apartheid moment,  it was important to historicise the issue, in order to emphasise its long history.

He delineated three important moments: Imperialism/colonialism; apartheid; and post-apartheid, which happened to coincide with the moment of globalization. He emphasised that these moments were not to be thought of as linear, but as interlocking phases.

For Garuba, the powerful image of the Rhodes Memorial captured one moment of thinking Africa from the Cape. In fact, Garuba noted that the Memorial was an excellent example of how not to think Africa from the Cape. He described this memorial, dedicated to an unapologetic imperialist and mining magnate, as a site marked by surveillance and control. What arrested a person when viewing the memorial was not the view but the vision it encapsulated. Garuba suggested that the view from the memorial, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, was not a panoramic view, but a kind of panoptic surveillance. It resonated with the colonial desire for encyclopaedic control over all kinds of subjects. This way of “thinking” Africa privileged a monolithic view of the world. It was the modernising, imperial version of thinking Africa from the Cape.

In the past, Garuba said, he used to show his visiting friends the Rhodes Memorial as a way of viewing Africa that had been displaced by a more critical approach. However, recently, he had begun to wonder whether there weren’t perhaps still groups in Africa who think Africa in this imperial manner.

Another point Garuba raised was what he called the expansion of “knowledge capitalism” in Africa. He compared this model of knowledge expansion to the manner in which large retail stores such as Shoprite “set up shop” in key places throughout Africa. For Garuba, universities are “setting up shop” in a similar manner, “exporting” certain types of knowledge on a commercial model. If we are to think Africa from the Cape in this era of knowledge capitalism, we need to take account of this new trend in knowledge production.

For Achille Mbembe, Professor of Social Theory in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, the way one thinks about “Africa” has always been, and still is, itself, a site of contestation and disagreement.

The categories “Africa” and “African” cannot be taken for granted. These categories operate mostly as placeholders, which are fundamentally/structurally threatened by instability. If we were to close these terms, they would lose their polemical and theoretical clout. When it comes to the word “Africa”, we need to learn how to live with indeterminacy.

It is important, said Mbembe, not to fetishise the location from which one thinks. Most creative thinking tends to negotiate tensions between location and homelessness. Therefore questions of home and homelessness should be addressed at the same time as issues of location.

For Mbembe, one of the challenges facing the intellectual is to make real that which is emerging. The intellectual cannot only be a cartographer of what already exists, but also one that should be involved in what is emerging.

Furthermore, two issues arise when one is “thinking Africa from the Cape”. First, Mbembe asked, can one be South African, but not African? And second, can one be of the Cape, but not of South Africa? For Mbembe, it is important that we disentangle the terms “African” and “Black” if we are really to start thinking Africa differently. He points out that there are now people with African ancestry who are not “black”. He calls for a concept of Africa that is “Afropolitan”, a term that he coins in the book that he co-edited with Sarah Nuttall, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. The term is intended to suggest the unfixing rather than the fixing of the “meanings of the African modern”, to “point to the gap between the way things actually are and the way they appear in theory and discourse”, and to emphasise “the multiplicity of registers in which [something] is African”.

For Mbembe, Afropolitanism is a useful term in thinking Africa from the Cape because it departs from the notion of Africa as something marked merely by its difference. Africanness in this sense is a form of worldliness. He suggests that an openness to the future and an embracing of the world needs a concept of Africa that allows for multiple genealogies.

In the second half of his address, Mbembe directed his comments specifically at the Western Cape. He noted that the Cape had always been haunted by a secret envy, of belonging everywhere but on this continent. Furthermore, the Western Cape was one of the most creolised South African regions, and was marked by a history of entanglement. Here, communities were defined not by their difference, but by their social inter-reliance. He urged his audience to own up to this history as something beneficial to everyone in Africa.

Mbembe noted that the Western Cape should not be viewed as an appendage to Africa. Instead, it should embrace its position at the intersection between three worlds. The first step in this direction would be to take the study of Africa more seriously. This entails an understanding of “African Studies” as both an enquiry and a history of self-understanding. Additionally, African Studies will have to renounce its addiction to “difference”.

In conclusion, Mbembe suggested that what had made Africans African had been the necessity, in which Africans invariably found themselves, to travel to different or hostile worlds, worlds in which they were endangered and had to develop different identities. To be African was to get out of those locations and texts in which one felt at home, because it had gone hand in hand with the desire to close things down, rather than open them out.

Questions and responses to the three talks centred primarily on the notion of what it means to be “African”. The issue of Africans and South Africans not buying into the idea of being African, and who don’t want to be defined as African, was raised. The recourse to the sovereignty of the imagination and the power of this notion, as evidenced in the addresses of PIllay and Garuba, prompted a query as to the speakers’ confidence in the evocation of the category of the “imagination”, which was in fact a very old term in literary studies inaugurated by the Romantic poets. One respondent raised the question whether most Africans could afford to be “Afropolitans”. A query directed at Garuba asked for examples of networks that “work”, alternatives to the idea of universities “setting up shop” in Africa. A vexed audience member wondered at length about the current fashion for “Africa”, asking why Africa was fashionable now, and what was prompting this desire to claim “Africa”. There was also a suggestion that in South Africa, our boundaries had shifted with this focus on Africa, that the limit of “South Africa” had disappeared.

Most of these questions and comments seemed to be addressing Mbembe’s talk, and he responded by reiterating that “Africa” was pre-eminently a site of differénce (not the same as “difference”), an entity that could never be enclosed in the grammar of an epoch, and one that was always in excess of language. He warned that if we did not re-animate the term “Africa” by writing it into the future, many people would not want to identify with it. From a purely historical point of view, there was one structural characteristic of African historicity, namely that Africans had made their history through acts of displacement. People were constantly moving – their lives were formed in the cauldron of circulation and movement.

For Mbembe, to think ourselves as Africans, we should hold on to this openness to freedom. If we did not do this, Africa would remain the site of a limit.

● The conveners of this series are Prof Meg Samuelson, Prof Sarah Nuttall and Dr Grace Musila (Department of English, Stellenbosch University) and Prof Achille Mbembe (Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University). Funding for this project has been made available under the auspices of Stellenbosch University’s HOPE Project, the aims of which were reiterated by Prof Arnold van Zyl, Vice-Principal: Research, in his opening comments (click here for a report on, and the text of, Prof Van Zyl’s comments).