Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Case of UCT's Centre for African Studies

In my last two posts on the African academy, I have alluded to a controversy relating to UCT's Centre for African Studies (CAS). For those who don't know, the controversy relates to a proposal which will see CAS being merged with some other departments - anthropology, linguistics and the African Gender Institute - and subsumed within a `new school for critical inquiry in Africa'. The UCT administration argues that such a move will enhance Africa-focused research and teaching, while resolving administrative/institutional problems that arise from small academic departments. Opponents argue that the result will be the watering-down of CAS's emphasis on African studies and perhaps the medium-term phasing-out of that kind of work altogether. The links at the end of this piece provide some further detail.

There are really two aspects to the issue. First, a somewhat normative one: is this the right approach to African studies as a subject, and to what extent does it reflect an ideological bias? Second, even if it does make sense to create a larger, cross-disciplinary entity, is this the best/most sensible way to go about it? In the same way as I avoided talking too much about the details of designing civil service recruitment programmes (in The Civil Service Question I and II), I am also going to avoid getting bogged-down in details of internal institutional design. Suffice to say that combining an anthropology department, which may well be interested in anthropological issues not confined to Africa, with linguistics (ditto), a `gender institute' focused on Africa, and a dedicated African studies department seems like a rather hodge-podge combination.

An important piece of background that keeps coming-up is what is referred to as `the Mamdani affair'.

In the mid-1990s Mahmood Mamdani was appointed to the AC Jordan Chair of African Studies (named after the father of well-known ANC intellectual Pallo Jordan)  at UCT. However, the African studies syllabus he put together was apparently rejected by 'higher authorities' and he left. That was embarrassing given what it implied about the supposedly progressive UCT administration, and the embarrassment was exacerbated by the fact that he left for the highly-regarded Columbia University - where he is now the Herbert Lehmann Professor of Government. He is also director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda.

As the CAS controversy was gathering steam earlier this year, Mamdani published a piece outlining his views on the need for substantively African research in the African academy. In this, he makes a number of cutting remarks about the present state of affairs. For instance, that "the proliferation of 'short courses' on methodology that aim to teach students and academic staff quantitative methods necessary to gathering and processing empirical data are ushering a new generation of native informers". For our purposes here, what is important is that Mamdani is grappling with the issue of how to structure African universities in such a way as to produce substantively African research; research that not only answers questions in a manner that meaningfully accounts for relevant context, but also determines the questions themselves in a similar manner. As part of this, he also gives a fair amount of attention to the need to produce a generation of African scholars that will stay in Africa. His conclusion: we must produce them at home.

These issues, I would suggest, have direct relevance to the CAS debate. While many in favour of the merger have argued that it is not a dissolution of CAS, they have at the same time questioned the relevance of African studies as a separate discipline since "it is now taught across the university". For my own part, I find this patently absurd. A striking gap in South African academia - certainly compared to the rest of the world - is the absence of centres of American Studies, European Studies and so on. It seems obvious to me that (as a country) we are impoverished and weakened, in our engagement with the rest of the world as a consequence. (Stellenbosch, to its credit, has established a Centre for Chinese Studies although none of the senior staff are African). 

Given that line of argument, why not African studies? It is not enough to argue that individual disciplines engage deeply with African issues and context - what about giving students the opportunity to study the continent across a full range of disciplines? The fact that actually only a minority of disciplines at UCT have core components that are really grounded in even the national context, never mind the continent, evidently adds insult to the injury made by claiming that African studies is redundant.

As I made very clear in the first post on the African academy, we should not entertain parochial or bigoted emphasis on African content, context or questions. However, there is also no doubt in my mind that African countries need their own centres of high-quality intellectual analysis. It is absurd that the primary Journal of African Economies is based in the Centre for the Study of African Economies at...Oxford (UK). How would Americans feel, one wonders, if the American Economic Review was based in Ghana? It is easy to become accustomed to this status quo, and to be shaken by the (in fact, fairly obvious) analogy Mamdani makes with 'native informers'. 

The problem I discussed in the first post, and which Mamdani also grapples with (although not explicitly), is how to create such centres staffed primarily with African researchers, without relying on the international resources we are trying to get some independence from. It is the inevitable chicken-and-egg problem that follows from trying to create such institutions in a relatively short period of time (decades rather than centuries). In saying that, we should of course recognise - as Mamdani does - that a number of great African institutions were gutted - in one way or another - with the arrival of European colonists. But that is done, and harking back to them will bring little in the way of results. I have made some suggestions in that first piece as to how we might go about negotiating this transition - increasing genuinely African scholarship while maintaining strict quality controls - but there are no easy answers.

Leaving this aside then, in terms of the curricula themselves, I would suggest that there need be no simply dichotomous choice between mainstream 'Western' content and more African material. In economics for instance, studying radical African scholars like Samir Amin and Ali Mazrui, or somewhat more mainstream ones like Thandika Mkandawire, does not and should not preclude an economics syllabus that has substantive components that are similar to those at universities in the United States or Europe. Similarly, making greater provision for African language courses need not mean disposing of European language instruction. Financial constraints will necessitate some trade-offs, and constructing such curricula without demanding too much of students is undoubtedly a huge challenge. But these are practical matters; the obstacles are surmountable.

Fear and Resistance

Why then the fear and institutional resistance, not even to these sorts of suggestions but even to the notion that such a conversation is required? As always, I turn to the various interest groups and their alignment to power. In particular I would emphasise two key groups; the majority of parents of the white students that attend UCT; and, the significant group of senior academics and administrators whose personal interests would not be aligned with such a shift. (A third group might be UCT's international partners and assessors, but they do not wield direct power - rather the influence is through the two groups mentioned).

As someone noted to me recently; UCT had for a long time been seen as the inevitable destination for the children of, in particular, the white upper- and middle-classes in the Cape. (Hence the particularly great resentment toward affirmative action policies - another issue for a later post). What would happen if UCT were to 'Africanise'? What happens over the dinner table when first-year students go home at the end of the day? And will that affect UCT's ability to draw top students from the Cape and beyond? The fear seems to be that it would. That UCT may come to be perceived as another UWC or Fort Hare. Or something like that. With such a 'white flight' would come not just a loss of prestige and talented students but also a disproportionate number of students not requiring financial aid. And very probably a significant reduction in philanthropic contributions from white alumni and other benefactors. Because these are the funding sources that enable the university to have a greater degree of autonomy from government, the fear of these consequences is compounded by the (not wholly unfounded) fear of excessive state intervention discussed previously.                  

In terms of the second group there are two aspects to consider. First, that resistance is what one might crudely call 'ideological'. Consider the following thought-experiment: ask yourself what aspects of the curricula at UCT the Democratic Alliance might be uncomfortable with? It's hard to give a comprehensive answer given the vast range of courses, but i'm fairly confident that the subject matter taught by CAS and AGI would be high-up on the list. (I don't find it as useful to ask the same question about the ANC, for reasons i'll discuss in a later post). Given that under the current proposal they will be squashed up against the bigger anthropology and linguistics fields, is it so surprising that some are concerned they may be quietly smothered?

Most of the individuals in this second group also don't really understand what a more African curriculum could entail. They associate it with low quality, internationally disregarded, irrelevant material. And in that they are aided and abetted by the pseudo-Africanist rhetoric I referred to previously. Implicitly or explicitly, they view the 'international' (English and American) curricula as the pinnacle toward which we must aspire, though probably never attain. Among potentially more open-minded individuals, the same conclusion may be reached as the result of something that is more akin to a failure of imagination. An inability to envision what a deep, rigorous African-grounded syllabus would look like.

Second, at a more base level, because of their schooling, interests and attitudes, many of these individuals would become superfluous, or at least less influential. As would their work and possibly their proteges. And it is in the latter that the problem really bites. Because the rails for generational succession should have been, to a large extent, already laid down. To the extent that they have, the succession only involves a small number of similar-minded South Africans and an increasing number of foreign academics whose views are broadly aligned to the 'international mainstream'. There is no more enlightened generation. Therefore the notion - put forward by some - that one can simply wait until a generation passes before change can occur, ignores the fact that the journey to seniority in academia is often a very long one.

In this regard, the absence of programmes to develop young South African academics is perhaps the most glaring indictment of UCT, even more so than any other university in the country precisely because of its high status. Nebulous terms like 'Afropolitan' accompany an administration that sees individual faculties and departments largely turning a blind eye to this responsibility. One wonders what will happen if a zealous Department of Labour official were to critically examine this state of affairs and contrast it with the university's employment equity plan... But there is little fear from that front - government is simply too incompetent (see the posts on the Civil Service Question).    

UCT as an 'unsafe space'?

One UCT staff member I came across recently expressed great frustration at the recent turn of events with CAS. She implied that there had been a consensus on the chosen path among all departments involved, with CAS subsequently reneging. This is factually a little inaccurate since strictly speaking it was CAS students, not the academics themselves, who began the campaign. Be that as it may, the more important question to ask is whether dissenters would have felt able to raise their concerns without jeopardising their careers or being ostracised. The rhetoric is that UCT is an open space for such discussions, and the Vice Chancellor Max Price has attempted to lead by example - in the affirmative admissions debate for instance - but unfortunately this approach does not appear to have carried-down to lower levels.

To illustrate, consider the following disjunct. Tomorrow (May 25th) UCT will, along with others, celebrate Africa Day. Staff are encouraged to wear 'African dress', and many do. At the same institution, a friend gave a traditional-style shirt from a particular African country to a professor of theirs as a gift. Said professor was very grateful but stated that they would probably not wear it on campus. Why? "Someone might think I was trying to make a statement", he said. Those who might see it that way are often enthusiastic participants in Africa Day; it gives them an opportunity to present themselves as progressive while quashing any serious efforts at making important aspects of the university substantively African. 

That is one anecdote among many. It is surely not surprising that dissenters do not feel that UCT is a 'safe space' in which they can voice their true opinions.  

I have ranged fairly widely in this piece because, as you will have guessed, I do believe the claim that the CAS issue is emblematic of a number of problems at UCT. It is all too easy to explain-away events like these as isolated. For instance, by one account I have heard, Mamdani can be an abrasive character, and one could cite this as the reason why he had to leave UCT. And yet, it is hardly unheard of to come across very abrasive white academics at UCT, who have achieved a good deal less and yet hold prestigious and powerful positions in their faculties or departments. What recent events and exchanges have highlighted is the fact that UCT is in some respects like the monstrous parastatal Transnet. A succession of well-intentioned individuals have been appointed at the top, said many of the right things and achieved very little in the way of substantial change. From this one might conclude that there is layer in-between them and what actually takes place, that is much more resistant. An issue, I suggest, not altogether unrelated to my previous post.


Note: In addition to the Mamdani affair referred to above, some have also recalled what happened in 1968 to the renowned social scientist Archie Mafeje. For those who are interested, there is a very good abbreviated biography here, which also refers to UCT's apology for what took place.

Here are a series of links to articles, letters and blog posts relating to the CAS controversy:

The first article in the M&G (with provocative title):

Response from the Vice Chancellor (Max Price):

A reproduced speech by Professor Harry Garuba from CAS:

Letter/article by a postdoc in African languages at UCT:

Comment by an academic from Rhodes University on `institutionalising difference':

Comment from Professor Jane Bennett, head of UCT's African Gender Institute:

A blog recently started by a student group opposing the merger (the video clips are interesting, although for whatever reason they omit the statements by key members of the UCT administration):

Article by two of the PhD students from CAS. Unfortunately, I found this article to be vacuous and probably harmful to the students' cause:

Professor at UCT understandably takes exception to the above article. Her suggestion, however, that references to UCT having 70% of its academic staff as white males are 'cheap shots' conveniently ignores the importance of characterising the institutional environment:

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