Article on African Studies from Dr. Leonard Praeg

From: ConcernedCAS Students
Sent: 27 August 2011

A right space for African studies


29 July 2011

Why is the debate on the organisation and institutionalisation of knowledge
produced in and on Africa so complex?

The recent debate on whether the University of Cape Town should incorporate
its Centre for African Studies (CAS) into a larger interdisciplinary school
of critical studies under the aegis of “Afropolitanism” or whether it should
let the centre retain its autonomy raised at least two issues relevant to
all (South) African universities.

Firstly, what kind of argument can effectively counter the relentless
neo-liberal corporatisation of the university, the endless “cost-cutting,”
“pooling of resources” and “streamlining” of operations? (These operations
seem tohave become the core business of the university.)

Secondly, how can we conceive and drive the process of transformation
towards a curriculum that will offer students a quality education in the
sense that it will equip them to live in their socio-political reality?

I want to focus on this second issue. What is or should be the place of
African studies in the post-colonial university? Firstly I think that the
temporal and historical division between a pre- and post-colonial Africa is
not very helpful here.

After all, it’s not as if nothing has happened in Africa since the formal
end of colonialism and it is certainly not the case that the mission of the
University of East Africa in the 1960s was the same as the mission of the
contemporary South African university.

To address the issues at hand we have to start by replacing that simplistic
two-fold historical division with a more nuanced, four-fold epistemic
division in the production of knowledge on and from Africa.

By “episteme” I mean, following Foucault, a certain regime of truth, a
socio-political order of things characterised by a specific conception of
the objective of knowledge production. The epistemic breaks advanced here do
not simply follow each other sequentially as they do in Foucault’s *The
Order of Things*.

Rather, they layer the historical discourse on and from Africa so that,
instead of a linear succession of knowledge regimes, we have a successive
but vertical layering of different orders. The old doesn’t go away; the new
just gets layered over it. And it is this “layered-ness” of knowledge
regimes that make the debate over CAS so complex.

The four knowledge regimes are the pre-colonial, colonial, sovereign and
cosmopolitan. Because the concept of the pre-colonial is so complex I will
only deal with it obliquely. In each of the remaining three epistemes the
study of Africa has a different objective, at the heart of which we find an
aporia or profound paradox peculiar to that regime.

First we note that any idea we may have of what “pre-colonial” means emerges
conceptually from the category of the colonial and therefore remains, in our
exploration of it, contaminated by the language of the colonial archive.

If colonialism was, as VY Mudimbe reminded us in *The Invention of
Africa* (1988), an attempt to arrange Africa to reflect the West’s image of itself, then we
are left with the task to re-arrange things fully knowing that every attempt
to do so works both within and against Western constructions of knowledge.

I think of this as the aporia of the archive. The process that followed
political decolonisation can be described in terms of two related processes:
politically, state-making and intellectually, the recovery of pre-colonial
modes of thought that, it was argued, could provide the intellectual
foundations for post-colonial state-making.

The locus classicus of this was perhaps the “African Socialism project” that
argued for the codification of pre-colonial modes of thinking and being into
a contemporary ideology that could provide intellectual foundations for the
post-colonial state.

In this sovereignty episteme, the politics is one of liberation and the
objective of knowledge production consists in the recovery of the
pre-colonial modes of thought such that the sovereignty of the political
subject would be founded on the autonomy of the subject’s intellectual
tradition. But these ambitions remained haunted by the aporia of the archive
because both the political and intellectual projects were indebted for their
articulation to the very language of Western modernity that it was

This manifested intellectually in the promise of establishing traditions of
thought with their own disciplinary autonomy — an autonomy that would be
institutionalised in centres for African studies and the idea of an
Africanised university with an Africanised curriculum.

In effect, what we have here is a resistance to Western modernity that
departs from and uses the very assumptions of that modernity against itself.
It’s nonetheless a paradox, an aporia, of autonomy in which the quest for
intellectual autonomy is as intellectually problematic as it is politically

The sovereignty episteme is followed by one that, depending on context and
intent, we can describe in terms of “post-sovereignty,” “globalisation,”
“cosmopolitanism” or “Afropolitanism”. Here, the university has become
post-historical in the sense that its mission is no longer conceived mainly
in terms of the politics of the nation-state.

Sure, we still want our institutions of higher learning to produce
responsible citizens but (many of) these citizens are (also) going to live
all over the world as part-time Africans. And even those who remain in
Africa will have a second life in technology-based imagined communities.

Unlike in the debate on African Socialism, no one today truly believes that
if we could only remember what ubuntu was we could found a whole new
political project on that recollection. Instead of this sovereign aim,
post-sovereign knowledge production has the additional objective of creating
a sense of belonging: our students want to know that they are Africans and
that they belong in the world.

What is most characteristic about the notion of “belonging”? Perhaps simply
this: that I appreciate at once what is most particular and what is most
universal about my existence. And herein lies the aporia of belonging.

To help students make sense of, for instance, the Rwandan genocide, I must
not only convey a sense of moral outrage at what made this particular event
possible, namely a history of colonialism and Tutsi complicity in
perpetuating that legacy. I must also understand that event as representing
the kind of collective violence we associate with the founding of political
communities all over the world and throughout history.

Is collective violence like this exceptional and particular or unexceptional
and general? Is it this or that? Well, that would be too easy. It is this
and that and we have no choice but to condemn what is particular while also
understanding what is universal about it.

What does all of this have to do with the question of institutionalising the
study of Africa? Well, in light of the above, imaginewhat we are expecting
from our answer: an institutional arrangement that embodies, represents and
engages the politics of recollection, sovereignty and the cosmopolitan.

Of course everything would be a lot easier if the Western bias of higher
education could simply be transformed overnight so that we no longer need an
Africa Day because every day will be Africa Day.

But that’s not going to happen and until it does (if it ever will), we need
to think very carefully about losing institutions like CAS that, problematic
as their sovereignty politics may be, still drive us in the right


Leonhard Praeg is assistant professor in the department of political and
international studies, Rhodes University. This is a shortened version of his
address at the UCT Africa Day panel discussion on “The Study of Africa in
the Postcolonial University”

Source: Mail & Guardian Online