African Intellectual Activism: A Review

Published on 2nd April 2012

It is no accident that the founding leaders of post-colonial African countries - men like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Mandela – were able to articulate ideologies and visions of nationalism that were both political and cultural.

The idea of African Nationalism always contained some notion of cultural affirmation. Significantly, for African intellectuals the cultural counterpart to African Nationalism was not ethnic identity but a pan-African one: Negritude, or African personality.

African intellectuals looked to anchor nationalism - or in Terence Ranger’s famous term, to find a “usable past” – in its histories and cultures. Historians set out to tell Africa’s past, not merely to glorify it and its ancient kings and empires, but also to establish the humanity of African people.

And so in the heyday of independence and nation building, it was history that had its own major ‘schools’: those of Ibadan, Dakar and Dar es Salaam being among the best known.

The issues debated were development issues, the paradigms were the overturning of modernisation theory with new theories of underdevelopment and a relentless focus on different types of modes of production. These were exciting times in the full flush of political independence. The names of scholars who have stood the test of time were Samir Amin, Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, and Giovanni Arrighi. But in South Africa, where decolonisation lagged behind the rest of Africa, our intellectual trajectory was different to what took place in the north. And we were very much more wary of ethnicity, a point which Archie Mafeje made most clear in his much cited 1971 article on ‘tribalism.’ We were able to draw on an intellectual tradition that goes back to the origins of Pan-Africanist thinking with its concern to rid Africa of white imperial domination.

This tradition goes back to the early 1880s when John Tengo Jabavu founded the first secular newspaper, Imvo Zababantusundu in the Eastern Cape. It was continued in the early twentieth century by John Langalibalele Dube (author of the first Zulu language novel), R V. Selope Thema (journalist, editor, historian), Pixley Ka Isaka Seme ( a Columbia and Oxford trained lawyer), and Solomon T Plaatje (linguist, journalist and author) – all of whom were associated with founding of the ANC.

This tradition was continued at Fort Hare, where a small group of academics made important early contributions to the study of African society and culture.

The role Fort Hare played in South Africa’s struggle for liberation, and its influence across the continent, can be ascribed to the convergence of great minds on one campus. The number and profile of leaders that Fort Hare has produced over the years illustrates its reputation as the cradle of African intellectual leadership.

But apart from Fort Hare, where are the South African schools of intellectual activism like the ones in Dakar, Ibadan, and Dar es Salaam?
A little history will help at this point. In 1959 the Extension of University Education Act established separate institutions for black students, it created university apartheid.

At that time South African universities related to the state in a number of different ways that have contributed to the present forms of African intellectual activism.

The first type was the Afrikaans-medium institution with a firm relationship to the apartheid state. Intellectual outputs, teaching and research exemplified a symbiotic link between institutions and various arms of government. These institutions were, in Edward Said’s words, the “proving ground of patriots” and political conformity drove their daily agenda.

The second type was the English-speaking, primarily white institutions. These maintained a relationship with the state at a respectable distance. It is from intellectuals at some of these institutions that debates about the policies of a future democratic South Africa occurred.

The third type was the black university. Historically, black institutions became sites of struggle in the turbulent 70’s and 80’s. Sadly they never fully became the proving ground for intellectual activism. Political struggle consumed much of the time at these institutions and students and staff were unable to find the space for the development and emergence of intellectual excellence.

Our institutions now have political freedom, academic freedom, and intellectual independence.

The issue that arises is: has there been a complementary increase in intellectual activism? The answer is no, and the reasons for this are many and complex. I cannot possibly identify and address them all. We have not seen a fundamental curriculum shift that “Africanises” our universities. We have not witnessed an intellectual reclamation of educational territory from pre-democratic domination. We have not seen a sustained attempt to suture and bandage the spiritual wounds of apartheid. Even more peculiar, we have not seen a strong outpouring of patriotic intellectual practice.

When I think about our special needs in this regard, I think about the way in which remarkable individuals in the past have resolved the challenges to ‘mainstreaming’ their concerns. I think about Z.K. Matthews at Fort Hare. I think of Jakes Gerwel at the University of the Western Cape. To my mind these men and women are organic intellectuals.

In the past they worked in opposition to the cultural hegemony of the day; today they work for the creation of a new national identity.

The space for intellectual activism now exists in our democratic culture. Yet we find that much of current African intellectual activism takes place in the diaspora, mainly in the US.

Today there are over 70 dedicated African Studies centres in the US. Moreover, the US African Studies Association has over 2,500 members, among whom are many women and African Americans. In this network most of the better-known names of the contemporary African diaspora intellectuals have come to rest: Akyeampong, Appiah, Asante, Mamdani, Mudimbe, Nguni, Zeleza, and Soyinke. Our own Nolutshungu, Mafeje, and Magubane are a generation or older than these current trendsetters.

Yet there are real signs of regeneration and renaissance here and in the rest of Africa. Let me refer to a few signs.

First, new shoots of scholarship at African universities are beginning to grow again; there is an increase in student enrolments, there is investment in buildings and in staff. Despite the poor hand that was dealt to Africa in global trade and the global system in the 1990s, the current commodities boom has brought a new sense of wealth and hope for the future to many African countries.

Second, there are international bodies that are committed to the regeneration of universities in Africa. In particular, the rejuvenated Association of African Universities (AAU) is now able to lobby for universities in a way that was not possible before.

Third, into the vacuum that the run-down universities of Africa left in the 1980s, there emerged scholarly networks like Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa. (OSSREA), SAPES, AAPS, AERC and Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) that became significant sites of research and debate. Out of the vacuum has come a scholarship that leading African intellectuals regard as first-rate.

How can we benefit here in South Africa from the African intellectuals teaching and researching in the diaspora? What steps does government need to take in order to encourage the global circulation of new and old knowledge?

We have policies and programmes in South Africa – our flagship programmes are the SA Research Chairs initiative and our Centres of Excellence initiative - to encourage African research and development in our universities.

We have to make them work for us; we are making them work for us.

By Naledi Pandor

MP, Minister of Science and Technology, at the Archie Mafeje memorial lecture programme.

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