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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English

Addicted to difference: thinking ''Africa'' from the Cape


Maria Geustyn - 2011-06-17

What does it mean to think “Africa”? And, more specifically, what does it mean to think “Africa” from a geographically unique location such as the Cape?

These are the types of questions a recent inaugural panel addressed and discussed for the Stellenbosch University’s Locations and Locutions Lecture Series entitled Whose Africa? Which Africa?

The first of three lectures was held on Tuesday 7 June 2011 in the Endler Hall in Stellenbosch. An initiative by the SU’s Graduate School of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,the lecture series aims to promote and facilitate the critical engagement on Africa in the arts, humanities and social sciences, as inspired by the “the multidisciplinary research themes offered in the Graduate School” (Hennie Kotze).

The all-star panel for the first lecture consisted of Achille Mbembe from SU, Harry Garuba from the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town and Suren Pillay from the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, while Meg Samuelson (SU) chaired the event. They were asked to deal with the theme “Thinking Africa from the Cape” in an attempt to engage more critically with the “North/South axis of global knowledge”. Arnold van Zyl, Vice-rector: Research highlighted the importance of this intellectual archive of ideas by stating that “we are here tonight to help build up the intellectual resources we need to put higher education in Africa on a proper footing, because a revitalised higher education sector is crucial to human development in Africa and human development is the moral imperative of our time.”

In her opening address Meg Samuelson stressed the need to critically engage with the Cape as geographical space when thinking about Africa. One of the most important aspects of the Cape is that it lies at the convergence between the continent and the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. At the same it is positioned at the point where these two oceans meet and where the historical slave routes can be traced. According to Samuelson the Cape lies at that important intersection of North/South and East/West and as the “pendulum of power” moves from the North/South to the East/West the necessity to present Africa as theorising itself becomes more pressing.

The most jocular on the panel, Pillay suggested that thinking of Africa from the Cape is done from the positions of “acts of knowing” and “acts of being”, the first of which is based on the assumption that the Cape is affiliated with Western culture, while the second refers to our recognition of what we are becoming. Pillay continued by explaining that this “act of being” is simultaneously dominated by Enlightenment thought and by our recognition of and consequent struggle against it.

Harry Garuba, the second speaker on the panel, rephrased the question by asking, “How should one not think Africa from the Cape?”. To Garuba the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town perfectly symbolised the answer to this question. He considers the Rhodes Memorial a “representative of a world that has gone” with a modernist imperial vision that marks control and represses history. He also raised a point concerning “knowledge capitalism”, which he equated with Shoprite “setting up shop” in different key positions throughout Africa in an attempt to expand. Garuba challenged universities not merely to replicate this model by simply expanding knowledge centres, but to produce critical thinking instead.

Achille Mbembe concluded by stating that to him “how one thinks about Africa has always been and still is an object of struggle and contestation. In fact there is no guarantee as to what Africa is, as to what Africa means to whom, and to who is an African.” Mbembe continued by explaining that the categories “what is Africa” and “who is African” cannot be taken for granted. “These categories operate most of the time as place-holders which by definition are structurally threatened by fundamental instability.” To Mbembe, Africa as a term or concept has been so “politically, intellectually, and symbolically charged that if we were to stabilise those terms and close them they would lose this political, intellectual and symbolic charge”. Therefore we need to keep this term open and “learn to live with indeterminism”. Mbembe stressed that we need to negotiate the tether between location and homelessness, and qualified this by asking “whether one can be South African but not African. Or whether one can be of the Cape but not of South Africa? In other words, what do we mean by ‘African’ when we say ‘South African’? And what do we mean by ‘South African’ when we say ‘from the Cape’?” To Mbembe the answer to this lies in the disentanglement of the two terms African and black. In conclusion he echoed Pillay in a call for the categories “Africa” and “African” to remain open and in constant negotiation so that we “do not turn territorial boundaries into intellectual boundaries” (Pillay).

The two other public lectures scheduled for 2011 will explore “Atlantic Locations” on 19 July and “Indian Ocean Africa” on 13 September.