‘A World Class African University’

Late last year (in November) The New York Times ran a news piece on how the University of Cape Town is “now resplendently multiracial” despite the paper noting that white students still outnumber blacks “almost two to one” on the campus. This in a country where “only 9 percent [of the people] is white.” The piece did not say much about what the faculty looked like except that white men make up 70% of all professors.

We were reminded of that piece when our inboxes were flooded with forwarded emails (and petitions) about a decision by the University to downgrade its Center for African Studies (CAS) – founded in 1976 – by incorporating it into a hodgepodge department incorporating Anthropology, African Languages and Literature and Gender Studies. The building space that CAS occupied – including a gallery, and a public lecture and performance space (at one time, CAS was also home to a resident dance company, and hosted book launches and groundbreaking conferences) – is already being partially occupied by a new Institute the Huminaties in Africa (HUMA), with some costly renovations. In many ways, a centre for “African Studies,” and an institute to foster the “Humanities in Africa” replicate each other in their continental ambitions for subjecting the whole of “Africa” to comprehensive study. So why would one institution, established in the mid ’70s, and fought hard-for, be quietly divested of its faculty over the past couple of years, only to be replaced by a twin by another name?

There’s a lot of rumors and whispersspeculate on what is making these moves possible.  However, there’s little reporting on this situation in Cape Town or elsewhere. And in its public statements, the university is coy about the politics in which this move is submerged.  But to some observers, there’s a couple of things that stick out: though the university boasts that 40% of its students are black, not many of its faculty are; new hires often leave for positions in other universities, citing the problematic racism pervasive within their departments. In fact, at the higher levels of management, this disparity is even more noticeable: the director of CAS, Harry Garuba, is one of only three black heads of departments–out of about 40–at the university. The other two are Francis Nyamnjoh in Anthropology and Abner Nyamende, who is the head of African Languages in Literature (two of the departments about to be merged with CAS).

The university insists CAS is past its sell by date (it’s a relic of Apartheid, which made it necessary for a centre dedicated to the study of all things “African”) and anyway, “the study of Africa is deeply rooted across the institution” (and now that those bad days are over, all things African are freely incorporated across the curriculum).  Not so fast, say defenders of CAS and critics of the university’s curriculum.  Some faculty–in informal conversations–scoff at such a suggestion.  They note that it is no coincidence that the last significant public confrontation around how connected UCT’s curriculum was to its surroundings ended in the director of CAS at the time, Mahmood Mamdani, being pilloried. Mamdani eventually left, but CAS survived with a small faculty and little resources, yet remained one of the few departments that welcomed visiting scholars and provided a space for free-flowing ideas and interdisciplinary research. Some of my colleagues (from outside South Africa) who’ve walked into the Department of English at UCT, for example, only to encounter a willful lack of interest–accompanied by those mild expressions of resentment found in peculiarly colonial spaces–found, to our delight, that CAS not only provided us with office space and access to libraries, but introductions to fellow scholars and opportunities to share our work with UCT faculty and students.

This is all, of course, going down at a “world class African university.”


16 thoughts on “‘A World Class African University’

  1. The number of universities in the world which (ab)use this same rhetoric to assert Black/African/Ethnic Studies departments are “relics” of *insert oppression-which-is-gone-because-we’re-postracial-now here*depresses me.

  2. Come on! Your article makes some valid points, but really, using the race card in this whole debate is silly. At the end of the day people should realize that universities are businesses (therefore there is a profit margin that needs to be maximized). CAS is not able to maximize that profit margin in any significant way. Yes, it’s all very good and well to think about universities as idealistic spaces where the mysteries of academia make the world a better place, but get real people! Sure CAS was a great department, sure it hosted visiting scholars, sure it was a center of thought and innovation etc etc but has anyone walked into that esteemed department recently? There’s nothing going on there. CAS doesn’t put on any public lectures or engage with the rest of the university.
    And a cursory glance at the HUMA website, or even articles about HUMA seem to suggest that it’s a worthwhile department bridging the Humanities and Law faculties… in a country where so many people are disenfranchised despite our wonderfully idealistic constitution, surely a meeting point between humanities and law is more important than the lack of activity that the Centre for African Studies seemed so good at creating!
    If you’re going to argue the case for CAS don’t do it retrospectively, do it in the present tense. If anything, the potential closing or ‘amalgamating’ of the department of Anthropology and the African Gender Institute (AGI) should be of more concern to the greater academic community and the UCT community too. It may have been a great department in the past but it’s clearly beyond its sell by date.

    • I do not think the case is being argued retrospectively as Sindy says. It is a fact that this country is still under the power of the white rich minority which is concerned about how the Centre for African Studies is a possibility for people to get to know those stories for hundreds of years hidden by colonialism and apartheid regime. It is the only way to understand the present and start creating real solutions, for AFRICA! Also, education shouldn’t prioritize its business side, but its social responsibility of forming minds that can make the change.

  3. For those interested there’s a group on Facebook called Concerned CAS Students who are objecting to this closure. There’s an interesting exchange of emails between the students and the Dean.
    If CAS was a relic of the past as Sindi says, then why are students mobilizing and why’s this issue getting so much attention in the press? CAS may be a small department but a nonetheless relevant one and although I was last there a few years ago, it’s a little hard to believe the ‘nothing goes on there now’ line.

  4. It is true that in the past year or two, activities have died down significantly – but as some have pointed out, that was in part because faculty positions were not renewed/cut outright.

  5. Let’s see if I can reply to all the comments…
    @Gondwana – to clarify what I meant about the case being argued retrospectively if you look at the article on this website, all it seems to be doing is saying that CAS was a great department headed by Mahmood Mamdani and that it did good work in the past. All it seems to say about the present state of the department is that it is headed by one of the few black people in positions of academic authority at UCT. I agree the lack of equality in the realms of UCT staff is a problem…in fact I think that UCT would do well to take a leaf out of the UFS’s book – that Jansen seems to be doing some pretty cool stuff. But back to retrospectively…it’s all very good and well to say that Mamdani was great at CAS, but Mamdani ain’t there no more people! What is CAS doing now??? Are they contributing in the same way now??? And I don’t think that any department (or students of the department) can blame the apparent lack of activity on the bias/racism/general mission of the greater humanities faculty – maybe I’m idealistic, but if a department wants to put on public lectures, get involved with the academic community or the local community or the student population then they do it…has the Centre for African Studies done that?

    At the mention of great press interest by @KonWomyn I did a quick google… point me in the right dirction if I’m missing any press articles – but all I got was:
    1. An H-Net Article (academic and done by the group concerned CAS students tat Konwomyn mentions).
    2. An article on Politics Web by the Dean of Humanities at UCT (academic done by the Dean)
    3. Something on Google Groups called the USA African Dialogue Series (also seems to have been done by concerned CAS).
    4. Something in the South African Paper ‘The Sowetan’. (Genuine Press article).
    5. A Facebook Press Statement by the Dean again (Dean).
    6. I might as well add the article in Pambazuka News that Gondwana posted a link to above…even though it didn’t appear on my Google search. (concerned Cas students again).

    I do totally agree with the fact that universities shouldn’t prioritize their business side – that’s a no brainer…but realistically (and unfortunately) they do.
    @Joyce if you don’t know what the race card is then I suggest you take a cursory look at newspapers, academic issues…pretty much the majority of black-white SA issues in the past decade. The first three paragraphs of this blogpost are all about the race card. I’m sure I’m not the only South African that is sick and tired of people making every issue about race. Black, white, Indian, colored, pink, blue, unpigmented …. we’re all South Africans and everyone should be judged on their own merit or demerit rather than the color of their skin. I get that we have inequality that needs redressing. I get that we have an educational system that is failing to serve the needs of South African students because of the legacy of Apartheid – seriously, what has CAS done to help with that … maybe as a larger department with other socially active departments they might be able to do something. Maybe as part of a larger department they might have more clout on university issues. Maybe as part of a larger department they might be able to truly institute change.
    Here’s hoping. And here’s looking on the bright side.
    If I look at all of this beautiful country’s founding fathers…Sisulu, Tata and Tutu, something that stands out with all of them is that they collaborated with their community. They engaged with their communities. And they used opportunities for good even while recognizing that the state of affairs wasn’t always ideal or as it should be.
    Maybe CAS could take a leaf out of their books and use this opportunity to create an amazing multidisciplinary initiative with the AGI and Anthropology etc to really show UCT where it’s at…make a difference that matters more than in the elitist realms of the academic community. Make a difference where it matters most – on the ground, for real people. And yes, academic writings and debates do help this initiative…
    That’s all folks!
    *PS concerned Cas people – I admire your activism, but remember to choose your battles.

  6. @Sindi:
    So these are signs of “merit” and colorblindness in South Africa:

    * 70% of all faculty members at UCT are white males
    * white students outnumber black students 2 to 1; and
    * there are 3 only black heads of department out of about 40. (And even worse, as the post reminds us, these 3 departments will now be lumped together to become one new entity.)

  7. Why is it that as soon as someone asserts their Blackness or their Africanness that they are accused of using the ‘race card’ when this ‘card’ is used by White folks all the time (consciously or unconsciously) without ever being called a ‘race card’. We should be so eager to point out White power and White privilege (as this article does).

    To claim color-blindness or meritocracy in a space such as South Africa is to deliberately obscure the issues surrounding racism and an attempt to remove the issues from a history that implicates Whiteness. It doesn’t fly with me.

  8. Sindi
    I was talking about a group on Facebook, that’s where the emails are, it’s a join-by-request group so it may not come up on Google. Perhaps you might want to share your views with some of the students on there.

  9. I attended some of the HUMA lectures/talks/’public engagements’ at the end of last year. It was pitiful, hopelessly disconnected from South Africa’s day-today interesting realities. It certainly wasn’t ‘first class’. Unless by ‘first class’ they mean ‘ivory tower’.
    Living in the shadow of UCT, it is so depressing to see a place of such immense resources and potential put to so little use. It has the potential to become an engaged, transformative presence in this city and country. I hope they see that and act on it some day. Sure universities have to be profit driven. But equally they have to prove themselves to be relevant if they want to be valued by the societies that sustain them.

    • Anna, I can not agree with you more. Not only is the white to non white staff ratio at UCT pitiful, what’s even worse is the fact that the lives of thousands of graduates are being toyed with just because the white academic and white administrative staff want to hold on to the pre 1994 status quo.

      UCT STOP PLAYING WITH THE FUTURE AFRICAN LEADERS! Taking money from students to teach them nothing about the continent they live on and teaching out dated courses that render graduates unemployable is criminal.

      The current situation at UCT is reminiscent of UNISA pre Barney Pityana. There are entire families working at UCT, which is why the white staff ratio is still so high.

      It’s time for government to step in and clear the rot at UCT!

  10. There has been some public speculation over the past week about proposals for departmental reorganisation in the Faculty of Humanities at UCT, and the so-called ”closing down” of the Centre for African Studies (CAS). Claims have been made that CAS and all its courses, programmes, exchange links, intellectual activities and so forth have either been, or are about to be closed down, and that students have been excluded from discussion on the matters. This is completely untrue. No decision, administrative or otherwise, has been made in relation to any department in the Faculty at this time, and any decision that may finally be made will be arrived at through open discussion and debate within the faculty. A statement was made about this on 14th February but it appears that further details are required.

    One comment has linked the alleged “closing down of CAS” to the so-called Mamdani affair at UCT in the late 1990s. This is a very useful connection, as the Mamdani affair has powerfully important lessons for us at the present time.

    Professor Mahmood Mamdani held the AC Jordan chair in the Centre for African Studies in the late 1990s, at the time that a foundation course was being prepared for the teaching of Africa to first year students. A dispute arose between himself and other members of a curriculum planning committee about what should be taught on the course. University and faculty management (of the previous Faculty of Social Sciences) attempted to resolve the dispute by suspending Mamdani from the planning committee, thereby effectively denying him the opportunity to contribute further to the course planning. Mamdani responded by insisting that a seminar be organised at which the different viewpoints could be debated by the university community. Mamdani made a dazzling presentation of his argument which in my view devastated that of his interlocutors. Many of us still remember this as one of the most exhilarating debates held at UCT.

    I believe this debate holds two crucial lessons for us in the present context. Firstly, that the use of administrative fiat to stifle intellectual debate has no place in a university setting. Secondly, that what it means to study Africa is fiercely contested, and the academic project as a whole can only flourish if all viewpoints are enabled to contend freely.

    Over the past year, a group of approximately 30 academics in the Faculty of Humanities at UCT have been discussing the creation of a new department which, if it were to be born, would lift African studies at UCT to a significantly higher level. This group of academics, from the Centre for Africa Studies, the African Gender Institute, Linguistics, Anthropology and Sociology, included three NRF research chairs, a number of highly esteemed professors and leaders of major research projects. The discussions were wide-ranging and intense, and provoked such excitement that academics from other departments asked to be included. In time the group came up with a proposal to form a new department to be called the New School for Critical Enquiry in Africa. If this School were to be born, it would be the second largest in the faculty, and would draw together cutting edge research and teaching about epistemologies and representations of Africa, heritage and public culture, archive studies, language and migration, indigenous knowledge systems, feminism and violence, land reform and democracy, and much more. It would lay the basis for an extraordinary flowering of intellectual work, and lift the academic game of the faculty to an entirely new level.

    The following is an extract from a draft vision statement crafted by colleagues in the group discussing the new School:

    “Key to its intellectual project is the conception of the New School as a space in which we negotiate the legacies of the knowledges that we have inherited. These are knowledges in and of Africa, but they are also knowledges which place us in relation to a conception of the disciplines, as a notion of global scholarship and global theory. Part of our aim, framed as a question, is to ask: what would it take to create knowledges capable of moving African-centred scholarship into the dialogic centre of global paradigms of humanities research? The new School sets out to be a research and teaching hub, a world leading institution of its kind, able to attract top students and significant research funding.” The draft vision statement went on to say that to achieve this, the new School will be guided by five main principles: Locating ourselves, locating theory; [taking seriously the way in which we are located, as scholars in post apartheid South Africa in Africa, and in the global south] Working in and out of disciplines; re-inhabiting the global; practising theory/theorising practice; and working together, working in new ways.”

    The group of academics involved in the discussions proposed to form the New School through a merger of CAS, the Africa Gender Institute, Linguistics and Anthropology, with the yet-to-be-filled A.C. Jordan Chair as its leader and champion, in a two-stage process. The plan is to merge the departments under an interim placeholder name, the Department of Anthropology, Linguistics and Gender Studies, as a step towards the creation of the New School. This proposal will go to the faculty for discussion at the end of February, and again in March.

    It is quite true that an important impulse towards this merger has been the problem posed by the size and vulnerability of two very small departments in the faculty – CAS and the AGI – and how best to support them. CAS has the equivalent of two full time academic members of staff; the Africa Gender Institute has three. A larger, merged department would provide a more spacious and more secure platform for staff from both of these small departments to flourish; to protect and extend the important work that they already do..

    What has this to do with the Mamdani affair? Firstly, if this new School is able to emerge, it will rise to the challenge made by Mamdani, to take the study of Africa studies seriously, and to seriously institutionalise it. Secondly, if this School is to emerge, it has to grow on the basis of intellectual will and commitment, and not be driven by administrative fiat. These departments are not being forced to merge through a top-down management decision – faculty deans at UCT have no such authority anyway. The proposals that will go to faculty forum have been developed from the bottom up, by the academics themselves who are most affected.

    I believe that the proposed merger holds great potential for our faculty. Whether it comes off or not will depend on the decision of the Faculty itself, of Senate, and of Council. The input of the community we serve, both inside and outside of UCT, is obviously extremely important to us, and it is for this reason that it is important that it based on the facts.

    Professor Paula Ensor

    Dean of Humanities

    • @prof ensor:

      Thank you for your detailed response which goes a long way towards clarifying the rather murky circumstances surrounding the CAS. It’s true that the CAS has been drifting for the last several years mostly because of the reasons that you present. However, the university, more specifically the faculty of Humanities bears the brunt for creating this situation by failing to take a decisive leadership role thus fuelling suspicions that the university intended to render CAS ineffective by letting it drift in limbo until it faded away. Given the history of UCT and the dramatic events surrounding the eventual departure of Mamdani its no wonder that , accurate or not, these suspicions took root and have flared up during the current discussions about the fate/direction of the CAS.

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