SOUTH AFRICA: Re-thinking the study of Africa

What is Africa? Who and what is the study of Africa for? These surprisingly complex questions have inspired a new postgraduate project at South Africa's Rhodes University, which aims to contribute towards "re-thinking the study of Africa" and pursue an innovative approach to teaching-led research.

The brainchild of associate professor Leonhard Praeg, and introduced by Rhodes University's Department of Political and International Studies late last year, the project - called "Thinking Africa" - is to be formally launched in Grahamstown on 6 July, followed by a colloquium and winter school which takes as its theme the legacy of anti-colonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who died 50 years ago this year.

The project's official launch comes in the wake of controversy earlier this year over the University of Cape Town's proposed 'disestablishment' of the Centre for African Studies (CAS) in favour of its incorporation in a proposed new 'super-school' to be called the New School for Critical Enquiry in Africa.

In an article published in April in the national Mail & Guardian and reproduced in the first newsletter of the Thinking Africa project, Praeg contributed to the debate by arguing that the new school would be "haunted by the implicit claim that the struggle against marginalisation - to which CAS was the answer - is over".

He went on to suggest that while the "shift to a celebratory 'Afropolitanism'", aspired to by Cape Town, implied that the struggle against marginalisation of Africa was over, the debacle involving Professor Mahmood Mamdani implied it was not.

Mamdani, the Ugandan scholar who became head of CAS in the late 90s, disagreed with colleagues about the content of an introductory course on Africa. The incident also sparked widespread debates about the production of knowledge about Africa and nature of African studies, a debate which - as the discussions around the CAS show - continues to simmer.

Today Mamdani is Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda, and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York.

In a recent statement describing "how the project is positioned intellectually", Thinking Africa steering committee member Dr Sally Matthews contended that research on Africa should contribute both to an understanding of Africa, and the broader human condition.

"We do not have to choose between 'solving problems' and generating theory. In Thinking Africa we believe that we can systematically and thematically address what seems to be most urgent and do so in a manner that generates original and exciting theory," she wrote.

Philosophical fundamentals aside, Praeg said the Thinking Africa project was also conceived as way to promote collaborative research or 'teaching-led research' between postgraduate students and faculty which would result in the production by students - either solely or in collaboration with project leaders - of peer-reviewed publications.

Praeg told University World News that the difference between "teaching-led research" and the traditional supervisor-researcher relationship was "one of degree, not kind".

" ...The learning encounter is used to collaboratively explore a complex field, issue or set of problems where the teacher still has sufficient competence to provide the research project with a conceptual roadmap but where the insights generated along the way are more collaboratively arrived at. The idea is to demonstrate through such collaboration, what it means to engage intellectual problems and how an experienced researcher would go about addressing them."

Praeg said by working with researchers in fields of direct relevance and expertise, students will "actively learn what it means to participate in the production of knowledge".

He explained that what was unique about the approach was the way the project was being used to "drive the question of curriculum transformation in South Africa" and "encourage and broaden the ideas of a quality education, where quality is assumed to mean something like 'an education that equips students with the knowledge necessary to live meaningful lives in an African context'".

On the significance of the initiative for South Africa, Praeg said he hoped it would help students to "get excited about the intellectual project".

"This can only happen if they see the relevance of it to their lives. Too many students finish an undergraduate or first postgraduate degree and then go off to the well-known centres for African studies all over the world.

"Although we encourage such a broadening of their intellectual scope and experience, we also want to encourage a return flux of students; to stay with us and work with us because what we do is exciting and of the same quality as they would get anywhere else in the world," he said.

More information on the project and its launch is here.