'An opportunity for the university to change direction'

Renowned African scholar Professor Mahmood Mamdani, who returned to the University of Cape Town last week after a 16-year absence to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture hosted by the academic freedom committee, argued that the university had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change direction – from a colonising outpost to a decolonisation project.

Towards the end of his lecture on ‘Decolonising the Post-colonial University’, Mamdani said he agreed to return to the University of Cape Town, or UCT, “because Rhodes fell”.

“To me it was a signal that the process of change was in the offing, I would be the last person to stay away.”

Mamdani, now the executive director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, was appointed head of the Centre of African Studies at UCT in 1996. He left three years later after disagreements with colleagues over a proposed ‘transformed’ curriculum which he called ‘Problematising the study of Africa’.

Mamdani said he came to the University of Cape Town in 1996 “full of excitement and wanting to learn and to contribute to a new world. Instead, I found a world very unsure of itself, full of anxiety. The leadership of government had changed, but the leadership of institutions had not.”

In his lecture, Mamdani said the institutional form of the modern African university was not African and there was ‘no connection’ between the institutions of learning we know of and celebrate in pre-colonial Africa, whether it’s in Cairo or in Timbuktu, and the universities we live and work in today.

European model

“The universities of contemporary Africa are based on the European model. The European model of a discipline-based gated community with a distinction between clearly defined groups, administrators, academics, and fee-paying students,” he said.

The birthplace of that model was in Germany, Mamdani said. Humboldt University of Berlin was a new type of university designed when Germany rethought how to recover from the defeat by France in 1810. Over the next century, this innovation spread over Europe and over the rest of the world.

This was also true of the intellectual content of modern social sciences and humanities. Modern social science and humanities are basically a product of the enlightenment experience in Europe. He said the European experience was the raw material from which the human category was forged.

“Externally, it was a response to an entirely different set of circumstances, not the changing vision of a self-reflective and self-revolutionising Europe, but of a self-assertive aggrandising, conquering Europe, expanding across the globe, in a move which began with the new world, then Asia, finally Africa, seeking to transform and to ‘civilize that world in its own image’.”

According to Mamdani this dual origin made for a contradictory legacy. The modern European university was a site for the study of the human. In their universal reach for the human, the humanities and the social sciences both proclaimed the oneness of humanity and assumed its sameness from a very European vantage point.

Conquest of society

He said the African university began as a colonial project, a top-down modernist project, whose ambition was the conquest of society.

The university was on the frontline of the colonial civilising mission, he said. Properly understood, this civilising mission was the precursor, the original edition of the one-size-fits-all project that we associate with the structural adjustment programmes designed by the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s.

“The university was the original structural adjustment programme,” he said, adding its ambition was to create universal scholars, men and women who stood for excellence, regardless of context, one-size-fits-all, and who would serve as the vanguard of the civilising mission without reservation or remorse.

“If you regard yourself as prisoners in this ongoing colonising project then your task has to be one of subverting that process from within, through a series of acts which sift through the historical legacy and the contemporary reality, discarding some parts and adapting others to a new found purpose, in short – decolonisation.”

Folkloric home languages

Mamdani posed the question: is there an intellectual reasoning that we can term African?

“Not a mode of reasoning genetically or ancestrally African, but I mean one expressive of a tradition weaving together of a set of discourses communicated in a common language, defining a coherent intellectual community with long historical tradition.”

He noted most Africans came out of colonialism speaking more than one language. One of these is the language of colonialism, inevitably a language of science, scholarship and global affairs. The other is a colonised language, a home language whose growth was truncated because colonialism cut short the possibility of the development of an intellectual tradition in the languages of the colonised.

“As a result, our home languages remain folkloric, shut out from the language of science and learning, law and government,” he said.

In East Africa, Kiswahili makes an exception, he said, being the language of culture and official discourse used for teaching in primary and secondary schools but not of university education. At the university level, it functions more like a foreign language, with its own department of Kiswahili studies.

The difference becomes clear if one looks at Afrikaans development, he said. “One needs to recall that Afrikaans emerged from a folkloric language to a medium of an intellectual tradition in less than half a century, thanks to vast affirmative language support through public funds to schools, universities and publishing houses.

“It’s no exaggeration to say Afrikaans represents the most successful decolonising initiative on the African continent,” said Mamdani adding that not only did this happen under apartheid, but that the great irony is it was not emulated by the government of independent South Africa.

He noted if state policy changed, the same would go for Nguni and Sotho languages in South Africa.

What needs to be done?

The African university began as a colonial project, a top-down modernist project whose ambition was to transform society in its own image. The project was unilingual, it was English, Portuguese or French, and it acknowledged only a single Western language, one that shut the vast majority out of the colonised out of the common discourse of humanity.

What would it mean to decolonise such a project? The East African experience suggests socialising the cost of education so as to make it more inclusive. To socialise it is to reduce fees, he said.

“Affordable higher education must become a reality if the end of apartheid is to have a meaning for the youth,” he told his audience.

“The decolonising project has to be a multilingual project whose purpose should not only be to provide Westernised education in multiple languages, but to provide resources for the development of non-western scholarly intellectual traditions as living traditions with the capacity to sustain public and scholarly discourse,” he said.

He called on UCT and other institutions to consider establishing centres for African languages which could support efforts to translate global literature into these languages.

Directing his comments at UCT Vice-chancellor Max Price, Mamdani said the students’ movement had opened up for the university an opportunity that sometimes comes up once in a generation, an opportunity to change the direction of the university from an outpost of a colonising mission to that of the decolonisation project.