Mamdani returns to UCT centre as honorary professor

Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani has described his appointment as honorary professor at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies (CAS) as “very significant” and said it suggests that things have changed at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa since his departure almost 20 years ago.

“My appointment suggests that things have changed since I left in 1999. As I said in my academic freedom lecture [the TB Davie Memorial Lecture] last year, the Fall of Rhodes signaled that the change was indeed significant. I too have changed, though it is not for me to say how exactly,” he told University World News in an email.

Mamdani’s appointment, announced on Africa Day – 25 May – was hailed in a statement by CAS Director Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza as “institutionally historic” and marking a significant step on the university’s path towards decolonisation.

“This appointment is particularly exciting and profoundly significant in light of the pressure from the student movements since March 2015 for UCT to be decolonised and to fundamentally transform its curricula, with numerous references by student leaders to the relevant scholarship of Mamdani,” he said.

Mamdani, recognised as one of the globe’s top public intellectuals, said he had built many enduring relationships at UCT during his sojourn there as chair of African studies from 1996 to 1999.

“The circumstances in which I left UCT are well known. The important point is that there was no personal bitterness; these circumstances involved differences in perspective, especially as regards how to structure the curriculum, especially as regards the study of Africa and of South Africa as an African country,” he said.

“I was a strong critic of the then mainstream tendency at UCT which saw the South African experience as exceptional. I did not argue that South Africa was the same as any other African country, but I did insist on a comparative understanding of the African experience as necessary if students were to study South Africa’s history as a variant within the broader context of colonialism and post-colonialism in Africa.”

Mamdani was appointed as the AC Jordan Chair of African Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1996 and became director of CAS in early 1997. However, he left the institution in 1999 following a fallout with his faculty over its rejection of a faculty-wide foundation course on Africa that he was asked to develop.

His departure and the events leading up to it became known as the 'Mamdani Affair' and still serve as a critical reference point in South African debates about institutional transformation.
In what is described in the CAS statement as a “profoundly historic occasion for both CAS and UCT”, Mamdani returned to UCT to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture on 22 August 2017.

“His lecture – titled 'Decolonising the Post-Colonial University', and delivered to a much inspired, excited and indeed provocative and engaged audience of hundreds of students, staff and workers – brought to the public space the vital debates that are currently intensely reverberating across South Africa’s higher education institutions,” the statement said.

Ntsebeza said Mamdani’s course titled “Problematising the study of Africa” had been rejected by a “white-dominated faculty”. This had led to Mamdani’s public critique that UCT was promoting "Bantu Studies" and "South African exceptionalism" as "African Studies".

“The appointment of Mamdani as honorary professor in CAS is therefore nothing less than institutionally historic,” Ntsebeza said.

In 1998 Mamdani accused his faculty of presenting a colonial view of Africa from both a spatial and social perspective; drawing on a limited set of disciplinary perspectives; reinforcing a racial reading of Africa by not incorporating African intelligentsia in core readings and relying instead on the American academy's perspectives on African studies; and presenting a racial periodisation of African history leading to the concluding logic: ‘disintegration following the departure of the white man’.

However, according to Ntsebeza, almost two decades later, “the core African Studies course he argued for … was successfully implemented as a core course at postgraduate level in African Studies, and much of the themes within his scholarship have been introduced in the highly successful foundational African Studies major first rolled out in 2017.”

Of his role as honorary professor at CAS, Mamdani said: “It is in the very nature of the appointment that it is honorary. It leaves plenty of room for initiatives on both sides. Let us look to the future as we read tea leaves.”

Once voted the world’s ninth most important public intellectual by the United States’ Foreign Policy and the United Kingdom’s Prospect magazines, Mamdani is currently director and professor of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the departments of anthropology, Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies (MESAAS), political science and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, New York, where he was also director of the Institute of African Studies from 1999 to 2004.

His texts have been core readings for undergraduate and postgraduate studies at UCT and far beyond on the major debates on the study of African history and politics, exploring the intersection between politics and culture, comparative studies of colonialism, civil wars and the state, and genocide in Africa, according to the CAS statement.

*This story was updated on 5 June 2018 to reflect comments from Professor Mahmood Mamdani.