Michael Chapman
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Is Mandela an African?

In Pursuit of African Scholarship

[Workshop on African Scholarship, University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2005]


The new, merged University of KwaZulu-Natal wishes to be a premier institution of African scholarship.  What is ‘African scholarship'?  An idealistic interpretation emphasises essentialism, or what Ali Mazrui calls ‘romantic gloriana':   there is an African genius in the bones, in the blood, in the spirit;  a genius unaffected by the circumstance of history.  The argument is that, before colonialism, Africa had mathematics, architectural acumen (Great Zimbabwe), powerful kingdoms. 

A diametrically opposed view regards African scholarship as a catch phrase.  The university, scholarship, research, are concepts, practices, of Western modernity: a modernity characterised by scientific rationalism.  The peripheries of the world, accordingly, constitute time-warps, whether in Africa or Asia;  the centre is the industrial north.

Are there indigenous forms of African understanding or conduct?  Consider ‘ubuntu'.  Romantic gloriana suggests that Africans are genetically sharing, communal beings.  Scientific rationalism says, no;  that ubuntu represents a phase of human and social development.  Under another name, ubuntu would have been the glue of the pre-modern European village.  The concept or its application is not essential, but culturally determined.  Wealthy, technologically advanced societies are relatively individualistic in their pursuit of ample resources;  poorer, less modern societies are relatively communitarian in their adaptation to scarce resources.  Despite such generalisations, power struggles, competition, jealousies, remain features of all ‘types' of society.

Rejecting both the defensive triumphalism of romantic gloriana and the arrogant triumphalism of scientific rationalism, Mazrui says that given the ‘reality' of Africa's long triple heritage - the indigenous, the Islamic, the Western - there can be no retreat to any precolonial starting point.  There is a case, however, for re-establishing contacts with familiar landmarks as a necessary stocktaking (the non-romantic metaphor is deliberate) before beginning the journey of modernisation under greater consideration and respect for the local environment.  This involves a simultaneous looking backwards/inwards to African ancestry and looking forward/outwards at a wider humanity.  Both perspectives deny essentialism. 

The inward-look reveals an ancestry in a centuries-old contact with either Arabic or European intrusions.  The outward-look reveals a humanity - both in and beyond Africa - that disrupts neat classifications of race, culture, class, citizenry, gender, tradition, and modernity.  The long-look back in South Africa reminds us that the original inhabitants of the region - San/Bushmen - predate not only European colonisation, but also Bantu-speaking African migrations.  The outward/forward look identifies postmodernism:  the ‘fusion' of young South Africans, whatever their colour, with global-flow culture.  The categories, home-produced culture and world culture, require new definition.

So far I have not answered my own question:  what is African scholarship?  But I have begun to suggest what African scholarship is not.  Let me pursue the point in the form of a story.  The discipline could be literature, or philosophy, religion, politics, or sociology.  The title of my story is:  ‘Is Mandela an African?'

Common sense says, of course, he is!  He is Xhosa-African;  his life experience is marked by the brute force of apartheid on those classified Bantu.  University teaching, however, is not simply about commonsense.  So, let me begin by asking whether the story I am about to tell is an African, a Western, or a universal story.

The story is about the young hero who, like all young people, must venture beyond the enclosure of the village.  In his or her journeyings, innocence yields to experience.  We are familiar with the folk-tale dimension.  We should not, however, erase historical peculiarities.  In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela - a young person who ventured from rural innocence to city experience - tells how he remained in Johannesburg to be involved in political activity and to figure in a national narrative of oppression and liberation.

Mandela's story, however, is not an essentially African story.  In his autobiography he reveals his indebtedness to several, not always compatible discourses that in both South Africa and the world opposed apartheid:  liberalism, Marxism, Africanism, and, as a reminder that the young Gandhi forged his philosophy of soul power in South Africa, satyagraha: the strategy behind the ANC-led Defiance Campaign of the 1950s.  After a struggle with his own early African nationalism, Mandela acknowledges that Marx helped him see things other than through the prism of race, even as his vaguely liberal education at the University of Fort Hare returned him to the age of Reason in his commitment to modern constitutionalism.  But where Western liberal thought moves from the individual to the society, Mandela in a key Africanist revision moves from the society to the individual. 

To make further distinctions, the concept of the society is not the socialist one of a collection of individuals, but the communal one of unity at the centre of people's beings.  With the family as the model of community, Mandela states unabashedly that his son's death while he was in prison ‘left a hole in [his] heart that can never be filled'.  Our determination - the ‘warrior' ethic in times of struggle - is qualified by our ubuntu:  our capacity for sharing, understanding, and empathy.

The ubuntu is not nativist, ethnic, or millenarian.  It is entirely rational as it takes from Senghor's Negritude not the rhetoric of intuition and rhythm, but an analytical modification of Western capitalist-labour theory.  It recognises that the problem of the South is not to eliminate classes by class war within the nation, but to bridge the gap between developed and underdeveloped sectors of the economy.  The Africanism is social, not socialist, in that the character of the person changes in its relations with others.  It is also generational in that as we grow older in our relational understanding, we become more fully persons, more ourselves.  The greater our sharing of humanity the greater our isithunzi, or seriti:  our aura or prestige.  A division between the individual and the society is rendered invalid.  Rather, community involvement contributes to one's self-actualisation as a distinctive person.  For longer than it can remember, this story has been marked by both Westernism and Africanism. 

Is Mandela an African?  Yes, but not simply in his bones, blood or spirit.  Is Mandela a world citizen?  Yes, but not at the expense of his Africanness.  His making, his wisdom, is indebted to diverse intellectual, cultural and social influences.  In analysing his story, I have had to interrogate types and stereotypes, to modify, to recast categories of thought.

Is my story pertinent to African scholarship?  It avoids both romantic gloriana and scientific rationalism.  Its African focus adapts the past to the present;  its wider focus adapts the world's knowledge to the idiom of the local.  The fact that South Africa is a complicated hybrid of Africa and the West is a spur, paradoxically, to the pursuit of the concept, or category, African scholarship.


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