of African Scholarship
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.