Why Post- Apartheid UCT Needs the Centre for African Studies

POSTED ON: November 30, 2011 IN Speeches & Statements, Word View

Concerned CAS Students, 15 March 2011

As Concerned CAS Students and CAS supporters we respond here to the Faculty Forum held on Friday 25 February 2011. We reiterate and explain our opposition to any closure, disestablishment or downgrading of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies (CAS) either as an interim measure, or as the first step in a two-stage process towards establishing a new Centre.

As students, alumni, intellectuals, clients and stakeholders of this university, we argue that a university should not be run as a corporate institution, dictated by the often undemocratic ‘costs and benefits’ approach of the global marketplace. This brings us to the Dean’s opening remarks at the Faculty Forum. The Dean stated that increasing resources to small departments simply is not negotiable or on the agenda for discussion. In light of the serious implications and negative consequences of a purely administrative decision to disestablish CAS, the economic rationalisation argument does not hold ground. In fact, it is short-sighted since the perception of the closure of CAS will harm the image that UCT wishes to cultivate of being a world-class African university with an Afropolitan vision, both within the continent and abroad. Also, the ‘resources’ argument stymies debate and closes the space for intellectual considerations. Such a view requires that administrative reason trumps intellectual and academic considerations. We must ask then, if resources are not available or negotiable in order to support and grow CAS in its current space and location, why are resources available for a merged department and possible new school? In the absence of an intellectual or academic reason to disestablish CAS, what economic rationality can justify closing CAS whilst proposing the investment of resources in a merged department on one hand, or in a new school, on the other?

The Dean also asked Concerned CAS Students at the Forum that if we oppose the disestablishment of CAS, do we also oppose a ‘New School’? The Dean’s question is a very important one. It is a question that we take seriously. We have been excluded in more than a year of formal discussions around a ‘New School’ or a ‘School of Critical Inquiry in Africa’. In formulating an intellectually grounded and informed response to this question, we would like to examine documents produced and circulated by the Faculty, review committees, affected departments and participants in all the discussions held around the new school and the proposed merged interim department. We know, for example, that ‘Africa’ means very different things for the different disciplines involved in the new department. But we do not know what ‘Africa’ signifies for these departments as seen through their disciplines. If these questions are not addressed in the documents related to these discussions, this is in itself significant. If provided access to the faculty and department documents generated through this process, we would be able to consider the Dean’s relevant question. We also would be able to contribute as serious stakeholders to debates around the possibility of a new school.

Since we have not had all the relevant documents made available to us, we are not informed enough to respond to the larger intellectual issues raised by the Dean’s question. Without these documents we, ourselves, are left with more questions than answers. For example, if the aim is a new, bigger and better resourced school, why must the Centre for African Studies be disestablished? Clearly, CAS is marginalised in this process since the interim department is proposed under the title ‘Social Anthropology, Linguistics and Gender’. Where does the Centre for African Studies, its physical space which is so important in its activities, programmes, teaching and exhibitions, figure in the interim department? Where is the particular intellectual project of the Centre in this arrangement? In fact, why should an interim department be set up at all?

We were struck by a re-emerging point made by faculty members: people become used to temporary arrangements very quickly. As the temporary becomes more settled and permanent the new large department also could become permanent. How can we be sure that the second stage will be embarked upon? The opposite seems to be more accurate since our impression at the moment is that during the discussions in 2010 very different understandings around the new school and meanings of ‘Africa’, were part of the reason that the new ‘Department of Social Anthropology, Linguistics and Gender’ was decided on instead of a new school. This leads us to conclude that a new school might not be formed. And if it is established, the fact that CAS would have been erased in the title of the department and administratively absorbed into the merged department suggests that CAS would not be at the centre of a new school at all.
The Dean asks in her opening remarks why students demand a Centre for African Studies when Africa is taught broadly across the curriculum? In our view, a handful of ‘Africa’ courses in different departments does not constitute the study of Africa – much less critical study. The critical study of Africa can be done only in an interdisciplinary way that historicises and problematises knowledge production, epistemes, and the study of Africa itself. In our view, this requires a department such as CAS in which the abovementioned approach forms the core of its curriculum. Furthermore, given the history of Bantu Studies at UCT (and the earlier School of African Life and Languages), a post-apartheid university committed to transformation should prioritise the critical study of Africa in profound ways. Offering elective courses on ‘Africa’ across disciplines seems to pay lip service to our concerns. It does not mean that African intellectual work is at the centre of disciplines but merely that Africa continues to be an unproblematised ‘object’ of study. How then can we not be concerned that a new department of ‘Social Anthropology, Linguistics and Gender’, interim or permanent, is not rehearsing an old model of colonial ethnography and area studies in the ‘modernised’ discourses of global multiculturalism? We know that in current global discourses, even in academic disciplines, the intellectual agency of Africans continues to be marginalised, essentialised, patronised and subalternised.

These considerations lead us to affirm our support for the unique intellectual environment that CAS provides – a department that cultivates critical academic work and encourages students to find and articulate their own voices. CAS promotes and produces interdisciplinary and critical scholarship challenging disciplinary paradigms, colonial and post-colonial modes of representation and the relations between power and knowledge that continue to haunt post-colonial academies and disciplines today. Within the broader global trend towards commoditising universities, we think that UCT is positioned uniquely to imagine new ways of producing knowledge in and about Africa. Indeed, if CAS is already doing this and a new school aims to do this, why should CAS be disestablished? And why should this be done in a two-step process? Why are resources and administrative rationalisations not used to support and grow the strong intellectual project that CAS represents and enacts?

We understand and respect the autonomy of the university as set out by statute, as well as the faculty and individuals involved in discussions for a merged department and for a ‘New School’. But as students and alumni, we have been excluded from the formal decision-making bodies, processes and discussions around the future of CAS, and what this means for our own academic trajectories at UCT. We do believe that we will suffer many losses if the disestablishment goes ahead.

UCT needs the Centre for African Studies – a Centre such as the one imagined by Professors Mahmood Mamdani and Archie Mafeje. We maintain that this is not negotiable, whether it is part of a Centre for African Studies or whether CAS is at the centre of a bigger school with a new name. We cannot imagine how a new school could not have CAS at its centre. But since we have been excluded from the formal spaces in which discussions on the proposed changes for CAS have taken place, we have chosen to elucidate our positions in written form in order to maintain clarity and to articulate a collective voice.

We reiterate our positions on any future of CAS at UCT. We also call for:

Public debate open to all UCT students;
Public and open debate as to the process of discussions/debates that have taken place already,

Full access to all documentation requested;
An end to the systematic downscaling of CAS faculty and administrative staff as well as of its office, teaching and gallery spaces;

An increase in staff and faculty to meet growing student needs at CAS;

A commitment to securing CAS’s current building space.

Whether this takes place as part of a renamed and upgraded ‘New School’ is not the central issue at the moment. Our demand is rather that the intellectual substance of the current Centre for African Studies remains in place, and that its students, faculty, administrative staff and physical space are supported. Also that documentation is made available to us so that we can participate meaningfully and constructively in discussions around a new school.

We believe that in supporting CAS or a CAS-centred new school, the faculty will be investing actively in its role as an African university that is really world-class. As dedicated students we need CAS to flourish with the support of the faculty and the university. Spaces such as CAS reflect our intellectual heritage, our pasts and our trajectories in the present by placing those writers, theorists, poets, artists, creatives, seminal thinkers and intellectuals from Africa, the Diaspora and the global South at the centre of our intellectual journeys and of our formal degree studies.