‘A World Class African University’

Image Credit: 4thethrillofit (Flickr)

In late November 2010, The New York Times ran a bizarre news piece on how the University of Cape Town is “now resplendently multiracial” despite the paper noting that white students still outnumber blacks “almost two to one” on the campus. This in a country where “only 9 percent [of the people] is white.” The piece did not say much about what the faculty looked like except that white men make up 70% of all professors.

We were reminded of that piece when our inboxes were flooded with forwarded emails (and petitions) about a decision by the University to downgrade its Center for African Studies (CAS) – founded in 1976 – by incorporating it into a hodgepodge department incorporating Anthropology, African Languages and Literature and Gender Studies.

The building space that CAS occupied–including a gallery, and a public lecture and performance space (at one time, CAS was also home to a resident dance company, and hosted book launches and groundbreaking conferences)–is already being partially occupied by a new Institute the Huminaties in Africa (HUMA), with some costly renovations.

In many ways, a centre for “African Studies,” and an institute to foster the “Humanities in Africa” replicate each other in their continental ambitions for subjecting the whole of “Africa” to comprehensive study. So why would one institution, established in the mid ’70s, and fought hard-for, be quietly divested of its faculty over the past couple of years, only to be replaced by a twin by another name?

There’s a lot of rumors and whispers or speculation on what is making these moves possible.  However, there’s little reporting on this situation in Cape Town or elsewhere. And in its public statements, the university is coy about the politics in which this move is submerged.  But to some observers, there’s a couple of things that stick out: though the university boasts that 40% of its students are black, not many of its faculty are; new hires often leave for positions in other universities, citing the problematic racism pervasive within their departments. In fact, at the higher levels of management, this disparity is even more noticeable: the director of CAS, Harry Garuba, is one of only three black heads of departments–out of about 40–at the university. The other two are Francis Nyamnjoh in Anthropology and Abner Nyamende, who is the head of African Languages in Literature (two of the departments about to be merged with CAS).

The university insists CAS is past its sell by date (it’s a relic of Apartheid, which made it necessary for a centre dedicated to the study of all things “African”) and anyway, “the study of Africa is deeply rooted across the institution” (and now that those bad days are over, all things African are freely incorporated across the curriculum).

Not so fast, say defenders of CAS and critics of the university’s curriculum.  Some faculty–in informal conversations–scoff at this.  They note that it is no coincidence that the last significant public confrontation around how connected UCT’s curriculum was to its surroundings ended in the director of CAS at the time, Mahmood Mamdani, being pilloried for challenging UCT’s parochial curriculum. Mamdani eventually left, but CAS survived with a small faculty and little resources, yet remained one of the few departments that welcomed visiting scholars and provided a space for free-flowing ideas and interdisciplinary research. One of my AIAC colleagues (from outside South Africa) who’ve walked into the Department of English at UCT, for example, only to encounter a willful lack of interest–accompanied by those mild expressions of resentment found in peculiarly colonial spaces–found that CAS not only provided them with office space and access to libraries, but introductions to fellow scholars and opportunities to share our work with UCT faculty and students.

This is all, of course, going down at a “world class African university.”

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