by Alya Omar
“If power reproduced itself by exaggerating difference and denying the existence of an oppressed majority,’ Mamdani writes, “is not the burden of protest to transcend these differences without denying them?”
In his essay titled, “The Decline of Public Intellectuals?,” Stephen Mack pushes against the lamentation of unheard public intellectuals by touting the enormous “financial, technological, and cultural power” of academic institutions, emphasizing that education continues to be the centerpiece of some of our most cherished social myths. This merits some truth. In fact, the evidence of this fact can be seen in my own backyard (quite literally) at the University of Southern California. With a 4.71 billion dollar endowment and the nickname “University of Scattered Construction,” the bricked administrative buildings and residences are seeping into the Los Angeles community like a gentrifying, domineering powerhouse. From a less cynical standpoint, the money generated by the business that is the university serves to fund groundbreaking research that does indeed change the scientific, economic, and political fields as we know them. Many of the charitable endeavors to “give back” to the community are campaigns with USC student organization names stamped on them. But what Mack fails to mention is in order to maintain the cultural power that these academic institutions carry onto their pupils and neighbors, they are deliberate in selecting and building a backbone of intellectuals that do not challenge its status quo. On the contrary, such institutions must find and only hire faculty and staff that color within the lines of the picture they work so hard to paint. After all, as “the centerpiece to some great social myths,” not many universities can afford to hire just about anybody with loud ideas. Such was the mistake that was made in the case of Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. While many American people reading this blog wouldn’t think or blink twice at the name, Mamdani is famously known in African studies as a spearhead of changing the way historical Africa is taught and contemporary Africa is seen. In assigning these two objectives as his academic mission, Mamdani is shouldering the struggle of not only undoing the colonial structure that continues to govern African institutions of learning, but also of dismantling the apathy and the limited worldview that the rest of the world has historically viewed the concept of “Africa.” What I mean by this can easily be seen at media depictions of Africa, which are often limited to topics of war, poverty, and the occasional ebola threat. Such depictions feed (or don’t feed, rather) our worldviews, and we end up with even our own Vice President describing Africa as a “great nation.”
So Mamdani has a lot of work to do. More specifically, however, Mamdani is an intellectual that studied African intellectuals. His book, Citizen and Subject, was contributive to the long had discourse of the racial legacy in colonialism because he uniquely focused on how it persisted in institutionalized academics. In South Africa, whose racial segregation and racial power dynamics ended in astonishingly recent history, Mamdani notes that the oppressive British and Dutch systems continue to shape the way government is structured, classes are taught, and the city is organized. “If power reproduced itself by exaggerating difference and denying the existence of an oppressed majority,’ Mamdani writes, “is not the burden of protest to transcend these differences without denying them?” (Mamdani 8).
It has since been named one of Africa’s greatest books of the 20th century. Following the success of his book, Mamdani moved to went on to teach at the University of Cape Town, a stint which ended after a disagreement between him and the rest of the university on how African studies should be taught (more on that later.) Following that dismissal, from 1998 to 2002, Mamdani served as President of CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa, headquartered in Darkar, Senegal. He joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1999, where he currently spends a semester each year while also heading up the Makarere Institute for Social Research. And just in case he would find himself with any free time between writing journals, he is also Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York. Many who are arrogant with their ignorance would say that a man they’ve never heard of couldn’t rightfully be considered a public intellectual, considering that the “public” part is noninclusive to the majority of my readersphere. On the contrary, Mamdani was once voted the world’s ninth most important public intellectual by the US’s Foreign Policy and the UK’s Prospect magazines. Despite these badges on his sash, much of his teachings have never been caught by the Western world, a cultural barrier between the “west and the rest” that ironically serves as the focus of his writings. Nevertheless, he firmly stands as the quintessential public intellectual of Africa, one whose teachings could make significant impact on the budding intellectuals of individuals in the United States.
In 1996, Mamdani was appointed by the University of Cape Town as the AC Jordan Chair, a position whose mission is to “champion the integration of African studies into research, teaching and learning at undergraduate and postgraduate levels within the university’s various faculties.” Subsequently, he was appointed the director of the Centre of Africa Studies, tasked with the job of developing a foundational course for the new field of study that would best resemble a most holistic and honest education on a very wide and misrepresented subject. Mamdani immediately set to work on designing a course, and was surprised to find himself quickly dismissed and his project hurriedly deferred to another director. It seemed the faculty that reviewed his curriculum found that the course had “too much focus” on history, an approach that was too derivative from the university’s goal of focusing on modernity. From my interpretation (and Mamdani’s), the faculty did not seem to consider the African narrative before the arrival of the white man to be anything of importance. In fact, the curriculum that substituted Mamdani’s was split into three phases: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial Africa. This last part was focused on Africa’s disintegration after the departure of the white man. In the precolonial section, Mamdani reports that the new curriculum had a focus in Archaeology, an approach that he says is a “poisonous introduction for students beginning school in a post apartheid university.”
By continuing to look at Africa as this unchanging, essentialized process as the birth of humankind and the home of our dusty ancestors, we create no real moving picture of the millions of years that have passed since Lucy died. Instead, we reinforce the framework that plays and replays this still portrait of an undeveloped, archaic land. Another issue to which Mamdani continued to draw attention was the fact that the only real literature in use in African schools was a textbook that was developed for North American students in the 1970’s that had since been updated twice. Furthermore, he points out that though primary texts are widely available, hardly any of them are used in formal curriculum in higher education. What’s more is that little has changed since — this outline is very similar to the curriculum that I followed in my semester studying at the University of Cape Town just a few months ago, in the spring of 2016.
The support of those following his writings and his suspension spanned across people from every walk of life that were working to decolonize African education. Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, states: “What Mamdani may have done was to touch a raw nerve in the post-apartheid curriculum debate: the colonial fingerprints of the curriculum-makers, their own prejudices and histories, passed on to unsuspecting black students as tried and tested truth. He questions not only the geography of Africa but also those who defined it: white, tribal, privileged, powerful. For Mamdani curriculum is identity and this crucial point in missed by his detractors.” –Jonathan Jansen “But Our Natives Are Different! Race, Knowledge, and Power in the Academy.” In this essay, Jansen echoes Mamdani’s submission that post-apartheid Africa could not be actualized without changing the narrative that resulted from all African education coming from sources outside of Africa. From Bantu administration to customary law, it is maintained again and again that the departure of the white man ruined Africa and made it the unstable and dependent entity that it is today. In this example, Mamdani serves as the public intellectual that doesn’t receive his clout from his university credentials or his institutional power. On the contrary, his established space as a publics intellectual came from his resistance to this status quo. By trying to dismantle these aforementioned “social myths,” Mamdani is stripped of his formalized position. His continued success and widely read articles reveal, however, that public intellectualism is not about who the person is, but rather it their importance comes from what it is they have to say.
It is ironic, then, that the Western world and the United States in particular lends a deaf ear to the contemporary challenges of postcolonial and post apartheid Southern Africa. Mack makes a one sided point when he mentions the lack of hostility that the American people have toward the public intellectual. What he doesn’t mention is hostility’s quiet, deadlier brother — apathy. The only time one will see South African news is in the event of a rugby win, a misguided charity campaign, or some idiot that found himself there with a gun and the desire to murder an exotic animal in the savannah. Barring those events, African news rarely makes an appearance or a ripple in the laundry list of American consumption. Hence, there is legitimacy to the lamentation that the American public doesn’t “respect, follow, or hear the intellectual,” in Mack’s words. More specifically, American attention is focused on public intellectuals that speak to issues that most directly affect the lives that are right in front of them. When African lives are seen as tribal, intensely foreign experiences, there seems little reason to believe that such lives matter in the here and now. Maybe the intersection of the American and African political spheres don’t intersect quite enough to lend urgency to our relationship. Maybe the business opportunities aren’t as apparent in countries that are still working to decolonize their governments and establish financial dependence.
But as Mack mentions, it is arguably the obligation of every citizen in a democracy to understand and participate in institutions that would shape their lives. Furthermore, I would submit that it is the obligation to know about institutions that shape other lives as well. And so if public intellectuals have any role to play in a democracy—and they do—it’s simply to keep the pot boiling. The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about. And while it’s been accepted in the general public that nobody needs to care about Africa, it is people like Mamdani that serve as a reason for people to start listening. The truth is that the same limited perception that is being taught through the colonial gaze is the same one that has reached our own textbooks and worldview. If UCT can’t offer a post-apartheid education to its students, there’s little chance in hell we’re getting the full picture either. This limited education is what influences our racist media, shortsighted knowledge-base, and our appropriation of cultures and habits that we don’t bother to understand. If not for the interest of lending an ear and a measure of empowerment to African intellectuals, it should be in the interest of knowing the truth for truth’s sake.