Reflections from Johannesburg

The African Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association hosted the second Africa in the World joint conference in Johannesburg in partnership with the Wits City Institute, the journal Anthropology Southern Africa, the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, and the University of Pretoria’s Department of Political Sciences.

25 – 28 May 2018 / Rosebank, Johannesburg

26 May 2018 Reception / Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Venolia Rabodiba

Venolia Rabodiba attended Africa in the World as a Student Social Media Ambassador for the Wits City Institute. She is an Honours student in Geography and a Mellon Mays Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Image: Dr Vusi Gumedi. Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. Former President Thabo Mbeki with Venolia Rabodiba (left), Wits City Institute Social Media Ambassador, and fellow Social Media Ambassadors (from left) Blayki Kenya (Princeton), Gabe Vermeulen (University of Pretoria), and Qhawe Plaatjie (University of Johannesburg), photographed at the closing session of the African in the World conference.

To write the world from Africa or to write Africa into the world is a compelling and perplexing task.

Speaking at the closing session of Africa in the World, Professor Toyin Falola raised the question, ‘How do we understand Africa in the logic of Africa itself?’ This was the question posed for interrogation by scholars from the Wits City Institute together with scholars from around the continent and the United States at the conference in Johannesburg in May 2018.

Professor Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He shared the panel alongside professors Funmi Olonisakin (King’s College, London and University of Pretoria), Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University and Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, University of Makerere), Muna Ndulo (Cornell Law School), and President Thabo Mbeki.

All of the closing speakers expressed a shared concern about proxy-readings of Africa – readings from elsewhere, readings by those removed from the continent, readings imbued with power, readings that have not contributed to any meaningful understandings of the continent, and readings that continue to move Africa further into the margins, including to the margins of so-called African Studies.

The geographical and ideological question involving the study of the African continent was an aptly-suited theme for a conference taking place in Johannesburg. Writings on Johannesburg, similar to writings on most cities on the continent or in the ‘global South’ in general, have often described the city ‘as an object apart from the world’. Re-centring Africa is thus as much about changing the imagination of the African city as it is about shifting the boundaries of knowledge production and changing the geographies of reason.

The Director of the Wits City Institute and Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism Professor Noëleen Murray reminded conference participants of this imperative during the opening session. Her view was that we needed to shift our understandings and readings of ‘citiness’, perhaps before we can shift the multiple places of Africa in the academy. Murray’s notion of ‘citiness’ has been associated with development and modernity, is associated with cities of the ‘global North’, and has always been ‘someplace where African cities had to arrive in their pursuit of modernity’. Citiness, however, as Murray reminded us, was fluid and is constantly being redefined by alternative modernities, where Johannesburg is a case in point. She noted that it was fitting to have had the second Africa in the World conference in Johannesburg – a city that defied the logics and the conditions of urbanism – a city that (because of its unique location in relation to rivers or other navigable bodies of water) should never have become. Johannesburg’s case was not just a challenge to citiness, but was also a reminder that otherness is a meaningless construct.

Other presentations on citiness and urbanism contributed to thinking about the ways in which we read and write the African city and how these ways can challenge how Africa is read and written about. The session ‘Shifting Urban Landscapes’ engaged ways of reading the city with Till Förster (University of Basel) presenting on ‘Seeing African Cities: New Urbanites – New Cityscapes?’ His presentation drew on interesting methodologies including group ethnography, which he calls ‘walking together’. Here, participants literally walk through the city together to see and look at the city from diverse perspectives. During the process, different participants would stop at different points to look at an object or activity of interest in the city. This was a process both of seeing different things and seeing differently. Seeing is not only a visual exercise but it is always a way of coming to know something. Seeing in itself is knowledge production. Beyond the ordinary and established ways of thinking about knowledge, knowledge about African cities and about Africa is perhaps best produced by the social actors who have to know their cities and their own contexts, through seeing, walking, and living in the everyday.

Thinking about what constitute knowledges and how language is acquired (through field research or through lived experience) feeds into other questions raised throughout the conference in relation to decolonisation. Who writes about Africa? Who speaks with authority on Africa? Are European scholars the only intellectuals? Do we need more scholars of Africa or scholars from Africa? Some of these questions were introduced by the co-Chair of the Conference and Chair of African Anthropology at Princeton University, Professor Carolyn Rouse. These questions formed the basis of the presentations, roundtables, and flash presentations throughout the meeting.

Rouse in collaboration with co-organisers including the Wits City Institute developed these questions to challenge the trajectory that African Studies and the social sciences in general has taken. It was agreed upon that no longer should proxy readings of Africa define us as a ‘dark continent with dark peoples in need of tutelage’.  Scholarship on Africa needed to take a radically different path, one that Professor Siphamandla Zondi, head of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Pretoria, said needed to be in the form of ‘decolonisation with gravitas’.

In his presentation at the closing panel, Professor Mahmood Mamdani challenged us to think about what it might mean to be responsible scholars of Africa (whether located within Africa or not), and about the significance of the role of African academic universities and research institutes in the re-centring of Africa. Academic institutions need to orient themselves to the production of new knowledge about the continent and to the continent’s intellectual and social benefit, rather than that of interests from outside.

On the same note, President Thabo Mbeki reiterated the role of improving the relationship between African governments and African institutions. Worldwide, the humanities and social sciences are suffering from decreased government spending on research in these areas. We cannot begin to re-centre Africa without the resources to do so. President Mbeki – following from Mamdani’s concern over universities being turned into consultancies and not research centres – warned against doing work only for international rankings. ‘The work we are doing as scholars ought to be about us and for us. Our work must contribute to the African Renaissance.’

Wits City Institute Director and Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Urbanism and Architecture Professor Noëleen Murray with Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand Professor Tawane Kupe hosted a reception at the Origins Centre. Speaking at the reception, both expressed the initial anxiety and reluctance that often comes with Africans having to collaborate with Europeans or Americans. Both agreed that the conference was fruitful, particularly in its endeavour to bridge the divide between the west and Africa in the academy.

The Africa in the World conference was part of a long internal and reflective process of the two North American organisations and their troubling histories in relation to the study of the African continent. There now is a commitment to break down the epistemological boundaries that have separated Africa from intellectual production. The Africa in the World conference was full of promise as far as responsible African scholarship is concerned. Epistemic decolonisation is not a new idea, but, to echo the closing panel, what do we do after all these exchanges?

The 2018 conference was located in Africa as an attempt to respond to and reverse the continent’s marginalisation in African Studies in particular, and in knowledge production in general. Its theme, Shifting Boundaries and Knowledge Production, highlighted the imperative of ‘epistemic decolonisation’, is a project that the Wits City Institute has already oriented itself towards. The conference closed with a session featuring a special appearance by His Excellency, former President Thabo Mbeki.

Epigraph: Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall. 2004. Writing the World from an African Metropolis. Public Culture 16 (3): 348.