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Achille Mbembe to deliver a second “Thinking Africa” Public Lecture

Date Released: Tue, 10 July 2012 15:22 +0200

Prof Mbembe, who was born in the Cameroon, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and has held appointments at a number of the leading universities in the world, is widely considered to be one of the most significant African academics writing today, along with Mahmood Mamdani and VY Mudimbe.

Currently based at WISER, at WITS University in Johannesburg, Mbembe has written a number of books in French but in the English speaking world is best known for his text On the Postcolony (2001) which is a sustained examination of what he calls 'the banality of power' in post-colonial Africa.

He has also written a number of canonical essays including Provisional Notes on the Post-Colony (1992),African Modes of Self Writing (2002), Necopolitics (2003) and Metamorphic Thought: The Works of Frantz Fanon (2012).

 In recent years Prof Mbembe has increasingly participated in the broader public sphere in South Africa via newspaper articles and public lectures. His academic work has been marked by an influential project to think Johannesburg as a metropolis and a turn to humanist modes of thinking and, most recently, the radical humanism of Frantz Fanon.  

According to Associate Professor Leonhard Praeg, coordinator of the Thinking Africa’s July 2012 colloquium, Prof Mbembe’s work is widely taught and discussed at Rhodes University.

Prof Praeg said the focus of the colloquium will include a critical investigation of the notion of Ubuntu, under the theme, “Ubuntu: Curating the Archive”.

Launched in 2010 by the Rhodes Department of Political and International Studies, Thinking Africa forms an integral part of the department’s post-graduate programme and is headed by a departmental Steering Committee and national and international scholars.

According to Prof Praeg, “The main objective is to see whether a critical examination of Ubuntu can yield a workable frame in which to think what it means to be a humanist in a post-modern and post-colonial world. Perhaps simply, whether humanism can be mobilised effectively as a critical category in political thought?”

Scenes at service delivery protests where citizens shout into the camera, “We are not dogs! We are human beings!” are all too common.

Prof Praeg suggests people mostly dismiss such claims as “vague, vacuous or perhaps even sentimental, for what does it mean to assert one’s humanity in the face of oppressive political forces? We tend to think ‘not much.” But as Prof Praeg challenges, is it not the ultimate claim?

“Recognise my humanity and from that, much will follow. But this only generates difficult theoretical questions, for what is the best way to institutionalise this recognition of our humanity? Through a guarantee of individual rights? Or by recognising that my humanity is inextricably linked to yours, the recognition of my humanity a function of my recognition of yours?”

If we make this move, Prof Praeg said, whereby we recognise the mutuality of our humanity, “what is the best way to think through such an insight? Is it perhaps the case that the discourse on ubuntu is so mired in identity politics that we shy away from asking the really hard questions, such as: Does ubuntu offer us something that other communitarian traditions of thought do not? Can a critical ubuntu – by which I mean a self-reflexive, self-conscious appropriation of tradition – be effectively mobilised as emancipatory praxis?”

Prof Praeg said the project has assembled a stellar cast of scholars to investigate these and other, related questions.

Story Sarah-Jane Bradfield

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