Jan-Bart Gewald (1963) is the new director of the African Studies Centre Leiden. He was born in the Netherlands but was raised in Zimbabwe, Congo, Botswana and Namibia. He did a BA in African Political Studies and African History at Rhodes University (South Africa), he did his MA in History at Leiden University and his PhD at Leiden University under the supervision of Prof. Henk Wesseling and Prof. Robert Ross. He succeeded the latter as Professor of the History of Southern Africa in 2013, a position that was changed into ‘Professor of the History of Africa’ earlier this year.
African countries are watched and negotiated with with increased interest by the rest of the world, not in the least Europe. You are a historian. What can we learn from the study of the history of Africa today?
‘We have to realise that Africa is going to continue to develop economically, socially and politically in ways which at the moment we have great difficulty in predicting, because we don’t really take a serious interest in the history of Africa. If we have an understanding of Africa’s past and the ways societies construct themselves, we may have a better understanding of the way in which Africa will develop in the future. Because of its tremendous population growth - within 50 years the population will double, and it will have doubled again by 2100 - Africa is going to be a major political and economic factor in the world. To deal with Africa, to interact with Africa you have to have a serious and solid understanding of its past.’
What do you think of the way in which African history is being taught in European countries?
‘Generally, African history is dismissed as not important. Everybody will say: yes, the history of Africa is important. But when you look at the curricula of European universities you will see that most European universities do not have African history on the curriculum, and if they do, it’s always as part of European Imperial History, or as part of Global History, but not African history in terms of itself, not in terms of the ways in which African societies themselves have developed and changed over time. Another point is that, generally when African history is taught, it is taught from 1945 onwards, as if there is no history before 1945. So, the simple fact that African history goes back to the very beginning of humankind, is conveniently forgotten.’
How do you deal with that yourself, when teaching African history?
‘I taught a course ‘Africa: from zero to now’ in which I started out teaching the geological history of Africa. It is one of the oldest continents, and therefore one of the most heavily mineralized continents. Another point is that humankind started in Africa, so I go right back to the very beginning. I think it was one of the very few courses at Leiden University that had a timeline which dealt with the period from 4 billion years ago, right to the present. I try to show its continuity, and I try to make people realize that the period after 1945 is only a very very small bit of history. Humankind left Africa approximately 60,000 years ago. Before that, people originated in Africa, people continued to survive in Africa during the great Ice Ages, and they populated Europe 12,000 years ago. People forget that. When there were no people in Northern Europe, there were people in Africa, there were people in the Sahara.’
You have studied in particular the movement of people, goods and ideas through Southern Africa, and the changes their movement brought about. Can you give an example of each of those three, and the consequences of their movement?
‘One of the first things that most people think is that Africa and African societies are static. But human history is one of movement. People move, either as pastoralists, or as agriculturalists. They move across the landscape. Take for example the Bantu migration. And in this I mean the language family as spoken by people in what is now called Cameroon. It spread across the whole of Southern and large parts of East Africa. This was also a movement of ideas: how to deal with the land? How to grow your crops? How to arrange a household, your marriage systems, your descent systems. Attached to that are ideas like: how to make pottery, how to make iron? In my lectures I explain that the Bantu migration is not just the movement of people, but also the movement of ideas and goods. We know that in Southern Africa Khoikhoi speaking people were using pottery, but that didn’t mean that they were necessarily Bantu; it means that the idea of pots had preceded in front of the wave of Bantu speaking peoples. It’s the same with iron. This was a tremendous new development. With iron you could chop down trees and bludgeon in the heads of your opponents far more effectively than you could do with stone tools. An interesting example is that stone tools and iron tools were used alongside each other. The research by Karim Sadr in South Africa shows that people made use of Iron Age technology and Stone Age technology at the same time. Those mutually exclusive histories that we have in Europe do not always exist in Africa.’
Did these developments lead to an assimilation of cultures?
‘They did! Isi-Zulu and Isi-Xhosa are Bantu languages, but the clicks in those languages were taken over from Khoi languages in the South. Fantastic assimilation. The way in which people dealt with herding is also a result of assimilation. Also when European settlers came to the Cape, they took on board a large number of ways of dealing with cattle and sheep from the Khoi herders that they had taken the land from. In Afrikaans at the moment you have a few Khoi words. In Dutch we say ‘Au!’ when something hurts. In Afrikaans you say ‘Ena!’ which is a Khoi word.’
There is an ongoing debate that the African Studies centres in North-Western Europe, with mainly European researchers, aren’t ‘African’ enough. What is your position in this debate?
‘This is going to be a very important point during my position as director of the ASC Leiden. We publish the African Dynamics series with Brill publishers, and the 2019 issue will be called ‘Where is the “African” in African Studies?’ My own position is that you do not have to be a Roman to study Roman history. Yes, it is true that to be a Roman gives you insights in Roman culture that may be hidden to people who are not Roman, but being a Roman also constricts your view, and does not allow you to see the things that outsiders see. I refuse to believe that the study of history or other studies can only be done by people from that culture or society. I have great difficulty with the idea of ‘African’. What is an ‘African’? Does an ‘African’ include e.g. Hannibal of Carthage? In terms of geography Hannibal would be an ‘African’. St Augustine of Hippo would be an ‘African’, but I fear they would not be included, because of their race. If to be an ‘African’ is to be black, then we’re making a racist argument. And I hold no truck with racist arguments. If we take a look at Southern Africa, who would we accept as an African? Someone who is of black African descent? What happens when that someone appears to also be of part European descent? How black do you have to be to be an African? Flight lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana clearly for me is an African, yet his father was white. Walter Sisulu from South Africa, his father was white. The point is: in the end it is a racist argument if to be African is to be black.
This is not to say that I do not see the racism that is prevalent in academia. It is not to deny the prejudices that exist vis-à-vis people from Africa, or black people, I am well aware of this. But I take very strong position that academic research should not be coloured by the race of the person conducting the research. There are people who would argue that the academy itself is an oppressive institution that perpetuates the sexism, racism and colonialism of western imperial powers, and while that is partly true in some sections, I refuse to believe that this means that we should dismiss the academy as a whole. There are people who would argue that the Global South should no longer seek acceptance in the academy in the Global North. That for me is a step too far. We need to continue to talk to one another, academic dialogue has to take place. There has to be an agreed playing field.’
There are young scholars in Africa who say that the publishing structures in the Global North make it difficult for them to be heard. Is there a role for the African Studies Centre to help change that?
‘It is not our task to change publishing structures as they exist. It is our task to do research and to work with people in academic endeavours. These academic endeavours should not be coloured by whether or not we are African or European, but should be coloured by desire for academic knowledge.
This is not to deny that African academia has taken a tremendous hit in the last thirty years, particularly in the 1990s, during the Structural Adjustments Programmes (loans provided by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to countries that experienced economic crises, requiring the borrowing countries to implement certain policies in return, FV). African universities were gutted, with most African academics choosing not to stay in Africa, but to go to North America, Europe or Australia, and find greener pastures in which to teach. But I don’t think that we as African Studies Centre should have the hubris to believe that we can transform African studies, or universities in Africa. What we can do is try to work together with people, as we have been doing: in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, places where we work with local partners, on the basis of academic quality. And to facilitate opportunities for PhD candidates or visiting fellows that want to pursue part of their studies here in Leiden.’
What is your long-term vision for the ASCL?
‘That we are an institution that provides solid, academically verifiable information with regard to Africa’s past and present, and that on the basis of that we can make informed predictions about possible future development. I believe that people will come to the African Studies Centre Leiden because of our good academic teaching, excellent library and good research. And we should try to stimulate that as much as possible.’
You grew up in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, but fled to the Netherlands when you were 22 in order to escape Military Service under the South African apartheid regime. In a recent interview your predecessor Prof. Ton Dietz called South Africa a ticking time bomb that may cause many people to flee the country. Are you as pessimistic as he is about South Africa, the country you know so well?
‘Ton is far more of an optimist than I am. At times I am very optimistic, at times I am very pessimistic. There are parts of South Africa that function very well, where the rule of law functions in such a way that the citizens are protected in their rights, they enjoy their right to education, health care, housing and right to the rule of law. But there are sections of SA where the rule of law does not apply, that are extremely corrupt. And then again, there are sections where things are actually quite OK. Long-term predictions for South Africa: it has a major problem in the enormous income disparities. These are not solely disparities between white and black. In fact, the black middleclass is twice as big as the white middle class. It concerns income disparities between those who have, and those who do not have. As long as these disparities continue to be as great as they are, there will be trouble in South Africa. Every day people are confronted with massive flaunting of wealth by the rich. Anybody who has visited SA will have marvelled at the sight of BMW’s, Maserati’s, Range Rovers roaring down the streets in Cape Town or Johannesburg. And they have to be blind not to see the enormous slums that exist around these major cities.
South Africa has to seriously develop employment opportunities for the bulk of its population. This would essentially mean creating enormous works schemes, in which people get housing, health care, food, clothing, and a living wage. I fail to see why infrastructural development programmes should be as mechanized as they are at the moment. Companies and the State consistently strive to decrease their dependency on wage labour. Because wage labour is troublesome, can organise, can form trade unions. Every time there is a strike, the amount of people who actually work decreases, and the amount of machines increases. This is a big big problem, because technologically most of the work done in South Africa can be done by machines.
Another major problem is that after 1994 the amount of people working and living on farms decreased tremendously as the farms sought to decrease their dependency on labour. E.g. in parts of the Free State there are enormous rural cities that have developed with people who have been kicked off farms. You can choose to ignore this and consistently live behind gates and barbed wire, or you can choose to do something about it, create employment. I believe the central government should try to work at that. For example in the Netherlands in the 1930s, enormous infrastructural programmes were established precisely to create employment. Large sections of the Netherlands were established in work programmes.’
What will the new research programme of the ASCL look like?
‘We are going to have a number of new chairs at the ASCL. Two Professors who have previously been affiliated to other universities in the Netherlands, will now hold their chair at the African Studies Centre Leiden: Prof. Jan Abbink (Governance and Politics in Africa) and Prof. Rijk van Dijk (Religion in Contemporary Africa and its Diaspora). In addition we have Prof. Mirjam de Bruijn’s chair (Expressions of Citizenship and Identity in Africa), my own chair in African History and the Stephen Ellis Chair in Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa with Prof. Chibuike Uche as chairholder. We will have a new Chair in Inclusive Development in Africa, held by Prof. Marleen Dekker, who has been involved in the Knowledge Platform for Inclusive Development for many years now. All chairs will present their new plans on Monday 9 October.
We will build on the research programmes that we have worked on in the past. We do need to rejuvenate our staff, as many researchers have retired the last couple of years. We will also increase the cooperation between our researchers, PhD candidates, students, Library Staff and Support Staff, for instance in our Collaborative Research Groups. I am convinced this will bring our research and our institute to a higher level.’