International relations from an African perspective

Rhodes>Conferences>Latest News

Dr Siphokazi Magadla at her Vice-Chancellor’s 2018 Teaching Award Lecture
Dr Siphokazi Magadla at her Vice-Chancellor’s 2018 Teaching Award Lecture

By Kristin Engel, fourth-year BJourn student


On Thursday, 20 February, students and academics of Rhodes University attended the Vice-Chancellor’s 2018 Teaching Award Lecture by Dr Siphokazi Magadla, titled “Tragicomic hope, nokuzinza as black matriarchal inheritance”.

The evening commenced with an introduction from Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs, Dr ‘Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela.

Dr Magadla began her academic journey with a Bachelor of Arts in Political and International Studies and Journalism and Media Studies, followed by an Honours degree in Political and International Studies from Rhodes University. She was then granted a Fulbright scholarship, which enabled her to complete her Master’s Degree in International Affairs at Ohio University in the USA. She continued her studies and graduated with her PhD in 2017, which investigated the state-assisted integration of women ex-combatants into civilian life in post-apartheid South Africa. Dr Magadla began as a Junior Lecturer at Rhodes University in 2011, and has since worked her way to becoming one of the most respected and beloved Senior Lecturers in the Political and International Studies Department.

Dr Magadla noted the influence of feminist scholar, bell hooks, on her teaching practices, combining anti-colonial, Pan Africanist, critical and feminist pedagogies. This approach enables Dr Magadla to bring forth pedagogical practices that allow for investigating the biases that inscribe systems of supremacy and ways in which to educate a diverse group of students.

One of the main objectives that Dr Magadla hopes to achieve is equipping her students with the knowledge and skills they need in order to think critically about the key concepts of international relations from an African perspective.

To achieve this end, Dr Magadla introduces first-years to the world of international relations in her course, ‘The personal is the international’, which is based on the notion that, to understand all aspects of our society, one must consider all disciplines as related.

“International Relations was historically concerned with questions of war and peace between states,” said Dr Magadla.  She noted that the first department of International Relations was founded after the devastation of World War 1.The commitment of the discipline was to understand the causes of these wars and to find possible ways of preventing them in future.

Dr Magadla said that international system today is understood to be dominated by the Westphalian state system, the ‘state’ is regarded as the highest level of authority and how this power was attained. She used the example of the ‘State Capture inquiry’ to say that even in South Africa, we recognise the state as the highest authority that organises our lives.

She noted that she challenges students to not take it for granted that the state has always existed. She tries to show that that its emergence from Europe was a violent process, and its spread, through colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, was a very violent process. She made the example of Makhanda Nxele, who fought in the 1919 Battle for Grahamstown, as a local example of how the state was violently imposed in Africa. She said that if students understand the violent emergence of the state then they will understand why we still deal with the question of state violence even today, and maybe begin to consider other political systems that can allow us to achieve peace beyond the state.

One of the skills Dr Magadla instils in her students is the importance of integrating African concepts and languages in order to understand international relations of the past and today. She illustrated this by sharing excerpts of student essays, written in isiZulu and isiXhosa throughout the lecture. She noted that she challenges students to be sceptical of accepting the dominant view in International Relations that individuals and countries live in a self-seeking environment where they have to prioritise their survival at the expense of others. She said that she draws on the African concepts, such as Ubuntu, to challenge students to critically think about what it means to live in a self-seeking international system, as many of them have been raised in an African society that teaches them about shared destiny and interest.

Even today, there is no issue that can solved by one country, Dr Magadla said, whether it is poverty, the coronavirus or climate change. “These problems need people and countries to collectively work together, just as the values of Ubuntu talk about shared destiny,” she explained.

Dr Magadla reflected that to be a teacher of International Relations in Africa is to be a bearer of bad news. “Whether I am historicising the evolution of the Westphalian state system, African countries emerge as victims of the violence of this system. With all its vibrant youth and enormous mineral resources, Africa and Africans almost always seem to be on the losing end of the events of International Relations. It is due to this reality that I argue that to think, teach and theorise about international relations from an African context requires tragicomic hope.”

She referred to philosopher Cornel West (2004) when defining the concept of tragicomic hope, as “the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy—to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy—as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair”.

Ukuzinza for me is about an education that does not pretend to paint a beautiful and simple picture of African societies in the world, but a system that shows that Africa and Africans are central part of the international system. In grounding key International Relations concepts on everyday African reality and concepts, I hope that students understand that they don’t come to the classroom as empty vessels. Ukuzinza means that students take their environment as interesting and worthy of theorising, even if the reality of their environment in Africa is that the international system, as it is, disposes with African livelihoods and Africans,” she said.