Unisa attracts luminaries of African scholarship

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It was a diverse group of luminaries in African scholarship who congregated in Unisa’s ZK Matthews Hall on 14 March for an open session of the Thabo Mbeki@70 Colloquium, engaging in crucial discourse on 50 years of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and key concepts for Africa’s future.

Under the theme Celebration and reflection of 140 years of shaping futures and 50 years of the OAU, and beyond, what was clear was that Africans, irrespective of ethnicity, race, and class, were the key to alleviating the challenges facing their continent, and that higher education, together with all other levels of education, should produce and disseminate the knowledge that would bring forth and effect this change.

It was only fitting then, that Unisa together with its leadership think-tank, the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI), and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, hosted some of Africa’s renowned intellectuals, as the vision of the university is to be the African university in the service of humanity and an African scientific hub of research and innovation that is globally relevant. As Africa’s leading open distance learning institution, Unisa, in its 140th year of shaping futures on the continent, has a rich history of relationships with such influential and illustrious thought leaders from around the world.

Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya said one such African intellectual to emulate was the very person for whom the venue was named, Dr Zachariah Keodireleng (Z K) Matthews, one of South Africa’s leading and brilliant academics, who epitomised some of the ideals for which the pioneers of the OAU advocated.

“Dr ZK Matthews was an ecumenist, organic intellectual and advocate for social justice during the anti-apartheid struggles in this country and the decolonisation process in the African continent. His life and work in many ways resonate with our theme this morning,” said the VC, as he welcomed guests and framed the context for Unisa’s 140 years of service and the university’s decision to commemorate 50 years of the OAU.

The challenges of OAU and AU, and higher education’s role

The OAU, said the VC, was the result of a long advocacy and represented the manifestation of the historical current of pan-Africanism, a philosophy whose perspectives it largely espoused. “Pan-Africanism aimed at proclaiming and promoting the dignity and humanity of African people, especially in the context of the prevailing discrimination, oppression and exclusion via the politics and economics of colonialism, in Africa and in North America … It also sought to promote the unity and dignity of all Africans.”

The OAU, formed in 1963, was able to read the signs of the times and restructure itself as an intergovernmental continental organisation attentive to the contextual realities of its times. Succeeded by the African Union (AU) in 2001, the AU currently has its own unique set of challenges and weaknesses. “…The current crises in Libya, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo attest to the areas that require improved management by the AU. The AU will have to align its present programmes and engender new programmes to promote ‘Africa’s ownership of its own agenda for the present and futures’. The development of Africa’s own agenda will require the contribution of universities, not only as providers of education and knowledge but also as central players in influencing the developmental processes that empower public institutions, citizens and citizenship.”

With such a high calibre of African intellectuals present, the VC urged Unisa students, academics and staff to draw constructive lessons from, and follow in the footsteps of these esteemed academics, and ensure that their research and work did not remain confined to their departments and colleges but traversed the whole world.

Panel and dialogue anchors included Prof Molefi Asante (Molefi Kete Asante Institute for Afrocentric Studies, Philadelphia, USA), Prof Peter Lawrence (Keele University, UK), Prof Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University, USA), Dr Patricia McFadden (Swaziland), Prof Valentin Mudimbe (Duke University, USA), Prof Adebayo Olukoshi (United Nations African Institute for Economic Development and Planning IDEP, Senegal), Dr Ebrima Sall (Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Senegal), Prof Hellicy Ngambi (Mulungushi University, Zambia), Prof Jimi Adesina (University of the Western Cape), Prof Catherine Odora Hoppers (Unisa), Prof Chris Landsberg (University of Johannesburg), Prof Pedro Tabensky (Rhodes University), and Dr Barney Pityana (Anglican College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown).

Themes such as Afrocentricity and pan-Africanism explored

In exploring Afrocentricity, pan-Africanism, nationalism, development economics, and transformative development amongst others, the panellists raised some common themes, including African identity, and the importance of defining who and what was African to create a unified ideological position. This, said the speakers, would aid in stimulating knowledge production and crucial answers to Africa’s problems. Also linked to this was the quality of leaders required for Africa’s future and the role that education could play in producing this high calibre of leadership.

Africanising the education curriculum, and, in particular, the higher education curriculum, without forgetting that Africa formed part of the globalised world, was also highlighted as a fundamental foundation for Africa’s development. Panellists and dialogue anchors discussed the premise that higher education should ensure Africans became the architects of their solutions instead of “outsourcing their problems to the West” and utilising “contactors” who brought western solutions for African challenges.

The relationship between government, the masses and academe was also probed, with some speakers highlighting that Africans did not take their own scholarship seriously, and that not giving due credit to African research could harm the continent.

Another important element raised was the economic independence and liberation of Africa, which if improved and achieved, would assist in achieving political liberation and unity in Africa.

Defining who is an African

Asante said as Africans celebrate the OAU at 50 and the AU at 10, it should be noted that “we” have made progress on the continent, but there is more to be done. The author of 75 books, including The History of Africa, An Afrocentric manifesto, and As I run toward Africa, said engaging in the questions of who and what an African was and defining these concepts was fundamental to unity on the continent. He related this to divisions of the Arabising North and the Africanising South. “We must have a unified ideological position, which transcends race class and religion. And if a person regardless of where he or she is from can adhere to the strong central belief in what is in the best interest of Africa, in what is in the best interest of African unity, then we can transcend all the other issues (on the continent).”

He also responded to an audience question about the poor delivery of African government and leaders, saying that Africans should not blame their leaders; they should blame themselves for choosing to vote for those leaders.

An authority on Afrocentricity, Asante is also Professor Extraordinarius at Unisa and Guest Professor at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China. For 30 years he has been professor of African and African American Studies at Temple University, USA.

Is unity possible if African countries operate in silos?

Olukoshi, current Director of the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning and the Interim Director of the Africa Governance Institute, Dakar, Senegal, said the ideal of pan-Africanism was part of the broad consciousness of all Africans, including some of those living outside the continent. Translating that ideal into an operational reality had been at the heart of the politics of pan-Africanism.

With research that centred on the politics of development, an area on which he has published extensively, Olukoshi questioned: “How can we frame a pan-African politics of unity, of self-reliance, of doing things in the collective fashion, if we continue to operate on the basis of a national and territorial agenda in which specific, individual countries conduct their own affairs almost in complete sovereignty, and to assume that the totality of their individual actions might somehow ad hoc into a pan-African probability?”

Olukoshi, who has also served as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA, said problems of independence had been glossed over in the past. “We have become so donorised in our pan-Africanism and there’s a deficit of commitment. Today we do not do anything in the African manner,” he decried.

“Our ideal of pan-Africanism in practice has become almost a mannequin of the real way of integration – a poor replica of the European Union (EU) Commission … As we are busy shuffling day-to-day issues, the bigger pictures appears to be lost.”

With the divisions on the continent in mind, he said the time had come for Africans to step back and ask whether it was right to build a project of pan-Africanism on the basis of the consensus of 54 countries or to view it as a project of unity on the basis of those (countries) who were willing to move forward. “Therefore we need to move forward with key agendas on this continent, the agenda of self-reliance, the agenda of unity, the agenda of integration, the agenda of the freedom of movement of people on this continent.”

The economics of it all

An expert in economics, Lawrence, who studied with Mbeki, has taught at various African universities, and researched in Tanzania, Hungary, Spain, India and Ghana, said discourse on the progress of the OAU and now the AU (which is just over a decade old), reflected what had and had not been achieved.

“…So it may well be that some of the building blocks have been put into place, but, it seems to me, without the economic building blocks, where Africans begin to produce things for themselves, and do not have to import everything. These are the moments now where serious decisions need to be taken on how to move forward, how to get economic development, and the sad thing is we were talking about these things 50 years ago and we’re still talking about them now,” said Lawrence, whose research has focused principally on development economics issues, including financial liberalisation, rural development, land reform, water poverty and industrialisation as well as unemployment in local labour markets in the UK and Eastern Europe. He has authored and co-authored articles in a variety of development journals and co-edited three books. Lawrence is also founding editor of Review of African Political Economy and serves on its international advisory board.

The AU is shallow in its thinking

Mamdani, academic, author and political commentator who specialises in the study of African history and politics, was very critical of the AU: “For me, the single most important critique of the AU, is its lack of originality, its lack of creative thought, its shallowness in terms of vision. And what I mean by these words, is that the AU does not stop talking about African solutions to African problems, and yet if you ask yourself what is the AU’s notion of an African solution, it’s the notion of a contractor, it’s not the notion of an architect; it’s not the notion of a researcher, it’s the notion of taking ideas that come from elsewhere and implementing;…that is a remarkably shallow vision.”

With works that explore the intersection between politics and culture, a comparative study of colonialism since 1452, the history of civil war and genocide in Africa, the Cold War and the War on Terror, and the history and theory of human rights, Mamdani said the AU accepted a militaristic solution to African problems. “…I’m talking about giving primacy to political processes. I’m talking about realising that colonialism never created nations on this continent, that the nation-building processes began with independence, they did not begin with colonialism.” This is why discourse on defining who is African is fundamental, he added.

How does sociology and psychology affect Africa’s thinking?

African feminist scholar and activist, McFadden, said the challenge to Africa’s search for equality, freedom and dignity, and a reclamation of bodily integrity of all Africans, was critical. “If we do not reclaim these fundamental essentialisms, we are not going to be able to fashion an alternative for our continent, and for the majority of the people who live on this continent. It is very important for us as Africans, however we are located within our societies, to draw from the pool of critical thinking that was so definitive in moving us from colonialism to anti- colonialism and now to a point where we can re-imagine our societies in new ways and to get past rhetoric that is really a time waster for us, as people who are really desperate for new ways of thinking about ourselves and living on this continent.”

Sociologist and Executive Secretary of CODESRIA, Sall, said there was much need for discussion on African unity and liberation of the continent, for discourse on the freedom of movement for Africans on their own continent, to the kind of mechanisms currently being put into place, and for the higher education system, which worldwide had been demonstrated as a condition for Africa moving forward. “We need to find answers that speak to our realities and that will help us negotiate a deal with our interactions with the rest of the world. We really need to look at our universities and make sure that they implement systems and mechanisms for understanding and engaging the world.”

The academe required

Mudimbe, philosopher, professor, and author of books and articles on African culture and poems, suggested revisiting 1968 to understand the legacy of the adjective that is African. What is the meaning of this adjective as we anchor it to our day-today activities, he questioned. He also reflected on rethinking current disciplines and the organisation of these disciplines being taught in higher education.

A business leadership authority and first woman to be appointed Vice-Chancellor of Mulungushi University, Zambia, Ngambi spoke about the importance of higher education advancing the developmental goals of Africa through developing RARE (responsible, accountable, relevant and ethical) leadership. “It’s not that we don’t have leaders, we do, but they are lacking a value-based system to take us forward and achieve the goals we have set out for ourselves.”

She said given all the challenges raised by other panellists, more African universities should collaborate as Unisa TMALI and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation had done, to produce leaders who worked from a value-based system and were committed to resolving these challenges.

Dialogue anchors respond: Utilising Africa’s intellectual capacity

Hoppers said that a second level of indigenisation in Africa was taking place. She said the first level “called us to the Emperor’s Palace”, but the second level went from regulatory rules to constitutive ones. Regulatory rules, she said, begged you to follow the norms while the latter focused on how systems worked.

Pityana, former Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, said Africa needed to use the resources provided by the intellectual capacity on the continent. “… We need to bring intellectuals together in Africa to try to form some relationship or partnership so that we don’t outsource the future of our continent.”

The problem of vision (or lack thereof) remained, said Pityana, adding that Africans had a problem about idealism. He posed the questions: what do we have to offer and how can we bring about the vision required for us to say that we do not need western nations sorting our problems out, that we will find our own solutions?

Adding to Pityana’s sentiments, Landsberg, who is the South African National Chair of African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg, said that while the influence of scholars, academia and knowledge production was present in Africa, and that there was credible, respected knowledge production on the continent, “the sin is we don’t take ourselves seriously … we rely on external ideas, and no country in the world has developed without relying on its own ideas and intellectual resources.”

He added that whether there was autocratic or more democratic governance in the various African countries, “the sooner we get over this love-hate relationship, between academe, scholarship and governance, the better. We cannot afford the luxury of not engaging, influencing and relying on our own resources.”

He provided an example of the interstate institution, the African Peer Review Mechanism which warned about possible violence during the 2007 Kenyan elections and that xenophobic attacks could occur in South Africa in 2008, but this scholarship was ignored and these atrocities which could have been prevented occurred. “I bet you if these warnings had come from the UN Security Council or the IMF, we would have taken them seriously.”

The fundamentals of dealing with identity

Adesina said a fundamental handle on how to deal with the issue of identity was required, adding that the Sahara was not a dividing line. Using the example of General Mohammed Mamman Shuwa, a retired general and one of the heroes of Nigeria’s Civil War, who was assassinated last year, Adesina said the distinction between cultural and ethnic identity needed to be drawn. “At a particular level we have leaders arguing about whether they are Arabs or not. The African continent is a multi-colour continent. We have always been … Although Walter Sisulu is what we call biracial, he was raised as an Nguni child, and his children are worthy examples of the complexity, multiplicity and the beauty of what we are. For me an African is, if you identify with this continent, you are a child of my mother.”

As Director of the newly formed Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, in the Department of Philosophy: Rhodes University, Tabensky said he hated the notion of intellectuals talking from a distance, and that they should be asking vital questions such as if we live in countries where people don’t like each other, how can we have continental cooperation? “For example why is it that in South Africa, Black elites are obsessed with symbols of power and white South Africans are so incredibly self-righteous about their whiteness and about their privilege … Intellectuals have to make that contribution, they have to brave enough to get into the dirt of it all and they have to ask the careful and intimate questions, which will lead to the big question (of who is an African) resolving itself.”

Burning questions for higher education: Add your voice

Director: VC Projects and Advisor to the Principal, Prof Puleng LenkaBula posed fundamental questions to the panel and dialogue anchors:

What has been a disjuncture is this notion of polarising Africa by creating a disconnect of the Arabisation of the North or the Africanisation of the South. If there are these recurring problems in terms of how we understand ourselves as Africans, what would be the relevance of higher education in ensuring that these discourses are resourceful for the unity and development of Africa?

Through the panel discussions, it appears there has been this tendency to outsource – that the technical advisors of our inter-governmental agencies, that the educational and research material that undergirds the decisions that are taken in relation with ourselves, the West and even the global South, seem to be outsourced to outsiders or contactors. That might be a problem or strength. What would be resourceful for us and what would be the role of higher education in ensuring it asserts itself in the broader development project of Africa?

Issues about the way education communicates itself through disciplinary divisions, the way knowledge seems to be either undermined or undervalued was also raised, and how these issues are framed within the policies of the AU. What are your insights on this?

What are your responses to the questions on the role of higher education in alleviating Africa’s challenges thorough research, its curriculum and producing RARE leaders? Please leave comments in the section below.

Source: NEPAD

Picture credit: NEPAD