UCT and the Afropolitan Decline
It has been more than three months and it is official the Centre for African Studies and the African Gender Institute has been merged into the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics. The official line is that this was an exercise to get rid of smaller academic institutes for cost and budget issues. It is also no surprise that the Institute for Humanities in Africa was created and given the rights to work in the building formerly held by the Centre for African Studies. The main feature of the institutional changes at UCT is that it has come with a broader ideological transformation at the university, with the use and promotion of the word Afropolitan. Since the beginning of his term Max Price as Vice Chancellor of UCT has been flaunting this term since his inauguration but while it is a flashy term intellectually and historically it offers nothing new in terms of understanding contemporary African society and politics.
As I writer I have been contemplating this term for some time now and I even admit using it on occasion. However as I analyse and keep track of African politics and society I am realising that the term Afropolitan does not offer anything new and as a sociological term is actually meaningless. What is the difference between the usage of the term “Afropolitan” and “Black Diamond” other than as an explanation of consumerism in South Africa and the wider African continent? Max Price in using the term Afropolitan states:
The first trend that must impact on UCT’s strategic thinking is a continental one. In the last five years, we have witnessed a new scramble for Africa. Democracy is breaking out all over the continent, accompanied by unprecedented rates of economic growth, foreign investment and international trade, as well as the concomitant problems of corporate and public governance, bottlenecks in infrastructure, education, health, management capacity,
South African companies are the major business partners in Africa. Our graduates will work in those companies. We have not addressed how we should prepare them for those tasks nor what role we could be playing to equip people from all over the world who need to engage with the continent in public or private projects.
I have tried to capture this vision through the idea of UCT becoming an ‘Afropolitan’ university. The ‘Afro’ element connotes an open assertive engagement with the world from the standpoint of Africa. It describes a growth in African studies, particularly the economic sociologies of different African countries and regions. Businesses, governments, NGOs all over the world will know that if you want to understand Africa and how to operate there, you must go to UCT. ‘Politan’ suggests cosmopolitan and signals firstly, a sophisticated and future oriented approach to understanding Africa, as opposed to a sentimental, naïve, often ‘rural peasant and wildlife’ view of what an African perspective is.
It is important to recognise that the open assertive engagement with the international community that is both sophisticated and modern that Price speaks too has been a feature of South African and African politics since the birth of the ANC. The movement for democracy and the struggle for human rights within South Africa began with that generation of freedom fighters such as Mandela, Tambo, Zuma and Mbeki. In fact it was as a result of fighting apartheid and the broader political fight against colonialism that many Africans and in particular many South Africans were engaged intellectually with the international community. The reality is that UCT is a historically white institution and is coming to grips with its history and the new political reality in South Africa in relation to race and culture.
The issue is not that Africa as a continent or its people are not engaged with the world, it is the fact that the legacy of racism still exists internationally and that’s what needs to be combated and defeated. Africa as a continent is still viewed as the “Dark Continent” that is a space where time goes still. The move towards the usage of the term Afropolitan while it may be catchy and hip reflects a broader decline in the public discourse in South Africa. Discourses on race, equality, justice and politics are being replaced by terms that do not really position South Africa and Africa into the future. It is clear that we need a new discourse and language that describes the current time in African politics.