by Venolia Rabodiba

Venolia Rabodiba is a Geography Honours student and a Mellon Mays Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She attended the conference as an ambassador for the Wits City Institute.

The African Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association hosted their second joint conference on the continent in Johannesburg in partnership with Wits City Institute, Anthropology Southern Africa, Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, and University of Pretoria’s Political Sciences Department. The bi-annual Africa in the World Conference is a response to the continent’s marginalization in African studies and knowledge production in general. This year’s theme, Shifting Boundaries and Knowledge Production, highlighted the imperative of ‘epistemic decolonization’ – a project which the Wits City Institute has already oriented itself towards. The conference culminated with a closing session which included a special appearance by His Excellency, former President Thabo Mbeki.

Student Ambassadors with His Excellency, former President Thabo Mbeki.

“To write the world from Africa or to write Africa into the world is a compelling and perplexing task”.  (Mbembe and Nuttal 2004, 348).

Speaking in the closing session alongside Professors Funmi Olonisakin, Mahmood Mamdani, Muna Ndulo, and President Thabo Mbeki – Professor Toyin Falola, raised the question, “How do we understand Africa in the logic of Africa itself?” This is the question with which scholars from the Wits City Institute together with scholars from around the continent and the United States interrogated at the Africa in the World Conference 2018 which took place in Johannesburg. There was a shared concern about proxy-readings of Africa – readings from elsewhere, readings by those removed from the continent, readings imbued with power, readings that have not contributed to any meaningful understandings of the continent, and readings which continue to move Africa further into the margins; even in the margins of so-called African Studies.

The geographical and ideological question involving the study of the African continent was an aptly-suited theme for a conference which took place in Johannesburg. Writings on Johannesburg, similar to writings on most cities on the continent or in the ‘global-South’ in general, have often described the city “as an object apart from the world”. Re-centering Africa is thus as much about changing the imagination of the African city as it is about shifting the boundaries of knowledge production and changing the geographies of reason. Director of Wits City Institute and A.W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism, Professor Noëleen Murray reminded conference participants of this imperative during the opening session. Hers was that we needed to shift our understandings and readings of “citiness” perhaps before we can shift the multiple places of Africa in the academy. Citiness has been associated with development and modernity, associated with cities of the global-North, and has always been someplace where African ‘cities’ had to arrive in their pursuit of modernity. Citiness, however, as Professor Noëleen Murray reminded us, is so fluid and is constantly being redefined by alternative modernities where Johannesburg is a case in point. She noted that it was fitting to have had the second Africa in the World Conference in Johannesburg – a city which defied the logics and the conditions of urbanism – a city that should never have become. Johannesburg’s case is not just a challenge to citiness, but also is a reminder that otherness is actually a meaningless construct.

Other presentations on citiness and urbanism contributed to thinking about the ways in which we read and write the African city and how these ways can challenge the ways in which Africa is read and how it is written about. The session “Shifting Urban Landscapes” engaged ways of reading the city with Till Förster (University of Basel) presenting on “Seeing African Cities: New Urbanites – New Cityscapes?” His presentation drew on interesting methodologies including group ethnography which he calls ‘walking together’. Here, participants literally walk through the city together to see and look at the city from different perspectives. During the process, different participants would stop at different points to look at an object or activity of interest in the city. This was a process both of seeing different things and seeing differently. Seeing is not only a visual exercise but it is always a way of coming to know something. Seeing in itself is knowledge production. Beyond the ordinary and more established ways of thinking about knowledge, knowledge about African cities and about Africa is perhaps best produced by the social actors who have to know their cities and their own contexts, through seeing, walking, and living in the everyday.

Thinking about what constitute knowledges and how language is acquired (through field work research or through lived experience) feeds into other questions raised on decolonization throughout the conference. Who writes about Africa? Who speaks with authority on Africa? Are European scholars the only intellectuals? Do we need more scholars of Africa or scholars from Africa? Some of these questions were introduced by the Co-Chair of the Conference and the Chair of African Anthropology at Princeton University, Professor Carolyn Rouse. These questions formed the basis of the presentations, roundtables, and flash presentations. Professor Carolyn Rouse and the co-organisers of this Conference including the Wits City Institute developed these questions to challenge the trajectory that African Studies and the social sciences in general has taken. It was agreed upon that no-longer shall proxy-readings of Africa define us as a “dark continent with dark peoples in need of tutelage”.  Scholarship on Africa needs to take a radically different path, one which Professor Zondi from the University of Pretoria, said needed to be in the form of “decolonization with gravitas”.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani challenged us to think about what it means to be responsible scholars of Africa (from Africa or not) and the significance of the role of African academic universities and research institutes in the re-centring of Africa. Academic institutions need to orient themselves to the production of new knowledge about the continent and to the continent’s intellectual and social benefit, rather than that of interests from outside. On the same note, Pres. Thabo Mbeki reiterated the role of improving the relationship between African governments and African institutions. Worldwide, the humanities and social sciences are suffering from the decreased government spending on research in these areas. We cannot begin re-centre Africa without the resources to do so. Pres. Mbeki – following from Mamdani’s concern over universities being turned into consultancies and not research centres – warned against doing work only for international rankings. The work we are doing as scholars ought to be about us and for us. Our work must contribute to the African Renaissance.

WCI Director, Professor Noëleen Murray and the Acting Vice-Chancellor of The University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Tawane Kupe hosted a reception at the Origins Centre. They both expressed the initial anxiety and reluctance that often comes with Africans having to collaborate with Europeans or Americans. They both agreed that the conference was fruitful particularly in its endeavour to bridge the divide between the West and Africa in the academy. The Africa in the World Conference is a joint project by the Association of American Anthropologists and the African Studies Association. This project is part of a long, internal, reflective process of the two organisations and their troubling histories with the study of the continent. There now is a commitment to break down the epistemological boundaries that have separated Africa from intellectual production. The Africa in the World Conference was full of promise as far as responsible African scholarship is concerned. Epistemic decolonisation is not a new idea, but to echo the closing panel, what do we do after all these exchanges?