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About Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town

African Studies at UCT is an interdisciplinary teaching and research cluster located in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics. It consist of two sections, the Centre for African Studies and the African Studies Unit. Between them they carry out and support a large number of projects and programmes.

The African Studies Unit offers a full academic programme, concentrated at the graduate level but also including some undergraduate courses. Typically, our students are interested in critical, interdisciplinary, Africa-focused scholarship. They are interested in thinking outside of the frameworks of an inherited set of knowledge projects. And they are interested in taking seriously the critical and intellectual traditions of the global south.

The Centre for African Studies is the longest-established institution of its kind. Re-launched in 2012, it carries a mandate for promoting and supporting African Studies across the various Faculties of the University of Cape Town.

Together, the Centre for African Studies and the African Studies Unit house and support a number of projects, including:

  • The African Studies Gallery
  • The AC Jordan Chair of African Studies
  • The NRF Chair in Land Reform and Democracy in South Africa
  • The journal Social Dynamics
  • The Harry Oppenheimer Institute, a granting committee that supports African Studies at UCT
  • Curate Africa, a project focused on photography, new media and visual cultures of Africa and the Daispora

We also support a growing list of collaborations, research projects, seminars, student initiatives, and publication initiatives.

For current activities and announcements, follow African Studies at UCT on Facebook.

Points of departure

In quite fascinating ways, the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town has been a flashpoint in the life of the institution, generating debate, and focusing a key set of issues and debates. These debates form one of the core legacies of African Studies at UCT, and become a point of departure for our students. Part of the mission of African Studies at UCT is to use the resources of these debates, plus other similar debates in universities across the global south, to re-imagine and reconfigure an inherited architecture of knowledge. In our pursuit of a critical, African humanities we understand ourselves to be situated at a cutting edge of new knowledge formations, a critique of inherited institutional and disciplinary forms, and a serious engagement with the critical and intellectual traditions of Africa and the Diaspora.

The University of Cape Town has recently renewed its commitment to African Studies at UCT. The African Studies Unit joined the newly created School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics, and the AC Jordan Chair was filled after more than a decade of being vacant. In October 2012, a new association of Centres for African Studies on the continent of Africa was launched at a two-day symposium in the African Studies Gallery.

Some preliminary thoughts

The moment is ripe to explore a third way. The challenge is to recast African Studies as a study of Self - indeed of Selves - as a source of self- knowledge. Such a quest is likely to involve a double challenge: both ontological and epistemological.

The ontological question is primary: What is Africa? A multiplicity of "races"? Who is an "African"? A racial being? We know that apartheid in South Africa (as colonialism in the rest of Africa) constructed the "African" as a racial being. A newcomer to South Africa is struck by how university and street talk continues to portray an "African" as a racial being. If to transcend the legacy of apartheid is to transcend this racial identity and to humanize fully the construct of "African", and if this is not to turn into a mere posture, do we not need to ask: what is the historical process that makes of us, Africans?

The ontological question is tied to that of epistemology. This is why the main task of the Centre for African Studies - and indeed of the university - is to redefine the study of Africa as the study of ourselves in a post-apartheid world.

- Mahmood Mamdani

On Rhodes Memorial

This memorial captures one moment of thinking Africa from the Cape and freezes it literally in stone, in a manner that should be a lesson to us all. To grasp the fullness of this lesson and to capture this longer view, we may as well begin by posing the original question of thinking Africa from the Cape in the negative: how does one NOT think Africa from the Cape at the present moment? And my short response will be: look at the Rhodes Memorial and you will find the answer. There is a logic to this monument at the base of Devil’s Peak that strikes you with the particular force when you visit for the first time, especially if you come from “Africa”. Suddenly, all the abstract ideas that you have learnt in your social and critical theory classes make immediate sense. Ideas of surveillance and control, the panoptic gaze and the visual regime of modernity, and so on, all come alive. Here the idea of “Cape to Cairo” takes on a visual presence. Yes, the view of Cape Town from here is as stunning as it is panoramic — just as the tourist brochure tells you. What arrests you here though is not really this view but the vision it encapsulates: the vision of an era when the world was out there for the taking, when Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape, lying supine at your feet, waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it. It is this panoptic vision of a world under the gaze and surveillance of an imperial man that hits you in the guts: this, in essence, is the modernist dream of encyclopaedic knowledge and control over native subjects.

- Harry Garuba

Thinking Africa differently

As a starting point, I want to suggest that thinking Africa differently involves thinking outside of the framework of a number of existing discourses that currently structure the field. The first of these is colonial ethnography, in which Africa appears as the other of the Western self. The image here is the image of the mirror: Africa functions as the mirror of Europe in its modern history. It tells us less about the purported subject of investigation than it does about the self doing the speaking, writing or imagining. Africa appears less as a solid object than it does as a sign, a site of projection or a territory of the imagination. We see the word “Africa” in the title of a book, a movie or a research proposal and we expect a certain kind of story with a particular outcome, a particular kind of moral scripting. One of the most important works to explore and expose this form of representation was Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), a work that founded a mini-industry in studies of colonialist discourse and postcolonial critique. “Orientalism” is a relation of knowledge, but it is also a relation of power, not so much knowledge of as knowledge over. The line between knowledge of and knowledge over is a troubled and ambiguous one, particularly when the knowledge object is in a position of dependency. This is the deeper meaning of the knowledge/power “couplet”. It is not that knowledge legitimates power (although it often does) but that knowledge is power.

- Nick Shepherd

Still searching for the human

What the humanities critically offer is not only writing about the past, but also writing about the meaning of the past. In so doing, the humanities allow for theories about refashioning African knowledge. The question “Who is an African?” is not going to be worked through science and technology, but through language, new archives and ways of life. We cannot begin to get new historiographies without new archives—and working on the visual arts and performance allows us to do that. This calls for the work of the imagination and dares this nation of ours to dream of infinite possibilities where we may yet be free and the dream of April 1994 be realised.

- Siona O’Connell