The first time I had heard of Mahmood Mamdani was in 2015 during Rhodes Must Fall. His ideas became a point of reference when talking the role and necessity of “curriculum change” in the decolonising project of the university as but one example of society-wide systemic change that exists as the subtext of such a process.
Mamdani was appointed the director of the Centre of African Studies at UCT in 1996, but his stay was cut short after disagreements from colleagues who did not accept his curriculum change plan that provided an epistemological shift away from a European way of understanding the world and producing knowledge. He had not returned to UCT since he left in 1999 and I was excited to have been able to attend the TB Davie lecture where he gave a talk on decolonising the post colonial university.
Many students in the room demanded that the Vice-Chancellor apologise to Mamdani for what was known as the Mamdani Affair and many shouted “We apologise to you”. Mamdani was not the first black academic that was mistreated by the university, but it was encouraging to see that they were being acknowledged by the university. Recently a building was named after AC Jordan, Archie Mafeje’s family received an apology, and in fact most Rhodes Must Fall meetings happened in Azania House in the Mafeje Room and this year Mamdani returned to UCT after staying away for more than decade. Mamdani said that he came back to UCT because Rhodes fell and because of this knew that the university was in a process of change and he would be “the last person to stay away”.
Mamdani gave us some historical context on the establishment of the university, stating that the university was in the front line of conquest, through its civilisation mission. The context that shaped the post-colonial university is very important when looking at the present role of the university. The architecture and the way they are arranged, especially historically white universities like the University of Cape Town emulate institutions like in the UK and the U.S.
Mamdani had a message for those who found themselves questioning what to do considering the establishment of the university, which has played- and continues to play- an active role in the social engineering of society. “Your task has to be one of subverting that mission from within.”
The possibility of creating an intellectual tradition in home languages was cut short by colonialism, which is why African languages remain folkloric. As a result of this, our languages do not exist in the worlds of science, learning, high culture and government. European languages have retained that pedestal.
The solution to this for Mamdani is for the university to establish a centre that would study Nguni languages and knowledge traditions. The centre would concern itself with studying the literature in these languages and develop literature in the language.
“Theory cannot be developed without reference points” Mamdani stressed that we need new reference points. The university needed to invest in scholars who could study and teach non-Western traditions. It was a lesson in what Mamdani has preached since his time at UCT– studying Africa through the eyes of Africans instead of only through the lens of Europeans. This would mean moving away from comparison with the West. “The world is larger is larger than we have known” said Mamdani.
Mamdani ended off his talk on a personal reflection.
“I came here in 1996 full of excitement, wanting to learn and contribute to the making of a new world. Instead I found a world very unsure of itself; full of anxieties. The leadership of government had changed, but the leadership of institutions had not.
“Instead of being receptive to change, the institutional leadership looked with distrust to every initiative for change, suspecting it of harbouring a hidden, subversive agenda. It felt lonely. In retrospect, though, it was a great learning experience. It was first at the University of Dar es Salaam, which was my first academic job, but then at UCT that I began to think of what it would mean to decolonise a university. For that opportunity, I am thankful to this university.”
He closed off his talk by adding that : “The best scholarship is done in times of intense activism. Now that you are active: read!”