by Nicole Sarmiento.
“I have argued that the problem with this course is the result mainly of what the course team left out of the course, not of what they included in it. My critique is mainly what they did not teach, not about what they did teach.” – Mahmood Mamdani, “Is African studies to be turned into a new home for Bantu education at UCT? (1998).
“It is in the “figural domain” of this mode of self/group/Self imagining, and of its mode of Sameness and Difference that the ceremony is still unfindable. Othello and Desdemona still meet clandestinely, and Black culture centers remain proscribed by the laws of a Godelian type of internal consistency on the nether edge of the campuses; proscribed along with the revelatory heresy of the self-defining, self-troping, yet always systemic rhetoricity of all modes of human being.” – Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism” in Boundary 2, 12 (3)/13 (1): 19-69. (1984).
Walking around the University of Cape Town (UCT), or even passing by the university while on moving transport, I often feel a profound sense of disjuncture. Tourist adverts and city branding campaigns are fond of referring to Cape Town’s physical beauty, the majesty of its mountains and it so-called “natural” landscape. My relationship to space and time in this context somehow revolves around that hyper visible architecture and landscape of UCT and its environs, a humanly constructed landscape that inscribes itself on lands and bodies as fragments of an imperial vision that is constantly being re-inscribed. Cecil John Rhodes acquired the land that UCT is currently built on, which had been a colonial farm owned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), known as Rustenburg. After purchasing the land, Rhodes proceeded along his vision of empire to remake the natural, visible landscape of that side of Table Mountain in order accommodate it within his imaginary of space and time. What is today Cape Town was for Rhodes, a space without history, a people outside of time, on which new imaginaries and self-stylizations could be inscribed.
As Mamdani’s epigraph at the opening of this text suggests, what matters in this fractured story are the silences. In Rhodes’ stylization of an imaginary landscape outside of time, what is already included by its very exclusion? What I am interested in is what has been left out, covered over, at UCT and in the shadows of what we call Table Mountain.
Rhodes systematically removed local plant life and in their place planted Stone Pines to make the space resemble an ancient Greek rural landscape, or patchwork of different imperial spatial visual symbols. This side of Table Mountain became an entirely different landscape, one that reflected a particular genealogy of power. Subjects to be controlled, described, demarcated – lands to be mapped, taxonomized and domesticated. Besides the shadow of Table Mountain, botanical gardens were constructed in Kirstenbosch and a VOC company garden close to the seashore. These were lands that were central to local people and their knowledge practices, expropriated and repurposed for the feverish fabrication of a synthetic time/space. Such a genealogy of power suggests an operating in and through bodies and land, not necessarily a biopolitics but rather, what Tony Bogues suggests as a politics of the bios. In the middle of this imperial fantasy, the Rhodes Memorial overlooks what is today the city of Cape Town, and even UCT itself. Many are familiar with the Rhodes monuments around the UCT campus and the city, fragments of a time that is out of joint.
“This time is out of joint,” wrote the Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida – just as is time, space is also layered and multiple. One cannot pass through the city of Cape Town without that jarring visual reference point in the middle of the mountain, as one enters the city on the N2 or even moving through one end of Main Road to another. Thus I return to UCT because I cannot pass through this space, by this place, without finding myself coopted by a particular spatial configuration that determines my relationship to the aboveground/Cartesian map and logics of the city. The above, the surface, the architectural form, the visual, dominates the senses. Groomed as modern subjects, as conscripts of modernity as Talal Asad once put it, we are enveloped in sensorial regimes that set up hierarchies among the senses. This sensorial regime, in many ways, reflects contemporary forms of knowledge production and the disciplinisation of knowledge that permeates the core disciplines in universities across the globe.
Sylvia Wynter, in the second epigraph initiating this text suggests that, “Othello and Desdemona still meet clandestinely, and Black culture centers remain proscribed by the laws of a Godelian type of internal consistency on the nether edge of the campuses.” African Studies at UCT, as a small, under-funded, postgraduate department, has been marginal within the wider research and knowledge agenda at UCT. Just like the knowledge system that in its very foundation excluded “Africa” from the domain of knowledge and pushed it into anthropology – the discipline mandated for the study of “the Other” – UCT claims to have an “Afropolitan” agenda and yet has not in any way grappled with substantive transformation, nor has it looked at colonial legacies, the disciplines and the history of that university in a broader South African and continental context. African Studies was/is tolerated, on the nether edge of campus, in a way that allows the other disciplines, and UCT itself, to remain unchallenged and dehistoricized.
When we encounter the racialized, patriarchal spatialities and built environments of city spaces, the tendency is to focus on the visible, on material structure or a view from above. This is what makes the panoramic such a common and desirable field of vision, why taking photos from on top of Table Mountain, from Robben Island, from the Rhodes Memorial or Lion’s Head is the most common artifact of the tourist imaginary, and even the city’s own representations of Cape Town. The Mayor’s office hosts a massive panoramic view of Table Mountain and most documentary films on Cape Town use an optic constructed from Robben Island, or from some high point, gazing downward at the mainland. It is the ideal view of the city. It mirrors an epistemological inheritance that divides the head from the body, privileging “mind” over the embodied and multi-sensorial, the above/below, the living/dead, subject/object, white/black, man/woman.
What if we begin to think about disjunctive experiences of space/time, and think about, look at, feel, listen to the world below? The underground of Cape Town, its unseen and silenced burial grounds, offers a possible rupture of linear conceptions of time and space – of time presented as neat chrolonogical time of presents, pasts and posts.
In the plans around the “roll-out of capital expenditure” at UCT that began around 2007, in particular plans for a new upgrading and building on middle campus, some academics were approached around the question of a burial ground lying underneath part of middle campus – a burial ground from the colonial period that through the archives is known to be a burial ground where many enslaved peoples are located. The area where the burial ground is estimated to be located was part of the Rustenburg property, and this space would have been an area where enslaved people owned by the VOC worked and lived. More recently UCT has moved ahead with its development plans and has not gone further than an initial archaeological assessment and series of public meetings. UCT has published visions of what a possible “memorial” around the site could look like.
According to the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) report, the existence of the burial ground lying somewhere below the ground of UCT middle campus is undeniable. Exactly where that burial ground is located, what it means for the present, or its configuration within the wider historical context and trajectory of UCT and South Africa is something that remains unresolved. The SAHRA report as well as more recent reports in UCT’s Monday Paper, are available online. Reading these documents is extremely revealing.
What becomes clear in the SAHRA report and the language of memory and heritage employed by UCT, is that these set the terms, language and framework through which the question of the burial ground will be discussed, understood and eventually evaluated. What is evident is that the question of the burial grounds is defined as a problematic about science and about the discipline of history, hostage to their evidentiary modes and regimes of truth. The points around public consultation, memory and heritage are understood only within this problematic, within a discourse of linear time in which archeology is framed as a discipline that grapples with material fragments and a past divorced from the present.
The discourse is framed around a liberal humanist episteme that uses the language of proper practice of developers, consultation processes, and memorialization in accordance with the needs of capital and science. After the public consultation process called a few meetings with “the community” and carried out their archaeological assessment, SAHRA concluded, “Since no human remains were discovered during the excavation of the three trenches, it is recommended that construction may proceed in the designated area.”
In 2011 a series of letters and editorials on UCT’s African Studies were published in the Mail & Guardian, the Sowetan, as well as on various blogs and facebook pages. The articles and letters published and circulated elicited a fiery response from the Vice Chancellor of the university – who argued that there was no problem with African Studies nor was there any threat of closures of departments at UCT. Rather, he argued, a lengthy process had been ongoing for several years that involved questions around the future of African Studies as well as the African Gender Institute; and these processes had been open and transparent. A series of faculty forums were held and according to Lungisile Ntsebeza, a task team was set up, “to conduct a series of consultations and discussions both inside the faculty and across the university more widely in order to develop a number of possible scenarios, to offer debate and decision by the faculty and the university which relate to the future role of the Centre for African Studies.” A body of literature exists on the subject, and it is not my interest to provide a timeline of events or summary here. Rather, I want to ask what this series of fragments/fractures can provide in terms of an entry point for thinking differently about space and time in the now, about graveyards, African Studies and disciplines.
African Studies, disestablishment, administrative restructuring, faculty and student protest in 2011 around questions of transformation in higher education, recall another event in UCT’s history that remains largely on the fringes. Between 1997 and 1998, UCT was embroiled in a conflict with Mahmood Mamdani, who had been appointed AC Jordan Professor of African Studies in September of 1996. He was appointed Director of the Centre for African Studies at UCT in 1997, and shortly thereafter asked to design a syllabus for a new course that would be part of first year students’ foundation semester, which would also be compulsory for all students entering the social sciences. Just before Mamdani was to hand in his draft outline of the course – which he had called “Problematizing Africa” – along with a recommended set of readings, he received a letter from the Deputy Dean that formally suspended him from the course for 1998. In an essay, “Teaching Africa at the post-apartheid University of Cape Town: A critical view of the introduction to Africa core course in the social science and humanities faculty’s foundation semester,” published in Social Dynamics (1998), Mamdani writes, “The tussle that followed with the Working Group and the Deputy Dean was one for which I was totally unprepared. As it unraveled, it highlighted issues I think go beyond my personal predicament.”
Mamdani responded to the irregular processes at UCT and the institutional racism, offering open public seminars to discuss his recommendations for a foundation course at UCT, making the course outline and reading list he had compiled together with Abdullah Ibrahim from the University of the Western Cape available to all. His responses to the Deputy Dean, the Working Group, and the university community in general are all published in the journal Social Dynamics and elsewhere online.
Mamdani, in his various public responses, called UCT to task for its suspension of his work and the hasty presentation of an alternative syllabus. Not only did the alternative syllabus, presented by the Working Group, reinforce the culture of South African exceptionalism and the teaching of Africa as below the Sahara and above the Limpopo, the syllabus was critiqued for reinforcing colonial epistemologies and resembling Bantu Studies. He critiqued faculty individually and collectively for emphasizing pedagogy over content. UCT, he argued, was in effect designing a curriculum that would produce a new generation of native informants. Besides the focus of teaching Euro-American texts, the syllabus produced by UCT for an Africa core course reinforced global divisions of power and knowledge that defines European and North American intellectuals as the producers of theory/knowledge and African intellectuals as mere sources of data/raw materials (as native informants). Mamdani eventually resigned and left UCT; his legacy remains an uncomfortable subject at UCT and this was even more evident through the gaps and silences on what was clearly an important reference point for the 2011 events. What Mamdani had confronted and critiqued was the epistemological violence evident in the colonial legacies inherent in the way Africa is taught and studied at UCT broadly.
As part of African Studies at UCT and their postgraduate programme, a course is taught on “Problematizing the Study of Africa: Interrogating the Disciplines” which involves delving into the history of UCT and the Mamdani debate. Exposure to this material and the opportunity to engage with the different levels of epistemological significance meant the students at African Studies were well versed in these histories and raised them in their collective statements and protests. Besides UCT’s burial grounds, what has been called the “Mamdani Affair” and recent contestations around African Studies, the spectre of UCT’s violence towards the late Archie Mafeje remained a present absence during the 2011 events and afterwards. Archie Mafeje was appointed senior lecturer at UCT in 1968, an appointment that was subsequently ‘rescinded’, as Lungisile Ntsebeza notes in his essay, “African Studies at UCT: An Overview”, (African Studies in the Post-Colonial University by Thanabantu Nhlapo and Harry Garuba (eds). Cape Town: UCT Press, 2012). “as a result of what the UCT Principal at the time, Sir Richard Luyt and Council, claimed was interference by the apartheid regime.” Besides an apology to his family, there is much that remains to be learned about this history and its importance for the present, without which a threading together of these fragments would be untenable.
In 2011 when these debates were taking place, the spectre of repressed histories at UCT reared its head. One could glean at the surface that the question was not one of administrative jostling and bureaucratic restructuring – but rather a deeper question of substantively decolonizing the disciplines, of another kind of transformation than the one that is currently advertised. In responses to and critiques of the African Studies discussions at UCT, the narrative that is presented is one of a narrow disciplinary affair, or on the other hand something that can be resolved if a history of African Studies at UCT is written. Although I have sympathy for the writing of such histories, my interest lies in what is not being asked, what is not being spoken in these debates.
As Audre Lorde writes, there are many kinds of power, acknowledged and otherwise – and in silence lies a particular kind of power. Is it a history of African Studies that is needed? Or is it a full history of the disciplines, of disciplinary knowledge – as the core institutions of the colonial project and modernity? In the construction of modern subjects and modern disciplinary imaginaries, the key dichotomy, a point elucidated by Foucault, Said, Wynter and others, is the one between the human and the natural sciences. What are the legacies of this knowledge system today, and this foundational binary? Presenting a narrative of African Studies as emerging out of colonial anthropology, followed by area studies, and into the present, often presents disciplines and knowledge systems as following a kind of linear progression. The subject of knowledge remains the same – and that subject is white, male and European. The more complex legacies of that episteme, as Harry Garuba writes in e-flux journal, remain uncontested: “It is all well and good to announce the end of grand narratives of the Enlightenment and modernity, but what has happened to the structure of knowledge on which it is grounded? What are the epistemic legacies of this regime of knowledge [?]”
When Cecil John Rhodes handed over his land and property to the University of Cape Town, British colonial architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens was asked to design the buildings of the new university. Lutyens designed UCT’s campus on top of the former colonial farm in neoclassical style, and went on after Cape Town to design much of imperial New Delhi. Martin Hall points out that, in a grotesque irony, Lutyens design for UCT was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia – Jefferson, a vociferous spokesman for slavery – in a strange way spatially and structurally reinscribes a genealogy of violence that remains invisible and unspoken at UCT. In constructing a Grecian landscape and sculpting the mountain in his imperial vision, Rhodes spatialized the imperial gaze over his subjects and territories. This was part of constructing a field of vision/regime for seeing and episteme on which an entire system of knowledge was founded and through which much of the knowledge architecture we inhabit today is firmly entrenched. In this act of simultaneous creation and erasure, the object was materiality, objects, nature – captured, taxonomized, domesticated – but also bodies, knowledges and regimes of care.
Back to UCT’s quiet burial grounds – what of burial grounds and the relationship between the living and ancestors in contemporary Cape Town? How is the spectre of forced removal being daily recapitulated, in multiple forms and guises? What do these fragments and fractures, sediments and palimpsests speak of? Both Haitian writer Colin Dayan and dancer/visual artist/filmmaker Maya Deren in different rehearsals describe “rituals of memory” in Haiti and regimes of care associated with the dead. In this vein, their work grapples with narratives of history and silences embedded in those narratives, about embodied knowledges that are part of Vodou aesthetic practices and ceremonial rituals and how these aesthetic worlds/worlds of mind contest the “drum and trumpet” histories of empire; prompted by their work, these fragments/fractures in the present rupture the strict dichotomy between the living and the dead, allowing us to think about subjugated knowledges, thresholds, funerary regimes and hauntings.
Bodies that haunt the living, burial grounds that refuse to remain silenced, signal an epistemological challenge that involves an archaeology of sensorial regimes and how these are related to modern subjectivities; while at the same time understanding the way in which knowledge and power intersect through disciplining subjects as well as through the disciplines and institutions that house them. These fragments speak of co-presence, of multiple temporalities that inhabit a particular space and time. UCT’s contemporary stylization as a “world class” university, and of Cape Town as a “world class” city forms part of an old tradition and grotesque proprietary imaginary as well as inscriptive fabrication of a synthetic no place/time. A discourse of Afropolitanism and world class-ness smacks of imperial fantasies and feverish dreams that gloss over and erase local histories and global power dynamics. Burial grounds and African Studies, Mamdani and Mafeje, re-member that which history (the discipline and the popular grand narrative) has repressed, that which refuses to remain buried. Some of the questions that lie buried outside the curriculum, are about what it means to live as inheritors of colonial violence and about ways in which that violence are carried on in contemporary forms and institutional arrangements. It raises more questions than it answers.
In engaging the ongoing shifts in higher education across the continent and globe, and particularly across the African continent, it is important to think what substantive transformation could yet mean. These disparate threads – burial grounds, sculpted terrain, African Studies – point to the ongoing displacement of the elements needed to think a different kind of transformation than the one offered by neoliberal reforms and structural adjustment programmes. As Gayatri Spivak tells us, “the meainstream has never run clean, perhaps never can. Part of mainstream education involves learning to ignore this absolutely, with a sanctioned ignorance.” How can we begin with taking on this sanctioned ignorance and the production of silences this entails? In the case of UCT, I want to suggest that these disparate threads hold important insight and methodologies for thinking about education, universities, transformation and the disciplines today.