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Systems of Governance

Love and Learning Under the World Bank

Stacy Hardy recounts seventeen stories of the hierarchies, the anti-heroes, the hard knocks and the histrionics that have been visited upon universities as a result of decades of decidedly imperialist structural adjustment. Additional research by Oddveig Nicole Sarmiento.


At a meeting of African university vice chancellors held in Harare in 1986, a World Bank officer is said to have bluntly declared: “Africans don’t need universities!”

There is no record of the officer’s identity, or of how others in the room responded. What is documented is the impact of the World Bank Structural Adjustment Programme on African universities: from the beginning of the 1980s, subsidies to students were reduced or terminated, academic wages were frozen to the point of asphyxia, grants for research were eliminated, and investment in the universities’ infrastructure was drastically cut.

Scholars were forced to either supplement teaching with consultancy work or, whenever possible, migrate, usually to Europe or North America. In five short years, from 1985 to 1990, 60,000 African intellectuals and professionals emigrated to the West. In their absence, professional training was placed in the hands of international non-governmental organisations, ‘donor’ agencies, foreign universities and, first and foremost, foreign business.

“The university was condemned,” recalled Issa Shivji, then a fiery young law professor at the University of Dar es Salaam and a fervent pan Africanist: “The World Bank was telling Africa you don’t need universities, that they were white elephants… The university was starved of resources. The faculty also began to move out, finding greener pastures either outside the country or in research institutes, consultancies, think tanks, and so on. The university was turned into a factory to support and answer to the needs of the market.”

Shivji elected to stay at Dar es Salaam despite the challenges and despite countless international opportunities. He would eventually become the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies there, a position he hoped to use to reclaim, to the extent possible, the old debates and to reintroduce and redirect the debates on campus.

  1. The Silent Revolution

After a visit to Makerere University in 1999, David Court, a Rockefeller Foundation representative in Nairobi who had been seconded to the World Bank, wrote an 18-page memo that celebrated the success of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank’s policies at the university:

One of the standing policy conundrums of Africa is how to provide good quality education to large numbers, but without undue dependence on public resources. From Makerere University in Uganda comes a startlingly instructive demonstration of new possibilities for solving this conundrum.

Court titled his paper, “The Silent Revolution”. He made no mention of the thousands of students, and the lecturers and activists, who repeatedly raised their voices, spoke out, protested against the ‘reform’ in demonstrations, strikes and blockades that rocked Makerere from 1989 to 1994 and turned the campus into a battleground.

 Surprisingly perhaps, it was not the Faculty of Arts, but the Sciences at Makerere that put up the most resistance to the reformers’ calls to professionalise. The then newly appointed vice chancellor, Professor Livingstone Serwadda Luboobi, a soft-spoken mathematician, applied his usual unswerving logic. He questioned the cost of a ‘reform’ that devalued basic sciences and sought to restructure the curriculum around applied sciences and professional programmes.

Dr Hannington Oryem-Origa, the then dean of Science, argued that “if the basic sciences disappear, all others will disappear. Basic science produces knowledge for some, and produces teachers (biology, physics) for others. Basic courses generate scientific knowledge.”

Professor Opuda-Asibq, the director of the School of Postgraduate Studies drove the point home: “The policy drivers have not driven the science car. They have left it to the spanner boys!”

 By 1994, the Faculty of Science at Makerere was under increasing pressure from university administration to launch new, marketable ‘vocational’ courses. They convened an urgent meeting. It was hot. The midday light shimmered. The faculty sweated. The coffee ran low. Recent news of renewed insurgency threats in the north from a group calling itself the Lord’s Resistance Army , led by one Joseph Kony, added to the growing tension in the room.

There were no new ideas. A silence ensued. It grew. The faculty head finally cleared his throat and mustered a smile. It was clear: their best bet was computer science, which had already initiated several successful short courses.

A few weeks later, on 3 May 1994 at the 1175th meeting of the Faculty of Science Board of Studies, a unanimous vote approved a new BSc and MSc in Computer Science. The initiative succeeded spectacularly. So much so that Dr Baryamureeba, the director of Computer Science, bolstered by success, demanded autonomy. Once independent, the new computer science faculty’s budget soared, jumping from 40 million shillings in 2000-01 to 1.1 billion after 2002.

The electronic brain had infallible methods of calculating costs and profits. Dr Baryamureeba reworked the accounts. He compartmentalised: Legal work – consultancy and contracts; Money work – salaries and tithes. No money went to research. The bulk was squandered on top-up salaries. At the peak of his power, Baryamureeba was the highest paid official on campus.

Computer Science had become a profitable relay station, receiving programmes from overseas and sharing student fees with overseas providers. Without research, it was left to imitate, ape-like, the advances spread by the great corporations.

Those less willing to immolate themselves on the altars of success were swept aside. According to Dr Vincent A. Ssembatya, a young mathematics lecturer with a keen interest in differential equations and dynamical systems, algorithms, and topology, “both Computer Science and Statistics have been weakening academically. Attracted by Microsoft licensing, they’re doing the thing Rank Consult (a vocational computer literacy lab in Kampala) should be doing.”

  1. The Origins of Interdisciplinarity

In the early 1990s, the faculty of arts represented the epicentre of the crisis that engulfed universities. Faced with budget cuts, it opened its doors to private, fee-paying students. But registrations continued to plummet. Students, it seemed, were unwilling to invest hard-earned cash in degrees perceived as not readily bankable. There was little hope of help from outside – foreign donors and industry favoured the sciences.

At Makerere the mood was sombre. Many had already left or were leaving for jobs in Europe and the US. Those who remained had become despondent. Classrooms were empty. Wages were slashed drastically. Everything was scarce – books, computers, paper, even lightbulbs. There were whispers in the corridors of the faculty closing its doors.

Backed into a corner, faculty members were forced to draw on their last remaining resource: creativity. In the faculty room, a swell of voices rose. In just a few hours, the members would have to impart new ideas into the minds of the decision makers – a new view on the seemingly hopeless situation. They cooked up an unorthodox survival strategy: why not simply take an arts subject, join it with a skill in demand, and teach the combination as a single course? Religious Studies and Conflict Resolution, Geography and Tourism. Linguistics and Secretarial Studies, History and Development, Philosophy and Public Management.

In a triumphant moment of imaginative genius they termed the new approach interdisciplinarity. They wrote it down. They printed it.

Come 1998, the Makerere University Senate approved a request from the Faculty of Arts to offer a BA in Secretarial Studies, to be housed in the Institute of Languages. Concerns by the Makerere University Business School (MUBS) raised in the minutes of the 109th meeting of senate “as to whether the Faculty of Arts was the most suitable unit to house the proposed Bachelor of Secretarial Studies”, went unheeded. A year later, secretarial studies was upgraded to a full-scale arts degree. The humble secretarial profession, long servile, had graduated to an art.

  1. African Capacity Building

In the 1990s, in the midst of spreading anti-structural adjustment programme revolts, mounting criticism of its operations and the emergence of a new global economy, an ideological shift was under way at the World Bank.

James Wolfensohn was now at the helm. A failed BA graduate, who rose from a financially insecure youth in Australia to the upper echelons of global finance, Wolfensohn liked rags to riches stories. He liked feel-good narratives, lofty visions and win-win argot. He saw untapped markets in Third World economies. He excelled at spin. He declared: “Knowledge is a powerful poverty-reduction instrument in its own right.”

The World Bank did a prompt about-turn. It repositioned itself as a ‘knowledge bank’, developing ‘knowledge economies’ in the post-colonial world. It coined a catch phrase and called it “African Capacity Building”.

George Caffentzis, the political philosopher, provided a simple translation of the bank’s rhetoric: “For the World Bank, professionalisation is now training in identifying with or ‘owning’ the financial interests of international capital.”

What knowledge the World Bank wanted African professionals to acquire was easily revealed by the courses posted on the African Virtual University (AVU) website, founded by the bank in 1997 as part of its capacity-building initiative.

Caffentzis listed them: IT, basic mathematics, chemistry, physics, a Career Series that includes How to Manage Your Career, the Entrepreneurship Series (Starting and Planning Your Business), journalism (Economics and Business Journalism), and the Trade Series, whose only course was Export Management.

In 2003, the AVU developed into “an autonomous institution” after it was handed over to African governments. The World Bank remained a major sponsor, together with multilateral and bilateral development organisations, NGOs, private enterprises, private learning centres, and reseller partners, who sponsored tailored courses.

“In the African setting in particular, whatever is left of critical intellectual discourse, largely located at universities, runs parallel to and is divorced from NGO activism,” noted Issa Shivji at a symposium in Arusha in 2005.

The session ran late. What little remained of the sun was fading. Outside, mosquitoes rose in the twilight. Shivji made direct eye contact with his NGO hosts: “The requirements of funding agencies subtly discourage, if not exhibit outright hostility to, a historical and social theoretical understanding of development, poverty, discrimination, etc. Our erstwhile benefactors now tell us, ‘Just act, don’t think, and we shall fund both!’”

  1. The Gate Keepers

In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided to make the eradication of malaria its top priority. Over the next four years, it ploughed US$150 million into vaccine research. The Gates Foundation’s vision soon shaped health priorities around the world. The WHO expenditure toward eradicating the disease sky-rocketed from US$100 million in 1998 to US$2 billion in 2009. Oil giants like ExxonMobil, their operations plagued by malaria in West Africa, bankrolled high-level genomics research at Western universities. Even venture capitalists such as Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive, joined in. He showed his mosquito-zapping laser system at a highly publicised lecture in February 2010. All hoped to find a simple, permanent cure.
But the rush to find a solution was at the expense of proper research. Few resources were invested in on-the-ground studies. Indigenous systems of knowledge in Africa and India, where malaria is widespread, were swept aside as foreign expertise was imported to develop a quick solution.

In 2010, a team of scientists from Gabon and France made a startling discovery. Working deep in the jungles of Cameroon and Gabon, they found the most malignant malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, presumed since the 1930s to be an exclusively human pathogen, in the bodies of gorillas.

The find had startling implications for science and society. It meant malaria, like yellow fever, cholera and influenza, could not be eradicated, only managed. Eradication demanded a high intensity, isolated, laboratory-based strategy. To learn to live with a disease called for engaged research in communities with large, representative populations.
The Gates Foundation and WHO money was spent mostly on lab-based work.


  1. Mahmood Mamdani dislikes order

Expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, Mahmood Mamdani arrived in a cold, overcast London to join his compatriots in a camp run by the UK government’s resettlement board.

Alone, a stranger in the city, the young Harvard graduate started up a conversation with a woman he met one evening. She was a recently graduate from the London School of Economics, but her true ambitions were in publishing.

“And you?” she asked, “you’re not from here.”

The light caught her face. She was beautiful despite her pallor. Mamdani smiled. He told her his story.

“On the face of it, life in the camp, with its surface calm and order, presented a sharp and favourable contrast to the open terror of living in Uganda. But it was the Kensington camp, and not Amin’s Uganda, which was my first experience of what it would be like to live in a totalitarian society.”

“Why don’t you write it,” she suggested.

Mamdani agreed, but demanded a £200 advance. Deal, she said, but he had to produce a manuscript in three weeks.

The book, From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain, was on her desk in just over two weeks and published the following year. In this, as in the many books followed over the course of his illustrious academic career, Mamdani wrote about oppression – not to oppose, but to undo it. Forty years later, he returned to Uganda to take up the directorship of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) in Kampala.

Mamdani was under no illusion as to what he would find. As a young scholar he was part of a radical intellectual culture that thrived in post-independent Uganda. He spent his days and nights organising, arguing, studying, writing and conspiring. Later he witnessed first-hand the destruction of the Ugandan education system, the “enclosure of knowledge” and the construction of professionalisation as a means of social exclusion and elite formation. Still, he was disappointed. Consultancy had all but replaced research. Rote learning masqueraded as study. All this corruption, all these mediocre professors, apathetic students, all these bureaucrats on the loose.

But Mamdani did not call his subordinates to order. Order, he knew only too well, was the colonist’s weapon – the stick in the classroom, the enclosure of the camps, the administrator drawing up hierarchies and geographies, everything and everyone put in their place.

Instead, the 67-year-old professor set about instilling “anti-discipline” among his students and colleagues. Radical scholarship, he insisted, lives out in the open, exposed to the elements, far from the rule of government and law.

He closed his computer and began to walk, out of his small office at MISR, beyond the cool hibiscus and banana palms that surrounded the institute, past decrepit university buildings, out beyond the maze of parking lots, beyond the expat settlements, the redevelopment, out to where black night was slowing falling over Kampala.

  1. The Council loses its head

 A product of the independence nation-building and developmental project, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) survived many challenges and crises. It was born in the axis of the pan African and Marxist radicalism that emanated from the University of Dakar/ IDEP and the University of Dar es Salaam in the early 1970s and, 40 years later, it is still there.

In its early days it had to defy the hegemonic domination of the West and the marginalisation of African thought, surpass the linguistic divisions that were the results of the colonial legacy, and overcome the lack of infrastructure and limited opportunities for cross-national networking on the continent.

Under the leadership of Samir Amin, the Egyptian Marxian economist, Codesria braved accusations of regional orientation, attacks by “anti-communist bureaucrats in the United Nations”, cynicism from inter-government organisations and scepticism from international non-profit organisations.

With Kenyan academic Abdalla Bujra at the helm, it lived through the dissipation of pan Africanism under the stultifying bureaucracy of the OAU and endured the gradual erosion the national independence movements and growing parochialism of African governments. It prevailed over the breakdown between research and government policy making by shifting its focus to target civil society.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when Thandika Mkandawire, an economist with many years of experience in development issues, was executive secretary, it surmounted the widening gaps in the higher education system by growing its network. By never loosing sight of its founding vision, Codesria trumped the emergence of World Bank-supported capacity building and research institutes, the birth of consultancy and increased pressure to doctor results.

By the mid-90s, however, Codesria faced a new adversary – its most formidable yet – one that nearly resulted in “the complete collapse of the organisation”. This threat came not as a change in the economic or political climate. It did not take the form of a new competitor, government censorship or a meddling international bureaucrat, but rather in the form of a radical young academic who took over its executive secretariat in 1996. His voice was soft and measured, but Achille Mbembe was a man of both incisive thought and daring imagination. His energy was contagious. He quickly developed a following.

In 2000 he issued a warning. He cautioned African social scientists against the self-imposed ghetto to which Marxism and nationalism had consigned them. Writing in Codesria’s quarterly bulletin, he denounced the “stultifying” nostalgia of nativism. He dismissed “the cult of victimhood” inherent in Afro-radicalist narratives. The paper attacked the ideological principles at the heart of Codesria and hence, for many of its longest standing members, the institute itself.

The old guard fought back. They questioned Mbembe’s integrity. They called him a traitor. They accused him of superficiality, afro-pessimism, euro-nativism, ahistoricism, imperialism, capitalism and, worse… post-modernity.

They quoted Samir Amin, one of the organisation’s founders: “I consider postmodernism an intellectual non-starter in that beyond its hype, it offers no concept or instrument capable of transcending the capitalist framework; neither does it demonstrate any capacity to inspire innovative design for social change.”

They noted links between Mbembe’s ideas and anti-development NGO discourse, the liberal capitalist world outlook and its new variant, globalisation.

They called for a swift return of Codesria to its “traditional centre of gravity” rooted in “the quest for the knowledge we need in order to transform our societies – and the human condition for the better”. They quoted Nkrumah, Senghor, Cabral, Mafeje. They called for immediate action. They called for Mbembe’s resignation.

They called for his head.

The expulsion became his trump card.

Mbembe left, only to become one of the most sought after heads on the global university circuit.

  1. Love Conquers All

At the turn of the millennium, the Cameroon-born intellectual arrived in South Africa having travelled the distance of the Atlantic Triangle – from Africa to Europe, from Europe to the new world, and from the new world to West Africa, before heading south.

It wasn’t ideology that drove him: “I did not come to South Africa in the manner of those from an earlier level who disembarked in Tanzania in search of African socialism.” Nor was he part of the ongoing inflow of expatriate university staff provided by foreign donor countries to provide African institutes with “technical assistance”.

Achille Mbembe came for love.

What is a love story against the backdrop of the global academy? Imagine a couple in love in Dakar. He works at a research institute in the city. She is a visiting scholar. They meet in the early evening at a small cafe. He looks at her. She looks at him. Their brainwaves cross.

The next morning he makes her coffee. Suddenly it is time to say goodbye. The sun is streaming through the window, her plane leaves in a few hours. He walks her to the door. She laughs. He laughs. Then he coughs. There is an unexpected urgency in his voice: “Let’s stay in touch.”

Soon after, against better judgement, with no immediate job prospects, the man follows his heart and catches a plane.

“It was enough for me just to share that period of my life with a South African academic whom I had fallen in love with in Dakar and who would later become my wife – to my utmost delight,” recalled Mbembe.

The academic was Sarah Nuttall, now the director of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), where Mbembe is also now a professor.

A literary scholar by training, Nuttall is famed for her varied research interests and her prolific publication record, including a series of books that straddle fiction, non-fiction, journalism and history. Like Mbembe, she is a visiting professor at several US universities and a member of the editorial boards of numerous peer-reviewed journals.

She took over the directorship of Wiser in January 2013, after Deborah Posel, its founding director, left to set up the Institute for Humanities in Africa (Huma) at the University of Cape Town, where her husband, Max Price, was the vice chancellor. Start-up money for Huma was generously provided by the vice chancellor’s discretionary funds

  1. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it

 The visiting scholar crossed the university parking lot. In front of him, the grey faculty buildings. They all looked alike. South Africa’s historically black universities. Fort Hare, University of Durban-Westville, University of the Western Cape. He had visited most of them as he traversed the country, travelling from one to the next to attend seminars, meet colleagues and engage in debates. He had also seen their flip-side, the expansive campuses and plush lawns that were the hallmark of the so-called white universities.

Given to timely recollections, Mahmood Mamdani remembered his early years as a young lecturer at Makerere. How well he recalled the fierce nationalism that prevailed in post- independence years; the tensions that simmered, then erupted, between young nationalists and the senior expatriate staff who opposed state intervention in the university; the violent clashes that followed. The triumph! Then the regret as nationalisation paved the way for corruption, commercialisation and exploitation.

To what extent, he wondered, was the essence of the post-independence conflict at Makerere being replayed in South Africa – not within individual universities but between universities; not between expatriates and locals, but between those historically privileged and those historically deprived?

To what extent did the combined call to defend ‘centres of excellence’ and university autonomy display an insensitivity to historical injustice, a narrow preoccupation with defending institutional privilege? And what about those historically disadvantaged?

To what extent were their expectations of strong state intervention merely shaped by considerations of short-run institutional advantage?

  1. Diary of a bad year

It was a bad year for the prestigious Wiser.

The institute’s founder and long-time director, Deborah Posel, had left to set up a new interdisciplinary, donor-sponsored, research institute in the humanities and social sciences at the University of Cape Town, and many of Wiser’s long-standing funders and partners looked set to follow her.

Her new replacement, Professor Abebe Zegeye, an Oxford-educated academic and a former visiting scholar at Yale University, lasted only a few months before he also upped and left in a hurry. To make matters worse, Wiser’s brightest stars, the so-called “it-couple of post-colonial thinking,” Mbembe and Nutall, had both accepted posts at Stellenbosch University.

Later on it all came out: Zegeye had been dismissed after a lengthy arbitration found him guilty of plagiarism. Mbembe and Nutall’s departure was partially prompted by the controversy that followed.

And indeed, the drama was populated by high academic flyers. Zegeye’s accusers were three of the most eminent humanities scholars worldwide. A respected senior advocate at the Johannesburg Bar conducted the arbitration that found Zegeye guilty of 140 instances of academic theft from more than 30 scholars in nine academic publications spanning eight years.

The university’s vice chancellor, the esteemed Loyiso Nongxa, South Africa’s first black Rhodes scholar and an Oxford graduate, said the university had exerted “the rigour and integrity appropriate for a matter of this seriousness”.

Questions circulated.

Why did Wits make no official announcement about the plagiarism charges and its resultant dismissal of Zegeye? Was Zegeye guilty of plagiarism or a less serious crime of ‘too-perfect paraphrasing’? Was an advocate qualified to assess an allegation of plagiarism in sociology?

“Is xenophobia creeping into academic institutions?” asked one defiant letter to the press.  There were hushed whispers: Remember Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba? Remember Yambo Ouologuem? Calixthe Beyala?

Less conspiratorially minded commentators had a simpler theory. Perhaps the problem wasn’t with Zegeye’s references but his contacts? Did he simply lack the international clout to pull in the big money?

In January 2013, Sarah Nuttall returned to take up the directorship of Wiser. Mbembe accompanied her.  A few months after their arrival, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a US$1.5 million grant to support a programme of collaboration between Wiser and the African Studies Centre at the University of Michigan in the US.


  1. “Is African studies to be turned into a new home for Bantu education at UCT?”

 In the early 20th century, ‘the native question’ dominated debates surrounding the establishment of the Union of South Africa.

The University of Cape Town was not an uninterested party in these discussions. In 1920, it launched a new School of Bantu Life and Languages, later reborn as African Studies, with a mandate to equip government with strategies for ruling over “Bantu people”.

In 1946, the school employed its first “Bantu person”, AC Jordan, an African Languages lecturer. Officially, Jordan was the token darkie, but the cunning young linguist had other plans: “I am going to UCT to open that door and keep it ajar, so that our people too can come in,” he wrote in a letter to his wife. “UCT is on African soil, [it] belongs to us too!”

By the 1960s, word of a growing “subversive element” in the School of African Studies had spread to government, who acted swiftly to close its doors forever. And they might have remained closed if it weren’t for one Harry Oppenheimer. In 1975, senior members of the Anglo American and De Beers Chairman’s Fund were scouting to establish a “special project” to commemorate Oppenheimer’s chancellorship at UCT.

African Studies was an attractive option for a consortium looking to extend its footprint on the continent and so, on 28 July 1976, The Centre for African Studies (CAS) was established with a large lump sum from the Harry Oppenheimer Institute.

After the collapse of apartheid, the university decided to launch the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies. Officially, the new chair would help “reverse South Africa’s isolation from Africa” – but it was common knowledge that “the reason Anglo American gave funding for the Chair was to develop links on the continent.”

Mahmood Mamdani was awarded the chair in 1996, in what one staff member would later describe as “an accidental appointment based on possibly not knowing the person”.

Within a month of his appointment, he put forward a new vision for the study of Africa across disciplines at UCT: “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.” His aim was not only to transform CAS, but all of UCT.

Before you could say amen, Mamdani was suspended. The suspension took him by surprise. After all, the faculty knew his opinions when they appointed him chair – he had made no bones about his views on the post-apartheid academy. The dean himself had tasked him with the design of a syllabus for the Africa content of the compulsory undergraduate foundation course in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. His suspension came just days before he was due to submit his draft outline, “Problematising Africa”, a title that seemed suddenly ironic.

Mamdani would not go quietly. For three months, he was unable to receive an audience to air his protest. He wrote letters. He waited. Finally he decided to engage in a one-person strike.

The strike captured the media’s attention. The administration caved. Mamdani was allowed to speak. He presented his response at a packed seminar. The stairs were jammed. The halls were crammed. People bumped. Inside, the atmosphere was electric. Fellow academic, Suren Pillay, described it as simmering “with the tension of a dramatic performance and the raunchiness of a rock concert”.

To a sea of faces Mamdani spoke out against his suspension. He delivered a scathing critique of the quickly assembled course that was to replace his own recommendation.

“Why,” he asked, “did the substitute course team ignore all the key debates in the post-colonial African academy?”

One task-team member who had helped design the replacement course, Professor Martin Hall, offered a defence. Their syllabus included a long list of African names Hall claimed were referenced in the text the students read. Among these were Ki-Zerbo and Olderogge, from Rwanda, according to Hall.

Mamdani’s reply was swift, devastating: Joseph Ki-Zerbo is from Burkina Faso, not Rwanda, something most historians around this continent would know since Ki-Zerbo was the editor of volume one of UNESCO’s History of Africa. As for Olderogge, he is a Russian and the author of the first Russian study of the West African jihad.

Mamdani concluded: “A little learning, as the English say, is a dangerous thing.”


  1. Global Rankings I

In 1998, South African universities adopted the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Developed in New Zealand and promoted by the World Bank, the NQF standards measured how well South African universities trained students for a “global” workforce.

Soon South African scholars and politicians abandoned the language of higher education as a site of “social redistribution” and gravitated toward the ‘new thinking’ that positioned the university as a necessary tool in the ‘global knowledge economy’.

The University of Cape Town prided itself on being at the forefront of these “curricular reforms”. It acted quickly. It made moves to implement changes that adhered to the NQF’s focus on inter-/transdisciplinarity. It restructured with emphasis on “foundations and core courses”. It adopted the vocabulary of “generic skills and generic competencies”.

Indeed, Mamdani’s foundational first-year course was intended as part of UCT’s compliance with these guidelines. But Mamdani broke rank. He demanded that UCT ground its claim to excellence on being an African, rather than ‘world class’, institution. Excellence, claimed Mamdani, needs to be determined through an engagement with the university itself as a historical, political and material apparatus.

Shortly after Mamdani resigned, ironically leaving UCT to take up a prominent position in the United States, the university unveiled a new self-marketing campaign positioning UCT as a “World Class African University”.

In 2001, Professor Njabulo S Ndebele, the then vice chancellor, defined this vision through ten new “strategic drives”. Twenty years earlier, while living in exile, Ndebele had called for intimacy and introspection to be restored to a literature dominated by the spectacular and exterior, by heroic contests between the powerless and the powerful. But he could not conceal the heroic tone of UCT’s new vision.

It began with a commitment to “maintaining the University of Cape Town’s momentum towards building a global profile”.

Ndebele concluded that UCT’s response to its apartheid legacy should become part of its brand: “These [ten strategic] developments will require special attention to effective mechanisms for marketing.”

The document closed with a blue and grey pie chart. Ten point-form “strategic drives” encircled the words: “Effective internal and external communicating and marketing”.

  1. Life After Death

On 19 August 2008, Dr Max Price was installed as UCT’s ninth vice chancellor. The programme also honoured the late Professor Archibald Monwabisi Mafeje, “a significant African scholar” who never “came home” to his alma mater.

Most people knew him simply as Archie. A tallish, thin but ramrod man, whose straggling beard and calm, penetrating gaze belied a sharp, incisive critical mind.

The story was infamous at UCT. In May 1968, the university’s council unanimously approved the appointment of Mafeje as a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology. A month later, under pressure from the apartheid government, it withdrew the offer.

Mafeje left. His overseas studies became political exile. He taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam and the American University in Cairo. He gained international acclaim for his robust intellect and combative spirit. Mafeje did not hesitate to “cross swords” or “draw blood”. Over the years, the apartheid government, imperialism, African political elites, Achille Mbembe and even Wole Soyinka were all subjected to his infamous tongue lashings.

After the return of exiles in 1990, nothing prevented UCT from honouring its 1968 decision to appoint Mafeje. Mafeje, after all, wished to return and in fact made several attempts, including applying for the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies, which was finally awarded to Mamdani. Lungisile Ntsebeza, the current holder of that post, recalled that Mafeje felt insulted by the “most demeaning” reactions of the UCT authorities to his efforts to return as a professor. From then on he treated various overtures by the university, including a proposed award of an honorary doctorate and a formal apology in 2003, with outright disdain.

At the time of his death in 2007, his position remained unchanged. A year later, his family agreed to accept a posthumous honorary doctorate on his behalf. The solemn ceremony was held. In his speech, the newly-appointed vice chancellor read an official apology. He unveiled a small, square, silver plaque that was to adorn the newly named Archie Mafeje Room.

By 2010, two years after Mafeje got his plaque and Mamdani was named one of the world’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals by Foreign Policy Magazine, UCT was one of only two African universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. By 2013, it was the only African university to make the list, at 113, scoring 75.1 for its “International outlook” and 87.3 for “Industry income”, but only 34.7 for “Teaching” and 45.5 for “Research”.

  1. Conversations on language and higher learning

“[An] important source of intellectual dependence in Africa is the language in which African graduates and scholars are taught. [Today], in non-Arabic speaking Africa, a modern surgeon who does not speak a European language is virtually a sociolinguistic impossibility. [A] conference of African scientists, devoted to scientific matters and conducted primarily in an African language, is not yet possible.

“It is because of the above considerations that intellectual and scientific dependence in Africa may be inseparable from linguistic dependence. The linguistic quest for liberation, therefore… seek to promote African languages, especially in academia, as one of the strategies for promoting greater intellectual and scientific independence from the West.” – Ali and Alamin Mazrui (1998)

“Most governments tend to hide their heads in the sand and pretend that African languages do not exist or else try to force a retrograde policy of mono-lingualism… But renaissance, as rebirth and flowering, can only spring from the wealth of imagination of the people, and above all, from its keepers of memory.” – Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2003)

“From a linguistic point of view, while the languages continue to be used in most primary contexts,… they are kept, as though by some taboo, from being used in all high-status or secondary domains, such as science and technology, languages of tuition in secondary and tertiary education, philosophical and social-analytical discourse, among many others.

“The intelligentsia reinforce this static maintenance syndrome because their relative proficiency in the dominant ex-colonial languages allows them to enjoy what Bourdieu called the profits of distinction.” – Neville Alexander (2003)

“All students registering for undergraduate degrees at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from next year will – unless they get exemption – be required to pass or obtain a credit for a prescribed isiZulu module before they can graduate.

“This rule, approved in principle by the University’s Senate today, gives tangible expression to UKZN’s language policy and plan which is intended to promote and facilitate the use of isiZulu as a language of learning, communication, instruction and administration. It also reflects UKZN’s commitment to the development of isiZulu as an academic language alongside English, which at this stage remains the main language of learning and instruction. The approval of this principle marks a watershed for UKZN.” – UKZN official statement (2013)


  1. Making African Studies Work

The group identified themselves only as “Concerned CAS Students”. In 2011, they circulated a letter. They voiced anger, rage and “deep disappointment” at the university’s administrative decision to disestablish the Centre for African Studies at UCT.

The letter claimed the decision was made without their input or consultation. They repudiated the university’s processes and lack of transparency. They demanded that UCT, a university with a faculty of 70 per cent white men, reconsider the decision.

The students began their letter with the words, “As students and indeed clients of the University of Cape Town…”

They were, of course, justified in asserting their rights as paying consumers in a commercialised university system. But they underestimated the sophistication of the relations of production in the global capitalist university. Certainly they were clients, but they were also products of the university, as well as labourers in it.

Two kinds of products leave the university: knowledge sold directly as know-how and knowledge embodied in the student-product and tied to the ideological state apparatus.

Disciplines discipline their subjects, not only their objects of study. But students, together with their professors, are also co-workers in the production of knowledge, and they all are involved in realising the value of this work.

The result of the administrative jostling in 2011 and 2012 led to a new school at UCT, combining the African Gender Institute, African Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics. Nothing much changed. The small departments moved into different spaces, some new furniture was bought and an overhaul of carpets carried out, oversight on administrative decisions shifted, departments began sharing mailing lists, courses changed coding, but all else remained in place.


  1. Global Rankings II

A 2011 study by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in South Africa into African universities and knowledge production produced some unexpected knowledge. One find took even the researchers by surprise. The University of Cape Town and the University of Dar es Salaam had, it emerged, remarkably similar profiles – this despite the radically different socio-economic contexts in which they respectively operated and the vast differences in their global rankings.

They compared favourably in terms of graduation rates: Cape Town 41 per cent, Dar es Salaam 40 per cent. Student–staff ratios were close: Cape Town 13:1, Dar es Salaam 14:1. And staff with PhDs almost in synch: Cape Town 58 per cent, Dar es Salaam 50 per cent.

The researchers hit the ground in Dar es Salaam. They studied accounts and student records. They cruised offices, corridors and classrooms. They listened to the professors and students code switching – freely mixing English and Kiswahili intermittently in a single lecture. They coaxed information. Professors talked.

Dar es Salaam, drawing on its longstanding institutional culture was, it seemed, overcoming funding shortages, crumbling infrastructure and a failing secondary school system.

The research did not surprise Issa Shivji. Shortly after he accepted the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Chair in Pan-African Studies, he observed: “The neoliberal honeymoon is over… It’s amazing to see how young people want to know more about where we are coming from. We are beginning to see people talking about the historical experience, talking about Ujamaa.”

He smiled, recalling a time not so long ago when Ujamaa was a term of abuse: “Nyerere used to say ‘If I was to talk about Ujamaa openly I would be considered a fool. I can only whisper about it.’ But now these ideas are coming back. They are being recalled… I don’t think we can repeat or just reclaim the past, of course, but we will learn from it.”

Infused with idealism, Dar es Salaam matched UCT on all counts – well, almost all. The difference came in term of doctoral graduates and publications in recognised ISI journals. The University of Cape Town had 2,906 master’s enrolments and 1,002 doctoral enrolments. Similarly, Dar es Salaam had 2,165 master’s students, but only 190 doctoral enrolments. As far as ISI publications went, Cape Town produced 1,017 compared to Dar es Salaam’s measly 70.

This difference was enough. Two decades after Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells published his seminal paper, “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”, and James Wolfensohn of the World Bank equated knowledge with wealth, rankings gave little credence to teaching quality or graduate successes. Unqualified knowledge not packaged as doctorate degrees or peer-reviewed and cited research papers was deemed worthless.

“There is a lot of learning,” sighed Shivji, “a lot of learning to be done”.


  1. “I don’t think in Africa you can talk about competition.”

Somewhere over the Atlantic, the plane carrying Paul Kagame, the president of the Republic of Rwanda, hit rough air. Just turbulence, his aids assured him. Kagame sat back. He unbuttoned his jacket, undid his tie.

It was a familiar journey for the man once implicated in conspiring with the CIA in masterminding the plane crash that killed his predecessor. Kagame was on excellent terms with Washington. Clinton slapped his back. Bush greased his palm. Obama humoured him. Congress praised his liberal economic vision to transform his war-torn country into a knowledge economy.

But today, Kagame’s destination was not Washington. He was headed south to the City Of Steel. There he would meet Jared L. Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), to announce a new joint venture between Rwanda and CMU.

An audience of 1,000 packed the Rangos Ballroom on the Pittsburgh campus. The lobby was swank. The carpets ran thick. Kagame and Cohon shook hands. They smiled for photographs. The ceremony was purely symbolic. The deal was already in the bag, terms tabled thus:

Over the next ten years the Rwandan government would give Carnegie Mellon a cool US$95 million to open a branch campus in Kigali. The CMU-Rwanda programme would be directed by staff from Carnegie Mellon, who would have total control over policy, finances, admissions and curriculum.

Its new US$13 million campus would be funded by a loan from the African Development Bank, which hoped to use it as a model for a string of centres across the continent. Additional funding for research was expected to come from private partnerships with leading American NGOs and corporations.

The new campus was aimed squarely at professional education. It would offer professional master’s degrees exclusively in information technology, as well as housing a business incubator, an executive-training hub and advanced practical training programmes, all staffed by CMU.

Tuition for the graduate programme costs the same as at Carnegie Mellon’s other campuses, US$37,800 – but a trifle for a degree at a top-ranked global university assured a spokesperson: “We are offering Carnegie Mellon credits towards a Carnegie Mellon degree!” Students were, for the most part, expected to foot the bill themselves.

Champagne popped. The deal was the largest of its kind to date and would make Carnegie the first full-fledged American campus on African soil. It joined an influx of international universities operating on the continent, mostly through partnerships with local institutions, but increasingly on their own campuses. Carnegie Mellon’s main competitor thus far was Ceibs, the top-ranked China Europe International Business School, which had established a campus in Accra in 2009.

“Do such ambitious ventures portend the start of an academic scramble for Africa reminiscent of the rivalry between the great powers at the beginning of the past century?” asked a New York Times reporter in a 2012 article.

Pedro Nueno, the president of Ceibs, laughed off the question: “I don’t think in Africa you can talk about competition. There’s so much to be done.” Postgraduate education in Africa today, he said, reminded him of the good old days, “back when I started in China in 1984 –there was no competition at all!”

CHRONIC ISSUE 2This article features in the August 2013 edition of the Chronic. 

The issue also features reportage, creative non-fiction, autobiography, satire, analysis, photography and illustration to offer a richly textured engagement with everyday life. In its pages artists and writers from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states.

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