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How not to think Africa from the Cape

By Harry Garuba

How does one think Africa from the Cape in this post-colonial, post-apartheid moment? First, let me explain the rise of the notion of thinking from a place.

The idea of location and locatedness saturates contemporary academic life. In the humanities and social sciences, the shifts in contemporary theory have made an awareness of place, or a self-consciousness of location almost indispensible to thinking through/working through the problematics we isolate for research and analysis. Locations refer to the geographical spaces we speak from, the places we study and research, the subject-positions (such as racial, gender, class identifications) from which we speak, the historical, disciplinary, and institutional locations that enable and structure what we say, and so on. The question of thinking Africa from the Cape thus feeds into this broad movement in theory and critique in the academy.

All the same, while this question feeds into the “theoretical” present, so to speak, it is also important to historicise it to provide a longer, local perspective on thinking Africa from the Cape. As we all know, thinking Africa from the Cape has a long history but we need not get into that here. However, I’ll like to note three significant moments within this history that seem to me highly important for understanding the genealogy of the present: first, the moment of high imperialism, colonialism and empire; second, the apartheid moment; and finally, the postcolonial, post-apartheid moment which incidentally — in the context of South African history — is also the moment of globalisation. I begin with colonialism and empire not because I want to truncate the history of the Cape but because I want to name the beginnings of the new meanings that we now associate with the signifier “Africa”. The beginnings, so to speak, of the age of racialised modernity; the era when the continent took on a new meaning within the domain of knowledge and the organisation of the world. I also use this as a marker because the very idea of thinking Africa from the Cape only makes sense largely within the context of this history of modernity.

It is important also to add the qualification that I do not think of these moments in a linear sense in which one stage ends and the other begins with one sequentially replacing the other. Rather I see them as interlocking phases, with legacies and characteristics that linger on and permeate the present. Let me begin with the first significant, symptomatic moment and underline how its legacies continue to haunt and define the present in curious ways. I wish to do this through the symbol of the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. 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.

Reading the Rhodes Memorial from “Africa”
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.

This is one way of thinking Africa from the Cape: the modernist, imperialist version that Cecil John Rhodes embodied and envisioned. It is a vision that represses other peoples, other histories, other knowledges; rather than a dialogic engagement, it privileges a mono-centric, colonising view of the world.

This is an example of how not to think Africa from the Cape at the present moment. It is rather late in the day, anyway, to think Africa from the Cape in this manner. Or isn’t it?

I take it that we are all aware of the apartheid version of thinking Africa from the Cape, so let’s fast forward to this postcolonial, post-apartheid moment. From this perspective, the most visible change has been the historic change in political dispensation but has this led to a fundamental shift away from the old manner of thinking of Africa? Has the neo-liberal regime of globalisation (with which the post-apartheid order coincides) helped to enable this shift or has it simply confirmed us in the old ways? In our South African corporations that do business in Africa? (An interesting phrase this!) In our tertiary institutions that encourage links with Africa? Are we simply — as corporations and tertiary institutions — setting up shop(s) in the African countries we deal with or are we committed to a dialogic engagement that deepens ties and fosters genuine knowledge creation and collaboration?

In short, is the Rhodes model dead and if not, what are its afterlives?

Harry Garuba is director and associate professor in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), with a joint appointment in UCT’s English department. He has previously taught at the University of Ibadan and the University of Zululand, has been scholar-in-residence at Western Illinois University, and has held research fellowships at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas at Austin and the WEB Du Bois Institute at Harvard. He is one of the founding editors of the journal Postcolonial Text, which is devoted to the study of literatures from the postcolonial world, and a member of the editorial advisory board of the Heinemann African Writers Series. Garuba has published widely in the area of African literature. His current research interests are focused, first, on the practices and paradigms that guide disciplinary knowledge production in African literary studies and, second, on the impacts of modernity in Africa, particularly the cultural logics of their appropriation and the emergence of new subjectivities.

Garuba’s post is an extract from his recent paper delivered at the Locations and Locutions Lecture Series public lecture, Thinking Africa from the Cape, which was hosted at Stellenbosch University on June 7. The lecture series is an initiative of the Graduate School in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the overarching theme for this year is “Which Africa? Whose Africa?” The next public lecture will take place on July 19. For more details visit


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  1. mundundu mundundu 6 July 2011

    dude, you just rambled without saying anything. seriously. somehow i don’t think i’m the only person with this opinion.

  2. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 6 July 2011

    @mundundu: You’re not alone.

    Sadly, this is the state which academic writing has fallen — turgid, equivocal, jargony, and limp.

    Quotations are the lazy way of saying, “I don’t take responsibility for using these terms, but I don’t have any of my own, so I’ll distance myself from them this way.”

    “So to speak”? Twice, in one paragraph? You’re the one speaking — say what you mean, and take ownership of it, or leave it out.

    “subject-positions” — as opposed to subjects or topics?
    “thinking through/working through” — as opposed to thinking & working through, or just one or the other, being synonyms in this case?
    “problematics” — I guess “problem” is too simple a word?

  3. hds hds 6 July 2011

    One of the frustrating things about being in the academy–and one which I think drives out many who might otherwise make valuable contributions–is that the writing and discourse become so opaque that it is only accessible to a handful of other academics who speak the same jargon. Any applicability to the rest of the world isn’t even an intention anymore.

    I remember thinking as an undergraduate that it seemed wasteful–all these extraordinary minds who spend their formidable talents writing for obscure journals only 15 other academics will read.

  4. Una Una 6 July 2011


    The message is very very clear to those who want to understand what you are attempting to expose here: The pesistence of colonial, imperialist and neo-liberal forces to manipulate and corrupt imprints that are supposed to define African paradigms on economic and socio-political advancement. Your narrative on the beauty of Cape Town and her splendour being completely ‘arrested’ by a colonial imprint does the trick for me. Very profound indeed. Forget about the simpletons. By the time they wake up Africa will be gone. God help us

  5. OJ OJ 6 July 2011

    Pieces such as this hold for readers a mirror through which to look at themselves. If you bring nothing to it, you will get nothing from it. And you will loathe the author for exposing you. The biggest problem of our age is that so many people who want to sound learned have not the slightest clue as to what that really means. There is such a notion as semi-illiteracy. When you begin to think that the ‘subject’ in ‘subject-position’ is synonymous with ‘topic’, then, dude, you need to report to the classroom once again! And by the way, M&G has trivia sections that might better suit your test.

  6. John Patson John Patson 6 July 2011

    The Arabs already want Africa to start sub-sahara as they, and the Turks did in Rhodes’s time. If you only start seeing Africa from the Limpopo or the Zambezi, as many black South Africans do, there remains the “dark heart.”
    I have been there and quite frankly the time of “waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it,” is past, they are now increasingly desperate for a few reliable electric lights and some decent commerce.
    So Rhodes’s vision was not too bad after all — just think of the market for goods made by South Africans if lorries did not have to queue for days in order to get across borders, as is the case now. Or maybe the writer does not mind that the Chinese are capturing the market because it is cheaper to import from the other side of the world than from your neighbour?

  7. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 6 July 2011

    Have I mistaken my terminologies of discourse? How embarrassing. I shall, of course, abase myself before the ivory tower and repent in sackcloth and ashes forthwith. No doubt, “dude”, I must reflect on my semi-illiteracy.

    Sadly, the fact remains that the piece is neither original, illustrative, or prescriptive. Bert Olivier’s TL piece of 1 July, as an example, addresses, at root, the same issues, albeit from a different perspective. Unless, of course, I should say “subject-position”. But the Olivier piece is more illuminating.

    I’d forgive it for failing to be prescriptive if the critic were merely exploring a new issue. Unfortunately, wondering whether SA might need to develop a new Weltanschauung, whether we have, or whether we might be backsliding on it? These questions have been in play for decades.

    What is needed is probing thought, or what might be called the mirror image of the limp equivocation of an open question.

  8. MoBear MoBear 6 July 2011

    “Garuba’s post is an extract from his recent paper delivered at the Locations and Locutions Lecture Series public lecture, Thinking Africa from the Cape, which was hosted at Stellenbosch University on June 7. The lecture series is an initiative of the Graduate School in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences…”
    If TL had printed this at the beginning of the article, I would have known immediately that it was going to be some sort of sociological claptrap
    Why print the warning at the end of the article?

  9. Antonvn Antonvn 6 July 2011

    Is the M&G really the journal to publish this kind of writing? I have two university degrees, regularly read a variety of respected journals from around the world and consider myself well versed in social/political discourse. Alas, I couldn’t make head or tails of this. If anything, it came across as a satire of a discourse between two stoned undergrads.

  10. brent brent 7 July 2011

    The first time i visited the Rhodes monument was in 1961 as a young, immature, white, conservative student and my first thought was: how arrogent was his vision to claim Africa from Cape to Cairo for Britian.
    I understand Harry’s article to ask two questions now: what is the post colonial vision (is there a vision for Africa?) and is it better than Rhodes’s (colonial) vision? Can we please debate these questions?


  11. MLH MLH 7 July 2011

    And I’m no academic, so I hope I can be forgiven for thinking this was just a waste of space. The gentleman may have all the qualifications in the world, but I now don’t wonder why some university students can’t get a decent pass mark. Matric history, 1968 taught me that Rhodes had a most creative vision. Such a pity so many let it pass them by.

  12. Khalsa Singh Khalsa Singh 7 July 2011

    What utter codswallop. Based on one insignificant Rhodes monument, the writer is implying that the Cape is not African enough and is ‘imperialist’ with his pseudo-intellectual kak. What about Arab colonial imperialism that transformed ‘African’ Cairo. Modern anthropology actually dismisses the Africa concept in race based arguments…..the indigenous Southern African Khoi-San people are different to the central african Congoloids, who in turn differ from North African Berbers. Africa was never one homogenous family as the writer presumes. UCT could better invest their money elsewhere instead of wasting on such an ‘African’ center.

  13. Una Una 8 July 2011


    The participants in this blog, I am sure paint you the picture of how we as Africans we must be told by others who we are and how we are supposed to behave. Europe can speak with one voice and be proud of its heritage yet Africans must never see themselves as homogenous when it comes to a shared vision.

    I understand perfectly where you come from and I can assure you that millions of indegenous Africans who cannot be part of discussions in this blog agree with you. Those who disagree are being very very coquetish and their snide remarks expose their viking attitude completely. They are prepared to maime, kill and subjugate Africans in their own continent and the same Africans are expected to accept that with a smile. Good grief!

    Singh UCT can close the African Centre for all I care another one will come up here in SA or outside. The time to play God to other humans is now over. You guys may be in denial but time will tell and truth is a friend of time. This manipulation of SA history is not going to help too. Who killed thousands of the Khoi and the San wanting to create another Australia and thereafter claimed in the history books that they all died of small pox? Today’s history says they were killed by other indegenous Africans UH!

  14. de Villiers de Villiers 8 July 2011

    Goddammit Khalsa Sing, I chortled most pleasurably when I read your comment. I totally agree. High-five ;-p

  15. Dave Harris Dave Harris 8 July 2011

    Astute observations hds!
    This article seems to be written in such a contorted fashion that I wonder why it even appears in thoughtleader. A mark of a true academic is the ability to speak plainly and clearly communicate ideas.

    Unfortunately, Prof Garuba is overseeing the “dissolving” of the CAS (Center for African Studies) department which will effectively gut the effectiveness of the entire African Studies curriculum.
    Strangely, there is scant information on the UCT website on Garuba’s biography. For an academic, I wonder why, since its essential for any director of a department like CAS to have lived through and experienced apartheid first hand in order to make wise decisions on African Studies and its impact on our youth. Unfortunately Thoughleader has censored out all the comments from the old article on this issue.

    btw. The offensive Rhodes Memorial at UCT needs to be revamped to reflect our freedom struggle. At least the statues and inscriptions need to be replaced. Why is a racist, imperialist like Rhodes still worshiped in Cape Town. with these monuments, street names, scholarships etc.

  16. Alastair Grant Alastair Grant 9 July 2011

    Harry – inside all that verbiage, there’s a useful insight struggling to get out. If you’d trimmed the tautology, dude, you may have had space to tell us what it is.

    Unlike Dave Harris, I think it’s essential that we preserve reminders of our chequered past, like the Rhodes Memorial and the Voortrekker Monument, so we can experience flashes of historical insight for ourselves, and to ask whether we’ve really changed?

  17. Ben Tonkin Ben Tonkin 9 July 2011

    I go with Khalsa Sing. The Cape is the last stronghold of civilisation in South Africa and some people and groups of people can’t handle that. It must be destroyed too. Seems like UCT (my alma mater) is going down the tubes along with a few others who have similar philosophies. What a pity.

  18. Arthas Arthas 9 July 2011

    So while Dave Harris does not find Cape Town African enough, he wants to exclude his fellow Africans from a position in Cape Town’s top institution of higher learning, based on where they were born and grew up.

    Somehow I don’t think such job reservation would be all that constitutional.

  19. Charlotte Charlotte 10 July 2011

    How many words and words and words and words does it take (and repeating pet phrases ad nauseum) in a seemingly never-ending discourse, through which the reader has to attempt to wade, in order to make your point totally unclear and unmeaningful?

    I have some idea of how you came to be named a professor, but whichever way you got there, you certainly havce no idea how to write – and I have no idea what you’re getting at or talking about.

    So, whereas I have just ended both a phrase and a sentence with a proposition (which is ‘allowable’ these days), wordiness and endless repetition still remain taboo when it comes to writing. They are the earmarks of the beginner and amateur.

    This piece was pathetic.

  20. Heather Auer Heather Auer 10 July 2011

    I also feel that it is time to remove Cecil John Rhodes from that high and lofty place. This space belongs to Nelson Mandela.

  21. S K Berman S K Berman 10 July 2011

    Great article, sir. It’s time to rethink how to think Africa from the Cape. It’s too late to follow Cecil Rhodes.

  22. Grant Grant 11 July 2011

    How can the Cape begin to contemplate Africa if it cannot conquer Pretoria or, for that matter, its immediate neighbouring provinces?
    In contrast many Africans from the North have recently been seen colonizing the Cape and entrenching their micro businesses right at the feet of Rhodes “so to speak”. Ironically this influx of foreign nationals inclues former Rhodesians from Salisbury and its surrounding territories who are realistically not going back anytime soon.
    How should one “think Africa” from the Cape? Simply by reaching out to Africa on your doorstep. By getting out of the CAS ivory tower and taking a drive down to the station. By visiting foreign Africans in their locations on the Cape Flats to understand them and perhaps leverage their connection to the continent. By not exploiting them in the process, and certainly not by subjecting them to violence again.
    Furthermore, think Africa by not skimming over the history of non-British Europeans in Africa – by acknowledging their impact when they trekked from the Cape as being more substantial than Rhodes’ vain dreams.
    Lastly, by putting Rhodes in his place – in a museum.

  23. MoBear MoBear 11 July 2011

    @Heather Auer,
    “I also feel that it is time to remove Cecil John Rhodes from that high and lofty place. This space belongs to Nelson Mandela.”
    Ain’t gonna happen, Mandela has nothing to do with UCT.

  24. MoBear MoBear 11 July 2011

    @Dave Harris,
    “Why is a racist, imperialist like Rhodes still worshiped in Cape Town. with these monuments, street names, scholarships etc.”
    He is not “Worshipped”, he is admired for his vision and his what he left to the people of Cape Town. Mandela is a shadow of the man that Rhodes was.

  25. Miss O Miss O 11 July 2011

    I think this piece was brilliant. It does, to a great extent expose colonial hypocrisy. In the little minds, colonialists think that they installed their little Europe and named it Cape Town. Cape Town is an African city. If they want a European city why don’t they take the next plane to the Netherlands or England-although they might have trouble (re)settling in England seeing that the British are restricting immigration, whether you are white or black-? Well, Australia then… and maybe they’ll come back when another recession hits the dveloped world. Ag, shame!

  26. Una Una 12 July 2011


    Time will tell. There is one thing that the forces of nature (GOD) are honest about. You reap what you have sown. We will see

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