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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