Reflections on Mamdani

Yesterday (2017/08/23) I streamed a talk by Mahmood Mamdani at UCT. The talk in many ways was reflective of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, and Mamdani’s hand in inspiring much of the protest action UCT, South Africa, and the world have recently been seeing.

There are two aspects I’d like to reflect on. Both refer to the decolonization project according to Mamdani, which I think directly ties with much discussion occurring around the nature of African academics and intellectuals. Notably, my father, Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, an economist, often brings up what he feels to be a dearth of meaningful South African academics, within his field and others.

The first point that stuck is Mamdani’s mention of Theory construction. He discussed the issues Africa has faced, around the Western One-Size-Fits-All  approach the West has often taken to non-Western nations. For example, the blind application of free-market economic models imposed on many third-world nations by the IMF, where many of these economies were not ready. In some instances their local industries were not ready to compete with an influx of better developed Western goods and companies, or their poverty and inequality levels required a more corrective socialist approach to bridge income disparity.

Mamdani believes the decolonization project includes the construction of African Theory, in order to come up with our own models that actually effectively work for our context, instead of blindly applying Western theory to African cases. I believe this is a great challenge for all non-Western intellectuals to take, to develop theory that reflects context and history.

The second point that struck me is regarding a question that was asked. One of the students asked how might a decolonized Africa look. Fascinatingly, Mamdani did not jump and say, hey look, I have all the answers, it will look like A, or B. He acknowledged the deficit and paradox in Africans being the “victims” of European lenses in much of our learning.

However he doesn’t make this a negative. He proposes that he has no idea how a decolonized Africa would look, as it is a burgeoning thing. He suggests we deeply sift through the Western literature to find what we can use and what we can’t. He suggests we simultaneously cultivate and push what native African language and knowledge we have not lost through the colonial project, and again sift through for what we can use in envisioning the future of Africa.

To me this speaks to an Afrofuturism of sorts, that would be the product of both western and non-western thought. Please note, I am not expert in Afrofuturism, so I use this term very loosely. Now this approach does rub some of the more radical students the wrong way, as they are completely anti-western. However I agree 100% with Mamdani that one does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think a completely anti-Western position might look nice on paper, but is an almost impossible position to maintain. Mamdani notes here that all great societies, no matter where they were, flourish via cross-pollination of ideas. Western thought itself, while often attempting to isolate itself, was informed by non-western thought, whether acknowledged or not.

This leads me to African Speculative Fiction, among many other African art projects currently on the rise. My mother, Renosi Mokate, also an economist, attended a forum in Dar Es Salaam, held via Woman Advancing Africa. One of the panelists, lamented that authors such as George Orwell envisioned future societies, while African authors were failing to envision a future Africa.  I wholeheartedly disagreed, suggesting the individual may need to delve deeper into the vast treasure trove of African Science-Fiction that already exists. I also mentioned that African Speculative Fiction, while on the rise, is not yet completely mainstream, so the casual Speculative Fiction fan may not even realize what is out there, as breakthroughs into the bigger Western markets (which often dominate our own media outlets) have only just started to occur. I admit, even as an African Speculative Fiction author, I am victim to this, and I’m well behind on my African Speculative Fiction reading. This is something I’m working hard to rectify.

What I couldn’t  say with 100% certainty is whether we are imagining what a decolonized Africa would look like. My gut feeling though is that many probably are. I note again that I am still a bit of a novice to the vast amount of available literature.  I’ve also noted via interactions in the African Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Group and the African Speculative Fiction Society that many African Science Fiction authors are well read in the areas of  African literature and African philosophy. I’m sure much of this has informed their work.

Either way, I believe this is a great project for African Science-Fiction authors to pursue Like the many Science-Fiction authors before us, we might inspire those in the “hard” and “soft” sciences in their endeavors, and contribute to the conversations of  what a decolonized Africa might look like. We might also contribute to the issue of theory construction in the same manner.

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