Achille Mbembe: Public Intellectual No. 1

By Chelsea Haith 

“Why do we create obstacles to our own emancipation?!” 

Professor Achille Mbembe is fed up. The South African academy is not changing fast enough or radically enough. Our curricula are Eurocentric, there’s not enough money for the development of black academics, the universities are not growing fast enough and we’re in a post-colonial political moment of “dramatic uncertainty”.

Speaking at Rhodes University alongside Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, in a lecture titled ‘Decolonizing the University: What Now?’, Mbembe critiqued the “materialistic moment” our society finds itself in, explaining that the lack of transformation arises partly because the government is trying to redress apartheid’s oppression of imaginative capacity, with numbers. “The state of the nation address is like a laundry list,” he quipped.

Professor Achille Mbembe speaks with his hands, his palm open to emphasis his idea. IMAGE: Mikaela Erskog

Professor Achille Mbembe speaks with his hands, his palm open to emphasis his idea.
IMAGE: Mikaela Erskog

Our “society of consumption” is such that “objects have become our new comrades”, Mbembe explained. The result of this mind-set of personal acquisition over national development is that our society is one of the most unequal on earth. “People have not been as angry as they are now,” he said, adding, “We see an escalation of the struggle for voice and recognition that paradoxically, people are still struggling for.” Sunday 16 August marked the three year anniversary of the Marikana massacre.

Socially, South Africa has been changing in the post-apartheid moment, but given the recent attacks on foreigners, Mbembe found that there is an “emergence of a constituency of a category of people who are simultaneously victims and perpetrators”. Afrophobia therefore “renders the task of determining what is a legitimate fight, a difficult one”.

Dr Nomalanga Mkhize referred to Mbembe's ideas of the 'offshore model' in her critique of Eurocentric curricula. IMAGE: Mikaela Erskog

Dr Nomalanga Mkhize referred to Mbembe’s ideas of the ‘offshore model’ in her critique of Eurocentric curricula.
IMAGE: Mikaela Erskog

He stressed the necessity of opening our national borders to the rest of Africa not only because it is the right thing to do, but also to give the academy back its impetus. Universities in South Africa are undergoing transformation, but not fast or radically enough for Mbembe’s liking. The language policy in particular needs reform. “Monolingualism rhymes with colonialism,” he said, wryly smiling.

As a result of the lack of sufficiently radical transformation our nation is “running out of steam,” said Mbembe. He outlined the changes necessary to transform the academy. He called for a cash injection to develop black academics and the creation of an enabling environment for the staff already in the system. Similarly he critiqued the curriculum and current teaching methods, calling them “outdated”.

Professor Michael Neocosmos smiles as Mbembe speaks during the event. IMAGE: Mikaela Erskog

Professor Michael Neocosmos smiles as Mbembe speaks during the event.
IMAGE: Mikaela Erskog

Referring to the recent politicization of university campuses and the growth of the EFF he said that South Africa is in a post-colonial moment that Frantz Fanon warned of in the ‘60s. Young people who were not part of the struggle for liberation are disillusioned and critical of their government. “Under the decolonizing argument, waiting is no longer an option. We are entering an age of impatience.”

Mbembe is impatient too. He is impatient that transformation is slow. He is impatient with the government. Most of all, he’s impatient with achingly slow creak as the wheels of progress begin to turn. “Why is it that we are wasting energy, passion and intelligence, on questions that should have been resolved?!”

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One thought on “Achille Mbembe: Public Intellectual No. 1

  1. Pingback: Achille Mbembe: Public Intellectual No.1 – Artbeat | Chelsea's Dagger

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