From where I sit - Scholarship, ubuntu and hope

November 25, 2010

South Africa is a young society, unsure of itself. The Union was formed in 1910, a republic was declared in 1961, and the black majority won the franchise in 1994. South Africa 3.0 is at a crossroads between leading a resurgent Africa as the fifth nation in an expanded Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) group, and turning inwards to race-obsessed nationalism.

Self-deprecation is a national habit. Many South Africans didn't believe they could pull off the 2010 World Cup; after they made a success of it, a wave of public-sector strikes plunged the country into a depression.

South African academics in the humanities and social sciences have been in the doldrums too, taking a back seat for the past two decades after leading the final assault on apartheid in the 1980s. There is hope, however, in the minister of higher education's recent appointment of sociologist Ari Sitas to head a team to develop "a charter aimed at affirming the importance of human and social forms of scholarship".

It is particularly good news for an initiative launched by Sandra Klopper, dean of humanities at the University of Pretoria, as part of an attempt to change the university's public profile. Formerly the academic bastion of the apartheid state, the institution recently sponsored a series of public debates in conjunction with the liberal Mail & Guardian newspaper, addressing academic and press freedom and the question, "What makes us South African?"

This last panel was a great advertisement for the sharpness, humour and variety of the nation's artists and intellectuals. Chaired by Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki's biographer, it included, among others, a Tswana producer and talk-show host, an Afrikaaner writer and musician, and a formerly exiled poet and campus administrator.

Everything in South Africa sooner or later comes back to race. Is the ANC a black nationalist party? Is affirmative action inverse racism? Is a non-racial society, an aim once enshrined in the ANC's Freedom Charter, now impossible?

Post-apartheid South Africa is a kaleidoscope of ethnic differences. Some panellists were concerned about the lack of public literature in African languages. Others felt that economic redress for all black citizens should take precedence over these cultural issues.

The elephant in the room was Africa. The habit of comparing South Africa with other white countries dies hard. The "rainbow nation" often seems to be hostile to African migrants. Someone observed that if Germany hosted a successful World Cup, no one would call it a triumph for Europe. And yet, when Ghana was denied a semi-final slot by a last-minute handball, all South Africans were Africans. As one panellist said, "It was only a moment, but maybe we can build on it."

The Nguni notion of ubuntu - "I am who I am because of who we all are" - says we are human only to the extent that we live through other human beings. It is also the name of South African Mark Shuttleworth's free, open-source, Linux-based operating system. Any revival of the humanities and social sciences here will be driven by the swirling currents pushing this young, hung-over but still hopeful country forward.

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