Dawn of a partnership

April 4, 1997

Outsiders are being persuaded that field research must have practical benefits for communities

The world recognises that Africanist expertise is stored in British universities. Keith Hart calls for collaboration between African and Britishscholars to take thecontinent away from its imperial past.

His article sets the scene for a special report over four pages on the new relationship between academics in the developed world and their African colleagues

Sub-Saharan Africa is often seen as marginal: if South Africa is excluded, it accounts for only 0.7 per cent of world production, rather less than Indonesia. Africa's appearance in the news is usually limited to disasters, of which the Rwandan genocide and the chaos in Zaire have been the most recent.

Yet there are many reasons for taking Africa seriously. The continent is going through a population boom which is rapidly filling the least densely occupied continent on earth. In 1950 it held the equivalent of half the population of Europe (including the Soviet Union); today the numbers are about the same; by 2025 Africa will have double the population of Europe. Africa is in the throes of an urban revolution compressed in time as no other has been, with around a third of its people now living in cities where 100 years ago there were none. Lagos will soon be pushing 20 million.

The collapse of the state in central Africa has profound implications for the global political system. The outcome of South Africa's experiment with non-racial democracy will affect us all, just as apartheid did. In a world of staggering inequality, Africa is an extreme symbol of poverty. Americans each consume 200 times the energy disposed of by Ugandans, for example.

Representations of Africa endlessly reproduce images of death - war, famine, disease - never the abundant vitality of a youthful African civilisation. Nowhere is this issue of representation more acute than in a Britain still suffering a post-imperial hangover, pining for a recent past and uncertain of its place in the world.

Area studies in Britain took off during the 1960s in the context of the collapse of empire and the cold war. The Western powers retained interests in regions they no longer controlled directly and they were prepared to fund a limited amount of research. The main focus was on political stability and economic development, but there was room for studies of history, culture and society.

At the turn of the century the British public was informed about Africa by explorers, missionaries, journalists and novelists (more by Rider Haggard than Conrad). London's School of Oriental and African Studies and the Institute of African Studies provided colonial Britain with more organised intelligence on the dark continent. Largely as a result of Malinowski's efforts, social anthropology came to dominate this academic enterprise between the wars.

If the Americans were interested in the end of European empire, these British studies were notable for the absence of any notion that the sun might set on structures that they represented as lying outside modern history. The contrast with C. L. R. James's History of Negro Revolt and with his prediction in The Black Jacobins (both 1938) that Africa would soon be free could not have been greater.

The growing anticipation of independence after 1945 brought a spate of studies by anthropologists (especially Gluckman's Manchester School) and others addressing the inevitability of change, including the question of urban Africa. Independence around 1960 was a boon for historical studies. This was partly driven by sympathy with the nationalist desire to recover the precolonial past; but an emphasis on social movements (rather than structures) meant that historians soon turned to the 20th century too.

African studies over the past three decades has become a unique site for the collaboration of anthropologists and historians with a strong convergence of method and subject matter.

Political science and development economics acquired a new importance in the postcolonial period. The emphasis has shifted towards economics, as the failure of African states gave an opening to the rigid disciplines imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. British political scientists have taken a back seat to American and French theorists; and economics has reverted to an inflexible liberal orthodoxy which illuminates little of social conditions.

Geographers have made substantial contributions to the study of rural development and the environment. We should not forget either the vast army of natural scientists and engineers abroad in Africa, few if any of them under the umbrella of African studies, engaged in the study of land and water use, nutrition, disease and all the branches of biology. And, last but not least, a hardy band of archaeologists continues to revolutionise our understanding of Africa's very significant place in the human story.

African studies offered an interdisciplinary space which attracted creative minds repelled by an increasingly specialised academic division of labour. But that impulse now seems exhausted. Africanists these days more often resemble peasants digging holes unrelated to any wider vision of the terrain. Their tidbits of research do not add up to a collaborative intellectual project equal to the task of grasping Africa's predicament.

Major works of synthesis are still produced: J.-F. Bayart's The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly and John Iliffe's Africans: the History of a Continent come immediately to mind. But African studies has not coalesced into a field capable of justifying an independent place within the universities.

Africanists must take shelter in the separate disciplines which dominate competition for academic resources; and this centrifugal tendency stands ready to dismember whatever is left of the area studies initiative of the 1960s.

For decades, Britain has been withdrawing into itself and everywhere today African studies is up against it, underfunded and demoralised, clinging to an insecure tenure within a handful of universities. As a loose association of interested disciplines, it once drew strength from an imperialist vision which flowered briefly in the face of independence and has now almost been laid to rest.

What future, if any, does African studies have in Britain? Africanists have to some extent challenged prevailing stereotypes, but they have continued to reproduce the idea of Africa as somewhere exotic, separate, over there. We know far more about the ethnic diversity of rural areas than we do about the forces reshaping Africa today.

There is, therefore, an intellectual agenda which is still waiting to be addressed by this country's specialists. What are the new social forms being thrown up by Africa's demographic explosion, by its youthful cities, by the cultural revolution which has made African music and literature, its visual and performing arts such a creative force in late 20th century civilisation? What is the political trajectory of west and central Africa, as much as of the south? Problems concerning food, violence, debt and migration demand urgent solutions. Africa's plight goes to the heart of questions concerning the justice of the global economic order.

In sum, what is Africa's relationship to the modern project of science and democracy? Has it merely been left behind or can its societies help point the way to new human arrangements?

There is an education crisis at all levels of African society. The postcolonial recipe has served only to fuel emigration; and this raises the issue of relations between British universities and their African counterparts. It is intolerable that conditions for studying Africa should be so much better outside than within the continent itself. So any renewal of African studies in Britain must include programmes designed to improve matters there. In any case, a growing body of western scholars of Africa are themselves African in origin and their proportion is bound to increase.

The African diaspora, both old and new, occupies a mediating position between the West and Africa which has hardly been tapped so far. The energy, commitment and imagination of these Africans are desperately needed if we are to dent the tired reproduction of negative ideas about Africa's place in the history of world civilisation. Africans at home and abroad still await those political forms capable of delivering them from centuries of western domination. Their drive and their distinctive traditions are indispensable to our common hopes.

What is being proposed here is a new partnership between African and British scholars. The rest of the world recognises the Africanist expertise stored in Britain's universities; and racial conflict is less polarised here than in the United States. Many diaspora intellectuals live between America, Europe and Africa and could be persuaded to participate in programmes developed with Africa's needs in mind.

The approach should be interdisciplinary and constructive, stressing the history of international collaboration which once characterised movements opposed to slavery, colonialism and apartheid and which underpins the struggle for human rights today. Nor should we be indifferent to the potential of new technologies. Africa will be wired before long; and exchange of knowledge at distance will be enhanced.

Africa's place in the world is unique, being at once exceptional in so many ways, yet also an integral part of an emergent world society, exhibiting all the contradictions of that emergence in an extreme form. African studies cannot be conducted in isolation from world history.

We have passed the time when Africa's problems could plausibly be addressed piecemeal by digging a hole in some remote rural spot. Africa provides a suitable point of departure for asking how we all contrived a global society so unviable, so unequal, so thoroughly racist. The ultimate justification for African studies in Britain is that relations between ourselves and Africans are pivotal to any rethinking of our place in the complex evolution of human interdependence.

Keith Hart is director of the African studies centre, University of Cambridge.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments