Judith Van Allen
Cornell University, New York
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."
-- the booming voice of the Wizard of Oz, as his small human self was revealed
Ambroise Kom asks: "can legimitation, even scientific, be built up outside the social framework that inspires the research? In other words, how can African research, and even research on African topics, be validated outside Africa itself? More fundamentally: are we condemned to stagnate on the periphery, always determining ourselves in relation to other people, unable to picture ourselves in an independent way?" He asks further "whether there exist in Africa not only the conditions but also, and more especially, the desire on the part of Africans themselves to create an autonomous framework for the validation and appropriation of a local body of knowledge, which could help them better to perceive their environment and construct a context for living which is suited to their own aspirations."
Kom questions that loud authoritative voice of French cultural superiority (without noticing or at least without mentioning the man behind the curtain) and asserts against French hegemony an Afrocentric viewpoint. Afrocentrism means different things to different people, but as used in the U.S. at least, minimally posits that Africa should be studied from the perspective of Africans and what has been important to them, not from a colonialist or contemporary Western perspective in terms of what is important to Westerners, to the Other, whether economically, politically or culturally. It means seeking analyses and policy advocacy that takes Africans interests as defined by Africans as primary. It understands African history as centered in Africa, and emphasizes what Africa has contributed to the development of European civilization and culture, rather than accepting the European picture of Africa as purely a "recipient," willing or unwilling, of European culture.
This position seems to me absolutely inarguable. But it also doesnt seem to get us very far. It leaves many questions unanswered. We need to unpack the terms, assumptions and subtext to understand what it might mean to attempt to reconstruct the study of Africa in this way.
First, who is going to do this restructuring and from where? Kom does not specifically address the question of who should study and teach about Africa, but he speaks in the voice of an African and about only other African scholars taking up the task of creating new frameworks independent of the (former) colonial masters discourse. Certainly, there is no perspective like that of an insider: who but an African is going to know from the viewpoint of lifelong experience what it is like to be an African in an African country dominated by outside forces, in a global system dominated by those same outsiders and their friends? But who counts as an African in this discourse? Kom includes himself in his "we Africans," so clearly African intellectuals resident outside Africa are to be included in the acceptable "who." But what does this do to the idea that we should privilege the African viewpoint if we include African intellectuals who have, say, lived in the U.S. or Europe since their university days, working in universities or in NGOs or with the U.N., with all the exposure to Western systems of thought and access to resources and research opportunities that such residence and employment entails? It would seem extremely counterproductive to start trying to establish who is an authentic African on the basis of residence and resources. The point, surely, given Koms comments on Africans who serve the interests of the Other, is to build a community of African intellectuals who, wherever they live, are committed to "construct[ing] a context for living suited to [African] aspirations."
No society would choose, surely, to be without its own intelligentsia, its own self-generated body of knowledge, its own right to validate that insider knowledge. But just as there is no perspective like an insider one, there is no perspective like that of an outsider, either. As I have argued before in Mots Pluriels (No. 8, October 1998), outsiders may ask questions and raise issues that insiders would never think of. Good researchers try to "get inside" the societies they are studying and study them from the perspectives of the people themselves, but good researcherswhether insiders or outsidersmust also try to distance themselves both from the discourses of their own societies and from those of the societies they are studying. This critical perspective on research crosses the insider-outsider line and marks a different division: that between genuinely committed critical scholars, and servants (purposefully or unintentionally) of one embedded power structure or another.
Thus I would argue that at this historical juncture, characterized by extremely unjust distributions of scholarly resources between Africa and the countries who dominate her, it is crucial for African scholars to have access, especially in Africa, to the institutional and financial resources needed for a core body of research to be produced there. I would argue also that those of us privileged by our residence in wealthy countrieswhatever our nationality--have a responsibility to find ways to share resources on an equal basis and to help create the conditions for independent research in Africa by Africans. But it is not desirable to restrict the study of Africa to Africans, or, as some argue in the U.S., to Africans and those of African descent, who have lived the experience of being Black in a White-dominated society. All Africanists need to be actively self-conscious of the imbeddedness of African studies in imperialism and racism and try to deconstruct, challenge and counter that heritage and to reconstruct African studies from an anti-imperialist, anti-racist perspective. But you dont have to be an African or of African descent to engage in that project. The line should be drawn on the basis of politics and scholarly critical commitment and skill, not on the basis of race or national origin.
In analyzing the relative roles of insiders and outsiders, we need to recognize that in some cases serious power differentials exist, while in others they do not. In an ideal research world, for which we would need an ideal political, economic and cultural world of universal equality of power, all insiders and outsiders would be equal and their contributions would be weighted purely in terms of their power to convince others of their validity. But as we know perfectly well, the research world we live in bears all the inequalities of power of the larger world. The force of ideological hegemony or, as many might prefer to call it at this intellectual moment, the dominant discourse, protects the voices of some as it trivializes and silences the voices of others. So despite my arguments about the value of outsider voices, the importance of politics and commitment over race and cultural experience, and the need to examine critically the discourses of the societies we are studying as well as that of our own, I would argue further that Western scholars have a particular responsibility to question the discourses that give us power and to listen very hard to the African voices that offer counter-discourses. I wouldnt go so far as to say that we must reject themfor example, reject "liberal humanism" or the discourse of human rights: there are some intellectual and political cliffs Im not yet ready to jump off! But we must turn our critical skills on what we think of as liberatory as well as on what we already think of as oppressive.
There is a further question of the "who" embedded in Koms argument: the question of who speaks for "Africans." Kom clearly sees those entrenched elites who hold power in many African states as not speaking for "Africans," but speaking instead only in the voices of the Other, or presumably, in their own self-interested voices. But who counts as a legitimate speaker? In the name of African culture or African tradition or even African Socialism, African leaders have again and again denied the existence of structural divisions within their societies as a justification for governing in "the peoples interest" or the peoples name. Class divisions have been repeatedly denied, often on the grounds that "class" is an idea foreign to Africa and that denial has been conveniently used to justify the suppression of trade union organization or other forms of class mobilization. Both bourgeois nationalists and national liberation militants have labeled attempts by women to organize for their own self-defined interests as Western feminist cultural imperialism and have successfully denied women an autonomous voice. But suppression and silencing have not made these structural divisions disappear and they have increasingly surfaced in the recent years of greater political democracy, at least "democracy" in the sense of toleration of political organization by groups not controlled by the ruling party or military regime.
This kind of silencing relies on prior privileged definitions, not only about who can speak but of what counts as "African" speech. If "Africans" are going to develop their own frameworks and policies that genuinely are for "all"that is, the majority who are not in the direct service and pay of foreign intereststhen specific provisions need to be made to include those who are not male intellectuals from already privileged sectors of society: that is, to include women, to ensure that the path to higher education and scholarly status are open to women and men from all classes in society, and to have forms of education and continuing discourse that make both men and women, from whatever origins, sensitive to issues of class and gender as well as to the legacy of colonialism and the continuing costs of cultural and economic imperialism.
Cultural imperialism, of course, exists, but to say that, is not to say that any idea recognizably present in Europe or the U.S. prior to its appearance in Africa is a case of it. And it is particularly odious when those in dominant positions, as owners of capital or property or state office, or as men, use charges of cultural imperialism to silence the dominated, whether they are workers or the urban poor or women or homosexuals, rather than engaging in open public debate about the form of society that can be negotiated among the various groups and perspectives that will be found in any African country. To take the case of the feminist ideas that have appeared in many parts of Africa in the last two decades, these are not ideas being imposed by colonial states or post-colonial states. In fact, opposition to womens rights movements has been almost uniformly strong at the state level, at least initially. Far from being imposed from above, these movements have been created by African women themselves, often drawing inspiration from traditions of women's militancy that go back to pre-colonial times. In some cases organizing has first been done by university-educated women, in others by politically mobilized women frustrated with male political leadership, in the case of South Africa by Black women within COSATU (the ANC-aligned trade union coalition) as well as by multi-racial groups of women in civil society. In some cases, recent womens groups have both reacted to and built upon the experiences of women militants in nationalist and national liberation movements, drawing on the heroism of their actions as militants and criticizing the betrayals they experienced at the hands of male leaders. Yet across the board, male elites have usually labeled these mobilizations as "divisive," culturally imperialist, "contrary to African tradition."
In Botswana, the situation with which I am most familiar, some women in the womens group Emang Basadi! (Stand Up, Women!), organized in the late 1980s, responded to such attacks by saying that if their demands for equal rights violated tradition, then too bad for tradition. In the landmark 1990 case that established womens rights to equal citizenship status with men and opened the way to reform of numerous discriminatory laws and practices, the Justice argued that since society had changed, women should no longer be treated as chattels and should have equal rights under the Botswana Constitution. Now surely "society had changed" at least largely in response to the outside forces of colonialism and post-independence economic forces, European and American as well as the ever-present and intrusive South Africa. Society had also changed partly because both the U.N. and various European aid agencies, especially the Swedish, had put funds into conferences on womens rights in the 1980s and 1990s. But the response of the Botswana courts and eventually, under pressure, of the ruling political party and men in many sectors of society, was to accept that socio-economic changes, whatever their origins, required changes in law and practice to give women greater equality. Last October record numbers of women were elected and appointed to public office, to the point that 1999 was labeled by the press as "The Year of the Woman".
It is not clear to me whether Kom would recognize such changes as authentically African or would instead see them as the result of Africans continuing vulnerability to one or another colonizing discourse, as falling under the negative judgment of colonial influence he approvingly quotes from Cheikh Hamidou Kane: "It suddenly occurs to us that, all along our road, we have not ceased to metamorphose ourselves, and we see ourselves as other than what we were." Kom suggests that "applied research of the Afrocentric type could have set out marker pegs for an African modernity of the sort that can be seen in a good number of Asian countries. These borrow from the West whilst at the same time keeping a look-out for alienation." Since he doesnt give us examples from Asia, or examples of the sorts of "alienation" Africans should keep a look-out for, we are left with the fact that many Asian "modernities" retain forms of male-dominant gender relations, much as Western "modernities" did until recent structural changes drew large numbers of women into the labor force and they mobilized to demand greater equality. Is that Koms model for African societies?
Here, as in other places, my analysis is at odds with Koms because he operates on the level of discourse and the ideological construction and domination of the Other while I start from a materialist analysis that looks at social and production relations and the domination of capitalism. I want to look closely at the actions of that capitalist behind the curtain, to challenge that voice of authority that says the world must be the way it is. Kom does not give even a nod to the power of capitalism to break apart and reforge social relations. Capitalism creates those situations in which "we have not ceased to metamorphose ourselves, and we see ourselves as other than what we were," those situations in which new ideas make sense to people because of the new relationsproduction relations, gender relations, family relationsin which they are living their lives. Capitalism also carries with it contradictory pressures and thus also creates the conditions and possibilities for challenging its power and hegemony. Of course the origins of capitalist intrusion into African life lies in colonialism and imperialism; its origins are definitely outside Africa. But if Africans are to define their own paths, then it makes sense to develop an African-based critical analysis of capitalism and the ways in which it has impacted and continues to impact African life. Resistance to an identity imposed by the colonial Other may be an important part of discovering a new identity, but it wont in itself have the least bit of influence on the capitalist structuring of African societies. From a critical analysis of capitalist restructuring of Botswana for example, one can understand why Western feminist ideas make sense, not only to university-educated women but also to many women in Botswanas significant female working class, itself a product of the interaction of the enforced colonial male migrant labor system with the pre-existing division of labor in Tswana kinship-organized cattle-herding-based production relations. It is only in an analysis of contradictions and potential changes in Botswana class and gender relations that one can begin to envisage ways for women and men in Botswana to take greater control of their own lives.
But Kom seems to discount the many intellectual contributions made by African researchers and theorists who see the roots of Africas current problems and the search for a way out in a critical analysis of capitalism. Many centers of research and many individuals could be cited, but Koms attitude is perhaps most striking in his silence on Francophone Africa itself, where Dakar has been a center of critical research and debate on African political economy, social change and capitalism, organized in large part through the Council for the Development of Economic and Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and the Africa office of the Third World Forum, led by Samir Amin. Scholars in universities and research centers from all parts of Africa, working in the anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, Marxist or Marxian traditions, including White and Asian South Africans, have created a large body of work that adapts useful ideas, discards others, and continues an ongoing dialogue about an appropriately African framework and African-chosen future. In fact South African Marxists have fought their own version of legitimation battles, having been criticized as "parochial" by a few of their Western supposed comrades, responding that whats "parochial" to outsiders is exactly whats appropriate for local conditions. The problem these African critical scholars and activists face is not lack of theory, but lack of power to put critical theory into effect. Critics, African and Western, have for example been pointing out the destructive effects of SAPs for decades. But were not the ones who make IMF and World Bank policy, are we?
Africa is particularly vulnerable because of her economic dependency, but no capitalist state is particularly happy to have critical theorists dogging its missteps. Critical intellectuals will always be unpopular with the powerful and wealthy because we are not on their side and do not pretend to be. They will use whatever weapons they need to discredit us, including calling us disloyal traitors to our societies, purveyors of dangerous "foreign" ideas, destroyers of traditional family values or whatever. I dont know whether the U.S. is more zenophobic than any other country, but American zenophobia is certainly virulent, rooted as it is in mass denial of the nations origin in invasion, occupation and genocide of the lands indigenous inhabitants. Critical thought is policed, more in some periods than others, by the big stick of the "un-American" coupled with deep anti-intellectualism. This combination has historically had a chilling effect on dissent, has kept workers weak and capital extremely dominant, and has over the years produced some of the dumbest heads of government in the Westernno, the entireworld (and I am not thinking of William Jefferson Clinton).
Zenophobic thought policing is not a practice to be wished on anyone, even Americans, who might at least be said to deserve it for our historical sins. It is definitely not a practice that those who wish to oppose continued imperialism in all its manifestations should use on each other. As Kom argues, "The countries of Africa should be free to connect themselves to all networks and all points in the world, provided that their interests, which they alone shall define, are protected." Let ideas not be rejected because they come from the West or any other part of the world outside Africa, but only because theyand the capitalist behind the curtain they mask and representare destructive to futures envisioned, desired and negotiated through public debate and democratic politics by Africans themselves.
Judith Van Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for African Development at Cornell University. Ithaca, New york. Her latest article is "'Bad Future Things' and Liberatory Moments : Capitalism, Gender and the State in Botswana. Radical History Review 76, Janvier 2000. She is currently working on a book on citizenship, class relations and gendered political space in Botswana.
|See also: Judith Van Allen "Who will teach about Africa? A personal view" Mots Pluriels 8 (1998).|