Africa: The trial of Archie Mafeje

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

AFRICA is going through a political and intellectual season of renewed energy and spirit of decolonialisation and liberation.

This energy was dramatised on 28 March at the University of South Africa when scholars and activists gathered to remember the late combative African intellectual Archie Mafeje.

Former minister of lands, and present ANC parliamentarian Thoko Didiza – one of the Unisa Archie Mafeje Research Institute founders – teamed up with Professors Jimi Adesina and Francis Nyamnjoh to recall and recount the life and works of arguably one of the foremost decolonists of power and knowledge in Africa.

Sandile, a member of the Mafeje family, took the crowd through a pulsating narrative of the rough and bumpy road of a social, political and intellectual life that Archie Mafeje travelled until his untimely death on 28 March 2007.

In the narrative of the life and times of Archie Mafeje lies the evidence that the present crop of African university students that are demanding decoloniality in education and liberation in the political economy of Africa are not doing anything new but are standing on the bold and broad shoulders of African intellectual giants such as the late Mafeje, who took on apartheid and colonialism with formidable and exemplary intellectual gusto.

In the public lecture that Francis Nyamnjoh presented in commemoration of Mafeje, the message was that politically and intellectually, Africans need to, as a way of going forward, look back to the works and thoughts of its own artists and philosophers to salvage foundational wisdoms that will be crucial in the navigation of a shifty world history whose movement is like that of a tricky dance; a world history that is unkind to those that are not rooted in their histories and traditions.

Jimi Adesina, who knew and interacted with Archie Mafeje for many years, reminded the crowd that when it came to ideas and philosophies of decoloniality and liberation, there is a lot that Latin American thinkers and leaders have learnt from Africa. Lives and minds like Archie Mafeje shook the world with thought.

On the Ideology of Tribalism

In his life, Archie Mafeje contributed immensely to African philosophy of liberation.

Such articles as “The Fallacy of Dual Economies”, “What is Historical Explanation” and “Anthropology and Independent Africans”, among others, continue to enjoy the status of classics of African thought and sensibility.

Importantly, in 1971, Archie Mafeje wrote of “The Ideology of Tribalism”, an essay in which he unmasked how European colonialists invented tribes and tribalism to construct colonial and colonising myths about Africa.

Forcefully, Mafeje argued that African languages might have names for nations, clans, lineage and territorial identities but they do not have a word or words that define tribe.

Tribes in Africa, in the view of Archie Mafeje, were a colonial and an imperial figment, an ideology that was concocted to rationalize conquest and colonisation.

Tribes were invented together with the idea of tribalism that became a European explanation and even excuse for the turmoil that colonialism caused in Africa.

In ruling Africa, the colonialists took control not only of the means of material production but also those of mental production and intellection.

Worsening the situation of this coloniality of knowledge by Europeans in Africa was that the colonialists in religions as in academia managed to create African converts; African scholars and journalists who began to think and write about Africa the way colonisers did, magnifying and amplifying colonialism in Africa.

Whether admitted or not, Mafeje’s argument on the ideology of tribalism and colonisation in Africa gained compelling currency and purchase in the African academy and in Africanist circles of Europe and America.

In 1985, Terence Ranger was to follow up with the thesis of the “invention of tribalism” in Zimbabwe and by extension in Africa.

With Eric Hobsbawn, Terence Ranger was to publish an edited volume in 1992 fleshing out the idea of the invention of tradition in Africa.

Authoritatively, Valentin Mudimbe in the 1990s published “The Invention of Africa” and “The Idea of Africa” both of which are books that elongate and flesh out the thesis of how Africa was imagined, ideologised and invented by colonialists to suit their imperial interests.

The process of conquering and ruling Africa was accompanied by political and intellectual constructions of the continent and its people, constructions that were used to justify colonisation.

When later day beneficiaries of apartheid and colonialism such as Hellen Zille claim that colonialsm was beneficial to Africa they are simply quoting from a long tradition of Euro-American ideologisation of knowledge about Africa.

The name and image of Africa and that of Africans had to be altered in ideological terms to allow imperialism to achieve acceptance and have a good name even amongst its victims.

It is against that crime of the invention and ideologisation of Africa that the importance of the work of such thinkers as Archie Mafeje can be appreciated for its liberatory efficacy.

Mafeje and the Politics of Naming in Africa

It is very easy for critics to reduce Mafeje’s arguments on the ideology of tribalism in Africa to simple political and intellectual controversy. Mafeje achieved a reputation for combative argumentation and disruptive intellection, however, behind the controversy lay a mind that had brutal observation and rigorous analysis as its properties.

Africans had their identity politics before colonisation, the naming of that identity politics as the politics of tribes and tribalism was the work of colonialists and not of Africans themselves. Africans had wars and other fights for land and territory, for scarce natural resources and power, to reduce those African struggles to primitive tribalism that needed European intervention was to ideologise and politicise issues.

In 1988, a brave Rhodes University professor, Julian Cobin wrote to dismiss the idea of the Mfecane as a colonial alibi and ideology of apartheid.

Julian Cobin argued that apartheid politicians and historians invented Mfecane as black on black primitive violence when it was chaos that was connected to the slave trade and the colonial squeeze.

Slave traders and colonial settlers were unsettling and disrupting African populations, Empire builders were hoarding fertile lands and creating scarcity of resources sparking scrambles and wars, and then blaming everything on the so called primitive and warlike leaders like Shaka and Mzilikazi.

Like Archie Mafeje on tribalism and its colonial invention, Cobin was highlighting that intellectually and politically in Africa things are not what they are named to be. African thinkers and leaders need not swallow without question the names and descriptions that colonialists give to African events and historical affairs.

To much controversy and high voltage arguments, in 2010, Mahmood Mamdani questioned the politics of naming around the mass killings of Africans by other Africans in Darfur, in the Sudan.

The American media called the killings genocide when the killings of Iraqis by invading Americans around the same decade were politely and much politically called counter-insurgency.

Justifiably, Mamdani was blamed for intellectually and politically shielding the regime of Al-Bashir from censure for the mass killings. The important point that Mamdani successfully deposited in the academy was the toxic workings of the politics of naming and ideologisation of African events and affairs.

Events and affairs in Africa are not as they are called in the global academy and the global media, Africans need to vigilantly unmask the truths behind such masks as tribalism in African history and politics. Following the intellectual example of Archie Mafeje, that of Julian Cobin and Mahmood Mamdani, young African intellectuals have a duty in the decoloniality movement to unmask alibis and ideologies in the naming of African historical developments.

For instance, research needs to be done and a language found to describe what is presently called Afrophobia and Xenophobia in South Africa.

Beyond what the media states, what are exactly the factors and causalities behind the hatred of and violence against foreign nationals in South Africa?

And how are these connected to the history of colonisation and apartheid in South Africa and Africa at large?

The legacy of Archie Mafeje

In his life, from 1936 to 2007, Archie Mafeje became a troubling, troubled and troublesome intellectual and political activist. He endured persecution and exile.

In 1968, at the University of Cape Town he was barred from assuming a position as a senior lecturer on no other grounds besides his black skin and troublesome intellect.

In argument he took on giants like Ali Mazrui and wrestled with white Africanists and anthropologists, debunking many political myths and colonial assumptions about Africa.

Mafeje personified what Frantz Fanon called a questioning body, his life was and his name remains a big question.

Importantly, Mafeje was never trapped by the scourge of narrow South African essentialism and exceptionalism that marks some South African intellectuals today, poetically he referred to himself as “South African by birth, Dutch by citizenship and Egyptian by domicile” a worldly public intellectual who refused to be a cold and dry academic of the university and expanded his intellection to involvement in political public debates and engagement. Mafeje was not a cheap polemicists and opportunist pamphleteer but a rigorous scholar whose research abilities remain exemplary today, he had lucid and compelling prose of one who had important work and had to do it with art.

• Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa

April 2017
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