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Matt’s trip to South Africa

by on September 20, 2012

I’ve just returned to the UK after two weeks in southern Africa promoting the Ruth First Papers project. There I met with our partners in Maputo and Cape Town, and visited colleagues in Johannesburg.

It was particularly a privilege to get to visit the CEA. Ana Monteiro and Teresa Cruz da Silva gave me the chance to colonise their weekly staff seminar and explain the work of the project. I was completely unprepared for the reception it got: I had expected to explain the kind of materials we dealt with and how we managed the collection, and then show the website. Instead, I was informed that our resource was already well-known and well-used, so there was no need to explore the site in the session. What then transpired was an engaged analysis of the methods we employed in order to select materials, and some challenging and critical questions about the nature of the materials and their arrangement on the site.

While in Maputo I also attended some of the III Conferência Internacional do IESE I particularly appreciated the plenary session in which Carlos Castel-Branco spoke at length on Ruth’s legacy for political economy and research in the region. Another highlight was Detlev Krige’s paper on the financialisation of informal economic systems in South Africa (available soon on the IESE pages).

I went to Maputo by bus from Johannesburg having spent the weekend in Pretoria, and my immediate impression of Maputo was that while it may not have the physical infrastructure of South African cities, it certainly has what AbdouMaliq Simone calls human infrastructure. In contrast to the suburban, securitised life of the Northern Suburbs and Pretoria, the city actually felt like it was a lived environment, rather than a space simply to allow the passage of cars from one compound to another. As a Londoner, that was a great relief. I’m not going to try to comment further on the socio-political situation than that naive observation, though.

My next destination was Johannesburg, where I was shown the town (and the lay of the political landscape) by Mosa, Claire, Luke and Peter from the Centre for Sociological Research at UJ (and from Keep Left!). It was especially graceful of them to take time out from dealing with the aftermath of Marikana – in the case of Luke and Peter, travelling around the area and interviewing the families, and all working to create a united front. I saw a side of Joburg that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Finally to Cape Town, where Andre Mohammed at the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives hosted me for the morning while we shared expertise on preservation and digitisation. The key outcome of the trip for our project was a better understanding of the support that we can immediately give to our partners in Maputo and Cape Town, in the form of sharing best practices and also helping to foster better connections between the CEA and Mayibuye.

Finally I visited the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at UWC, where Jimi Adesina and I gave a seminar titled ‘an intellectual appreciation of the scholarship of Professor Ruth First’. This event was especially poignant, coming on the 35th anniversary of Steve Biko’s murder by the South African state. Jimi’s paper focused on the status of activist-intellectuals in post-Apartheid South Africa, in the context of the Intellectual Heritage project. His analysis of the state of sociology teaching in South Africa is well needed at the moment, especially given the crisis in humanities funding in HE worldwide.

I’ll finish this overlong post with a brief word on South African politics. The main impression I took away from the trip is that there is a tendency, especially among liberals, to reduce current affairs to an extended and somewhat apathetic criticism of figures like Julius Malema. The fact that he is considered corrupt and self-serving allows a large proportion of South Africans (or of white South Africans, at least) to dismiss the issues that he raises as a symptom of demagoguery. While it’s true that Malema has made a lot of political capital out of Marikana, the fact is that a discussion around the failure of the post-Apartheid project and the continued need for nationalisation, are incredibly important. It’s just a shame that he is the person who is making those points the loudest. There is no electable alternative: the ANC and its elite are compromised by their entanglement with the corporate interests that extract wealth from the country. The DA is doubly tarred by its incorporation of some Nats into its ranks and by its unapologetic neoliberalism, and the SACP is hamstrung by its failure to separate itself from the ruling party in terms of policy.

I had expected that speaking to politically engaged South Africans would give me a better sense of what will happen now that Marikana has opened the floodgates for a national conversation about the failures of the rainbow nation. Instead, I found that no one knows what will happen after the ANC’s Mangaung congress in December. Groups like Keep Left! are doing good work, looking towards a future that they can’t anticipate. We live in interesting times.

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