New Books | Archie Mafeje’s political thought

Bongani Nyoka grapples with the renowned South African scholar’s engagement with African archives in an effort to begin the process of decolonising knowledge.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from The Social and Political Thought of Archie Mafeje: A Pan-African Social Scientist Ahead of His Time (Wits University Press, 2020) by Bongani Nyoka.

A spectre is haunting the South African academy, the spectre of knowledge decolonisation. Academics and university students are calling for decolonisation, but what they call brilliant is not new, and what they call new is not brilliant. As early as the 19th century, the South African poet William Wellington Gqoba grappled with the impact of Western education on Black people; in the early 20th century, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi and Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo were debating the role of language and modernity in South Africa. Equally, the works of Cheikh Anta Diop on sources of knowledge and social history, Kenneth Onwuka Dike on African historiography and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on language and decolonising the mind point to a longer genealogy of outstanding work on decolonisation discourse and a critique of Eurocentrism. In South Africa, mainstream social scientists in the 1980s and 1990s were talking about reform, while in the 2000s they were talking about transformation – but throughout the 1990s and 2000s, other voices, alternative to the mainstream, were talking about the Africanisation and the indigenisation of knowledge.

These ideas – reform, transformation, Africanisation, indigenisation – continue to this day, but the idea of decolonisation has gained more traction than any of them. All the same, the inability to transcend the call and to get into the actual business of decolonising means that the call itself has taken on a life of its own. It is what I call the politics of suspension; talking about decolonisation for so long without engaging in the actual process means that the term loses its content and becomes irrelevant. It is also what I call epistemic posturing, for talking about the need to engage in knowledge decolonisation is not itself the act of decolonising knowledge – and nor does it constitute a rupture with old knowledge systems. Eurocentrism has long been an object of critical analysis by African scholars, so to speak of Eurocentrism and coloniality in the social sciences is at this point merely to state the obvious.

In this book, when talking about knowledge and epistemological decolonisation I refer to tapping into the African knowledge archive. I use the term in a narrow sense to refer to engaging with the works of African scholars and in a broad sense include taking seriously what Jimi Adesina calls the “ontological discourses and narratives” of the African people. In other words, I use the term to mean generating theoretical insights from the lived experiences of the African people, rather than importing theory in order to understand them. Based on these two senses, this volume shifts the discussion from talking about decolonising knowledge to the actual process of doing so. A critique of Eurocentrism and coloniality is necessarily built in to the process of tapping into the African knowledge archive and engaging with the ontological narratives of African people. I do this by deep engagement with the works of Archie Mafeje and the African societies he wrote about.

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Archie Mafeje was born on 30 March 1936 in the village of Engcobo, in what was then the Cape Province (now part of the Eastern Cape). He studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 1957 to 1963 and left South Africa in April 1964 with a Master’s degree in social anthropology to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge. He completed his PhD in social anthropology in 1968 and applied for a teaching position at his alma mater, UCT. He got the job on merit, but could not take up the offer because the apartheid government exerted pressure on UCT to rescind his appointment – because, the government said, a Black man could not teach at a “white” university. This became a cause célèbre, the “Mafeje Affair”, which led to student protests in South African universities and in other parts of the world. He became a wandering exile, living in The Hague, Dar es Salaam, Copenhagen and Rome, before settling in Cairo. In the 1970s, he married the Egyptian feminist intellectual Shahida El-Baz and taught sociology at the American University in Cairo from the 1970s until he retired in the mid-1990s. He returned to South Africa in 2002 and died in 2007 in Pretoria. His life in exile meant that his work was not known or read in the country of his birth and he is much better known in other parts of the world.

This book is about the works of Archie Mafeje. It is the first comprehensive engagement with the entire body of Mafeje’s scholarship. It excavates his intellectual ideas and shows the nexus between them and his political environment. Mafeje’s work can be categorised into three broad areas: a critique of epistemological and methodological issues in the social sciences; the land and agrarian question in sub-Saharan Africa; and revolutionary theory and politics. Following his death, there has been a great deal of interest in his work. Leftists and liberals alike study Mafeje’s life and work, but most writings on him are inadequate – where they are not merely superficial, they are misleadingly inaccurate. Whereas his work is widely respected throughout the African continent and in other parts of the world, his intellectual prowess is treated by South African academics and intellectuals as something of a rumour. There are two main camps. The first is of social scientists such as Andrew Bank, Leslie Bank and Lungisile Ntsebeza, who have not only written about Mafeje’s life history, but also, casually and superficially, about his work. The second camp is of Black intellectuals such as Fred Hendricks and others who are interested primarily in Mafeje’s debates and strange notions of Africanity as a combative ontology. While the “life history” camp treats Mafeje as an enfant terrible, the “debates and Africanity” camp treats him as a combative warrior – but the tie that binds these two camps is that they generally write about Mafeje through the biographical medium. This caricature of Mafeje in South African intellectual circles is unfortunate because he was someone whose academic career traversed five decades and gave rise to six books, nine monographs and 140 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, apart from the numerous research reports he wrote as a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations from 1976 to 1999.

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There is a third camp, which, through the works of Adesina and his students, treats Mafeje as the serious scholar that he was. They engage with his work at the level of ideas. My book contributes to the third camp. It consists of three main parts. In the first part I have devoted three chapters to explicating Mafeje’s analysis of epistemological and methodological issues in the social sciences. Chapter 1 focuses on his intellectual development through his shift from liberal functionalism to a radical social science and, in particular, on his work on the sociopolitical role of imbongi (a socio-political commentator or a poet) and his assessment of tribalism and its counterpart, ethnicity. A discussion of Mafeje’s critique of the ideological function of tribalism is important for a number of reasons. First, his essay on tribalism effectively established a radical break with his early liberal functionalism, although it constitutes a thematic critique of anthropological concepts, rather than a programmatic critique of the social sciences as such. Second, his analysis of the concept of tribe has been widely misunderstood; this chapter discusses precisely what he had in mind. He did not reject the entity or the institution of tribe as non-existent; rather, he rejected it as an anachronism. The object of his critique was, essentially, the ideology of tribalism.

The second chapter is concerned to dispel the conventional view that Mafeje’s critique of the social sciences was limited to a polemic on the discipline of anthropology. The chapter demonstrates that such a view is a partial reading of his work. His argument was that all the social sciences are Eurocentric and imperialist. Importantly, chapter 2 shows that to claim Mafeje’s critique centres on anthropology makes a reformist of him, rather than the revolutionary scholar that he was. The object of this chapter is to emphasise that his critique of the social sciences is best understood as programmatic (concerned to interrogate the social sciences as social sciences), rather than thematic (concerned to interrogate specific concepts and categories).

The third chapter shows how Mafeje attempted to break with epistemology, but it also demonstrates what he meant when he spoke of ethnography. For that reason, this chapter discusses in detail his magnum opus, The Theory and Ethnography of African Social Formations. This book was his most incisive theoretical and methodological statement as well  as his attempt at making good on his objective to “overthrow paradigms themselves”, as Mafeje says. It underlines the fact that Mafeje did not offer a negative critique of the social sciences but, rather, sought to deconstruct and reconstruct a social science that speaks to the realities  of the African continent. Without understanding Mafeje’s inductive theoretical and methodological approach to the social sciences – the idea of generating theory from African societies on their own terms – one cannot hope to understand his substantive work on the land and agrarian question and on revolutionary theory. In this sense, all the aspects of Mafeje’s work are interrelated and in this book I piece them together. I suspect that Mafeje took the connection between the different aspects of his work for granted, because he did not make the connection explicit in his writings. My aim is to make this connection explicit and to characterise it more fully.

Having laid the foundation with Mafeje’s theoretical and methodological approach, I take up his substantive work on land and agrarian issues in sub-Saharan Africa in Part II of this book. It begins in chapter 4 with the problem of land and agriculture on the African continent, using the case of colonial Buganda in Uganda for a deeper understanding of the agrarian revolution and the land question, and moves to a discussion of the agricultural crisis, also discussing the dynamics of African land tenure systems. The next chapter looks at small African producers, or peasants, and their responses to agrarian challenges, which I link to agrarian reform and notions of poverty eradication.

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Part III focuses on Mafeje’s work on revolutionary theory and politics. Chapter 6, devoted to the post-independence period in the Global South, discusses neocolonialism and underdevelopment. The chapter is also concerned with understanding the notion of state capitalism and looks closely at Mafeje’s critique of the notion of dual economies. The final chapter attends to his contribution to revolutionary theory and politics, in the context of South and southern Africa. Although in 1978 Mafeje published a paper on the Soweto uprising, much of his work on South African politics appeared from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. I advance a critique of the popular notion that apartheid South Africa was a case of “colonialism of a special type” or “internal colonialism”. I deliberate on the national question in South Africa, Mafeje’s call for a socialist democracy and the socialist conception of the national democratic revolution.

What makes Mafeje’s ideas so powerful and original is the fact that he was not content with reiterating received or orthodox theories. In all aspects of his work he avoided giving ready-made slogans and easy solutions to complex problems. His ability to combine his political commitment with his intellectual work is what makes his ideas so enduring. Archie Mafeje was in a category by himself.

This book presents an opportunity to tap into some of Mafeje’s ideas and considerable intellectual legacy, in order to look at our society anew. Although some of his ideas may be deemed outdated, given that he began writing in the 1960s, they nevertheless stimulate us to think about socio-political and economic issues in different ways. The most important reason why we need to read Mafeje’s work is precisely because we need ideas not only here in South Africa, but also throughout the African continent. Mafeje had very important things to say about decolonising knowledge and knowledge production, and about race and class issues, all of which are hugely important in South Africa today. We would lose a great deal by not taking seriously some of his and other African intellectuals’ ideas. At the moment South African intellectual debates are stale. This is partly because we do not reflect on old ideas, and to freshen up our debates we have to revisit old ideas such as Mafeje’s and his peers’. The point is not to take Mafeje’s ideas slavishly, but to react to them critically and to debate them. Returning to Mafeje’s ideas will have an impact on current and future generations of readers. With this book, my goal is not to exhaust Archie Mafeje’s work, but to point out that it exists.

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