Mamdani on the African University

16 Jul, 2018,

The African University - Mahmood Mamdani

It is striking, in the postcolonial era, how little the modern African university has to do with African institutions. It draws its inspiration from the colonial period and takes as its model the disciplinebased, gated community that maintained a distinction between clearly defined groups: administrators, academics and fee-paying students. The origins of this arrangement lay in 19th-century Berlin, and Humboldt University, founded in 1810 in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia. The African university makes its appearance later in the 19th century. At the southern end of the continent, colleges were started from scratch – Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Witwatersrand. In the north, existing institutions such as al-Azhar in Cairo, a centre of Islamic scholarship, were ‘modernised’ and new disciplines introduced. The Humboldt model aimed to produce universal scholars, men and women who stood for excellence, regardless of context, and – in the colonies – could serve as a native vanguard of ‘civilisation’ without reservation or remorse. The African university, in other words, began as part of the European colonial mission, a precursor of the one-size-fits-all initiatives that we associate with the World Bank and the IMF. And so it continued, until decolonisation.

The first critical challenge came from the ranks of nationalist movements, where a different kind of product – the committed intellectual rather than the universal scholar – had begun to emerge following the Second World War. The new intellectuals were concerned with ‘relevance’ rather than excellence; their preoccupations were grounded in the politics and societies around them and in that sense no longer strictly ‘universal’. During the 1960s, a reform movement gathered pace on two very different campuses: Makerere in Kampala, which was founded in 1922, forty years before Uganda’s independence, and Dar-es-Salaam, founded in 1961, the year of Tanganyika’s. Makerere was the paradigm of the European colonial university, with a conservative, universalist tradition. Dar-es-Salaam, which began life as an affiliate of the University of London, had an ambitious, nationalist sense of purpose. In 1963 a new arrangement affiliated three campuses, in Nairobi, Kampala and Dar, as the University of East Africa. With Portuguese and British settler colonies on Tanganyika’s borders, Dar rapidly became the flag-bearer of anti-colonial nationalism and the home of the new, African public intellectual. Makerere, in the capital of an independent state whose neighbours – Sudan, Tanganyika and, in name at least, Congo and Rwanda – had also gained independence saw no reason to revise its universalist tradition. In the 1960s and early 1970s there were lively exchanges at conferences in Dar and Makerere, but each was proud of its reputation and stuck to its guns. 

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