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 discipline based, 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.

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