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.

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.

Two scholars embodied the difference of approach: Ali Mazrui and Walter Rodney. Mazrui was a child of colonial Kenya who graduated from Manchester and went on to become a professor at Makerere. He was a prolific writer and a towering public intellectual, whose taste for fierce debate was accompanied by a strong belief in the classical model of the university, as the home of the scholar ‘fascinated by ideas’. Rodney was born in Guyana, first a Dutch and, later, a British colony on the Caribbean coast of Latin America. He graduated in history from Queen’s, Guyana, and went on to Soas. By 1966 he was teaching in Dar, and regarded the university as a space of activism, in which knowledge was constituted in the here and now. His best known book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), broke colonialism down to a raw exercise of power relations and envisaged Africa’s renewal within a socialist framework of which Mazrui was extremely wary.

In the course of their various encounters, in print and at conferences, the rival camps lined up on familiar ground, one side mobilising in defence of academic freedom, the other calling for engagement with the social and political issues of the day. There were early, impressive victories for the broadly nationalist ‘relevance’ camp which challenged the autonomy of the university, and of its various faculties, which they associated with racial privilege. Without a strong role in higher education for Africa’s newly independent states it would not be possible to undermine ‘disciplinary nationalism’ – i.e. the highly patrolled borders of each discipline – and the institutional autonomy that propped up the authority of the expatriate staff. They also argued that the university should be national not only in name – Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya – but in terms of the curriculum. The imperative of academic freedom was nothing more, to their minds, than a defence of the status quo: they called for social justice, and a strong state to enforce it.

It was in this context that Transition magazine came into its own. It had been founded in Kampala on the eve of independence by Rajat Neogy, a Ugandan of Bengali origin; by the mid-1960s it enjoyed immense prestige for its roster of literary figures and its willingness to court controversy. Neogy cast all his writers as public intellectuals, whether or not they inclined to the universalist view of scholarship and letters. Contributors included James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as well as a cohort of South African writers who were wrestling with apartheid, among them Nadine Gordimer, Ezekiel Mphelele, Dennis Brutus and Lewis Nkosi.

From the start, Transition had commissioned work from political figures. In the second issue, in 1961, Julius Nyerere published a defence of the one-party system that would soon exasperate so many of the magazine’s writers: the following year he became president of Tanganyika and went on to outlaw all but his own political party. Tom Mboya, the Kenyan trade unionist, published a piece on the press and governments in Africa shortly before Kenyatta appointed him minister of justice; another, on ‘African socialism’, appeared a few issues later. Kenneth Kaunda published on the future of democracy in Africa at roughly the moment he became the first president of Zambia. By the mid-1960s, Transition was the locus of an ever-widening regional conversation, from Achebe on ‘English and the African Writer’, through Terence Ranger on Roger Casement, to Paul Theroux on Tarzan, a send-up of expatriate attitudes and an early example of cultural studies in Africa.

Shortly after Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in Ghana in 1966, Mazrui published ‘Nkrumah: The Leninist Czar’, which he followed up with a piece entitled ‘Tanzaphilia’: a withering critique of the regional and international left’s infatuation with one-party rule in Tanzania, as Tanganyika became in 1964. Both essays were incendiary, reinforcing Transition’s prestige as a magazine that set no store by orthodoxies. At the same time they sharpened the differences between Mazrui and the left at the university in Dar. If Mazrui was the most important liberal critic of Nyerere’s socialist model of the new African nationalism in power, Issa Shivji was its most important critic from the left. Two of his books, The Silent Class Struggle (1970) and Class Struggles in Tanzania (1976), proposed that Tanzania’s socialism and the big public ownership programmes that went with it should be understood as a disguised form of accumulation by a new state-based class.

Despite this intellectual brassage, the two institutions – Makerere and Dar – continued along their distinctive paths. The main issue for reformers at Makerere was the deracialisation of the teaching body, whose leading lights were predominantly white. Newly qualified young academics were promoted under pressure from government-appointed senior administrators. Among them was the young Mazrui: fresh with a doctorate from Oxford, he rose like a helicopter from lecturer to professor in the space of a few years. At Dar, by contrast, the relevance of the curriculum itself was being called into question; there was also a growing demand for interdisciplinary scholarship, especially from faculty who thought ‘disciplinary nationalism’ was to blame for the growing irrelevance of higher education to the wider discussion of the country’s social and political ills.

The discussion unfolded in the context of rapid political change, triggered by a student demonstration in October 1966, in protest against a decision to introduce compulsory national service for secondary school graduates. Nyerere’s response was drastic: his government accused students of betraying the nation, withdrew fellowships from 334 of them and sent them home. The following year he issued the Arusha Declaration, a clarion call for socialism that nationalised key sectors of the economy. The university responded with a conference in March 1967 about the role it ought to play in ‘a socialist Tanzania’, which ended with an appeal for ‘relevance’ and recommended ‘continuous curriculum review’: isolated disciplines, it was said, were failing to engage with ‘East Africa and particularly Tanzania’s socio-economic development aspirations, concerns and problems’.

Three distinct positions emerged at Dar. A radical camp, mostly non-Tanzanian, wanted a complete transformation of the curriculum and the university’s administrative structure; above all, they wanted to abolish discipline-based departments. A moderate majority, including most Tanzanian members of staff, agreed that there should be a radical review of the curriculum but no abolition of departments. A conservative minority resisted any change in the curriculum and argued for the separation of disciplines. The demand for an interdisciplinary approach, like the appeal to relevance, seemed to compromise the principles of scholarship. An astute review of the programme by a sub-committee of the university council, appointed at the end of 1970, suggested that interdisciplinarity was likely to focus on solving problems rather than understanding method, and went on to ask whether this wouldn’t produce ‘technocrats’ rather than ‘reasoning graduates’. Anyone who still thinks of interdisciplinarity as the key to a new world should consider that it has been a working principle for World Bank teams on the ground in Africa since the Bank’s inception. The same goes for the concept of area studies – interdisciplinary scholarship focused on different regions of the world – which emerged in the US after 1945, with support from the Ford Foundation, and eventually spread across the Atlantic.

At Dar, the reform process was not confined to university structures. Students launched a radical socialist magazine, Cheche, and when it was banned, promptly relaunched it as MajiMaji. Activist students and academic staff came together in regular discussion groups. A group with an official imprimatur, known as the ‘ideological class’, met at 10 a.m. every Sunday, with the aim of offering participants an alternative to church. An informal but well organised range of after-class study groups also proliferated over the years. In 1975, I belonged to five university-based study groups, each with between two and eight members. Meeting once a week, each required background reading of around a hundred pages per session and dealt with a specific theme: Das Kapital; the three Internationals; the Russian and Chinese Revolutions; the ‘agrarian question’.

We hoped to glimpse the outlines of a world beyond our own reality. It was a period of tremendous intellectual ferment, but still framed in terms of two opposing positions, epitomised by Mazrui and Rodney. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was a grand excursion in dependency theory, very much in line with the premises of the Arusha Declaration, while Mazrui’s discourse emphasised the growing contradiction between the promise of Arusha and the reality of social and political developments in Tanzania. Rodney called on intellectuals to join the struggle for national independence: colonial rule might have ended, but imperialism had not. Mazrui reiterated his worries about the temptation of authoritarianism in newly independent states. He was by now the most important liberal critic of nationalism in power and his reservations soon extended to all left-wing intellectuals seduced by radical state nationalism. In his piece in Transition he had defined ‘Tanzaphilia’ as ‘an opium of Afrophiles’: Nyerere’s Tanzania had cast a ‘romantic spell’ over the left; its effect was ‘particularly marked among Western intellectuals’, who were complicit in the drift to one-party rule. ‘Many of the most prosaic Western pragmatists,’ Mazrui wrote, ‘have been known to acquire [a] dreamy look under the spell of Tanzania.’ Mazrui had a worried eye on the radicals at Dar, but he singled out Colin Leys, then the principal of Kivukoni College, the ruling party’s ideological school (also in Dar). Leys had lamented that besides the three obvious social ills – ‘poverty, ignorance and disease’ – Tanzania was also suffering from a fourth: empiricism. Mazrui was alarmed by the possibility that Dar, too, would become ‘an ideological college’ as a result of pressure from a ‘superleft’.

Responding to figures like Leys – and presumably Rodney – for whom ideological orientation was everything, Mazrui invoked a deeper epistemological reality which he called the ‘mode of reasoning’. Ideological orientations, he argued, are both superficial and malleable: ‘Under a strong impulse one can change one’s creed. But it is much more difficult to change the process of reasoning which one acquires from one’s total educational background.’ He gave the following example:

French Marxists are still French in their intellectual style. Ideologically, they may have a lot in common with communist Chinese or communist North Koreans. But in style of reasoning and in the idiom of his thought, a French Marxist has more in common with a French liberal than with fellow communists in China and Korea. And that is why a French intellectual who is a Marxist can more easily cease to be a Marxist than he can cease to be a French intellectual.

Both formulations, ‘ideological orientation’ and ‘mode of reasoning’, appear in his essay in Transition, which came out in 1967, and if they evoke the work of Foucault it is surely because the two were thinking along similar lines about ‘discursive formations’: L’archéologie du savoir was published two years later.

The spread of higher education in Africa is a post-independence phenomenon. Only in South Africa, Egypt and the Maghreb can the number of universities founded in the colonial period be counted on more than two hands. There was only one university in Nigeria with 1000 students at the end of the colonial period: by 1990, it boasted 31 universities with 141,000 students. East Africa had a single institution of higher learning, Makerere, during the colonial period. Today, it has more than thirty. Having a national university was considered as much a hallmark of independence as having a flag, an anthem, a central bank and a currency. The fortunes of the African university dipped at the end of the 1970s with the fiscal crisis that bedevilled African states and the intervention of the Bretton Woods institutions that bailed out countries in return for subjecting their public budgets to a strict disciplinary regime. In the era of structural adjustment, Makerere became another kind of model university.

By the late 1980s, the IMF had taken charge of the Ugandan treasury, and the World Bank was running Makerere’s planning. The Bank proposed a threefold reform premised on the assumption that higher education is a private good. First, it argued, given that the benefit from higher education accrues to the individual, that individual should pay fees. Today, nearly 90 per cent of students at Makerere are fee-paying. Second, the university should be run by autonomous disciplinary departments and not by a centralised administration. This was achieved by means of a simple formula, requiring that 80 per cent of student fees go to his or her disciplinary department or faculty. The Bank had managed, very effectively, to starve the central administration of funds. Third, the curriculum should be revised to make it market-friendly and more professional: the geography department began to offer a BA in tourism, and the Institute of Linguistics a BA in secretarial studies.

Over the next decade the Makerere model was exported to other universities in the region and throughout the continent. This largely accounts for the fact that fees were rising around the same time as ‘independence’ – transition to majority rule – was coming into effect in South Africa. And it was no surprise that an expanded entry of black students into ‘white’ universities was followed by an expanded exit of more and more of the same students: either they were unable to keep up payments or they found it hard to get to grips with the disciplines in which they were enrolled. As these students looked for ways to explain their predicament, the only answers they could find seemed to lie in rising fees and a curriculum that bore little relationship to their life experiences, or family and community histories.


Is there an intellectual mode of reasoning we can describe as African, in the way Mazrui spoke of a ‘French’ or a ‘Western’ mode of reasoning? Not an ancestral or genetic mode, obviously, but one which weaves together a set of discourses communicated in a common language that presupposes – or suggests – an intellectual community with a long historical formation. Language is our first obstacle here. Most of those of us who have come out of colonialism speak more than one. The languages of colonialism are inevitably languages of science, scholarship and global affairs. Then there are the languages of colonised peoples – languages whose growth was truncated by colonialism. Our home languages remain folkloric, shut out of the world of science and learning, high culture, law and government. There are exceptions. In East Africa, Kiswahili is the language of popular interaction, culture, and official discourse, also the medium of primary and secondary schooling, but not of university education. At East African universities, it has the status of a foreign language, with departments of Kiswahili studies. It is not the bearer of a scientific or a universal philological tradition.

The fate of Afrikaans has been different, evolving from its lowly status as ‘kitchen Dutch’ to become the medium of a vigorous intellectual tradition in less than half a century: a change that would have been inconceivable without a vast institutional network – schools and universities, newspapers, magazines and publishing houses – funded by public money. This vast affirmative action programme, begun in 1948 and driven by apartheid, lifted Afrikaans from the ‘kitchen’ to the lecture theatre, the science journal, the law courts and the national media at remarkable speed. And it did so not by seeking to displace English, since the major English-language universities like Witts and Cape Town continued in their old way, but by creating major Afrikaans-language universities like Stellenbosch and Pretoria, in a project that called for inclusion rather than displacement. Afrikaans was the most successful decolonising linguistic initiative – in this case, against the British – in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the new government of South Africa saw no reason to emulate it, perhaps because the weight of colonial linguistics bears down on Africa as a continent with ‘too many’ languages for its own good: anywhere between 700 – the tally reached by Malcolm Hailey in 1938 – and 2000 nowadays, depending on what we take to be a language or a dialect. The African university today is still very much what it was from the start: a colonial project with a monolingual medium of instruction, framed in terms of a European ‘universalism’ from which a large majority of the colonised were excluded.

What would it mean to decolonise a university in Africa? The East African experience suggests that one answer would be the opposite of what is happening in American and British universities: reducing the cost of a university education, by state grants and subsidies, to make it more inclusive. In the first place, therefore, fees would have to fall. I was at the University of Cape Town from 1996 to 1999; in the years that followed – the heyday of South Africa’s independence – fees began rising. In the second place, there would have to be multilingual projects designed to provide Westernised education in several languages and to nurture non-Western intellectual traditions as living vehicles of public and scholarly discourse in those languages. This is not a demand for a revivalist project, but a call to include the languages of popular discourse, which in South Africa would mean centres for the study of the Nguni and Sotho languages and traditions (the opposite of area studies), and translation units, carrying the best academic literature – global, regional and South African – back and forth between the new linguistic centres and the older faculties. Broadening the referential world of African universities means competence in the languages which embody non-Western traditions.

In exporting theory from the Western academy, colonialism brought with it the assumption that theory is the product of Western tradition and that the aim of academies outside the West is to apply it. If the elaboration of theory was a creative act in the West, its application in the colonies became the reverse: a readymade, turnkey project that simply put itself at the disposal of academics and students. This was true on the left as well as on the right; whether Marx and Foucault were the object of study, or Weber and Huntington, students tended to learn theory as if learning a new language: some remarkably well, others less so. The latter give us an insight into what is wrong with the notion of the student as technician, whose learning begins and ends with the application of a theory produced elsewhere: too often it has produced caricatures, another group of mimic men and women for a new era. The alternative is to theorise our own reality, and to strike the right balance between the local and the global as we do so. The local production of knowledge unfolds in relation to a complex of social forces, and takes account of a society’s needs and demands, its capacities and aspirations. The global conversation is an evolving debate between scholars, within and across disciplines, in which the play of geopolitical forces has less and less relevance. The local conversation gives rise to the committed intellectual, embroiled in public discourse, often highly sensitive to political boundaries in the society at large; the global conversation calls for a scholar who takes no account of boundaries.