African history is a discipline on the rise – and one that raises many questions

Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the post-colonial 1960s. Shutterstock

African history has gone through many incarnations as an academic discipline.

Most recently, there’s been a global turn in African historiography. This shift has been prompted by a greater awareness of the powerful forces of globalisation and the need to provide an African historical perspective on this phenomenon. This has helped to place the continent at the centre of global – and human – history.

It’s important to explain the role of Africa in the world’s global past. This helps assert its position in the gradual making of global affairs. As an approach, it’s a radical departure from colonial views of Africa. It also complements the radical post-colonial histories that appeared from the 1950s and 1960s. And it may offer another framework for thinking through the curriculum reform and decolonisation debate that’s emerged in South Africa’s universities over the past few years.

The history of African history

Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the 1950s and 1960s, in tandem with Africa’s emergence from colonial rule. Newly emerging histories served as an antidote to the pernicious views of imperial and colonial historiography. These had dismissed Africa as a dark continent without history.

But demonstrating that Africa has a long, complex history was only one step in an intellectual journey with many successes, frustrations and failures.

The long 20th century ended. A new one beckoned. It brought new sets of challenges. South Africa euphorically defeated apartheid. The decolonisation project that started during the 1950s in west and north Africa was completed. These achievements were overshadowed by a horrific post-colonial genocide in Rwanda. Another genocide loomed in the Sudan. Coups, civil wars and human rights abuses stained the canvas on which a new Africa was gradually being painted.

Africa’s woes were deepened by the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic. State-driven, pro-poor policies and programmes founded during the early post-colonial period atrophied. This decay was driven by hegemonic global neoliberal economic policies.

And the study of history on the continent took a knock. Student numbers declined as post-colonial governments shifted their priorities. Global funding bodies focused their attention on applied social sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Nearly two decades into the new century there’s been another shift. The subject of history, alongside other humanities disciplines, is attracting growing attention aimed at averting their further decline. This can be explained in part by the subject’s own residual internal resilience and innovative research in newer areas of historical curiosity. There’s an emerging interest in history as a complementary discipline. Students of law, education, and political science are taking history as an additional option.

In South Africa in particular, history cannot be easily ignored, although it is contested. The country is still redefining itself and charting its new course after decades of apartheid and colonialism. However, a great deal of newer interest in history as a subject can be ascribed to university student movements. These movements have garnered greater public attention for ongoing debates about decoloniality and decolonised curricula.

Decoloniality is a radical concept. Its main aim is to degrade the coloniality of knowledge. In South Africa, the decolonisation movement has been tied to bread and butter issues: tuition fees and access to higher education. Decoloniality affords both the language and the reason for seeking to dismantle what are regarded as western and colonial systems and structures of knowledge production and dissemination.

Rethinking decolonisation

But while decolonisation is riding a wave of academic interest, the histories of precolonial Africa are receding as an area of primary research focus. The histories of resistance to colonialism continue to resonate with current struggles for transformation and decolonisation. They have long been popular among historians in and of Africa. Indeed, several social and political movements have used decolonial interpretations of African history as their currency.

However, questions continue to be asked about the kind of history curriculum that should be studied at university level at this moment. And what are the purposes of such curricula? Is an African history module a necessarily transformed one? What new conceptual and methodological tools should be deployed to describe and explain colonial encounters from a decolonial lens? What modes of ethics should inform such approaches?

The challenges go beyond the conceptual aspects of decolonisation in the domain of African history. There are historical structural formations, hierarchies and tendencies within academia that are rooted in coloniality. These make it a huge challenge to articulate newer forms of knowledge. At the same time, decoloniality should operate through other forms and frameworks. This will allow it to find application beyond its own self-defined frames.

In addition, new approaches should challenge received wisdom and develop new kinds of curiosity. Newer curriculum should, for instance, grapple with the fact that there is no single Africa. A unitary model of Africa is a colonial invention. Ordinary people’s identities form and evolve via multiple networks and knowledge forms. An Africa approached from its diverse histories and identities could help forge new, purposeful solidarities and futures.

Author’s note: These were some of the issues discussed during a postgraduate seminar I convened in the Themes in African History module offered by the University of Pretoria’s Department of Historical & Heritage Studies. The insights offered here are my students’: Jane Mampane, Kudzai Mhere, Nobungcwele Mbem, Genis Stephanus Gabriel Du Toit, Laura Sophie Schnieders, Nicole Sithole and Tanyaradzwa Muranda.

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