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African History, South Africa

Archie Mafeje: An encounter with an African… (God/Giant)

On Wednesday, 28 March, 2007, Professor Archie Mafeje passed away in Pretoria. In his obituary, Adebayo Olukoshi, Executive Secretary CODESRIA describes him as

A great pan-African, an outstanding scientist, a first rate debater, a frontline partisan in the struggle for social justice, and a gentleman of great humanitarian principles. We will surely miss his thoughtful insights, his strident rebukes, his loyal friendship, his companionship, and — yes, his wit, humour and expert culinary skills that included an incomparable knowledge of foods and wines from all corners of the world.

Below are some notes I made from memory following a meeting with Professor Mafeje in 2005 and which is my own personal tribute to the great man.

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“The warning came a few weeks before the actual encounter, “He is difficult”, we were told. We were part of at least a hundred people who waited for His arrival for a sermon at the University of KwaZulu Natal. He didn’t show up for the sermon, nor did he send an apology, he just changed his mind, as all gods are wont to do. So we decided if he cannot come down from his heavens we shall go to him, after all we know too well the story of Mohamed and the mountain. The truth is that the warning just increased the intrigue, what kind of deity is this? He seems not to care to coax disciples and followers, to build a legion of worshippers. Does his doctrine manifest in his behaviour? With these questions in mind the writer and an intellectual friend went to visit the late Prof Archie Mafeje in Pretoria the year was 2005 .

He stood like Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. He looked down on us as we approached his shrine, which hangs high up on the hill. His tall frame engulfed in bright rays, we had to cover our eyes with the palms of our hands, as if in prayer to avoid direct eye contact with the one above. His whole demeanour suggest that he neither asks nor demands to be worshipped, however, human nature demands that we worship beings higher than ourselves. His voice beamed with the force of a hundred chariots:

“So you are one and half hours late”.

That’s how he welcomed us into his house.

We were startled. This was not the last time we were to be startled that afternoon.

We had earlier called to ask for directions and indicated that we would be late.

He continued;

“In other words you chose to bother me one and half hours before you got here”.

We gave each other awkward glances, both in self pity and with a what’s up with him, kind of gesture. It was going to be a very long afternoon indeed.

He went on to say with great disinterest.

“I’m just checking how your heads function”

He was visibly irritated by our earthly ways. He beckoned us to join him. We instinctively took off our shoes and followed him towards the lounge. He found this shoe taking off ritual slightly amusing, “The Swiss do that all the time”, and he was talking to himself really.

Everything is neat and even stylish. The color coordination is pleasant. He dictates the seating order. The result of it all is that we ended sitting directly opposite him, our backs against the wall and much further from the exit. Trapped. Yes that’s how it felt.

And we started;

“We came to see you because we believe you have made a great and original intellectual and academic contribution…”

“Yes indeed I have made a huge contribution not only on the African continent but the world over”.

He interrupted and completed our thoughts. We felt uneasy about this unabashed self congratulatory gesture. But, he was right, and even surer about it than we seemed to be. The AmaXhosa say “he who knows himself is king!”

We wanted to see Mafeje for a number of reasons, some linked to an intellectual journey we were beginning- a search for a progressive race narrative (PRN), we called our clarion call. What more apt a person to ask about intellectual battles than a seasoned warrior of the mind? We knew and were very impressed with Mafeje’s demolition of Anthropology as a discipline. Mafeje, a trained anthropologist himself had systematically exposed the deep colonial structure of inquiry and analysis which forms the basis of Anthropology. That was besides the known fact that Anthropologists had actively assisted the colonialists. His combative style of engagement is something we also found very attractive. Suffocated and reviled by an academy and knowledge production sight which is white dominated, we had developed a deep desire to connect with a Black intellectual of Prof Mafeje’s stature.

I then continued,

“Your work which in our view has successfully deconstructed the inherent colonial logic which informs anthropology and we believe it may be of great help to us…”

He interrupted with impatience.

“Are you a land activist?”

“Yes!”

I answered.

“Why do you think the government should invest time and resources in land reform when the agricultural sector contributes less than five percent of the GDP?”

He asked.

“Because land reforms is bigger than just economic indices, its about…”

“I know”,

He said, interrupting my thoughts. I can feel irritation building up within my chest. Not only did he dictate the seating arrangements but now he is dictating how this conversation is going. I sit with indignant stubbornness.

“But you also know that the countryside is being depopulated. People are leaving the land to look for a better life in the cities is that not right?”

He asked.

“Yes, but … I actually agree with Bernstein’s new thesis which he calls the new agrarian question of labour, everywhere in the world to day, because of neo-liberalism, industry can no longer absorb all the labour, where I think Bernstein is wrong is his denial of the national question…”

He lightened up, raised his hand as if to say I got you, you are nothing but a charlatan. He moved forward forcing my back to press hard against the seat in anticipation of a strike. I tensed.

“Why is Bernstein your reference point? Why is Europe your intellectual inspiration?” He was having a monologue and he was angry.

“Why is Lungisile Ntsebeza or Fred Hendricks not your reference points?”

Silence.

I know he is wrong, but one must wait and hope for an opening. His justified anger against the valorization of white scholarship in the African continent and in South Africa in particular is a dead serious matter.

“No! don’t get me wrong, Bernstein is a very clever chap I got him a job once, to work in my faculty in Tanzania.”

He said now gently resting his back against the sofa, a crescendo. Satisfied? Almost.

NOW we were working from a deficit, all we had managed to do was to awaken god from his rest on the seventh day, he was pissed off. I was hopping that the onslaught would ends at this point. Now he turned his gaze towards my companion, who was waiting with equal terror. No he changed his mind turned to me again. Oh god! I said to myself.

“Have you cleared your colleague?”

I’m smiling sheepishly.

“ Are your sure she does not work for the CIA?”.

I laughed, for the first time in what seemed like many hours of interrogation. I could have cried.

“This is seriously”;

To emphasis just how serious the matter is, he looks direct to my eyes for the first time.

“Our continent has been plagued by foreign agents for too long.” He continued, dead serious.

“She is alright”

I lied. How could I know? I wish I could dismiss him as a old paranoid fool. But Africa is under foreign control and getting worse. I make a mental note.

There is a silence. He checked the TV to see what’s the score card on the tennis match he had been following between the attacks.

I take the opening;

“The importance of the agrarian question for the region can not be under estimated, and I think Professor Sam Moyo shows this clearly in his recent work”.

I said, with a desperate last attempt to connect. For the first time he really seemed to relax and take note.

I threw in the name of a South African intellectual who had done some work on him, he got furious. Stands up and then sits down;

“He is a petty bourgeoisie intellectual opportunist”, the deity declared, and the matter was left at that.

When it was all done, we climbed down from the mountain, he waived us goodbye and shut his heavenly doors. In the safety of earth and the comfort of our car, the heaven opened with a hard down pour- icamagu livumile! we embraced in the knowledge that we have seen god, and he has invited us back to his heavenly dwellings….

Unfortunately the second visit was never to be. Now God has returned to God.

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The late Prof Mafeje was a rarity from our ancestors, may his spear continue move and swing for an African without suffering.

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2 Comments

  1. elizabeth mokotong

    BRA Archie is something else.I am reading his many works and he leaves me quilty.MY question is how did we not embrace him and give him comfortable space to share with us his depth and love of our country SOUTH AFRICAYES indeed the god our beloved ancestor left us a legacy.LET HIS WORK BE KNOWN.rest so peacefull.SORRY for ….

  2. Azab

    Just for information, the story of Mohamed and the mountain is not true. It is simply a myth. According to the well known Islamic references, Muslims believe that Mohamed was a prophet whose message was to teach people how to live in the right way. He was not a wizard who teach how to move mountains.