Ari Sitas: Reflections from South Africa

17th Poetry Africa 2013

Reflections from South Africa


Ari Sitas



We have an adage that to arrive at the future we have to fly back in time and correct the past. For many of us in the South, and the Southern-most tip of the African Continent is quite South, we have to deal with the serious past, then the recent past before we can also deal with the future.

The serious past: nowhere in our scholarship is there a notion that our past is “traditional”, or about “mechanical solidarity”–a kind of anachronism that weighs us down into laggards stumbling on the road to modernity. Instead, we see an entanglement since the forays of European powers into the majority world, and see peculiar inversions when foraging turns to settlement and settlement into colonialism. Depending how far we want to start this but the world was already entangled from the times of Theocratic proxy states from the 7th to the 11th centuries where of the 14 urban formations with over 100 000 people, were (apart from Cordoba) located East with Baghdad being a kind of cosmopolis and with Mapubungwe, Kilwa and Axum being part of an African link in the intensive movements of people, material and symbolic goods of the time.

And we can trace the move from that to the rise of Absolutist states from the 11th to the 15th centuries with the epicentre still being East, with Beijing rising and where China is at the heart of what was described as an industrious revolution, with the rise of significant urban formations in the Americas, Africa and South East Asia, with Venice, Genoa and Paris making their first shy appearance, a re-surfacing that at that stage was a pale version of the Roman world of days gone past. And then, we can speak of the 15th-17th centuries as a period of European ascendance and the involution of the Non-West (although economic historians are beginning to doubt that) and trace how African social formations are on the ascendance or decline because or despite the slave trade, trace the slave trade into the interstices of the New World. In short do a proper history where European modernity is not about a virgin birth but a story of an entanglement.

In the process many of our Sociological canon’s certainties evaporate: where is the “traditional” to be found in 1450 or 1650? What in the relationship between urban elites in Vijayanagar, Zimbabwe, Technochitlan, Istanbul, Genoa or Baghdad and their countryside is about mechanical solidarity? What about the carceral archipelago for the catchment of slaves on the West Coast of Africa named as a system of factories in the 17th and 18th centuries; what of the relationship between Jesuits and proto-Calvinists in the new world, and their role in the development of the protestant ethic and did not Wesley define his Methodism on the frontier of the “heathen other” in the Americas? Shouldn’t we be correcting historical materialism’s simplistic schema of four successive modes of production? And isn’t the transition literature from feudalism to capitalism a concern of a small section of the planet’s land relations? What were the Colbert led criminal (1670) civic (1672) and black (1685) Codes?

Unfortunately Sociology has been agnostic about the expansive historiographical revolution that has defined the academy in the last twenty years on the one hand and has been rather shy of learning from Area Studies when discussing the majority world. Furthermore, as concerns Africa, it has totally ignored even the endogenous narratives of historical evolution. Nevertheless, a focus on that peculiar period between the 15th and the 18th centuries will be instructive to capture certain enduring forms of both structure and agency. In the deviant and defiant responses to this entanglement we will find in black slave rebellions vital notions of freedom and in challenges to emerging powers some of the most enticing ideas enunciated by “levellers” everywhere and as settlement turned to control and governance some of the primary “otherings” that emerge as anti-colonial nationalisms and/or indigenous movements later. These scripts of defiance were constitutive of what is most redeeming about the “entanglement”.

But then over and above the real past, we have the recent past to rethink. Even if the emergence of Europe as the capitalist metropole was not a virgin birth and it took more than an autochthonous take-off to surge ahead, the surging was not insignificant. The story from the industrial revolution to Britain becoming the imperial epicentre of the world by the late 19th Century and not only become a world hegemon but to combine for the first time the flow of material and symbolic goods was unprecedented.

Britain’s hegemony was also South Africa’s cursed blessing: gold. And the decision to shift to a gold standard and to fix its price at 25 shillings and ounce and to get hundreds of thousands of black workers down kilometres of tunnel and to fight wars to achieve or ward off colonisation (Anglo-Zulu, Boer) and to introduce the most ingenuous forms of exclusion, exploitation and racial segregation and to pilot eugenics and to launch Galton’s version as the founding project of the British Sociological society and to spawn in response Gandhi’s satyagraha and Congresses and immediately thereafter African nationalism. Apologies for the endless listing but the entanglement was decisive and so was Cecil John Rhodes’ contribution to British academic prowess and so were those distant spaces a boon to British science. Comparative sociology often forgets the interconnection and synchronicity.

Learning from this we will soon enough be able to fathom how it is that the attempt by USA to receive the hegemonic mantle was short-lived and how we are living through an enormous transition of emergence and decline, to match the epochal 1500-1700s where a fundamental bifurcation is occurring between the production and exchange of material goods is moving South and East and where symbolic goods remain for the time being within the North (Education, Science, Culture) and emerging powers have consolidated a capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Neither theories of post-industrialism nor an informational fix can explicate the fact that in tonnage terms the world of steel (for example) has tripled since 1970s,(the height of Fordism!) whilst in value terms it plummeted in any GDP. Nor can it explicate how since the Second World War we have moved from 48 borders to 227 as nation-states, fences, armies, surveillance-forms are booming at the height of globalisation. Nor can we explicate the moral panics, the polarisations and violence if we remain within the range of a Sociology of acute Euro-narcissism.

But then there is the future: the origins and veracity of our discipline has been linked to our ability to say something about the human so that we may predict and control human behaviour (for domination and for the common good!). I think that the time of shifting its coordinates to study what constrains human flourishing and helping us remove such constrains from patriarchy to class or race, is more than urgent. It is the imperative of all of us who have been seduced by the only redeeming features of modernity— the search for a balance between equality and freedom (the very notions brought to us by deviant and defiant others). And we do know that such a balance has to be also about all sentient beings and the flora and fauna that have been stunted by our reckless hosting.

My view perhaps is too idiosyncratic but it would be preferable if we started subscribing to a post-imperial and post-racial ethic now that we are all “others” in a complicated world: that the other is not surplus non-being and therefore non-exterminable, that the other is not chattel and therefore non-exploitable and that the other is never a non-us and therefore non-excludable. After all, most of modernity’s entanglement was quite regrettable.



Sitas_Ari - portrait

Ari Sitas, sociologist and writer. Currently on long leave from the University of Cape Town where he heads the Department of Sociology and occupying the Bhagat Singh Chair at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He also chairs the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences in South Africa and leads a multi-institutional project in AfroAsia studying the flows of people, slaves and music (7th-15th Centuries AD). He and an ensemble of other scholars are working on a sequel to Gauging and Engaging Deviance, 1600-2000 recently published by Tulika Press in India, titled, Scripts of Defiance. His (2010) Mandela Decade: Labour, Culture and Society in Post-Apartheid South Africa, (University of South Africa Press) is to go into its third print-run. – Creatively apart from celebrated volumes of poetry (Rough Music, 2013, Around the World in 80 Days-the India Section, 2014) he is one of the founders of the award winning musical Insurrections Ensemble whose latest work, Storming, (the loose re-working of Aime Cesaire’s anti-colonial version The Tempest) will be released this year. At the moment, whilst on leave he is working on his latest Oratorio which is a via dolorosa of our contemporary period and is to be staged by India’s foremost theatrical director, Anuradha Kapur in 2017.



Banner Image: Performance of the Insurrections ensemble at the 17th Poetry Africa, an international poetry festival organized in Durban, South Africa, by the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal (UKZN)’s Centre for Creative Arts (photo credit: courtesy of CCA, 2013).



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