Can the North hear?

Tessa Lewin

I spent last week in Durban at the IAMCR (the International Association for Media and Communication Research) Conference, where I was presenting a paper on Pathways of Women’s Empowerment ‘Real World’ documentary film scheme, together with other contributors to the forthcoming IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development (Bulletin no. 43.5 – September 2012).

Aside from the broad overview of the field offered by the conference programme, the numerous specialist bookstalls, and the people, by far the most interesting and complicating moment for me was the opening plenary. Aside from Mbembe’s talk, which had moments of brilliance, there were two things that defined my experience of this event  – William Makgoba’s address, and Raewynn Connell’s presentation. Makgoba was opening the conference in his role as Vice Chancellor of the University. Connell was speaking about the political economy of global knowledge production, with reference to her book on Southern Theory (the overarching theme for the conference was ‘South-North Conversations’).

Makgoba is a very controversial figure in South Africa. He is widely acknowledged as a brilliant scientist and, more controversially, as a leader. In 1995 he was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.  While in this role, a group of fellow academics accused him of administrative incompetence, disloyalty to the university and embellishing his curriculum vitae. Makgoba launched a counterattack, accused the University of institutional racism, and resigned. The ‘Makgoba Affair’ polarized the university along racial lines, and was seen by many as an incident that defined the complexities of post-Apartheid South Africa. More recently, in his role as Vice Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu Natal, he has been accused of undermining academic freedom by autocratically censoring his critics.

After a glowing eulogy from Ruth Teer-Tomaselli (a well-known media academic and the co-chair of the local organising committee) introducing Makgoba, he spoke somewhat curiously, to the room of media practitioners and academics, about the lack of proper regulation of journalists, and suggested that like medical practitioners, journalists should be controlled by a professional regulatory body. He appeared to be echoing recent pronouncements by ANC leaders linked to the much-debated South African Protection of State Information Bill. Teer-Tomaselli later issued what appeared to be a disclaimer for Makgoba’s speech – where she reassured the conference of his intelligence, and his intent to provoke. What made Makgoba’s address particularly surreal was the seeming lack of audience reaction or engagement. It was not clear what silenced the South Africans in the audience, but I am certain that most of the non-South African delegates had no idea of the contextual significance of any of the details of the event. In this sense, it was a perfect illustration of what can be lost in translation in South-North conversations.

Connell talked about her field, sociology, and the extent to which its emergence and growth in the West was very much part of the Imperial project. She outlined how this has shaped the knowledge relationship of ‘academic dependency’ between South and North. She showed a sobering info graphic illustrating the geographical spread of sociology journals – the majority coming from the USA, followed by the UK. She argued that many indigenous knowledges and priorities were being underrepresented in global academia as a result of existing entrenched patterns. Agendas are often set by editorial priorities and experiences of ‘Northern’ academics. She pointed out that the recent growth of neo-liberal management and its insistence on a particular understanding of ‘impact’ and ‘rigour’ within Universities further entrenches these patterns.

Connell went on to argue that Spivak’s question ‘can the South speak?’ should be accompanied by the question ‘Can the North hear?’ She asserted that the driving force for structural change will be intellectual production in the global South, not reform from the North. She also gave an introduction to several ‘Southern’ theorists who have made significant contributions to theory including Bina Agarwal, Sol Plaatje, Paulin J. Hountondji, Ali Shariati. Connell called for both Northern and Southern voices to work together, as allies, to try and better balance the system.

In the context of this plenary the South-North framing of the conference felt less anachronistic than I had initially viewed it, and more a vital call to arms, to awareness, to action. I for one, came away determined to read more and ask more questions, and address the gaps in my knowledge both about the ongoing structural inequities of academia, and numerous Southern theorists.

Tessa Lewin is a researcher in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

6 Responses to Can the North hear?

  1. Zoe Sullivan says:

    Nice work, Tessa! I’m also curious why the South Africans in the audience were silent. It’s also an interesting view into how audiences can be “polite” and not question positions that should be questioned.

  2. Tessa says:

    Thanks Zoe. I suspect that there are many different reasons for the silence – some were tired, some apathetic, some scared, some indifferent, some distracted, some hearing what they expected to. There was definitely a sense from some that it was not worth engaging – and again probably for a variety of reasons.

  3. amuzweni1 says:

    Thank you for the post. It appears to me, and I am making an assumption here that you are throwing aspersions. Was he echoing the ANC’s POIB? Was he just expressin an opinion? It’s also unfortunate that you framed your introduction of him by giving his ‘failures’ at Wits, and his ‘continued’ failures at UKZN. If I read between the lines of what you’ve written, it looks like you’re saying he supports the muzzling of journalists, just like he has muzzled critics at his university. I’m also disappointed by your punting Connel’s argument of knowledge production from the south. as if there is nothing, or that there isn’t anything worthy to be listened to / heard by the North. In any case I find the “can the north hear’ theme problematic. Anyway thanks for your post. I am joining you in reading and gaining knowldge.

  4. Tessa says:

    Hi, thanks for your comment. I have not talked about Makgoba’s ‘failures’ as you put it. I have talked about his leadership as controversial. As to whether or not he was explicitly echoing the POIB, I can’t say, but he was arguing for increased regulation of the media. WIth regards to Connell, she was absolutely NOT saying that there is nothing of value coming out of the South, quite the contrary. She was saying that academia is skewed towards valuing/supporting Northern knowledge production/distribution. Re the ‘North’ ‘South’ framing – I would agree with you – it is problematic on a number of levels – but in this specific context it makes sense. South-North conversations was the named theme of the IAMCR conference, and ‘Can the South speak?’ comes from Spivak, and ‘Can the north hear?’ from Connell, referencing Spivak.

  5. isabel kiminyei says:

    hi,i enjoyed the above conversation.

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