Mafeje-Jordan seminar: the postcolonialism of a radical course
Professor Emeritus Crain Soudien from the University of Cape Town (UCT) presented his research paper A rereading of Kies “ The contribution of non-European peoples to world civilization ” during the second installment of the Mafeje-Jordan seminar series, held on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Professor Emeritus Soudien is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UCT, where he continues to contribute to the School of Education and Center for African Studies (CAS). He recently completed his term as CEO of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Soudien’s numerous publications in the fields of social difference, culture, educational policy, comparative education, educational change, public history and popular culture – more recently, The Cape Radicals: Intellectual and Political Thought of the New Era Fellowship – earned it an A rating from the National Research Foundation.
He presented the document at the seminar series, named in honor of UCT alumni Archibald ‘Archie’ Mafeje and Archibald Campbell (AC) Jordan. This series of seminars is presented by the Faculty of Human Sciences, The African Studies Unit of the CAS and the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics (AXL). The faculty, CAS and AXL are aligned in their missions to promote and support African studies at UCT, and to offer interdisciplinary teaching and research opportunities on the subject.
Deconstructing the Concept of Western Civilization
Soudien discussed a lecture entitled The contribution of non-European peoples to the civilized worldzation, which was uttered by Benjamin Magson Kies – or Ben Kies, as he was more popularly known – in 1953. Kies was a teacher, a theorist of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), and one of the political and intellectual figures most important in modern South African history. After enrolling in 1934, he attended UCT and obtained a BA, MA and Bachelor of Education, after which he took up a teaching post at Trafalgar High School.
While completing his BA in 1937, Kies helped establish the New Era Fellowship (NEF), a progressive, anti-colonial debate society that was the training ground for those who supported ideas of anti-Stalinist forms of socialism. The NEF was the incubator for a variety of progressive and socialist organizations in the cultural, social and political spheres which were founded in Cape Town from 1937, including the NEUM which in its current version exists as by New Unity Movement.
Throughout the 1940s, Kies constantly propelled the NEF “towards a more theoretical reflection on the question of the sociology of [South Africa] and “race” in particular, “which was a leadership that was rooted in its frustration with the” civility concern “of the previous generation. Examining issues of race and imperialism, Kies delivered a series of addresses, culminating in the conference being analyzed.
Kies’ speech was delivered in September 1953, under the auspices of the Teachers League of South Africa as the AJ Abrahamse Conference, and focused primarily on the “myth of the race.”
“In the conference, [Kies] deconstructs the universe encapsulated in the concept of western civilization and the idea of a western man with a western soul and a western philosophy, western science and a western way of life, ”Soudien said.
“From this perspective, the imperialist conquest is presented as a claim and proof of the racial superiority inherent in the conquerors and the racial inferiority inherent in the vanquished.”
A man ahead of his time
The significance of Kies’ speech, Soudien explained, is the shift in thinking that he and his colleagues brought not only around South African politics, but also around world history and development.
“I contend that this conference signals not only a break with mainstream thinking about the political nature of South Africa, but also in its framing of world history.
“It both anticipates the subordinate movement and offers new analysis to explain social and economic development,” Soudien said.
Although widely recognized for its contribution to the idea of non-racism, the conference also traces the lines and history of human development over the past 5,000 years. According to Soudien, this had the effect “of introducing into socio-cultural history what the intellectual colleague closest to Kies [Hosea] Jaffe called the theory of world systems, “50 years before Emmanuel Wallerstein published what is considered the seminal article on the subject.
“… This conference signals not only a break with the dominant thought on the political nature of South Africa, but also in its framing of world history.”
Soudien points out that Kies was also in the presence of extraordinary intellectuals, including AC Jordan, “who examined the concept of Ubuntu and its necessity to come to think about the range of capacities that modern human beings should have”. This, Soudien said, was the basis of a critical African modernism that helped Kies face, without any excuse, the question of unapologetic ways of the African past.
The approach offered Kies the opportunity to situate the Western world as “the recipient, the ancestor of 5,000 years of civilizational development” and allowed him to “show how the Renaissance is the aggregation of this cumulative effect of multiple learning and development components. which preceded the 1500s ”. This laid the groundwork for modern academics to dissect this “myth of what Europe is and the idea that goes with it that the continent has gone through a virgin development path”.
A broadening of thought
Soudien argued that Kies had the opportunity in this lecture to criticize the human-centered idea of modernity that permeated most approaches to human development, including socialism. Kies struggled with the idea of ”mutual aid”, derived from the Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin, and hence the principle of “benevolence” as a deep human quality, but did not take up these ideas. Instead, he stuck with the idea that human beings “deepen” their control over nature as a goal of human development.
In Soudien’s view, the areas of eco-socialism and green socialism offer the greatest opportunity for the expansion of Kies’ theories, building on his discussion of the ethics of what is care, towards an examination of sustainability as a means of liberating human beings.