Home International News Africa Achille Mbembe becomes Africa’s first Holberg Prize laureate

Achille Mbembe becomes Africa’s first Holberg Prize laureate

Professor Achille Mbembe, Cameroonian-born scholar and an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, is the first African to be awarded the Holberg Prize – a major international prize that goes annually to “an outstanding researcher in the humanities, social sciences, law or theology”, according to the prize’s secretariat.

The prize, in monetary terms valued at about US$575,000 is administered by the University of Bergen, on behalf of the Norwegian government.

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“Mbembe’s oeuvre goes beyond a particularised notion of decolonisation to a universalist recentring of the human,” said Heike Krieger, the chairman of the Holberg committee, in a statement announcing the Wits academic as the 2024 laureate for the prize. Mbembe is attached to the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER).

“For him, this involves a dedication to facing historical truth while learning and remembering across South-North divides. Achille Mbembe is undoubtedly a highly worthy recipient of the 2024 Holberg Prize,” added Krieger.

Hailed as one of the foremost thinkers of postcolonial Africa, Mbembe will receive the award on 6 June at the University of Bergen. Throughout his career, he has questioned the conditions for rethinking the world and explored alternative ways of inhabiting it, and nurturing a planetary consciousness.

His work has been described as focusing on envisioning an open future that moves beyond the history of race, colonialism and segregation with which the present is so deeply entangled. He is one of the most read and cited scholars in Africa. His books have been printed in 17 languages.

“The Holberg Prize is named after the Danish-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg, who excelled in all the disciplines covered by the award. Holberg played an important part in bringing the Enlightenment to the Nordic countries and is also well known as a playwright and author,” according to its website.

Last year’s winner was Joan Martinez-Alier, a Catalan scholar who works in the field of ecological economics, political ecology. Other laureates include United States science and technology scholar Sheila Jasanoff (2022), American Martha C Nussbaum (2021) for her work in philosophy, law and related fields, Brit Paul Gilroy (2019) for a body of work in cultural studies, critical race studies, literary studies and related fields, Marina Warner (2015) a British historian, writer and mythologist, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells (2012) and German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas (2005).

Before the formal announcement on 14 March, Mbembe spoke to University World News about the prize as a testimony to his academic work, politics and higher education on the continent.

UWN: What does being the first Holberg laureate in Africa mean to you?

AM: It is significant because it signals Africa’s recentring in the global circuits of knowledge production. I also believe that it is a validation of all the innovative and diverse intellectual work and research that has been done and is being done on the continent via institutions such as WISER, where I’ve been working for the past 23 years, as well as numerous other institutions. It is, without question, important to me.

I say this because, as you know, Africa has occupied a very paradoxical position in the global economy of knowledge for a very long time.

This is paradoxical in that, on the one hand, it has always been assumed that African things are residual entities, the study of which does not contribute anything to knowledge of the world or knowledge of the human condition in general.

On the other hand, the region of Africa has provided most, or some of our modern disciplines with some foundational categories, whether we are talking about anthropology, political economy, development studies, psychoanalysis or structuralism. Without those key categories, our disciplines would be utterly poor today.

So … as the 20th-21st century falls, many are beginning to recognise that our planet’s destiny might be played out in Africa, and therefore, what we are seeing is global recognition of that philosophical and material contributions of the continent, and maybe more [of a] willingness to listen to reflections coming from this part of the world. That’s how I see it.

UWN: How does it feel to be included among the previous laureates, including Jürgen Habermas, Manuel Castells, Paul Gilroy, Martha Nussbaum, Sheila Jasanoff, among others?

AM: Many doors have already begun to open up [in Africa]. For instance, in literature, we have had a few Nobel Prizes, (Wole) Soyinka (Nigeria, 1986), (Nadine) Gordimer (South Africa, 1991), (JM) Coetzee (South Africa, 2003), and others. In other domains of human creation, such as artistic creation, we have people like [South African] William Kentridge, among many others. We have had the same thing in music.

In the field we work in, in the humanities and the social sciences … that moment had not yet happened.

But, as I was saying a moment ago, the African moment in these other fields of knowledge … that moment is inevitable. It will come in any case, so I see that as happening to me.

I would like to see it as the beginning of a bigger trend [in which] the continent becomes the epicentre of global reflection, going on to the ways of inhabiting the planet anew.

And, in our deep archives, we do have a lot to offer in terms of finding those new ways of inhabiting an Earth that has been so badly damaged, repairing it, and sharing all of this as a precondition for its very sustainability.

UWN: How does this accolade encourage your work to achieve more impactful outcomes?

AM: Many are following, charting, in fact, this path. What strikes me is that we live at a time of redrawing the global intellectual map, and this is the shift that [has not] started yesterday.

I would think that it began during the era of decolonisation. But there has been an acceleration in redrawing the global map. For instance, today, besides traditional northern Atlantic research institutions and centres of learning, we are witnessing the emergence of alternative circuits of circulation, which have emerged especially in the last quarter of the 20th century.

And, so far, as I speak, these are the worldwide dissemination of thought, which is being helped by a worldwide circulation of the information of texts, and a highly productive invention and reappropriation of concepts, in short, [and] the denationalisation of the great debates. For instance, my work is translated into 16 different languages. So, all of these processes I’m trying to describe make it possible for the African moment, which I was calling a month ago, to become a reality. So, I’m just a manifestation of that. That deep process which, in any case, occurred.

UWN: Besides your broad work on postcolonial Africa, you are also a central figure in rethinking the relationships between the United States, Europe and Africa. How and where should we be heading in terms of academia?

AM: I have been with WISER for the past 23 years at Wits University. I spent most of my adult life in South Africa in Johannesburg. When I first moved here in the early 2000s, South Africa was a major destination for a cosmopolitan crew of international lecturers worldwide.

Not only from Africa [we came], but many, too, [arrived] from Europe, America, Asia, etc. We were building one of the many epicentres of global knowledge as disseminated [also] in northern centres and [other] parts of the Global South.

What we have seen of late is a shrinking of that cosmopolitan space which universities used to occupy. Partly, unfortunately, as a result of very bad policy choices, some of which are steeped in a kind of xenophobic mentality.

Professor Jonathan Jansen [former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, distinguished professor in education at Stellenbosch University, author and former president of the South African Academy of Science] has been researching the mechanisms of this shrinking of the cosmopolitan afropolitan space.

The results of his study are frightening. So it seems to me that, if we want to nurture and consolidate in this part of our world, the kind of work that can be recognised internationally, that can offer something to think about to the rest of the world, has to be in keeping with our universities and centres of higher learning as really wide spaces [where there is] freedom in hospitality … that these ethics of hospitality are crucial and under siege.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, as I speak, it does not bode well for our own experience here in South Africa into the continent.

UWN: How strong is democracy in Africa, knowing that we have so many dictatorships that keep going on and on? In South Africa, while we have democracy, we are effectively a one-party state for now. How strong is democracy on the continent?

AM: It varies from country to country, depending on those countries’ specific national or regional histories. But, broadly speaking, we are facing a stalemate when it comes to consolidating democratic culture on the continent.

In West Africa, for instance, we have witnessed, of late, a resurgence of military coups. We thought we had gone beyond the time when the power to rule was to be found in the barrel of a gun.

In Central Africa, we witness some of the most predatory and corrupt autocracies, some of which have been there or in power for almost half a century.

I consider what’s going on in places such as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo Brazzaville, and so on. We also see in places such as Chad how, in fact, a change of regime follows a rather violent path. Sudan is collapsing.

In South Africa, we have inherited a model that reminds me of what happened in Mexico where, for 70 years, the same party ruled – even in India, during the first many decades of Congress.

All of this is not extremely encouraging. But, of course, there are many ways in which we can explain it. One key way of explaining it has to do with the global context of neoliberalism, which we know is incompatible with democracy.

UWN: What leaves you concerned about the state of higher education in Africa?

AM: It’s a very mixed bag. Even in places such as South Africa, where academic freedom is not under threat or is not [under threat] in the same way as in Morocco, we also have a few research universities that have merged and have undergone a consolidation phase over the past 20 years here in South Africa, of course.

However, in places such as Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and a few other countries, the overall trend has deepened inequalities within the continental sphere of higher education.

What I mean by that is that, just as we are having [in South Africa], only a few institutions are making the cut. Many others are being downgraded or are facing all kinds of difficulties, some financial, others managerial and others political.

On the one hand, we have the acceleration of production of bush universities and, on the other, we have a few that somewhat sustain the competition and try to make their way upwards. This doesn’t bode very well for the overall health of our higher education sector at a continental level.

It is a pity that our universities are emerging on a nation-state basis. As institutions that are territorially bound along the very borders of nation-states. We should reopen this discussion, in an era of global competition for brains, we should imagine or, let’s say, reopen the possibility of building regional university hubs.

I mean by regional university hubs (for every discipline of higher learning), we do not need to have many different national institutions.

We have to regionalise our epistemic resources, our intellectual resources, and our research capabilities and undertake a piece of mutualism mission of this [collective] resource to create powerful nodes which can compete at a global level … [and attract to Africa the best brains in almost every single discipline].

UWN: Academics do not do what they do to win prizes, but how does this accolade help you shift the dial? How will this help you with your work? How will this inspire others?

AM: It will inspire especially the younger generations. [With the] work we [do], we try to create mechanisms for transmitting these international generational memories. There is something to be done, including intergenerational debt and intergenerational justice, which applies to the field of knowledge.

On another level, the fact that apartheid was formally abolished in South Africa doesn’t mean that apartheid as the drive for separation and discrimination, the political drive that is at the heart of the international system today, has ended.

Therefore, beyond the personal gratification one might experience, there are these more profound challenges that have to do with the necessity for us to be able to read the world from Africa … believing that Africa has something to say about our shared future and … it’s part of the burden of repairing, of taking care and sharing as a precondition for Africa’s durability.

So, look, these are some of the reflections I have been entertaining recently. And I would like that award to help go in that direction.

This is an edited version of an interview with Mbembe on 13 March 2024.

Edwin Naidu 
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