ASAA 2022 – Africa and the Human: Old questions, new imaginaries

What does it mean to be human today in Africa, African in the world today, and what can Africa contribute to thinking the human? The idea of the human is increasingly threatened by destabilising transformations as the world gradually moves to what is defined by some as the abyss of modernity and the aftershocks of the postmodern. Will prevalent ideas of being human and/or being African survive? Should the idea of the human and African be saved, and as we move into the Anthropocene/posthuman, what or who will or should count as human and/or African in the end? As the old certainties of the enlightenment are questioned and rejected and the promises of neoliberal democracy shattered – labelled as both fraudulent and farcical – what alternatives remain to imagine the human from Africa?

The elaboration and representation of Africa sways between narratives of promise and humaneness and those of catastrophe and despair. The continent is often touted as the birthplace of the human, and the site of strong humanist principles, enshrined in philosophies of community, care, conviviality and interdependency variously called teranga, ujamaa, ubuntu and so on. The continent’s representation as the place of hope and future of humanity persists. Yet, a global narrative of the continent as a place of suffering, pain and neglect concurrently frames the continent and its people as inhumane, anti-humanist and instrumentalising. Rising deaths in the Mediterranean, the rise in ethno-nationalism, civil strife and the growth in secessionist demands, normalisation of election rigging and contestation, undermining of judicial institutions, xenophobic politics, state brutalism, gender violence, natural/health disasters and social abandonment, economic strain amongst others are recurring themes in conversations about the continent. The purported liberatory promises of new scientific and technological developments, the growth of new elites, the embrace of new (imperial/hegemonic) partnerships and renascent notions of a borderless continent are said to have failed to emancipate, dignify or rehabilitate the human.

The question of the human is urgent and essential to tackle, especially at this moment of global existential crises provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic, the paradoxical undermining and re-centering of science in tackling global challenges, the collapse of postmodernism’s promises and its assurances of equality, social justice and the end of histories of violence, discrimination, and poverty. The task of critically reflecting on the democratisation of authoritarianism and chauvinism and the increasing de-legitimisation of rights frameworks is crucial for re-centring African epistemologies in global attempts to re-imagine the future of the human. Whether in the fields of knowledge production, feminism, public health, mathematics, literature, engineering, history, biochemistry, political studies, agriculture, religious studies and anthropology, amongst others, Africa currently has an opportunity to re-produce the world and provide new terms of reference and recognition for the future of humanity.

If modern histories of racism and colonialism exposed the contradictions at the core of enlightenment affirmations of a shared human nature, late modern identity politics – associated with violent, sometimes genocidal, assertions of irreducible difference – have also blighted efforts to establish peaceful, dignified and mutually respectful modes of living. Being human is not a self-evident matter, hence the need to investigate the ambiguities, tensions, and sometimes straight contradictions that make up what the human implies or refers to. What are the discourses and how do they play out in daily lives? Which differentiations are made and how do we place these in particular histories, cultures, political economies, etc.?

The conference will aim to contribute to resurgent scholarly interest in questions of what we humans share – even while recognising our profound differences – as the basis for grappling with the contours of our collective futures. The resurgence of anticapitalist, decolonial, antipatriachal, anti-racist, pro-science, ecological justice movements and other struggles for social justice have questioned the problematic triad of human justice, human destructiveness and human dignity. What new ideas can Africa bring to these questions and struggles, and what new spaces can be created for knowledge production?

We envision the conference as a carnival of ideas, a laboratory of concepts and a space for ideological experimentation about Africa and the human. Selected outputs will be published in the HUMA-ASAA “Encounters” series. Co-hosted by HUMA, Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town, we aim to create an interdisciplinary space of conversations between the disciplines – social sciences and humanities (SSH) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – focusing on the production of new knowledges about Africa and the human. Scholars, activists, artists and policymakers across different generations, disciplines and sub-fields in SSH and STEM are invited to propose panels on the conference theme.