Digging into the past – doing research among South African mineworkers

Julia-FoudraineYour research plan, your perspectives and ideas, your research methods and your hopes and dreams: you take them with you on a long journey called fieldwork. However, and usually the case with fieldwork, all of these things that I took with me on the plane to Johannesburg were soon to be crushed because I was going to do research among South African mineworkers.

Are we done yet?
I was warned that mineworkers were difficult interviewees because of a lack of education, language problems and the tough kind of environment they are working in. I was lucky that a couple of other researchers introduced me to some mineworkers who were willing to talk to me. However, without a translator, asking anything more than simple questions was not possible and I really had to adjust my research and questions to that. Sometimes I was not so lucky with my interviewees. The first mineworker I wanted to interview made me wait for four hours on the first day, three hours on the second day and ‘only’ one hour on the third day before he had time for an interview. One woman even asked me after two questions whether we were done yet. Something that I had to learn the hard way, but which was also very understandable from their point of view: our research is not so interesting to all of us.

A voting meeting of the labour union – Rustenburg

A voting meeting of the labour union – Rustenburg

Marikana strikes
The research that I did for five months was aimed at exploring the history, the leadership and the political alignment of a labour union: the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). This union is known for its involvement during the so-called ‘Marikana Massacre’. The Massacre is a different term for a strike in 2012 in the Rustenburg area, about 100 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, when 34 mineworkers got killed by the South African Police Service in an attempt to end the strike. The mineworkers had separated themselves from their labour union, the Union of Mineworkers (NUM), because they were not only dissatisfied with their current working and living conditions but also with the union. According to the workers, the NUM was no longer representing the mineworkers but had chosen the side of the mining management. During the strike, AMCU introduced itself as a union that had chosen the side of the mineworkers and tried to negotiate with management and mediate between management, NUM and the workers. After the horrific ending of the strike, a majority of the mineworkers, left NUM and joined AMCU. Within one year, the membership rates of AMCU rose from 9,489 in 2011 to 42,766 in 2012.

A protest march by another labour union – Emalahleni

A protest march by another labour union – Emalahleni

Troubled history
One part of my research consisted of interviewing involved mineworkers in order to get a grip on the troubled history of the union and their perspective on the leaders of AMCU. AMCU has been around for more than ten years now but only managed to get in the picture after Marikana. The union is led by Joseph Mathunjwa who seems to have a tight grip on the rest of the leaders and the members. Despite many stories and rumours about AMCU being militant, violent, just as uninterested in their members as other unions and having a difficult-to-handle president, many mineworkers, labour experts, friends and foe express themselves fairly positive about the ‘new’ union. As a breakaway from the NUM, AMCU tries to approach matters differently without losing sight of their members – this is an opinion that I have heard many times. But the question is if they can meet the high expectations, because a growth of more than 400 percent in one year is not an easy thing to deal with.

One of my interviewees in front of his shack – Rustenburg

One of my interviewees in front of his shack – Rustenburg

Many stories to tell
Looking back at the many experiences and adventures I had and the large amount of stories I can now tell at birthday parties and family reunions, my field research has been the most impressive time of my twenty-three year old life so far. South Africa, with the (sometimes) strange phenomena, people and values, will always bring a smile to my face when thinking back to the many, many memories.

Julia Foudraine


Portraying the African child – where anthropology and art meet

Iorver IkesehI am so proud to be an artist. I started art at a very early age. Creating art is best when the artist sees his art as a lifestyle, not as a job. Art is often defined as self expression. But the question is… self expression of what?

More than selling ‘good’ art
I was born in Makurdi, Central Nigeria, where I grew up. When I was about ten, I learnt I could study art and earn a degree. It was about the most exciting thing I had ever heard. I studied Fine Arts (BA) at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. It is the largest university in Nigeria. I still recall an interview I gave after my first degree: I said I used four years in school to discover that I don’t need school. This for me was very real: I just lived my life and earned a degree! But now I was certified to go out to the world and express myself. I invested a lot of time in my work to make sure it was outstanding. I enjoyed all the praise from family and friends. I was flooded with compliments during art exhibitions and even began to get media attention. Shortly after, I was drowned into a new reality: that good art is beyond good drawing. Life for me meant more than just selling ‘good’ art. I had to define myself and my art. I had to answer the big question: who am I? A question every critical artist has had to address.

AFRICA. Fabric and oil 150X200 cm (486 x 648)The perception of Africa
So when I was asked to put up an art exhibition at the ASC, I asked myself: what to exhibit? What am I expressing? The last exhibition at the ASC consisted of works by two artists and was titled ‘Look at You’. For me it summarized the world’s perception of Africa to a large extent. One of the artists showed how most Africans see Europe – very rosy, beyond reality (with very big colourful posters of Europe in their rooms) while the second artist showed how the West has portrayed Africa – as a brutal, poor sick place (with collage of pictures mostly from print media). Interestingly these two views are correct and real, but there are also other views to explore.

KIKELOMO. fabric and oil. 180X210 cmThe innovative African child
Globally the image that has been portrayed in the West of African children has been one of pity; especially people who have not been to Africa get that picture. This preconceived image is generated through the media, word of mouth and many other ways. But think for a while about how innovative the African child has been, adapting and triumphing over very unimaginable circumstances. This act of genius, which only a few have acknowledged, is a gap my art intends to continually fill. As an artist I celebrate African children in unusual ways. Interrogating correctly and representing the minds of children demands an in-depth understanding of the child’s world. This cannot be achieved without participation observation: anthropology and art history are two related areas. Over time I have come to see the need to combine these fields in order to get a more holistic approach to research and art. The need to get more familiar with anthropology led me to my new family: the African Studies Centre in Leiden.

AFTER A WHILE. Fabric and oil. 60X90 cmAre my perceptions correct?
It is fascinating to be part of the ASC. A new family where I meet with Africans and African minded people. I get to hear anthropological and ethnographic experiences of scholars – both students and lecturers. I am in a class of about ten diverse people; I find them all unique and interesting, especially when I engage with them about culture. It is great to study Africa in Europe amongst Europeans. I have lived and studied in Africa, so I can relate to a number of examples during class discussions. My Research Masters at the ASC has also made me ponder about how Africa is seen by Africans living in Europe. In class I sometimes feel that perceptions are not correct (or exaggerated) and should be corrected, but then again, that may be so because I am an African and I am biased. While I am writing this blog, I still ponder: am I being objective or am I defending my Africa?

Iorver Ikeseh
(Read more about the exhibition of my work at the ASC)

Inventing Ourselves as Africanists

Tanja-blogWriting a blog about a month in a study program that is officially known as ‘library time’ and unofficially known as ‘time off’, is not easy. I will try nonetheless.

All of us have survived the first semester of African Studies. I fully agree with what comrade David wrote in the last blog; we have become a close-knit family – albeit one with extremely intense and sometimes even fierce dinner table discussions. We have started to feel at home at the African Studies Centre and we are learning a lot. Each lecture presents us with new information, (future) challenges to overcome but also with reflections on the workings of academia and what it means to become an ‘Africanist’. What do Africanists do, what is their position in (African and non-African) societies and what do we think they should be doing? And also: what do we ourselves want to do? All these questions buzz through our heads and are heatedly debated during our lunch breaks, but also often shoved aside for non-study-related things.

Fires of change
Some lectures invigorate in us the fires of changes, while others utterly depress us and make us feel small in this unfair world. When the latter happens we usually seek refuge in one of the bars near Leiden Central Station where we attempt to reinvigorate the before mentioned fires with beers and bitterballen. As will be clear by now – Njeri also wrote about it in the November blog – we all seem to have a rather activist approach to African Studies. I guess mostly with a Marxian twist: so far ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’.

Due to all the above, the prospect of a month without classes was greeted with enthusiasm – “finally some time off” – as well as with a feeling of emptiness – “what do we do now”? We therefore decided that it might be good to still meet regularly and attempt to read some of the extra material that we have heard about, but would otherwise not have time for. After a brief discussion on our Facebookpage we decided to read parts of Mudimbe’s famous book The Invention of Africa. We chose this book because it was mentioned in many lectures as something all Africanists should read. In it, Mudimbe problematizes the knowledge production on Africa(ns): clearly vital information for students who are attempting to become Africanists.

A lesson
Agreeing on a time and place to meet in order to properly discuss this book turned out to be a little bit more difficult than we had expected. Many of us temporarily left the Netherlands in order to celebrate the holidays with their friends and families elsewhere and those who stayed around had lots of other things to do. In the end we decided to meet towards the end of January and we are all eagerly awaiting our little ‘reunion’. To me this proved once again that it’s easy to think about action and change, but really doing it always turns out to be (more) difficult. I suppose it’s a lesson we all had to learn, while in the process of inventing ourselves as Africanists.

Tanja Hendriks


Interdisciplinarity for critical Africanists of tomorrow!

David-Drengk - CopyWhen I was asked by the ASC to provide the next article for this blog and write about my experiences up to now, I did not need to think twice about what to say. Of course I could be writing about the importance of African Studies as such and what I think we will be doing with it in the future, but I suppose it might be more interesting to hear what makes these studies so attractive to us. For sure, the diverse insights we gain from fellow researchers and professors at the ASC, Leiden, Amsterdam and Wageningen University are incredibly interesting and contribute to our own research endeavours.

Our student-family
Nevertheless, I would like to highlight a few points which I think contribute most to the programme’s assets. When we look at our current student-family, which I believe we have really grown into in our little classroom at the ASC, we can recognize the great variety of our backgrounds. Just to mention a few: our family consists of communication, area and agriculture scientists, historians, anthropologists as well as economists. Now, imagine a small group of ten people in which basically each one has a different educational background; this brings a great diversity of approaches into play, often leading into interesting and intense discussions. I believe that this compilation of different ideas must be the way forward and is one way of stressing the increasing importance of interdisciplinarity, as our different approaches interact with each other in order to come to comprehensive answers to our research questions.

A transdisciplinary academic world
Eventually, this will one day lead to a transdisciplinary academic world in which all of us surrender our own disciplines in order to become part of a bigger picture. Particularly when it comes to researching the various struggles of (African) people and to understanding the complexities of capitalism as a structuring system of people’s lives, it is crucial to use at least interdisciplinary approaches. From our current perspective, one could go as far as to state that the era of single disciplinary approaches has come to an end. It is our generation that will one day determine and take part in the formation of new academic discourses, not only in the field of African Studies but many other interdisciplinary fields. As my comrade Njeri already put it in her previous blog article, we desperately hope for the emergence of critical and activist approaches within our interdisciplinary working environment. In fact, this has already started among our group at the ASC. The seed is sown. But we have only just begun. Let’s all join hands and spread the word: Interdisciplinarity for critical and activist Africanists of tomorrow!

An activist approach to African Studies

DSC00484copieNjeri-kleinerThe Introductory course to the African Studies Research Masters here in Leiden was an interesting and busy period. Each class presented a different angle through which African Studies is approached; for example economics, religion or history. Although the lecturers could only provide an overview of their respective areas of expertise, their lectures were still thought provoking and introduced new and fresh concepts. In addition to the classes, the assignments given were frustratingly and thrillingly open ended – giving the students a true opportunity to explore their interests instead of simply fulfilling the mundane task of writing a paper. Besides these in-classroom experiences, there were many opportunities to explore outside of the classroom, like the seminars held at the African Studies Centre and a variety of other occasions outside of university. The connectedness of the ASC to a larger Africa focused network, which includes other universities, NGOs and businesses within the Netherlands, is a true strength of the programme.

The ‘dark’ continent
Personally, I was a bit overwhelmed (positively) by my experience here at the ASC. I was inspired by the thoughts presented during lectures and by tools available to encourage the students in their studies. For example, in the exploration of the history and development of the field, the concept of using African Studies as a tool for the Western world to understand itself better by focusing on Africa as its opposite (think the labelling of Africa as the ‘dark’ continent) was honestly refreshing. I am not sure that this style of open and honest reflection is to be expected in many African Studies programmes. The openness of the assignments allowed me to be critical of my own ideas in front of the entire group. Exploring my thoughts openly instead of doing so behind closed doors and presenting a polished finished product, is an important aspect of sharpening my thinking process.

Pioneers of African Studies
With respect to the coming months, I am curious to see if, how, and where I will find my niche here at the ASC. Due to my personal and educational background, I am used to a learning environment that challenges students to look closely and critically at current events. This approach also challenges students to use the acquired knowledge to contribute to dialogues and debates about existing disparities and injustices. In the spirit of this approach, Charles Ambler noted in a  speech in 2010 the need for Africanists to be more aware of the legacies of Africanists of the 1800s, such as Edward Blyden (see photo), Africanus Horton and others. These often forgotten ‘pioneers of African Studies’ (Ambler 2011: 7) showed a commitment to ‘an approach that (…) takes an activist stance that is deeply (if often indirectly) engaged in the work of making or supporting economic, social, and political change’ (Ambler 2011: 7). I am seeking and hope to find an environment within the African Studies Research Masters that will continue to nurture and sharpen a similar approach within my academic work.

Edward Wilmot Blyden blog 2013-1

Ambler, C.(2011). “A School in the Interior” African Studies: Engagement and Interdisciplinarity. African Studies Review 54(1), 1-17. Cambridge University Press

– Njeri Mwaura

Thesis Writing: The End Game

blog 3 afbeelding 1In the previous blogs I focused on the fieldwork experiences of my classmates and me. This blog’s topic is about writing the thesis itself. The thesis is (or at least, should be) the ultimate proof that you are capable of doing (independent) research. Moreover, it demonstrates one’s ability to use their fieldwork data to write a well founded, interesting thesis. The writing up is, however, not an easy task. Continue reading

Working the field

mauriceFieldwork, the most exciting, and perhaps scary, part of the 2-year Research Master in African Studies (RESMAAS) offered by the Africa Studies Center and Leiden University. With this blog, the first out of two blogs on fieldwork experiences, I hope to give you some insight into the experiences of some students who just returned from their fieldwork. Hopefully, this will make you a little bit more excited to start with the RESMAAS program. Continue reading