QA 22 (Mar-Apr 10). Three book reviews (1)

Three recent reviews published in the Cape Times (Cape Town, South Africa)

1. Re-imagining the Social in South Africa: Critique, Theory and Post-apartheid Society (Jacklin and Vale, eds)
2. Nurtureshock: Why everything we think about raising our children is wrong (Bronson & Merryman)
3. Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling (Chabal)

Re-imagining the Social in South Africa: Critique, Theory and Post-apartheid Society
Heather Jacklin and Peter Vale (editors)
University of KwaZulu-Natal Press
Reviewed by Helen Douglas (Cape Times, 1 April 2010)

Ten chapters, eleven academics, all theorising “the social” and the state of “social theory” in South Africa. The immediate question for a non-academic (but sociable) reader trying to make sense of our current muddle: is there something helpful here? Well yes, there is.

Imagine: to form an image in the mind. The many opinions South Africans hold about the state we’re in and where we’re going reflect our own varied states of mind, our dreams and prejudices, what we imagine this country is or has been or is supposed to be.

And there has been a change in the way we have imagined a democratic South Africa, from the experiences of apartheid and struggle though the years of transition from Mandela to Mbeki and now Zuma. It feels like our perhaps naive imaginings hit a wall along the way, and some fresh “re-imagining” is certainly in order.

The work of social theory, which draws from the disciplines of the social sciences and humanities, is to articulate and critique the predominant conceptual or symbolic frameworks of a community’s social and political life, the discourse that such a framework makes possible (or impossible), and to imagine new futures and the conditions that would bring them about. The first two chapters, by the editors and Theodore Schatzki, provide an excellent overview of the book and of the dimensions of social theory. Ivor Chipkin’s chapter then takes up the relationship between the state and state-funded or -mandated social research institutions.

Three essays by Bert Olivier, Michael Neocosmos and Richard Pithouse encourage, from various positions, a resurrection of emancipatory politics. John Higgins, via a long stroll with Karl Marx and Edward Said, says some interesting things about representation and citizenship. In the most pragmatic chapter, Nicholas Rowe describes how St Augustine College, a private Catholic university in Johannesburg, “based on a Christian ethos and intellectual tradition, engages the priorities of the South African context through the disciplines of the humanities.” Suren Pillay and Premesh Lalu round off the book with two essays on how we have posited the history and the meaning of apartheid  (and the controversies thereof) and how the post-apartheid experience is to be historically understood (and in whose voice).

For the most part, the writing is both challenging and accessible. There is no programme here – that’s not what social theory does ­­– but there are many provocative sparks. These ideas are not particularly easy to think, but the thinking itself is liberating.

In this critical vein, I find a couple of shortcomings. The first is the complete absence of black African and gendered perspectives. This isn’t just a matter of ticking boxes for political correctness: how can we approach a post-apartheid society without hearing these voices? Or is there something about the practice of social theory that needs to be “re-imagined” to incorporate more of us?

The second problem is a prevailing demonisation of the state, as if states were uniformly and structurally opposed to freedom and free thought. On the one hand, this results in a knee-jerk cynicism to any government initiative, while non-governmental and non-party social movements are treated with a less-than-critical reverence. On the other, there is no engagement here with the political and social theory currently coming out of the ANC, SACP and COSATU. Maybe there’s little to engage with, although the historiographers here, Pillay and Lalu, find a lot of meat in the old debates between Harold Wolpe, Martin Legassick and others. The tripartite alliance constitutes the most important political presence in the country. Where is the serious academic engagement with these representative organisations of the vast majority of the electorate?

The book also presents itself as a response to a real threat to “the academy”, particularly the humanities and social sciences, under the logic of neo-liberal globalisation, as universities turn their focus from independent research and intellectual discourse to the production of knowledge and skills driven by market demand. Lalu offers resistance to this, while Vale and Jacklin and Pillay acknowledge that academics have, to some extent, stifled themselves. But perhaps no less than the rest of us. Imagination takes courage. Re-imagination takes more.

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