On CODESRIA and the African Public Sphere
December 2008 will go down in history as a month of triple significance in the life of CODESRIA: First, as the month of the Council’s 12th General Assembly; second, as the month when the Council celebrated its 35th anniversary; and third, as the month marking a smooth and orderly transition between an incoming and an outgoing Executive Secretary.
From 7- 11 December, Yaounde, Cameroon, played host to over 400 participants, drawn from within and without Africa, and comprising scholars, students, donors, officials of NGOs and policymakers, to make presentations, discuss and debate around the theme ‘Governing the Public Sphere in Africa’. Also visibly present at the occasion were 65 institutional partners and the deans of faculties of over 30 African universities. The choice of the General Assembly theme demonstrates not only CODESRIA’s commitment to promoting critical scholarship of relevance to governance on the continent, but also the Council’s mission of spearheading social research shaped and projected by an African value-added in theory and practice. Much too often, discussions of the African public sphere have tended to transpose, rather than critically engage with Eurocentric indicators à la Jurgen Habermas, thus failing to capture the myriad ways in which African creativity, experiences and processes have enriched the idea of the public sphere.
The General Assembly conference was thus a singular opportunity to discuss and debate competing and complementary understandings of the public sphere, drawing heavily on how Africans have, through their scholarship, literary and philosophical works theorized the public sphere. With a focus on various phenomena and aspects of social communication that ranged from rumour to political participation, through popular culture, virtual publics and public policy, inter alia, the presentations and discussions showed that some of Jurgen Habermas’ ideas are relevant to the African context and some are not. State imposition of limits to public sphere and public space, particularly in politics, results in imaginative popular ways – using metaphor, songs, rumours, humour, irony, satire and derision to broaden and articulate political views. African writers have employed their creative literary abilities using symbolism and representation to deal with social, political and religious issues of the public sphere. While religion is said to belong to the private sphere or the sphere in-between, the religious establishment has great influence in Africa to the extent that it could draw religion in the public sphere. Public sphere could broaden from below through mobilization and pressure, especially through ICT, on those in power to give more room for it to operate for the public good.