Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Governing the African Public Sphere

12th CODESRIA General Assembly: 7–11 December, 2008, Yaoundé, Cameroon

Number of visits: 5811

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in
Africa (CODESRIA) is pleased to announce its 12th General Assembly
which is scheduled to hold in Yaoundé, Cameroun, from
07 – 11 December, 2008. The umbrella theme around which the
Assembly will be organised is: Governing the African Public
Sphere. The Assembly is the biggest triennial gathering of scholars
drawn from across the Social Sciences and Humanities on the African
continent; it also attracts the participation of social researchers
from the Diaspora. On the back of the scientific sessions
of the Assembly, a meeting of all bona fide members of the
Council is held to review the functioning of the institution in the
period since the preceding Assembly and decide the intellectual
and institutional development agenda that would be pursued for
the following three years. Scholars wishing to be considered for
participation in the 12th Assembly as paper presenters or convenors
of panels on any aspect of the umbrella theme around which
the scientific sessions of the Assembly will be structured are invited
to send an abstract of the presentation they intend to make
for consideration by the CODESRIA Scientific Committee.

The public sphere comes from a long historical pedigree that
goes back to the very beginnings of human political community.
Various notions of the sphere have also been in usage in the
works of successive generations of thinkers. In more recent times,
the concept was to become an object of renewed philosophical
and sociological interest particularly on account of its popularisation
in the early writings of Jurgen Habermas. However, beyond
the initial contributions made by Habermas - indeed, as part of
the numerous critiques that were developed of his work - the concept
has further undergone considerable refinement and extension
that speaks in one and the same breath to the many uses it is
now deemed to serve and the centrality of context to its adaptation
for local and global deployment. In the framework of the
refinement and extension that the concept has undergone, the
public sphere has come to be widely employed across disciplinary
boundaries to capture the multiplicity of shared, deliberative,
inter-locking, and contested spaces and arenas - together
with the structures, processes, social actors/actresses and cultures
associated with and/or built into them - that bear on the daily
lives of the members of a given community, and which are of organic
concern to them by virtue of their individual and collective
membership of the community. What this implies is that it is not
possible to understand the public sphere without grasping the historical
contexts from which it emerges and which frame it at different
points in time. At the same time, it has to be recognised
that the boundaries of the public sphere cannot be meaningfully
treated as fixed and immutable. Rather, they are formed and
changed on account of a variety of factors that range, for example,
from struggles aimed at politicising the private and bringing
it into the public domain to the emergence of new social actors
and alliances, shifts in technology, and transformations in the
structure of the state and the articulation of its role. The interplay
of the factors that contribute to the making and re-making of the
public sphere has also been central to its extension beyond the
fixed, physical boundaries of the Westphalian nation-state to the
creation of new cross-border, virtual, and global public spheres.
Each of these spheres is animated by concrete interests which
emerge in contestation with other interests and as an expression
of dissatisfaction with the narrow and narrowing framework of
dominant spheres. Also, the perspectives that are canvassed in
cross-border, virtual and global public spheres are very often
refracted back, in a reciprocal manner, into the nationalterritorial
public sphere, contributing thereby to its constant renewal.

Scholars have pointed to the many purposes that are served by
the public sphere for individuals, groups, and even the state itself.
The interests which are borne by the different social actors
are as varied as they could be contradictory. The interests are
also suffused with relations of power which are refracted into the
public sphere, making it a site for the organisation of resistance
and renewal as much as it is an arena for the mobilisation of
domination and legitimation. This is why it is difficult to seek to
understand the public sphere as homogenous, uniform, unidimensional
and equitable or to treat it as the arena of unqualified
“virtue” vis-à-vis authoritarian states or unrepresentative
public authorities. It is also precisely for this reason that the public
sphere cannot be fully understood in its complexities if it is romanticised.
Furthermore, there is, historically and contemporaneously,
a complex dialectic linking the state and the public sphere
which needs to be unravelled as part of any quest for understanding
the promise, limitations and prospects of the latter. Furthermore,
although as an arena, the public sphere may be open -
in theory at least - to all the members of a political community, in
practice, access is regulated and segmented along various lines,
including class, gender, generational and even ethno-regional
lines. Still, it will not be too far fetched to suggest that the state
of the public sphere is an important indicator of the overall
health of a political community, including the entire spectrum of
state-society relations and the problems and prospects of democratisation
and development. Democracy and development are
integral to the consciousness and aspirations of all peoples and
are driven as much by public as by private institutions and players.
Yet, the binary opposition of the private and the public in
some conceptualisations of the public sphere has proved to be
hardly illuminating in the quest for an understanding of the direction
of social development.

Engagement with questions that are pertinent to the making and
reproduction of the public sphere has been central to the vocation
of African researchers and intellectuals. This is attested to as
much by the kinds of issues that the academy has been preoccupied
with over time as with the commitments that it has brought to
bear on them and the resonance which the research outcomes obtained
have had with different publics. That this is so should not
be surprising given that in a majority of cases, the scientific vocation
of the researcher has been defined from one generation to
another as including a commitment to a social project with transformatory
potentials. Thus, for example, whether as partakers in
the ideals of pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism and antiimperialism;
or as organic intellectuals of various social movements;
or as joint bearers of the shared quest for democratic development;
or, indeed, even as public intellectuals taking on a
moral leadership role that entails speaking “truth” to power or
advancing a civic ideal; African scholars have individually and
collectively addressed themselves to questions that are not only
of common interest to the generality of the citizenry but also contribute
ideas to the process of the moulding and re-making of the
public realm for the betterment of society. There is no better evidence
of the consistency and depth of this engagement than an
intellectual assessment of the grand questions which have preoccupied
the African academy both historically and contemporaneously.

Yet, for all the instinctive commitment which the African social
research community has demonstrated towards the articulation
of concerns which feed into the development of the public
sphere, the composition and re-composition of its agenda, and
the system by which it is governed, empirical data collection
and experiences garnered through a socially-engaged scholarship
have not been sufficiently and systematically marshalled
into the building of concepts, theories and methods that
capture the general and specific attributes of the African public
sphere as it has mutated over time. In consequence, the task
of theorising the African public sphere remains an important
one for which original innovative work needs to be undertaken,
drawing on existing theories of politics, economy, culture
and society in Africa as informed by the historical experiences
of the continent. In this connection, an important challenge
which is posed is the marshalling of multi-disciplinary insights,
including those that flow not only from the Social Sciences
but also the Humanities. The investment of intellectual
effort which is for called will also contribute in no small measure
to rescuing the study of Africa and its public sphere from
faulty analogies drawn from a unilinear reading of the history
of Europe and the United States. It is hardly necessary here to
point to the numerous methodological and conceptual difficulties
associated with this analogical approach to building an
understanding of the African public sphere; suffice it to note
that a cacophony of adjectival characterisations prevalent in
the Africanist literature on Africa has left many a student of
politics, economy, culture and society unedified and confused.
Participants at the 12th General Assembly will be invited to
correct this state of affairs, doing so at the same time as they
undertake a wholesale re-thinking of the African public

The choice of the public sphere as the umbrella theme for the
12th CODESRIA General Assembly could not have come at a
better moment. While it is true that an understanding of the
nature and state of the public sphere will always be an important
preoccupation to address, the current conjuncture in the
history of Africa makes the task of focusing attention on the
public sphere even more crucial. It is a conjuncture characterised
by a host of factors. These factors, several of a contextual
nature, include but are not limited to the continuing struggles
over the role of the state and the place of the market; the
technocratisation of (economic) policy and “agencification” of
government; the enlarged, perhaps even determinant role assumed
by international financial institutions in domestic economic
policy making; the intensified pluralisation of the media;
shifts in the demographic profile of African countries that favour
children and the youth as a proportion of national and
regional populations; changes in the spatial distribution of
population that speak, on the one hand, to the acceleration of
formal and informal processes of urbanisation and, on the
other hand, to intensive internal population movements that
pose various challenges; increased organisation and activism
for the rights of women and girls, and for greater gender
equality; a widespread revival of religion and the emergence
of new religiosities; multiple transitions and transformations in
the domain of (popular) arts and culture; continuing struggles
for the democratisation of national political systems; the rebirth
of electoral pluralism and the restoration, nominal or otherwise,
of elected national parliaments; an apparent demilitarisation
of politics side-by-side with a reinforcement of the security
moorings of the state and the expansion of the remit of
the policing authorities; the transformation of old social movements
and the emergence of new ones as part of a generalised
redynamisation of associational life; an increased investment
in sub-regional and regional cooperation, integration
and even unification processes; an intensified refraction of
global influences into the local/domestic arena; and a revival
of reciprocal interest and engagement between Africa and its

Within the overall ambit of the scientific theme of the General
Assembly, paper and panel proposals were invited on the following
sub-themes and any other issues which may not have
been touched upon in this announcement but that are deemed
worthy of attention:

- 1. Theories of the Public Realm/Theorising the Public Sphere;
- 2. The Public Sphere in Democratic and Development Theories;
- 3. The Making and Remaking of the Public Sphere in Africa:
History, Geography and Demographics;
- 4. Institutions of the African Public Sphere;
- 5. Law, Politics and Ethics in the African Public Realm;
- 6. The Media in the Public Sphere;
- 7. Governing the Public Realm for State and Nation-Building;
- 8. The Public Sphere as a Site for Negotiating Citizenship;
- 9. Behind the Public Sphere: Who Really Governs Africa?;
- 10. ICTs and the Emergence of Virtual Publics in the African
- 11. The Economics of the Public Realm in Africa;
- 12. Between “Modernity” and “Tradition” in the African Public
- 13. Power, Status and Authority in the African Public Sphere;
- 14. Resistance and Transformation in the African Public Sphere;
- 15. Struggles and Successes for Engendering the African Public
- 16. Struggles for the Democratisation of the African Public
- 17. The Public Realm and Public Policy in Africa;
- 18. Public-Private Interfaces in the Public Sphere;
- 19. Inter-Generational Issues in the African Public Realm;
- 20. The Popular Arts and Culture in the texture of the Public
Sphere in Africa;
- 21. Orature, Literature, Performance and the Public Sphere;
- 22. The Languages and Linguistics of the Public Sphere;
- 23. Religion and Religiosity in the African Public Realm;
- 24. The Sacred, the Sacrilegious and the Public Sphere;
- 25. The Making of African Counter-Publics; and
- 26. The African Public Realm in Comparative Perspective.

To see papers delivered at the General Assembly, please click here.

December 30 2008