Biographical writings on Archie Mafeje: a critique

  • Bongani Nyoka


Archie Mafeje’s passing generated a lot of interest about his life and writings among leftists and liberals alike. While the interest is commendable, certain of the writings on Mafeje leave much to be desired. This article focuses on the works of Andrew Bank and Fred Hendricks. In Bank’s work, Mafeje is at once labelled guilty of contributing to ‘myths’ about the importance of his own critique of anthropology and for ‘reinventing’ his life history. In Hendricks’s work, he is described as an ‘embittered’ and ‘combative warrior’. The tie that binds these narratives about Mafeje’s life and work is that, not only do they provide a one-sided approach to his writings, they also rely on inconclusive evidence (where his life is concerned) and unfounded claims to knowledge of his mind and thoughts. The latter case constitutes ‘psycho-biography’ – something which does little to illuminate the nexus between Mafeje’s life and writings. Instead, these narratives serve to perpetuate what Mafeje called the ‘epistemology of alterity’ (when talking about anthropology in particular) and ‘negations’ (when writing about the social sciences in Africa generally). On the one hand, these writings come close to discrediting Mafeje’s contribution to the social sciences and, on the other, they amount to ‘othering’ Mafeje. This article advances a critique of these peculiar features in the said writings.