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After Apartheid: Rethinking What it Means to ‘Be’ in the World

22 March 2019 –Professor Premesh Lalu’s research is shaped and defined by his days as a student in apartheid South Africa. The story of his research starts with the University of the Western Cape (UWC). “This university which is generally unknown in the world was at the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle.”

Professor Lalu is currently a visiting research fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with Trinity’s School of Creative Arts. He is working on his latest research project ‘The Practice of Post-Apartheid Freedom’, as part of a larger monograph The Techne of Trickery: Race and its Uncanny Returns.

Anti-apartheid Student Movement

Professor Lalu was part of the student movement in the mid-1980s, which would have a deep impact on the struggle against apartheid but also the future of education in post-apartheid South Africa. He was one of the students that entered the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 1987, when it opened its doors to all students. “I encountered this very dramatic shift and a very courageous effort on the part of the university to break the Apartheid Act. I had come out of a student movement in 1985 which ended tragically in a massacre in an area called Athlone, in which three young people were killed and several others injured.” Professor Lalu describes what is known as the Trojan Horse Massacre, in which on October 15th, 1985 in a place called Athlone, Cape Town, members of the security forces shot and killed three young people who were part of anti-apartheid student protests.

Athlone student memorial“Beyond this atrocity, the student movement had raised many, many substantial questions about the future of education, the future of a post-apartheid education, about cultural education and how to exceed the limits and constraints of apartheid.” It is in this space, Professor Lalu adds, that many of his research questions are formed.

In the period after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and pending the first democratic elections in 1994, an entire exiled community had returned to South Africa, Professor Lalu explains, adding that UWC became a hive of activity in discussions and debates on what a future post-apartheid society would look like. “Some of the returning exiles, like Kader Asmal who was based here at Trinity, had been dreaming of a future that they could finally imagine was possible, they were on the threshold of entering a new historical moment.”


Photograph: Monument to anti-apartheid activists in Athlone, Cape Town

A Programme on the Study of Humanities in Africa

Fast forward to 2006, when Professor Lalu approached the Mellon Foundation in New York for a grant to build a programme on the study of humanities in Africa.

Describing the premises on which this programme would be based, Professor Lalu says that the first thing that was apparent was the need to return to the idea of “worldliness” which was fast disappearing.

“The world seemed to be splitting once again, and there was a growing sense of Europe for Europeans, America for Americans and there was very little sense of worldliness that had formed in the ambition and struggles against apartheid and which would constitute a new world.”

He added, that he was surprised and intrigued in the first years of the programme to discover that in many of the anti-colonial movements in Africa, “it was not the nation that was the major driving force of those liberation movements, but this idea of being in the world.” The second thing that Professor Lalu was concerned with was the conceptual terms of the humanities and its relationship to the exercise of power, asking “how had the humanities produced concepts that allowed it to grapple with the way power was exercised in the world?” What was lacking from the perspective of South Africa from the humanities, he points out, was a post-colonial critique of apartheid. “We had a Marxist, a nationalist, and a liberal critique of apartheid, but what we did not have was a post-colonial critique of apartheid that would help us understand the problem of race in the world.”

Premesh Lalu

Photograph: Professor Premesh Lalu by Chevy Rayson

Finally, Professor Lalu sought to explore how we might think about art education and the larger question of aesthetics in post-apartheid South Africa, where for many years, historically black universities had been denied access to art education or to have a sustained conversation on aesthetics, and were dealing with a legacy of 40 years of “population control.” Cumulatively, these questions about the meaning of a post-apartheid education encouraged collaboration involving graduate students and faculty on the study of the humanities in Africa.

“Very soon after that we realised our graduate students were pushing at the limits of the humanities and were beginning to pose aesthetic questions about the contemporary world and Africa.” These questions were not simply concerned with locating Africa in the world, but asking, “in which way does Africa not simply seek access, but reorient the very concepts by which the world thinks of itself as a world?”

This shared vision of what type of research should be unfolding in a place like South Africa led to the inception of the Centre for Humanities Research at UWC, of which Professor Lalu became the Director in 2008, and which now hosts around 100 fellows and an artist in residence programme.

Technology and Race

One of Professor Lalu’s central research questions asks “how do we read the history of apartheid and the practice of post-apartheid freedom as a process of the becoming technical of the human?”
He recognised that the end of apartheid in South Africa was born in a moment where there was “a very dramatic shift in the technological resources of society. The post-apartheid had been born, not only after in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall, but also in a moment marked by unprecedented technological shifts that would alter every received understanding of the human.”

Scientific innovation and electronic communication changed what we understand by memory, but it also propelled greater movements of populations across the world and towards globalisation. As we know this has also generated new conflicts and war, and new debates about human belonging.

These technological shifts, he argues, are tied intrinsically to shifts in the changing meanings of race. His research seeks to explore the ways in which race returns in “uncanny” ways – or “ways that we sometimes don’t consider as important, yet often reappear in more frightening and virulent forms.”

Looking back through the 20th century, Professor Lalu points to the shift in the idea of race, which took place in Germany, on the eve of fascism. This was a major preoccupation for Frankfurt School scholars who were concerned about how technology was reshaping the human condition and how it enabled the rise of National Socialism and accompanying forms of state violence.

“In that moment, the cinema is a very crucial technological development – it emerges as a way of extending memory, or introducing new concepts of time and new perspectives on the world; the increasing instrumentalisation of technology is something that creates an uneasiness and unexpected effects which scholars at the time were very concerned about.”

Trojan Horse Massacre

Photograph: The Trojan Horse Massacre Memorial

However, cinema and film also played a role in making people’s lives “liveable” during apartheid, where they undermined the effort to create a divided city increasingly cut off from forms of artistic expression that threatened apartheid’s catastrophic system and techniques of population control.

Professor Lalu is currently working on a documentary film about the cultural space of Athlone, in Cape Town, the sight of the massacre in 1985, which had four 1300-seat cinemas. He argues that places like Athlone, on the periphery, provided a significant “educational” space for many of its inhabitants during apartheid. “When apartheid was working on closing of the South African mind, and shutting down the ability to see beyond the limits of the horizons of racially defined group areas and institutions of population control, the cinema provided a window on the world.” The relationship of the cinema to race is something we need to study in relation to the rise of new technological resources globally.

Where we are now finding ourselves increasingly encapsulated in a world in which race is intensifying as an ideological sensibility, Professor Lalu is interested in how the latest shift in technology  -  changes in attention and memory, and debates around the post-human– might be where we set to work on undoing race. In this endeavour, he concludes, the work of art and the study of the humanities will prove indispensable not just for a postapartheid future, but hopefully also beyond.


Professor Premesh Lalu will participate in a ‘Fellow in Focus’ discussion on his research hosted by Professor Steve Wilmer (TCD) organised in collaboration with Trinity's School of Creative Arts on March 27th at 1pm. This will include a brief showing of one of his feature films ‘Looking for Ned’. Professor Lalu will speak as part of the upcoming Behind the Headlines discussion on race – ‘Does Race Matter?’  on March 28th. Register here.

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