Destabilising the “Fathers of Sociology” by Re-Centering the African Matriarchal Heritage of African Sociological Knowledge in South Africa
Babalwa Magoqwana, President of the South African Sociological Association (SASA)
Malehoko Tshoaedi, Vice-President of the South African Sociological Association (SASA)
South African sociology is part of the bigger Higher Education system, which is grappling with delinking itself from colonial and apartheid legacies. In this context, sociology emerged as part of the white apartheid project with its first Professor Hendrik Verwoerd (apartheid architecture). Since an inclusive Sociological Association was established in 1993, South African sociology has changed in numbers and demographics. Today, the South African Sociological Association (SASA) hosts annual congresses with more than 200 delegates each year. There are more than 150 members of the organisation, with 40% of them being our post graduate students, PhD and Masters. The changes in the representation of the SASA membership is increasing with changes in access to the South African Review of Sociology Journal (SASA journal) with more younger sociologists and Africa based content dominating the journal.
SASA provides a platform for the community of sociologists to debate, connect and refresh one another. We are experiencing challenges as an organisation in terms of ‘voluntary’ labour on which SASA as organisation is based, due to intensive pressures on academic labour that promote individualism above the collective good. Despite the debates on ‘decline or renewal’ of South African sociology that started in the 1990s by Ari Sitas, Fred Hendricks, Eddie Webster, Jimi Adesina, Tina Uys, Jubber, Shireen Ally, Simon Mapadimeng, Jacklyn Cock, Chachage Chachange, etc. we are still attracting many students to Sociology undergraduate degrees in South Africa, mostly females and black students. The average size of a first year Sociology cohort is 500 students, with less and less resource for the academic staff members. Like many other academic spaces globally, Higher Education in South Africa is facing lots of challenges and many uncertainties and this makes sociological knowledge even more relevant to the advancement of the wellbeing of students, staff and greater society.
Recently, the Wits University Sociology Head of Department wrote an article about the growing numbers of students without support in terms of staffing and funding. This is part of the corporate university promoted by the global financial sector, which is challenging the university to produce more for/with less. This neoliberal ‘bin-counting’ that is imposed on academics has resulted in higher teaching loads and less research focus for some.
Methodologically, sociology in South Africa still relies on empirical work within our communities. Many still rely on ‘case studies’ as a way to approach theory. However, there is a revival of in-depth ethnography in order to produce empirical work which will be helpful in theorising about our indigenous knowledge systems. This revival of ethnographic methodologies is in-line with current moves to decolonise the academy and to situate sociological knowledge in its context, in order to challenge the division of labour, as highlighted by Jimi Adesina , where Africa becomes the exporter of data while Europe is the theory base.
Building on the works by Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, Karl Von Holdt, Eddie Webster, and many others, our younger sociologists are dedicated to taking their context seriously through detailed ethnographies. Asanda Benya (women and mining); Nomkhosi Xulu Gama (women migrant workers); Malehoko Tshoaedi (women in the labour movement) are among the emerging black women sociologists who are beginning to challenge the ‘labour subject’ through ethnographic work, which is centred on women’s experiences at work. It is this deep and rigorous sociological knowledge informed by detailed ethnographic data from the indigenous communities that will help sociology to delink itself from the colonial ‘fathers’ and help us to understand the sense of hopelessness by taking lessons from our grandmothers and our aunts: uMakhulu, Vho Makadzi and Ragadi.
This revival of context-centrered sociological knowledge in South Africa seems to follow the suggestion of our late sociologist Herbert Vilakazi to spend more time with the ‘uncertified’ knowers of our communities who are helping us to rethink the sociological knowledge and to build ontological security for our Sociology students today.
Some South African sociologists are beginning to understand that accessing rigour through ethnography research in indigenous languages must serve as not only a form of data translation but also as a source of knowledge. In using the indigenous languages of the community, we will begin to respond to criticisms, by Fred Hendricks among others, of the South African sociology’s ‘lack of emancipatory theoretical contribution’. Archi Mafeje’s major contribution to social science stems from his argument for understanding the ontological foundations of language. His classic paper on the “Ideology of Tribalism” was based on his deep connection to indigenous languages. He argues that there is no Sintu language with ‘tribe’ as a term for referring to others. This is why Pitika Ka Ntuli tells us that “language represents a specific worldview and ontology” . The language of the majority of our Sociology students in South Africa, and their histories, will eventually pose a challenge to the relevance of the sociological degree in South African sociology. These local conditions are challenging SA sociology to lead us through theorising the local conditions and to provide relevant conceptual frameworks that will disturb the division of labour or what Sita calls “intellectual imperialism” between the global north and Africa.
In re-imagining an African-centred but globally competitive sociology, many of us are turning to indigenous maternal ideologies – motherhood, which is understood to be complimentary to fatherhood in Africa. This African matriarchal heritage we believe might help us define a life away from the current patriarchal, classist, sexist and heteronormative university cultures and thus destabilise the origins of sociology moving away from the ‘fathers’ and bringing sociology closer to the maternal heritage that is community oriented within the indigenous African systems. The sociology that is currently being constructed, and which is much needed in (South) Africa, is that which is “community oriented, all-inclusive, life giving, life sustaining and life preserving [in order to provide] the vision and foundation for political action and social transformation” .
We have a wealth of knowledge systems that go beyond the secular epistemologies that have defined sociological knowledge in the modern times. The recent work by Jacklyn Cock , which seeks to link the spiritual world and history, is the beginning of an attempt to explain the deep levels of dispossession and tension that still rock the Cape in South Africa today. This is why Oriyonke Oyewumi emphasizes that “if we are to create relevant scholarship in African knowledge systems, we have no choice but to be cognisant of the metaphysical in the constitution of power, and pay attention to ways in which spirituality undergirds interpretation of the material world” .
There has never been more need for a relevant and rigorous sociology to explain and understand the growing insecurity within the communities of the global South. These global South relations have been left wanting by the increasingly inward looking, self-interested and anxious conservatism which has been growing at a much faster pace than progressive leadership. The governance systems of the global South seem to be promoting a multi-polar power block in an unequal and divided global South Community. The inequalities of a political, economic and socio-cultural nature need to be studied by tapping into big data sets and offering clear statistical and mathematical understanding to our students. This interdisciplinary understanding of sociological knowledge might be able to help us combine statistics, technological advancement and ethnographic details in order to deal with the problems of the future non-human centred society informed by the fourth industrial revolution. This will, of course, challenge us to update our course offerings to provide more attractive sociological degrees.
The kind of sociology we need today is one that can restore hope, detail and rigour in its commitment to heal our communities of the effects of centuries of colonial knowledge systems and move us towards building a normal society. This is why Miriam Tlali captures the essence of African Sociology and its purposes when referring to the African literature “To the Philistines, the banners of books, the critics … We black South African writers who are faced with the task of conscientizing our people and ourselves are writing for those whom we know are the relevant audience. We are not going to write in order to qualify into your definition of what you describe as ‘true art’. Our main objective is not to receive ballyhoo comments on our works. What is more important is that we should be allowed to reach our audience. Our duty is to write for our people and about them.” 
 Adesina J. 2006. ‘Sociology Beyond Despair: Recovery of Nerve, Endogeneity, and Epistemic Intervention’. South African Review of Sociology. Vol. 37(2): pp. 241-259
 Ntuli P. 2002. ‘African knowledge systems and African renaissance’. In Hoppers C.A. (ed.) Indigenous Knowledge and Integration of Knowledge Systems: Towards a Philosophy of Articulation. Claremont, South Africa: New Africa Education
 Oyewumi O. 2015. What Gender is Motherhood? Changing Yoruba Ideals of Power, Procreation and Identity in the Age of Modernity. United States: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 220
 Cock J. 2018. Writing the ancestral river. Johannesburg: Wits Press.
 Oyewumi O. 2004. ’Conceptualising Gender: Eurocentric Foundations of Feminist Concepts and the Challenge of African Epistemologies’. In African Gender Scholarship: Concepts, Methodologies and Paradigms, CODESRIA (ed.), Dakar, Imprimerie Saint Pau, p. 1
 Tlali M. 1988. ‘Remove the Chains: South African Censorship and the Black Writer’. In Index of Censorship. Vol. 13 (2), p. 199