Introduction: Trends and Transitions Virtual Issue Exclusive

A Virtual Issue Retrospective of the Canadian Journal of African Studies 1967 - present


All academic literatures, not just in the discipline of history, have historiographies.  And the multidisciplinary, bilingual Canadian Journal of African Studies, in its half-century of existence, has reflected the trends and transitions in the history of social science research on Africa.   The journal began as a newsletter, then became an in-house journal in the pre-internet age (until the late 1990s book review requests were dispatched in postcards), to an online in-house journal with limited global reach, to a hybrid journal (print/e-journal) distributed throughout the world under the imprint of Taylor & Francis.   In fashioning this (our first) Virtual Issue, celebrating, more or less, our first half-century, the Editors considered a “best of” approach inappropriate and practically impossible. How does one (or rather many, as this is under the auspices of an Editorial Committee) select a dozen or so articles out of the hundreds that have passed muster in the peer review process? Hence our emphasis on trends and transitions, on papers that reflect changes in scholarship, in the historiography of the many literatures represented in such an interdisciplinary journal.  Not just reflect, but sometimes have a strong hand in promoting those changes – as was the case in our pioneer Women’s Studies Special Issue in 1972, or in the work of Memorial University sociologist Rick Johnstone who instigated the attack on liberal scholarship which accorded primacy to “race” as a determinant of segregation and opened up the radical revisionist critique founded on the importance of capitalism and class in shaping apartheid.  We have published widely on all the great issues of contemporary Africa: on underdevelopment and poverty, on neo-liberalism and structural adjustment, on sexuality and HIV/AIDS, on slavery then and now, on women and gender, and more recently on migration and conflict.

Very few international Africanist journals betray their national origins in their title (for instance, African Affairs, Journal of Modern African Studies, African Studies Review, International Journal of African Historical Studies, Afrique contemporaine, Politique africaine, to name two each of our British, American and French counterparts) but this is more a sign of identity than parochialism.  As a journal (unusually also) we preceded by four years the formation of our “sponsor”, the Canadian Association of African Studies; our particularism rests in our commitment to bring knowledge of Africa to Canada, but the upshot is a journal which sits comfortably in what corporate publishers refer to as the “stable” of international journals.  And, other than Cahiers d’études africaines, we are the only bilingual one.

At the time Donald Savage opened the first article of the first issue of CJAS in 1967 (the first paper we replicate in this Virtual Issue) African studies in Canada was, as he writes, “in a precarious position.”  Savage was one of the small corpus of Canadian academics which launched CJAS, but its future was uncertain.  Fortunately a community of Africanists banded together to create the Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS), and together with the journal and the Association’s annual conferences, helped foster the presence of African studies in Canadian universities today.

It has always been part of the journal’s mandate to include African-based scholars. In the late 1960s, Africans were trying to rescue their own history from the colonial archive, engaging instead in an analysis of African pre-colonial political formations based upon oral sources.  For East Africa, two names stand out: Bethwell Ogot and Gideon Were.  In 1968, we published our first paper by an African, who, like Ogot and Were, secured his doctorate from a British university in the mid-1960s. M.S. Kiwanuka investigated the history of the Ugandan kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, and his research article is reproduced here as our second contribution.

The next selection is Judith van Allen’s “’Sitting on a man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” published in 1972.  As several editors pointed out, this was on everyone’s graduate reading list throughout the 70s and 80s.  “’Sitting on a Man’” was included in our first Special Issue on Women, which Teresa Barnes (1999: xxvii, xlii, n.56) notes was the first Special Issue on women in any African Studies journal.  Yet it was not without its critics, and a year later we published a rejoinder by Caroline Ifeka-Moller, also included here.

The year 1972 also ushered in the literature on underdevelopment, thanks to Guyanese political activist Walter Rodney, whose How Europe Underdeveloped Africa rejected the positive economic assessment of legitimate commerce and imperial rule that Western-based scholars had promoted in the initial decade of African independence.  We reproduce here Joel Samoff’s comprehensive study of underdevelopment in our 1980 volume.  Approximately eighty percent of the article is made up of footnotes, making it a veritable bonanza for those interested in the development of underdevelopment.

Radical revisionist scholarship held sway in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Not only did underdevelopment signify the continuing hegemony of Western capitalism in the “decolonized” Third World, but the theory was invoked to understand the internal colonialism of the South African apartheid state. In 1970 the Black Homelands Citizenship Act denied Africans any hope of democracy in an integrated multiracial state.  The Bantustans were touted as South Africa’s version of decolonization and African independence, but the academy was almost universal in condemning the policy as just another phase of racial oppression.  But was it due to “race”?  The liberal scholarship of pre-1970, captured in the two volumes of the Oxford History of South Africa (Wilson and Thompson, 1969; 1971) saw “race” in the main as an atavistic force up against the liberating tendency of capitalism.  Rick Johnstone argued otherwise.  His damning critique appeared in African Affairs in 1970 (Johnstone, 1970).  I have argued elsewhere that 1970 was critical in the development of anti-apartheid activism in the English academy and in the hub of empire (Youe, 2014).  Martin Murray (1988; 80) singles out Rick Johnstone’s “opening salvo” as releasing “a torrential outpouring of ‘radical’ scholarship”.  Johnstone revisited the debate in the article “’Most Painful to Our Hearts’: South Africa through the eyes of the New School” which we published in 1982.

Another key question in radical scholarship in the 1970s and early 1980s focused on so-called “modes of production”.  The discipline that kickstarted the debate was Marxist economic anthropology but it drew into its vortex historians, political scientists, sociologists, geographers and other fields in anthropology. As Gervase Clarence-Smith notes in the Special Issue “The fashion for modes of production swept through African studies like a bush fire” (19).  The key question was really: why didn’t capitalism transform African economies in its own image?  And from this, was Africa an example of two modes of production “articulating”? Was there such a thing as a lineage mode of production?  When the debate was drawing to a close the Canadian Journal of African Studies released another bumper Special Issue as a forum for the international participants in the intellectual debate.  The contributors read like a Who’s Who of the leading Africanist thinkers of the time: inter alia Bill Freund, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Gervase Clarence-Smith, Ed Alpers, Marty Klein, Patrick Harries, David Newbury, Joel Gregory, Dennis Cordell, Judy Kimble, Victor Piché, Bogumil Jewsiewicki, William Beinart, Jean Loup-Amselle, Emmanual Terray, Pierre Phillipe Rey and Gavin Kitching.  The Special Issue (19, 1 [1985}) might be described as a Festschrift to an idea by the leading Anglophone and Francophone Africanists.

From the many incisive articles in this issue we have selected one by the guest co-editor, Jocelyn Letourneau. ”L’Itinéraire d’un débat” navigates the voluminous and difficult literature to trace the rise and fall of the debate.  Hence, for those post-mode of production scholars who are interested in a question that, along with underdevelopment, gave us an insight into the pan-African impact of capitalist relations of production, as well as for those, like me, who need to revisit the bilingual multidisciplinary literature, then “L’itinéraire d’un débat” fills the bill.  Letourneau’s concise excursion is followed with a 23-page bibliography of over 500 books and articles.

The revolutionary transition in the social sciences and humanities from the 1980s was the move to post-modern and post-colonial and post-marxist studies.  The confidence and coherence of the modernist paradigms that had shaped the early years of our journal, and all the selections we have made up until now in this Virtual Issue, was displaced (in part) by a focus on culture rather than political economy.  The new historiographical order was more concerned with identity and the concept of the “other”, on micro-studies rather than grand narratives.  Women’s Studies tout court transitioned into Gender Studies, and many academic departments began changing their names accordingly (to Women’s and Gender Studies for instance).   Gender, the social and cultural relations of men and women, became, as Joan Scott told us in 1986, a category of analysis.  Now identity - gender, including masculinity, race, ethnicity, “the other”, and later sexuality, LGBTQi  –  assumed significance because all these things were becoming important in everyday life, or rather becoming significant for the first time to the academy.

Giving women a voice was no longer enough; what needed to be unpacked was gender and power. So, in 1996, “’My daughter belongs to the government now’: Marriage, Maasai and the Tanzanian State’” became the very first published article (two if you count her co-introduction of the Special Issue on “Wayward Wives, Misfit Mothers and Disobedient Daughters”, in which it appeared) of the now prolific Maasai historical anthropologist Dorothy Hodgson (just having finished her term as President of the African Studies Association).  This short piece is an intriguing story of a clash between father and daughter in a failed attempt, in the face of the postcolonial Tanzanian state, of the father to enforce “traditional” gender values.  In her many books and articles since Dorothy Hodgson has fleshed out her theories of gender, power and Maasai identities.

Canadian-based historians such as Marty Klein and Paul Lovejoy have made a major contribution to the history of slavery, particularly in West Africa and the Sahel.  Our next contributor, just appointed Director of Islamic Studies at Northwestern, uses the tools of sociology (social movements; construction of identities) and political science (democratization theories; mobilization; state construction) to shed light on the mobilization of “former” slave communities in urban and rural settings, in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, and other parts of the Sahel.  Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem’s article, published in 2010, is on the rise and transformations of the Haratin (the “freed slaves” status of the Moors of Mauritania) emancipation movement, how they have challenged the Mauritanian state, but also how the movement is itself plagued by internal divisions (thanks in part to the cooptation strategies of the state to weaken the movement). The focus of “Miltants aux pieds nus” (2010) on the contemporary manifestations of slavery, slave status and emancipation nicely combines with the work of historians and enables us to better measure the transformations in contemporary West Africa.

Another feature of recent Africanist scholarship might be described as “putting the metropole back in”.  In Britain this theme is associated with the work of Paul Gilroy (“There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”) and the late Stuart Hall.  Incredibly, until recently, the importance of empire on the mindset of those living in the hub of empire has been seriously neglected.  Once again, we owe much to the late Edward Said whose Culture and Imperialism shows how literature and the arts have had as much to do with British imperial overrule as bureaucrats and proconsuls.  Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, distinguished Africanist and recipient of the Légion d’honneur, contributes to our 2011 Special Issue on how the colonial past still influences what might be deemed the “national narrative” in France.  Her paper on “Colonisation, racism et roman national en France” reveals how metropolitan knowledge production is still trapped in its failure to acknowledge decolonization ideologically.

The next colonial power we encounter is China, dubbed the New Imperialists by The Economist several years ago. China’s interest in many African countries – an investment, mining, trading and settler frontier – has coincided with the globalization of the internet. Our penultimate essay in this issue, “Cyber Siren: What Mama Wata reveals about the internet and Chinese presence in Kinshasa” investigates how immigration and “the imaginary” have brought together myth and the Chinese factor via the internet.  The digital age has transformed the image of Mama Wata, a DRC myth, into an ugly imitation of her former imagined self.  Lesley Braun recently received her PhD in anthropology from l’Université de Montréal and has continued her work on Kinshasa, focusing on female bodies in motion (Mama Wata as temptress is still a presence in her postdoctoral work), on ballet and representations of dancers in paintings.

Our final article, published in 2017, is a post-conflict analysis of the land question in the Great Lakes, as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) return to Burundi to stake their claims.  The author Katrin Wittig, a political scientist at l’Université de Montréal, looks at the problems caused by the so-called “political entrepreneurs” whose intervention on behalf of ethnic groups are undermining hopes for a long-term peace.  Land grabbing, refugees, conflict resolution, and identity politics are part and parcel of the 21st century African condition, and this last entry rounds off fifty years of the Canadian Journal of African Studies.


My thanks to all our current editors and all those editors of the past fifty years who have sacrificed their time (being an editor counts for little in the promotion and tenure stakes, and does not seem to merit course remission) and their own research for the cause of African Studies in Canada via the pages of CJAS.  And our transition to an e-journal would not have happened were it not for the efforts of former editor Anne McDougall, University of Alberta; Managing Editor Roger Riendeau, University of Toronto; and Madeleine Markey and Gerry Dorey of Taylor & Francis.


Barnes, Teresa A. 1999. “’We Women Worked So Hard’”: Gender, Urbanization, and Social Reproduction in Colonial Harare, Zimbabwe, 1930-1956”, Oxford, James Currey

Johnstone, Frederick A. 1970. “White Prosperity and White Supremacy in South Africa Today”, African Affairs 69, 275. 124-40.

Murray, Martin. 1988. “The Triumph of Marxist Approaches in South African Social and Labour History’, Journal of Asian and African Studies 23 (1/2), 79-101

Said, Edward 1993.  Culture and Imperialism. New York, A.A. Knopf

Scott, Joan 1986.  “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, American Historical Review, 91, 5. 1053-75

The Oxford History of South Africa, 2 vols, 1969, 1971, edited by Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Youé, Christopher. 2014. “The Royal African Society, African Affairs and Apartheid: The Mustoe Controversy of 1970”, African Affairs Virtual Issue Exclusive, South Africa 20 Years After Apartheid