Africa Beyond the West: BRICS and the Global South

Compiled by David Simon

The conference Southern Africa Beyond the West was organised and run by the Journal of Southern African Studies, the Review of African Political Economy and the British Institute of Eastern Africa. In addition to this report a large number of the conference sessions were filmed by A limited selection of keynote addresses and interviews with participants and speakers are available on this site and a fuller selection of panel discussions on our YouTube channel. This detailed summary of the conference has been compiled by David Simon.

The Archaeological Evidence for Southern African Trade and Contact

The purpose of holding this panel right at the beginning of the conference was to channel the attention of the conference delegates, and their subsequent discussions, around the important point that the networks of trade, communication, contact and exchange that are often referred to rather casually today as ‘globalisation’ are not something new. The Southern African region, indeed sub-Saharan Africa more generally has been interconnected in diverse and dynamic ways with the rest of the world for millennia. And if this is true, then to properly understand what ‘globalisation’ today might be about, there is need to be aware of these deeper historical patterns, and for that we need archaeology, as well as history. And so the purpose of this panel was to demonstrate, discuss and consider some of the enormous wealth of archaeological work that has been done on pre-colonial trade networks that existed across the continent, and to consider the considerable work that still needs to be done in this field.  Prof. Innocent Pikirayi opened the panel with his paper “Trade, Globalisation and the Archaic state in Southern Africa” which examined the role of trade links between the southern Africa state societies of the middle Limpopo valley and the southern regions of the Zimbabwe plateau, Eastern Africa and Asia between the first millennium and the middle of the second millennium. His argument was that while these states witnessed phenomenal growth and expansion that was propelled by this trade, their demise, while due to multiple, complexity factors, was perhaps also primarily triggered by changing patterns of these long distance, regional and inter-continental trade links, particularly those involving precious commodities like gold.  Thus he concluded the ‘dynamics of ancient state development and decline associated with the archaic state cannot be completely dissociated from increasing connectedness with societies in the continent of Asia, and later, Europe’. Pikirayi’s paper set the scene and broader context for the following papers in the panel. He was immediately followed by Prof. Edwin Wilmsen’s paper which focused attention on trades in bangles and beads between the Indian Ocean region and Southern Africa. Wilmsen discussed the different routes that were involved, and the reciprocal nature of trade during the late first to middle second millennium, which amounted to ‘an early form of globalization encompassing the entire Indian ocean province, including its Persian gulf embayment, and, at times, across to West Africa where a royal tomb at Igbo Ukwu contained thousands of the same kind of beads found at contemporary southern Africa sites’. Ted Pollard’s paper followed, examining the different ports on the East African coast that Swahili traders used in the Indian ocean trading system between the seventh and the fifteenth century, which developed into a sophisticated and long enduring maritime culture, with long lasting effects. Ashley Coutu’s paper followed, focusing specific attention on the use of different bio-archaeological techniques (ZoomS and Isotope analysis) to trace the growth of different ivory trade routes and sources, and changing use of different species of trade ivory (including hippo, warthog as well as elephant) between southern and eastern Africa and places as distant as Iran, India and China, between 800 and 1500 AD, a period when this trade witnessed significant expansion. The panel was then completed and further complemented by Nicholas Nikis and Alexandre Livingstone Smiths’ paper, which focused on another very significant trade commodity in the region during the 2nd millennium AD, copper, and the exchange networks that this engendered in southern central Africa, particularly from the copper belt region of present day Zambia.

Joost Fontein

Cities and Trading Networks Today

This panel consisted of a keynote speech followed by a session with five papers.  The keynote by Deborah Potts reflected on some ways in which the ideas of comparative urbanism might be applied in the context of studying urban processes and urban residents’ welfare in southern African countries in comparison to the BRIC countries.  Key themes were the different ways in which the current neoliberal phase of capitalism had affected urban societies in these different countries, the different mixes of capitalism practised, and the emergence of some elements of state-financed economic security systems for vulnerable urban populations in some countries, including South Africa and Brazil.

Four of the papers in the panel looked at ways in which China, Brazil and/or South Africa were influencing urban developments in Zambian or Mozambican cities, and one analysed Chinese influences on Johannesburg and the nature of Chinese immigrants’ residential patterns there.  Much analysis was about how significant increases in goods traded from China, and sometimes also wholesaled and retailed within southern African cities by Chinese immigrants, was influencing urban processes in the region.  There was considerable discussion about how urban spaces were being reshaped by Chinese-influenced retail developments (in Johannesburg) or South African retail developments (in Lusaka) and how this could be thought of in terms of ‘worlding’ of cities (cf Simone) or related to conceptualising cities as assemblages.  Chinese investments in mega-infrastructural developments were also discussed. Ferguson’s ideas about how capital in the contemporary capitalist era ‘hops’ between specific (often urban) enclaves, rather than flows,  leaving spaces between excluded, were also much alluded to in terms of the impacts on urban populations’ welfare and increasing socio-spatial divisions.

The ways in which processes of globalisation and increased trade with and through non-western societies has created both winners and losers in southern African urban societies were exemplified by the two papers which looked specifically at African urban workers: porters in Kapiri Mposhi on the Tazara railway, and traders in Maputo.

Brazil’s attempts to provide various forms of urban development advice to Mozambique via city to city projects was generally seen as positive in Mozambique (albeit the impact appeared limited as yet and Brazil was probably using the programmes partly as an exercise in ‘soft power’)  in part because ‘traditional’ western donors still provided more material aid, which remains crucial.  The importance of state-civil society relationships for making certain types of urban planning interventions successful in Brazil was also increasingly becoming apparent as an obstacle in this South-South exercise in policy transfer.

Deborah Potts

Cultural Transnationalism

This panel explored cultural flows across the BRICS countries and evaluated the impact of the BRICS paradigm on Southern Africa – principally refracted through South Africa’s relationship on neighbouring countries – through different lenses (art, literature, media). All the papers touched on how South Africa’s emergence in BRICS has built on and complicated pre-existing relationships in the region. Moreover, all five papers captured how culture has sought to mobilise a new local agency and map new local geographies in the wake of the imagined threats and appeals posed by the rise of the wider BRICS system.

The papers and the brief discussion that followed invited further thinking on points including: 1) How the existing politics of labelling and culture’s points of reference need to be re-considered. How valid are previous categories of race, patriarchy oppression, and religion now BRICS has moved beyond the western hegemonic position of reference?; 2) How the human, place and lived moment or constantly in changing dialogue and implicated in transnational flows; 3) The need to look again at marginalisation and how BRICS is affecting it: is it easing marginalisation or mobilising it further?

“The ‘Bees-Knees’ Factor: An Evaluation of South Africa’s Influence of Zambia Arts”

  • Raised questions of how Africa views South Africa as a BRICS member.
  • Framed his talk around (former Deputy President) Guy Scott’s comments that SA is backward in historical development and thinks it’s the bees knees yet is often the cause of trouble. Scott also took issue with SA being in BRICS, claiming it an inferior member of the group that should instead concentrate on Africa.
  • SA xenophobia in 2015 was used as an example by some to support Scott – though no Zambians were hurt it was still taken personally by some because of the role Zambia played in the anti-apartheid struggle.
  • He spoke of his personal experiences of the ANC being part of the Zambian community. He lived next to banned ANC members in Lusaka during apartheid. They were a risk yet brought some safety.
  • Brief mention was made of SA arrogance during apartheid.
  • Important to note that despite Scott’s view, SA remains a big source of FDI in Zambia.
  • The talk moved briefly and broadly towards art and culture.
  • There is little SA influence in theatre or film (mainly Nigerian), though SA music has a significant presence.
  • Zambia and SA have an asymmetric economic relationship but this is not the same in the arts, where its influence is far less apparent.

Cheela Chilala

“Towards a Politial Poetics of Waste in South Africa, India and Brazil”

  • Talk concentrated on junk as the afterlife of the community.
  • Nothing is rendered dead but has its own lifecycles.
  • How junk produces us?
  • Examples in her paper were often based around the urban poor.
  • The South Ocean gyre provided a way to look at the flows across the different BRICS cultures.
  • First example (SA): Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett (2010). The poetic form is used to convey the dense materiality of objects. Also alerts us to our own bodies and how we can become trash.
  • Second example (SA): Portrait of Keys by Ivan Vladislavic. The presentation of disorderly junk mobilises its marginality. The non-linear text also maps Johannesburg’s impenetrable nature.
  • Coins the useful critical phrase, ‘Thing Power’.
  • Third example (Brazil): Vik Muniz (visual artist). Has displayed series of photographs entitled Pictures of Garbage.
  • Fourth example (Brazil): Wasteland (film). Makes comparisons of this Brazilian portrayal to the film Slum Dog Millionaire set in Mumbai.
  • Fifth example (India): How to get Filthy Rich in Rising India. Representations of junk work differently here, especially when compared to Vladislavic.

Megan Jones

“The Love-Hate Relationship: Discourses on the Chinese Presence in Zambia as Reflected in the Media”

  • Discussed how the Zambian media perceive China’s role in Zambia.
  • The long history of relations between the two countries has been dominated by mixed feelings.
  • Othering and stereotypes (both positive and negative) are becoming more prominent.
  • Negative stereotypes: foreignization, economic threat (causing moral panic), lawless, cultural eccentrics
  • Positive stereotypes: key development partners.

Mildred Nkolola-Wakumelo

“John Keonakeefe Mohl and the Bechuanaland Protectorate: The Transfrontier Career of a Black South African Landscape Painter”

  • Mohl’s art was initially the result of a dialogue between Berlin and London missionary schools that both wanted to maximise his talent.
  • The paintings Mohl displayed when returning from art school in Dusseldorf in 1936 were very political acts.
  • Mohl had a bleak vision of SA.

Neil Parsons

“Kujoni: The Production of South Africa as a Part of the National Imaginary in Malawian Writing”

  • Explored how SA is imagined in Malawian literature.
  • Perceived the dichotomous conflict between representations of Old and New Africa to be too narrow.
  • Argues satire rejuvenates the impact of modernity on rural culture.
  • SA is seen as part of a transnational imagination.
  • Worried that literatures may start to re-establish centre/periphery relations as SA joins BRICS because it would erase local agency, with culture and consumption frequently judged in relation to and through imports from the South African and wider BRICS centre.
  • His focused on one novel, Jingala by Malawain author Legson Kayira that explored the relationship between those who stayed at home in Malawi and returning migrant workers.

The migrants’ return created an imagined geography, which often reduced South Africa to Johannesburg and had a distinct absence of the rural.

Mpalive-Hangson Msiska

Natures of Violence: Spaces of Misrule in Contemporary BRICS Literature

Overall, the panel explored the representation of political violence in cultural forms, mostly in literature and song, in contemporary BRICS formations.  Altogether, Michael Wassels’ and Tom Penfold’s papers focussed on novels from Brazil, South Africa and India whereas Patience Mususa’s and Liz Gunner’s concentrated on how the song genre is employed in Zambia, Brazil and South Africa in highlighting oppressive social and political relations.

Michael Wessels, ‘Representations of Political Violence in Indian Literature in English.’ Wassels’ paper examined the representation of political violence in writing from India.  There was some comparative reference to South Africa, but, primarily, it focussed on a diverse range of works from India engaging with the theme of violence.  It noted that a number of texts have illuminated the institutionalised control of ‘reproductive and labour power.’  After a complex theorisation of violence, with reference to Fanon, Marx, Zizek and Althusser, among others, the paper argued that one could isolate two forms of violence: systemic and revolutionary, with the first defined as a form of subjugation and subjection and the latter, as a means of transformation of the status quo.  However, the paper was more interested in revolutionary violence, especially in the effects on individuals, family and community of resisting institutionalised violence.  It was pointed out that resistance was often contained violently, as in the case of the two lovers engaged in an inter-caste relationship in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.  By and large, as the paper pointed out, there was some ambivalence towards revolutionary violence, particularly armed struggle, though it was sometimes seen as the only course available to the oppressed.

Tom Penfold, ‘”A Specific Kind of Violence”: Insanity and Identity in Contemporary Brazilian and South African Literature.’ Penfold’s paper focussed on the relationship between madness and identity in two novels, one from Brazil and another from South Africa.  It argued that, as both Brazil and South Africa have undergone the transition from oppressive regimes to multi-party democracy, some sections of society in both countries have felt marginalised and that fact is reflected in some of the literary texts, for instance, in K. Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams (South African) and Rodrigo Leao De Souza’s All Dogs are Blue (Brazilian).  It explored how such structural changes impinged on the domain of affect and the everyday, as citizens struggle to fashion new forms of self-identity in parallel with their nations’ quests for new roles on the world stage.

Interestingly, the paper suggests that such madness cannot be ‘treated’ or ameliorated by addressing the issue of marginalisation itself, but it is rather a form of violence endemic to ‘troubled societies.’  It also acknowledged the aesthetic possibilities offered by madness through its sanctioning of transgressive forms.

Patience Mususa, ‘Narratives of Subversion and Order in Zambian Political Song.’ The paper explored the use of song in the public sphere in Zambia.  Additionally, it sought to indicate the ways in which the song genre offered a performative space which makes certain forms of knowledge about society possible.   Mususa contended that in Zambia, songs can be read as narratives of nation-making.  They offer a framework for understanding the performative of nation-making.  She looked at different forms of nation-making narratives, for example, the state-sponsored nation-building narratives, captured in the slogan, ‘one Zambia, one nation,’ which inaugurated the Post-colonial state and is still widely used in the media, particularly broadcast media to articulate a supposedly collective national ideal.

We were also informed that there are songs which provide a critique of the state, subverting official narratives of nation-making, through such devices as irony and mockery, seen, for instance, in the popular music of Paul Ngozi.   The paper concluded with a recent instance of appropriation and subversive adaptation of an old song in which a migrant returns from Harare with nothing to show for his long stay in a supposedly richer country.  In its reconstitution the song bemoans the poverty of political vision in the current leadership, especially the President.

Liz Gunner, ‘Songs of Comfort and Misrule: Political Song and the South.’ Gunner’s paper compared the use of song in Brazil and South Africa, arguing that in both countries, the song has historically been used to counter state violence, rendering the political imagination of the excluded.  It examined the historical development of some song-forms, especially Samba and demonstrated how it had arisen as an attempt to articulate the concerns of the marginalised, but eventually moved to the centre, as its power of social and political critique became irrepressible.  Gunner further noted that in Chico Buarque’s songs, composed during the dictatorship, the political resonance of the songs is communicated not directly through the lyrics, but suggestively by covert reference to the political and historical contexts.

The paper also explored the political use of song in South African political discourse during the Anti-Apartheid struggle and after.  Here, as well, the song was seen as an instrument of resistance for the marginalised.  Zuma was singled out as one of the politicians adept at exploiting the power of song for popular appeal and making ordinary people feel included in public spaces of political discourse.  However, in the Post-Apartheid era, the song’s oppositional force has been appropriated, for instance, by Zuma for legitimation of misrule.


In general, the papers pointed to the importance of reading the social and the political present of the BRICS countries in the contemporary cultural expressions, as it is in such spaces that something approximating a an unofficial documentation and critique of the affective social and political tension between personal and state-driven desires emerges.  It was also clear that the study of the BRICS countries needed to be grounded in a good understanding of how they are to a large extent constituted by particular features of their past, especially, the violent past, on the one hand and, on the other, spaces of resistance that had sought to counteract such violence as a prelude to a future in which such state violence could be constrained by the rule of law.

Mpalive Msiska

Southern African liberation movements’ transnational connections

The first sub-panel on the history of Southern African liberation movements’ transnational connections focused on Zimbabwe. Gerald Mazarire of Midlands State University in Gweru provided an analysis of ZANU’s External Networks, explaining the interaction between the movement’s internal dynamics and the support it received from both regional hosting nations and those that provided military training and political support internationally. Blessing Miles-Phiri of the University of Oxford focused on ZANU’s relations with Frelimo in the mid-1970s, arguing that the extent of Frelimo influence over ZANU decision-making has been overstated and instead stressing the agency of ZANU and ZANLA leaders in shaping the position of their movement both militarily and in the Lancaster House negotiations. In the third and final paper, Jocelyn Alexander (Oxford) and JoAnn McGregor (Sussex) presented research on the experience of Zanla veterans of training in the Soviet Union, based on a revealing set of interviews.

  • A number of themes emerged from the papers and the lively discussion that followed: these transnational connections were shaped by individual and collective networks shaped by overlapping ideological, organisational and personalised rivalries and relationships, the entangling of which is challenging for researchers
  • the interplay between liberation movements and host nations, and the extent to which each shaped this relationship, is relevant not only to the Zimbabwean case but also to the hosting of movements across southern and central Africa from the 1960s to the 1990s
  • researchers are moving from a focus on the political history of liberation movements to a social history of the lived experience of their members, providing new insights into a history of Africa’s ‘Cold War’
  • this is based on increased though still uneven access to archives including those from the former Communist Bloc, which are interlinked with interviews, memoirs and other personal sources reflecting the African side of the story – historians need to find innovative ways of bringing together these bodies of evidence.

Miles Larmer

The BRICS’ Impact on the Development of Knowledge Systems in Southern Africa

Felix Phiri (Tangaza University College, Nairobi), ‘The Impact of India and South Africa on the Development of Islam in Southern Africa.‘ The paper looked at Islam in the context of old and new triangular relations between South Africa, Zambia and India in which the impact of South Africa and India on the development of Islam in Zambia on balance seems to be incidental.

Retief Muller (University of Stellenbosch), ‘Knowledge Systems in Tension: South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church’s Missionary Enterprise in Nyasaland/ Malawi and the Indigenous Response.’ The second paper on the panel related to South Africa’s old and new ‘knowledge systems’ that have created tensions with Malawians historically and contemporarily. It argued that the historical missionary experience could have provided South Africa with lessons in dealing with its current ´pan-African’ experiences.

Tianjun Hou, ‘Identifying Barriers to Technology Transfers in Africa: lessons from a Chinese hydropower project in Zambia.’ This paper focused on the barriers to technology transfer specifically in the context of a Chinese hydropower project in contemporary Zambia. Varying forms of bureaucracy, language and knowledge levels seen to be in the way of a possible transfer of knowledge.

The discussion centred on reasons why knowledge transfers have always appeared to have been limited. It was suggested that we should not confine this to the current Chinese-Africa experience, but regard it as a more general trend that seems to put barriers into these transfers. Genuine partnerships that go beyond the lifespan of grand projects were seen as one way of overcoming these barriers. The speakers were urged to make a more clear distinction between the interactions and impacts- or lack thereof- of communities versus whole nations. In other words, can we speak of Africa’s interaction with India as a whole, or is simply limited to interactions with Indian communities. Hou was confronted with the most burning question as to why Zambia is facing the worst load shedding in its history, so shortly after the installation of the new turbines. What does it tells us about inadequate cooperation and implementation of technological programs.

Marja Hinfelaar

Lessons from African and BRICS Experience:  Biodiversity and Biopiracy

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) the loss of plant and animal biodiversity is the ‘second greatest extinction’ since the demise of the dinosaurs 63 million years ago.  Yet the continent of Africa remains ecologically diverse, with five of the twenty global centres of plant diversity.  This session was unique in the conference in addressing Southern Africa’s agroecology through case studies of Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The four detailed studies agreed that understanding of Southern African agriculture had to rely on specificities that nuance the diversity; macro or structural analyses are too general, similar to large scale monoculture as a failed model for the continent.

The papers addressed the impact of agricultural programmes on the livelihoods of those involved, evaluating the mixed results.  For knowledge and skills transfers, for example, the exchange with the Chinese in Zambia seemed to work, but not the Brazilian projects in Mozambique.  The community seed banks in Zimbabwe share knowledge, extending the skills.  But corporate interests are increasing biopiracy, the theft of genetic resources as well as the knowledge and skills related to their use.

Carol Thompson

Development Paradigms in Southern African

The four presentations in this panel offered a mix of perspectives and approaches for looking at different development paradigms from the South. Taking different case studies, the presentations each touched on selected elements that reflect the development of ‘South’ thinking and its propagation in the South. In their diverse ways, they reflect that there should not be a one single paradigm, which is seen as the only right lens for viewing development; ‘South’ thinking is an important and concrete alternative view.

Emerging from the conference discussions that followed the four presentations, a few comments and suggestions were forwarded for the consideration of the different papers, where applicable: (i) perhaps it could be clarified how countries in the South, particularly in southern African are making movement towards the concept of income grants; (ii) the extent to which “Ubuntu” can be taken as universal across African and an agent for development (as opposed to being a philosophy) could be expanded upon; (iii) perhaps it could be explained how the ingredients of ‘South’ development have been systematically elaborated in development paradigms and how relevant these descriptions are for Africa in particular; and (iv) the reactions in southern Africa to the proliferation of Confucius Institutes in many countries could be explored further.

Caesar Cheelo

Final Day Roundtable

The panel comprised seven speakers, chaired by David Simon, who opened by contextualising the timeliness and importance of the Roundtable through sketching some of the intellectual currents and key moments and landmark contributions to postmodern, postcolonial and southern theory debates, including the Comaroffs’ book. The speakers, Trevor Ngwane (Univ of Johannesburg), Ceasar Cheelo (SAIPAR and ZIPAR), Wheeler Winstead (Howard University), Portia Kaja (Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe), Blessings Chissinga (Chancellor College, Univ of Malawi), Muna Ndulo (Cornell University and SAIPAR) and Patience Musasa (UCT), all provided complementary and provocative interventions, reflecting their respective professional and personal positionalities. This stimulated engaged debate with the audience and, perhaps inevitably, no wide agreement was reached beyond recognition of the importance of the issues and the need for complementary knowledges and ways of seeing and doing if the intellectual, policy and practical contradictions and logjams we all confront are to be transcended in any meaningful way.

David Simon


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