Mafeje–Jordan Seminar: A Cape radical’s postcolonialism

17 May 2021 | Story Nicole Forrest. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 7 min.
Emer Prof Crain Soudien in front of an image of Ben Kies.
Emer Prof Crain Soudien in front of an image of Ben Kies.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Emeritus Professor Crain Soudien presented his research paper A Rereading of Kies’ ‘The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilization’ during the second instalment of the Mafeje–Jordan Seminar Series, held on Wednesday, 12 May 2021.

Emeritus Professor Soudien is a former deputy vice-chancellor at UCT, where he continues to contribute to the School of Education and Centre for African Studies (CAS). He recently also concluded his term as CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council. Soudien’s extensive publication record in the areas of social difference, culture, education policy, comparative education, educational change, public history and popular culture – most recently, The Cape Radicals: Intellectual and Political Thought of the New Era Fellowship – have earned him an A-rating from the National Research Foundation.

He delivered the paper during the seminar series, which is named in honour of former UCT scholars Archibald “Archie” Mafeje and Archibald Campbell (AC) Jordan. This series of seminars is presented by the Faculty of Humanities, CAS’ African Studies Unit and the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics (AXL). The faculty, CAS and AXL are aligned in their missions to promote and support African studies at UCT, and to offer interdisciplinary teaching and research opportunities in the subject.

Deconstructing the concept of Western civilisation

A photograph taken of a projected image of Ben Kies.

Soudien examined a lecture titled The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation, which was delivered by Benjamin Magson Kies – or Ben Kies, as he was more popularly known – in 1953. Kies was a teacher, a Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) theorist, and one of the most important political and intellectual figures in modern South African history. After matriculating in 1934, he attended UCT, and completed a BA, MA and Bachelor of Education, following which he took up a post as a teacher at Trafalgar High School.

While completing his BA in 1937, Kies helped to establish the New Era Fellowship (NEF), a progressive, anti-colonial debating society that was the training ground for those who supported the ideas of anti-Stalinist forms of socialism. The NEF was the incubator for a variety of progressive, socialist organisations in the cultural, social and political spheres that were founded in Cape Town from 1937 onwards, including the NEUM which, in its current iteration, exists as the New Unity Movement.

Throughout the 1940s, Kies continually propelled the NEF “towards a more theoretical consideration of the question of the sociology of [South Africa] and of ‘race’ in particular”, which was a direction that was rooted in his frustration with the previous generation’s “preoccupation with civility”. In examining the questions of race and imperialism, Kies gave a series of addresses, culminating in the lecture under analysis.

Kies’ speech was given in September 1953, under the auspices of the Teachers’ League of South Africa as the AJ Abrahamse Lecture, and focused mainly on the “myth of race”.

“In the lecture, [Kies] deconstructs the universe encapsulated in the concept of Western civilisation and the idea of a Western man with a Western soul and Western philosophy, Western science and a Western way of life,” said Soudien.

“In this view, imperialist conquest is offered as a claim and proof of the inherent racial superiority of the conquerors, and the inherent racial inferiority of the conquered.”

A man ahead of his time

The importance of Kies’ speech, Soudien explained, is the change in thinking he and his colleagues introduced not only around South African politics but also around world history and development.

“I make the argument that this lecture signals not only a break with dominant thinking about the political nature of South Africa, but in its framing of world history.

“It both anticipates the subaltern movement and offers new analytics for explaining social and economic development,” said Soudien. 

Although largely remembered for its contribution to the idea of non-racialism, the lecture also redraws the lines and story of human development over the past 5 000 years. According to Soudien, this had the effect of “introducing to socio-cultural history what Kies’ closest intellectual colleague [Hosea] Jaffe called the world-systems theory”, 50 years before Immanuel Wallerstein published what is considered the seminal paper on the topic.


“This lecture signals not only a break with dominant thinking about the political nature of South Africa, but in its framing of world history.”

Soudien highlights that Kies was also in the presence of extraordinary intellectuals, including AC Jordan, “who examined the concept of ubuntu and its necessity in coming to think about the range of capacities that modern human beings ought to have”. This, Soudien said, was the basis for a critical African modernism that helped Kies deal, unapologetically, with the question of African past ways that are unapologetic.

The approach offered Kies the opportunity to situate the Western world as “the recipient, the ancestor of 5 000 years of civilisational development” and enabled him to “show how the Renaissance is the aggregation of that cumulative effect of the multiple strands of learning and development that preceded the 1500s”. This laid the groundwork for modern academics to dissect this “myth of what Europe is all about and the accompanying idea that the continent has come through a path of pristine development”.

An expansion of thought

Soudien argued that Kies had the opportunity in this lecture to criticise the human-centric idea of modernity which pervaded most approaches to human development, including socialism. Kies grappled with the idea of ‘mutual aid’, derived from the Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin, and from this the principle of ‘caring’ as a deep human quality, but did not take these ideas up. Instead, he stayed with the idea of human beings ‘deepening’ their control over nature as the objective of human development.

In Soudien’s view, the areas of eco- and green socialism provide the greatest opportunity for the expansion of Kies’ theories, building on his discussion of the ethics of what care is, towards an examination of sustainability as a way to liberate human beings.

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