Technology Studies in Africa

Sunday, 10 July, 2016 - 18:00

Mellon Workshop 

July 10-15, 2016  •  Durban, South Africa 


Day 1: July 11 

Introduction (1-2 pm) 

Keith Breckenridge, Paul Edwards, and Gabrielle Hecht  

Infrastructure (2:30-4:30 pm) 

Pre-circulated papers  

Claudia Gastrow (University of the Witwatersrand): The discomforts of home

I propose to pre-circulate the draft of an article looking at the role of technology, and specifically infrastructure in the production of contemporary class distinction in the African city. Most contemporary African cities are serviced with water, electricity, and sanitation through a range of temporary and individually arranged infrastructures such as generators, water tanks, and water pumps which provide both a commonality between the conditions of wealthy and poor, but also create distinction in terms of the quality, ubiquity, upkeep of these provisional infrastructures and the services they provide. Based on fieldwork in Luanda, Angola the paper presents various instances of infrastructural breakdown, construction and the experiences thereof to contribute to both the new emerging literature on class distinction in Africa and an investigation of the role of provisional infrastructures in the creation of urban experience in contemporary Africa. 

Bernard Dubbeld (University of Stellenbosch): Democracy as technopolitical future: Delivery and discontent in a government settlement in the South African countryside

This paper considers how infrastructure became an end of post-apartheid politics in two senses. First, I argue that infrastructure has become a political goal: building houses, supplying electricity, water, paved roads and clinics was seen, in the countryside at least, as social transformation. Second, governance has become an increasingly technical matter in which the horizon of participation is shaped by infrastructure, and altered the terms of politics substantially. I explore both these “ends” of politics, reflecting on the one hand on literatures that includes recent writings by Ferguson, Chatterjee, and Gupta, and on the other, on ethnographic research in a KwaZulu-Natal settlement,  tracing the position of actors who administer infrastructure, such as the ward councillor and municipal manager. I point to major divergences in understandings of state obligations and its relation with citizens, and local ambivalences about infrastructure as the basis for an adequate political future. 

Keith Breckenridge (University of the Witwatersrand): Biometric Capitalism: Debt, demography and African states in the 21st century 

Following Hall and Soskice (2001) and Sklar (1988) this paper argues that a new and distinctive variety of capitalism is currently taking form on the African continent. States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, persistent conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international national security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations. Much of this turn to enhanced forms of state surveillance is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. The British, French and Portuguese colonial states bequeathed unusually lethargic and constrained registration systems to their post-colonial successors, administrative systems that did little to record births, deaths, marriages or property. This administrative condition has changed little, or deteriorated, over the last half-century. Automated biometric identification systems, aimed chiefly at adults, present these states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. This is especially the case because in many African countries – the paper discusses Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralised biometric population registers. In doing so they have explicitly in mind the development of an unusual of a centralised national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus, a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects of for automated debt appraisal. This is remarkable in comparison with the earlier histories of identification and registration, and with the legal and administrative arrangements for physical and virtual forms of property that exist on the continent.

Paul Edwards (University of Michigan): On Infrastructure Time: Software, Speed and, and Second- order systems in African contexts  

Stability and endurance over long periods — decades to centuries — have been among the major defining features of infrastructures, from railroads and electric power grids to telephone and the Internet. In the 19th and 20th centuries, infrastructures such as these typically displayed a development curve lasting 30-100 years from inception to maturity, related to the need to build capital-intensive, large-scale physical systems supported by complex, enduring organizations. Second-order infrastructures — built “on top of” pre-existing infrastructures — seem to present a different story, with major, highly reliable, widely used systems emerging in just a few years (and often vanishing just as fast). Information technology, especially software, has played a key role in this process since the 1970s. By the 1980s, a logic of platforms — core components such as operating systems, on which complementary components (such as application programs) can be built — had taken hold across a range of industries. The flexibility of increasingly powerful software platforms, including the Web itself, seems to permit a nearly endless layering and modularity.This article twists Leigh Star’s important question “when is an infrastructure?” (Star and Ruhleder, 1996) in a new direction — asking instead “how fast is an infrastructure?” Do genuine infrastructures always take decades to develop? Do they always last for decades or more? It then interrogates the role of software in second- (and third-, and nth-) order infrastructures. Do software platforms represent a new way of building infrastructures, with a shorter cycle time than their physical counterparts? Finally, I speculate about the future of platform temporalities, using three examples from African contexts: FidoNet in the 1980s and 1990s, the M-Pesa mobile money system in contemporary Kenya, and Facebook’s rise in the developing world since 2010.  Although African infrastructures are often portrayed as “backward” or “lagging,” these examples suggest that they may actually represent global futures.

Discussant: Gabrielle Hecht (University of Michigan) 

Water (5-6.30 pm) 

Pecha Kucha 

Pamila Gupta (University of the Witwatersrand): Ruminations on Renovation in Postcolonial Beira  

This paper explores sites of leisure such as swimming pools, movie theatres and hotels that were built at the height of colonial tourist aspirations in Beira, Mozambique (circa 1950’s) and that were formally reserved for white colonial elites, specifically in this case, Portuguese citizens, British Rhodesian sugar plantation managers/manufacturers who were stationed in Beira at the time, and visiting tourists, and their families. That these same swimming pools, theatres and hotels are very much in use today by a very different set of players says something about this “reluctant city”(Forjaz 2007) in the making. My ethnographic observations and impressions as well as photographs taken during daily strolls in the city in April 2009 will attempt to think productively with the “ruins of empire”(Stoler 2008) in order to chart a set of ruminations on present day Beira and are intended to show a complex city in its daily habitus by way of relationships (both of materiality and affect) between people and certain build environments. My focus will suggest that these particular sites (and by way of their detailings such as colours, tiles, textures) afford a window onto Beira’s condition of postcoloniality (as well, the simultaneity of its conditions of colonialism, socialism and war) through the creative ability of its African inhabitants to take specific urban infrastructures left behind by its Portuguese colonial possessors in the wake of Mozambique’s rapid decolonization in 1975, and adeptly adapt them to their own strategic and innovative purposes. 

Jatin Dua (University of Michigan): Bodies at Sea: Technologies of navigation in the Indian Ocean 

Historical and contemporary forms of migration and mobility across the Indian Ocean have been central in shaping African histories, economies, and socialities. Drawing from an array of archives including medieval navigational manuals, practices of enskillment and boat-building, interdiction technologies for tracking migrants at sea and fieldwork with sojourners and pirates in the Western Indian Ocean, I want to focus on the materiality and mobility of navigation, including the embodied modes of seasickness that are central to life at sea. Specifically, how might thinking about bodies at sea help us navigate safely beyond analytic frameworks anchored in the terrestrial preoccupations of the nation-state on the one hand and assumptions of frictionless global flows on the other hand? How might a focus on bodies as they are tossed asunder, as they get seasick help re-engage a now burgeoning literature on infrastructure, logistics, and mobility that for all its emphasis on the material, often fails to account for the embodied ways in which mobility is experienced by various itinerant sojourners?  

Jennifer Johnson (Purdue University): A Paradox Otherwise: Ontological Problems and Possibilities around an Inland African Sea 

The fascinating complexities of Lake Victoria’s contemporary fisheries situation and assumed fisheries crisis have motivated a recent florescence of social science scholarship. These studies have identified a central paradox: despite living next to and making their living from Africa’s largest freshwater fishery, residents of Lake Victoria’s fishing communities are surprisingly food insecure and eat surprisingly few fish. In this talk I introduce three ontological problems that implicitly frame studies of and attempts to address Lake Victoria’s contemporary fisheries crisis. These problems are: what constitutes a body of water, a complete meal, and fish themselves. Attention to these ontological problems configures a paradox otherwise: it is still possible to eat and live well with fish in a place where experts have already determined almost no one can.  

Discussant: Ngaka Mosiane (MISTRA) 

Day 2: July 12 

Infrastructure field trip (8-2 pm) 

Coal (4-6 pm) 

Pre-circulated papers 

Faeeza Ballim (University of the Witwatersrand): The fickleness of coal: Eskom and the Minerals Energy complex in South Africa 

This paper examines the political life of materials, in this case of coal. Timothy Mitchell has described a “carbon democracy”, arguing that the presence of coal encourages democracy. But in South Africa coal mines have assumed the different political function, of firmly entrenching the political elite among the cash-generating corporations of the “Minerals-Energy complex” (MEC). Analysts have attributed South Africa’s slow take-up of renewable energy sources to the vested interests of the MEC. Nonetheless, the fallacy of the idea that the MEC is hegemonic has been demonstrated not least by the recent global slowdown in mineral demand. Coal contracts have also served as a buffer for the coal industry against the highly volatile world of mineral resource booms and busts. The domestic customers of coal, such as the state corporations who pursued a technologically sophisticated industrialisation strategy, were also concerned to protect their coal supplies from the export market. As such the coal industry’s receptiveness to relationships of patronage was conditioned by the risk aversion adopted by the country’s state corporations who under apartheid were relentlessly driven by the need to assure national self-sufficiency. 

Stephen Sparks (University of Johannesburg): ‘Tailor made for South African Conditions’: Technological Momentum and Apartheid South Africa’s Oil-From-Coal Project 

In his foundational 1969 essay Thomas Hughes proposed the concept of ‘technological momentum’ to explain how hydrogenation, a technology producing oil from coal was embraced by the Nazis. My proposed paper for the workshop (which I envision submitting to Technology and Culture) extends Hughes’ concept to the only other context where oil-from-coal was employed to a significant degree after World War II: apartheid South Africa. What were the sources of ‘technological momentum’ in the story of oil-from-coal in apartheid South Africa? Autarkic imperatives lead to the establishment of a state corporation, and this, coupled with techno-nationalist discourse ensured oil-from-coal’s status as a strategic, national prestige project enjoying massive subsidization by the apartheid state. This support was critically important over the course of the second half of the twentieth century to providing scientists and engineers with the necessary time, resources and political cover to make the technology work after calamitous early technical trouble. Until the 1970s, another key source of momentum was the low cost of mining coal, reflected in repeated references to how the project was ‘tailor made for South African conditions’, a formulation typical of apartheid’s techno-politics, presenting the social-political fact of hyper-exploited black labour in depoliticised terms. International threats posed by anti-apartheid oil sanctions, the 1973 oil shock and the Iranian revolution provided new sources of momentum in the late apartheid period.  

 Discussant: Robyn d’Avignon (University of Michigan) 


Day 3: July 13 

Evacuation (1-4 pm) 

Installation (explanation/exploration 1-1:45) 

Brenda Chalfin (University of Florida): Excrementa Estates 

With the development establishment’s endorsement of pro-poor economic growth, a concern with water and sanitation is now at the top of the international development agenda. Yet, at the same time the bottom billion struggles to fulfill basic needs, their more prosperous neighbors invest in ostentatious properties on par with cosmopolitan lifestyles and consumption standards. All the while, national and local governing bodies beset by the strictures of neoliberalism lack the revenue or capacity to reliably provide public goods to their citizenry. 

This project – an exercise in critical design anthropology confronting the actually existing conditions of wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, influence and disregard, in urban Africa – lays out a series of urban design solutions to bridge the gap. Drawing on field observations from Ghana’s fastest growing urban hub, a selection of architectural cum infrastructural models marrying sanitary provisioning, high-end housing, and urban investment opportunities are laid out for inspection. African solutions to African needs making up for lapses in state services, these arrangements are attuned to the experience of the urban poor at the same time they advance the status aspirations of the upwardly mobile. 

Visitors are invited to study and respond to the models and the associated explanatory materials, which are designed to resemble popular real estate offerings.  Viewers are encouraged to take these proposals at face value and, with the aid of in-situ photographic projections, to step back and critically assess what is obscured by the visual and verbal stylistics shared across academe, advertising, architecture and the development industry. 

Pre-circulated papers (2-4) 

Josh Grace (University of South Carolina): Savage Relief: The Technopolitics of Poop(ing) in colonial Tanganyika 

This paper explores the racialization of toilets and their role in creating regimes of waste that mirrored the hierarchies of imperial rule in East Africa beginning in the 1870s. It makes two arguments. The first is that perceptions of Africans as irresponsible and unskilled defecators had to be imagined by explorers, epidemiologists and other health officials during the colonial period. This imagination created fecal fears that not only ignored vernacular regimes of waste and cleanliness, but also helped officials justify infrastructural interventions that separated the colony’s European, Asian, and African populations through toilet types (the former received a WC and the latter two squat toilets). Though these toilets did not sanitize the colony, they inscribed colonial and post-colonial social order onto technologies of human waste. 

Second, the paper examines the technological construction of this difference in the pit latrine. Though epidemiologists blamed the spread of cholera in Swahili towns on pit latrines in the 1870s, the toilets were enshrined in Tanganyika as a sanitary and cheap solution to growing African populations. But as cities grew by tens and hundreds of thousands after independence, pit latrines gained an infrastructural momentum that its proponents did not foresee. I show that this colonial infrastructure is being used, once again, to portray Africans as technologically backward because of a supposed inability to perform a universal human act properly. 

Tasha Rijke-Epstein (University of Michigan): Contested Logics and Scatological Dilemmas: Sanitation in colonial and post-independent Mahajanga, Madagascar  

This chapter of my dissertation examines the emergence of sanitation technologies in colonial and postcolonial Mahajanga, Madagascar over the course of the 20th Century. 

Building on existing STS literature concerning experts and publics (Akrich 1992; Wynne 

1996, 2003) and infrastructure (Anand 2011; Chalfin 2014; Larkin 2008; Star 1999), I look at the points of friction and convergence between expert and vernacular urban planning and construction practices and knowledge. I argue that local contingencies and vernacular forms of knowledge mitigated and at times reconfigured the utopian colonial visions, plans and artifacts for dealing with human waste and filth. At the same time, this colonial project of sewage sanitation infrastructure both exposed the fractures in the vision of a cohesive colonial populous and provided unexpected means through which some colonial and post-independence subjects contested the terms of governance, citizenship, and moral notions of purity. As a colonial sewage system based on a model of individual household latrines was gradually established, new material and human investments – steel barrel drums, housing regulations, cement septic tanks, mechanical sewage extractors, and laboring bodies- were summoned. These investments served to cement the decentralized character of sewage infrastructure of the city and narrow the possibilities for large-scale modifications in the future. But they also served as a means through which city dwellers constructed and contested moral lexicons and valuations of worthy work and human worthiness. 

Peter Redfield (University of North Carolina): An Index of Waste: Humanitarian Design, ‘Dignified Living’ and Sanitation Politics in Cape Town 

This paper develops a tentative framework for thinking about waste as an index that signals a relational position within contested, historically layered conceptions of human order. It follows two contrasting frameworks for thinking sanitation infrastructure: 1) a quest to redesign the toilet at a global level for underserved populations and 2) popular conceptions of rights, citizenship and dignity grounded in inequalities of sanitation infrastructure in post-apartheid South Africa. By integrating highly abstract understandings of value with intimately embodied qualities of experience, the problem of sanitation simultaneously connects and divides human populations: uniting them at a species level only to distinguish them at a social one. From this perspective human waste is hardly a neutral substance, defined by its chemical properties alone. Rather, it remains an active element registering human status and position within a shared ecology of needs. 

Discussant: Nick Caverly (University of Michigan)  

Transforming Bodies (5-6:30 pm) 

Pecha Kucha 

Divine Fuh (University of Cape Town) and Lynn Thomas (University of Washington): Technologies of bodily self-fashioning?  

We propose to give a double-header Pecha-Kucha presentation on the usefulness of science and technology studies (STS) to understanding practices and politics of bodily self-fashioning in Africa and beyond. Our interest in this topic stems from our respective research on hairstyling and skin lightening, and our participation in a collaborative research project, based at the University of Cape Town, on skin lightening.  

What are the analytical gains and possible liabilities of applying STS approaches to the study of bodily practices of beautification and modification? When we cast peoples’ efforts to arrange hair, alter skin color, and adjust body parts as technological practices – as opposed to or in addition to analyzing them as beauty rituals, consumer habits, or modes of self-expression – what do learn? What might we lose? Should the decision to designate such practices as technological lay with scholars, the historical and ethnographic subjects they study, or in some combination of these perspectives? What elements are indispensable to STS approaches? Must they necessarily include an attention to the materiality of the objects and processes involved? 

Hlonipha Mokoena (University of the Witwatersrand): Armed and Disciplined Natives: The Zulu Policeman as a Product of Colonial Technologies 

Although the proposed book on the Nongqayi / Zulu Policemen was not conceived from within the Science and Technology Studies ambit, there are two obvious technologies that are implicated in the work, photography and the military. The drafts that I have written so far have involved attempting to understand and interpret the Zulu policeman as a photographic subject and a soldier / mercenary. Thus, as photographic subjects, the portraits of the Nongqayi can be classified as either exempla of “African photography” or as “war photography” but neither category is completely satisfying. As “soldiers of the Queen”, the policemen are also not easily classifiable. While their work was mainly in “policing” they were often used as soldiers fighting Britain’s colonial wars in southern Africa. The implication is that they were not just a bumbling and mundane constabulary of native officers but they were “killing machines”. How is the latter to be reconciled with the aesthetics of photographic portraiture? My presentation will consider these contradictions and attempt to map out the ways in which The Nightwatchman: A History of Portraits is a study in colonial technologies and how it may or may not contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between colonialism and modernity in general.   

Discussant: Rachel Ceasar (University of the Witwatersrand) 

Day 4: July 14 

Rethinking Africa’s past through technology (1-2:30 pm) 

Pre-circulated papers 

Emma Park (University of Michigan): Tropicalising’ Technologies: Enacting Radio in Colonial Kenya 

By the mid-1930s, officials working in the British Colonial Office advocated the extension of radio broadcasting across the colonial world as a tool of “advanced administration.”1 Within the metropole, administrators and technologists alike were confident that the space-scaling affordances of radio technology would enable the Colonial Office to enact postwar ‘development’ initiatives “at a distance” (Latour 1987). Radio would literally broadcast (that is, scatter) the seeds of an emergent centralized administration, wavelengths heavy with the promises of ‘development’ that characterized colonial policy in the post-war period. The lofty ambitions metropolitan administrators pinned on broadcasting in colonial spaces, however, belied the difficult work of coordination, negotiation, and network-building required to enact both the infrastructure and the technology that awkwardly rode on its rails. As administrators were quick to learn, radio broadcasting could not simply be transferred between sites, but required coordinating an assemblage of agencies and interests: technologists, central administrators, colonial officials, lay enthusiasts, market-makers, pseudoscientific theories, listeners, policy documents, reception surveys, atmospheric noise, white ants, “tropicalised wires, airwaves, and saucepans. The following chapter focuses on the labor of coordinating and stabilizing the medium of radio in Kenya. By training attention on the movement of knowledge practices, technological components, and political debates that emerged around radio, this chapter elucidates that what was at stake was not only the status of expert knowledge, but contests over the future of colonial administrative policy writ large, both of which turned on debates regarding the appropriate scale of political community. 

Seyram Avle (University of Michigan) and Tim Weiss (Zeppelin University): Technology discourse in contemporary Africa: Narratives, materials and activities.  

This paper discusses two narratives of technology in Africa, the activities they inspire, and the materials employed to turn them into reality. Specifically, we show that the narratives of ‘Africa Rising’ and ‘Made in Africa’ speak to an imagined future animated by digital technology, material production, and entrepreneurship. Crucially, these narratives privilege action by Africans in Africa for Africans, and are located in opposition to state and foreign action. Given that discourse is embedded in processes of power, we reflect critically on the socio-cultural and economic implications of these various elements in our research sites (Ghana and Kenya). 

Discussant: Keith Breckenridge (University of the Witwatersrand) 

Wrap-up session (3-6 pm) 


Rachel Ceasar (University of the Witwatersrand) 

Daniel Williford (University of Michigan) 

Iginio Gagliardone (University of the Witwatersrand, Oxford University) 


Closing dinner (7pm--) 

Ile Maurice, Umhlanga Rocks