Founder and curator of African Mobilities, Mpho Matsipa, grew up in apartheid South Africa. Lately, she’s been thinking about colonial urban histories and the relationship between blackness, landscapes and the environment: ‘There is a lot that still can and needs to be said about spatial representation, racialized dispossession and imagination on the African continent.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, my parents signed me up to a children’s reading club and I had books delivered to our home in Gauteng, South Africa’s Katlehong township in the mid-80s. Considering how politicized access to quality education for Black children was during the apartheid era, the reading club felt like a really special club, with packages that arrived specifically addressed to me. The books were mostly fairy tales or children’s stories about fantasy places. But as I grew older, my reading tastes changed—I oscillated between skimming my mom’s monthly medical journals and the associated grotesque medical images, my father’s book collection that consisted mostly of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Eastern European fiction, and my stepfather’s Penguin African writers series.
What three books should anyone trying to understand the apartheid era read?
Steve Biko, I Write What I Like
Es’kia Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue
Njabulo Ndebele, The Cry of Winnie Mandela
And which book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye.
Growing up, my parents signed me up to a children’s reading club and I had books delivered to our home in Katlehong township in the mid-80s.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Not a book per se—but a narrative. I would rewrite the history of Johannesburg that began at least 500 years before the discovery of gold. Colonial urban histories also colonize time. I feel that colonial urban narratives limit our understanding of geological time, indigenous time and the time before European imperialism.
What’s one misconception colonization has fed us about time?
That African societies occupy panoptic time. There’s a misconception that Africa and African societies were ‘timeless’ and asynchronous. In other words, some people believe that African societies did not undergo dramatic transformations, or participate in and forge extensive trade and cultural networks before the European and Islamic encounters.
There’s a misconception that Africa and African societies were ‘timeless’ and asynchronous.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
I like short texts these days, whereas previously I used to lose myself in tomes. The pandemic—and the spectre of immanent death and incalculable loss—has re-organized my relationship to time. It has been a period of acceleration and slowness, simultaneously. In other words, pandemic time really highlighted the limits of global capitalism, technological determinism and the fallacy of speed, endless circulation, movement, growth for me. I am a lot more attentive to nature, the environment—and plants—now than I was before. In other words, I take slow time very seriously.
What’s a book everyone should read before leaving university?
Hegel and Haiti by Susan Buck-Morss. Like C. L. R. James, Buck-Morss shows how in the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), enslaved Africans in Haiti fomented radical notions of freedom at the same time that modern philosophers like Hegel wrote some of their seminal texts. She also does a good job of highlighting the racial blind spot at the foundations of Marxist texts on freedom and equality—precisely because they overlook slavery.
What three books should be on everyone’s bookshelves?
On the Postcolony, by Achille Mbembe
The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney
The pandemic—and the spectre of immanent death and incalculable loss—has re-organized my relationship to time.
What’s the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
The New Apartheid by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. He argues that the apartheid didn’t end, but rather that it is de-legislated and that apartheid is more than a feeling of ‘racial unease’.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
Also The New Apartheid by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. Mpofu-Walsh argues that apartheid is more than a historical period in South Africa; that the past remains present, and that it has not been sufficiently theorized or understood by younger generations. In other words, we need more precise language for apartheid beyond the grammars of ‘racial unease’ in order to fully understand the mechanisms and logics of this very dark period in South African history. The New Apartheid also suggests that apartheid is not a uniquely South African phenomenon and that understanding it may shed light on similar, contemporary formations elsewhere. It also suggests that we need new vocabularies to re-describe the challenges that South Africans today face at multiple scales.
‘The New Apartheid’ suggests that apartheid is not a uniquely South African phenomenon and that understanding it may shed light on similar, contemporary formations elsewhere.
What’s a common misconception people have about African architecture/architecture in Africa?
That African architecture is unsophisticated and simple. African architecture and urbanism are often embedded in complex cosmologies, histories and philosophies about the place of the human in the universe, which have increasing relevance to my own understanding of city-ness and ecology.
What structure or piece of architecture holds the most meaning to you?
I’m increasingly interested in impossible landscapes, like the Lagos Lagoon, because of its soft edges, its enigmatic history and the ways it refuses easy closure.
Which three African architects currently practising today should we all be paying attention to?
Olalekan Jeyifous, because he insists on holding space for the speculative and imaginative in architecture. Also because his work consistently crosses, and blends genres and he is open to collaborations that can move in multiple directions at the same time. In other words, his practice opens up the discursive possibilities of architecture as a mode of thought—beyond physical building.
Mariam Kamara, I appreciate the ways she politicized the architectural canon and her insistence on diversifying our understanding of African architectural heritage as a reservoir of largely unacknowledged and untapped knowledge. She also tests her ideas through built form.
Ilze Wolff, because she is deeply interdisciplinary in her practice, and her recent exploration of architecture and Black studies open up interesting questions about various practices in architectural conservation and Black social histories.
African Architecture and urbanism are often embedded in complex cosmologies, histories and philosophies about the place of the human in the universe, which have increasing relevance to my own understanding of city-ness and ecology.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I sit with a text for a long time. I think out loud, transcribe, edit.
What was your process for creating ‘African Mobilities’, a project considering African ‘circulations’ and their impacts on architecture in Africa?
I conceived African mobilities as an iterative, decentralized network of collaborators, micro-events, relationships and encounters across the continent that could be repeated and modified repeatedly. It was deeply collaborative and relied heavily on our shared sense of purpose in re-imagining African spatial futures and pasts.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Writing will be all that remains, after the bullshit institutional battles are lost and/or won.
Writing will be all that remains, after the bullshit institutional battles are lost and/or won.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick. Both are Black feminist scholars who propose new ways of re-reading colonial landscapes and conceptions in ways that centre Black female experiences.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the project of re-description. I have been exploring Black landscapes through the lenses of ‘ruination’ and also, sonic annotation. Some texts:
‘Slum as Theory’, by Vyjayanthi Rao
‘Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination’, by Ann Laura Stoler
The Mushroom at the End of the World, by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, by Kathryn Yusoff
The End of Man, a Feminist Counterapocalypse, by Joanna Zylinska
In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, by Christina Sharpe
What can we expect you to write about next?
I want to think deeply about the relationship between blackness, landscape and the environment. There is a lot that still can and needs to be said about spatial representation, racialized dispossession and imagination on the African continent—and what it means to ‘take back the land’.
Question from Grieve Chelwa: If you had a yearlong all-expense-paid fellowship and were given the chance to write a book about African history, how would you write it?
As speculative non-fiction.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What future do you imagine for Africa and how do we get there?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]