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“Indexing the Human: From Classification to a Critical Politics of Transformation” is a year long series of seminars, research projects, and readings groups, in which we take Stellenbosch and its surrounds as a specific locality from which to think through a range of problematics concerning the production of knowledge, the techniques of governance and their limits, and the distribution of hope and harm.

Indexing the Human is drawing together scholars from around the country, the region, and the world in an effort to crack open some of our deepest held assumptions about what it means to be human in the particular historical conditions of contemporary South Africa and in the global South.

Right now in South Africa, but no less so in many other parts of the world, we are desperately in need of critical scholarship, reflection, and debate, of the most rigorous and robust kind, on the various ways in which exclusion and inclusion, identification and classification, enumeration and administration, operate together in subtle and pernicious ways to dehumanise ourselves and our brothers and sisters – whether we are from Klerksdorp, Kuilsrivier, KZN, Kenya, or Kazakhstan. We must question carefully and specifically how ideas of volk, tribe, ethnicity, and race are welded together with language, class, purity, and entitlement if we are to make sense of the histories of conquest and exploitation that we all inherit and live with today.

We take as axiomatic that there is nothing natural or sacred about race, language, ethnicity, or any other identitarian project, but rather that we are obliged to interrogate closely and in fine detail, precisely how these ideas are invented and deployed in ever more dangerous configurations in contemporary South Africa, in ways that produce new forms of violence, new exclusions, and new governmentalities.

When the renowned philosopher Achille Mbembe spoke at our seminar two weeks ago, he called for us to fully embrace our own location in the African continent, to forge new solidarities and networks at Stellenbosch to take forward the work of critique and proposition required to re-make “the university”, in the broadest sense of the term, as a space in which mutual learning, communication and exchange between equal citizens takes place, and in which moral argument takes the place of brute force. Taking up Professor Mbembe’s provocation, we might ask, on what grounds are we, to quote him, “to redesign our curricula and our tuition systems, revamp our immigration policy and open new paths to citizenship for those who are willing to tie their fate with ours”.

In our context today, what is the value of human life? What is the value of knowledge, and more specifically, the value of a university degree, at a globalised, “world-class” university such as ours? Clearly we desperately need more spaces and more time to ask these critical questions, to observe closely, and to reflect carefully. Indexing the Human is one such space, to which are you all invited and welcome to participate in, but there must be many more on campus, and we must push for those spaces on robust moral, political, and intellectual grounds.

— the ITH team

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