Panel 7 Chair, Muriam Haleh Davis

Infrastructure as Medium of Contestation


Andreas Greiner
15 January 2021
15:15-15:30
“Infrastructure between colonial schemes and local realities: African agency and the limitations of road building in colonial East Africa c. 1900”
Abstract ︎︎︎
When the German Empire established its East African possession from 1885–1918 (nowadays Tanzania), colonial rule suffered from a lack of reliable infrastructure. Because of the prevaling sleeping sickness and difficult terrain, the use of pack animals in East Africa were almost entirely suspended, leaving all transport to rest on human shoulders. By the late 1890s, an estimate of 100,000 professional porters mediated all trade, travelling on long-distance trade routes, which were most often mere footpaths. After 1900, the colonial administration sought to overcome this pre-colonial road system by investing heavily in a new network of paved roads. Before long, however, many of these new roads had fallen into disrepair. Taking this failure of imperial infrastructure as a starting point, the paper discusses the spatial practices of the colonial state in East Africa and its implications. Focussing on African caravan porters—those expected to use the new infrastructural arrangements—the paper discusses the ability of roads to transform space and mobility according to colonial demands. Beyond the oft-quoted labels of “railway imperialism” and “tool of empire”, the paper proposes an alternative approach to the question how imperial infrastructure was developed. It suggests to analyse infrastructural development at ground level, in the micro-politics and everyday interaction along the roads, by arguing that this perspective enables us to explore the logics that shaped the trajectories of infrastructures on the scene. By following the movement of transport workers, the paper contends that infrastructure was not solely defined by colonial rule but negotiated with non-state actors who subverted power relations or utilised space in ways unpredictable for state authorities. As a source-based analysis will reveal, the agency of porters prevented colonial authorities from implementing durable infrastructures on the spot. Because porters refused to use the colonial roads, they were soon covered by thick thorn bush and rendered useless.

Bio ︎︎︎
Andreas Greiner is a postdoctoral fellow in the Max Weber Programme of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Before joining the EUI, Andreas was a research assistant at the Chair of Modern History at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and a fellow at the University of Bern. His research interests include East African history, the history of the German Empire, and global history. His PhD thesis (2019, ETH Zurich), explores the history of human porterage and the caravan trade under colonial rule in German East Africa (c. 1880–1918).


Megan Eardley
15 January 2021
15:30-15:45

“After Eurafrica: Fanakalo & the Politics of Creolization in South Africa’s Extractive Industry since the 1950s”

Abstract ︎︎︎

Léopold Sédar Senghor’s attempt to cast himself as a “Eurafrican cultural hybrid,” in order to establish African access to the nascent European Union, was relatively short-lived. Historical studies suggest that the Senegalese president began to experiment with this sort of colonial language in the 1950s, and abandoned it by the mid-1960s. And yet, his efforts to read a discarded colonial proposal, to make “Eurafrica” a political, economic, and cultural space that Africans and Europeans could occupy as equals, raised fundamental questions about the material life of language, its organizational power, and its relation to the physical infrastructure that is designed for extractive processes. In more recent years, even while Europe has fortified its borders, and several African countries effectively reanimate colonial pass law systems in order to restrict Black migration, Édouard Glissant has returned to these questions to study the material life of creole, rather than hybrid, languages. His concept of creolization refuses to naturalize cultural encounters, but invites us to study iterative exchanges. This paper attends to the possibilities of creolization in (post-)Apartheid South Africa. Here, the use of an isiZulu-based lingua franca (which combines isiZulu, English, and Afrikaans) enabled mining companies to develop the world’s deepest and most profitable mines at the height of Apartheid. Fanakalo helped African mineworkers, who spoke more than 40 different ethnic languages, establish rigorous building standards in complex spatial conditions and dangerous underground environments. Scholars have rightly emphasized that Fanakalo was forged in a colonial economy, and used by white mine managers in order to render African labor cheap and disposable. But they have failed to account for the way the lingua franca has been used to organize miners’ strikes. Formal analysis and institutional histories that center the physical infrastructure of the migrant labor system seem to foreclose this reality. But by examining a series of drafts and edits of a Fanakalo guidebook, I show how the industry has struggled to locate and account for the miner. Following a number of postcolonial and decolonial thinkers, I present a set of methodological and conceptual concerns regarding the material life and linguistic limits of colonial infrastructure.

Bio ︎︎︎
Megan Eardley is a PhD candidate at Princeton University’s School of Architecture and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture & Planning. She studies concepts of territory and deep space, language and mobility, and the economics of abundance in the second half of the twentieth century. Her dissertation critically examines how architects and engineers participated in the development of "ultra-deep" mining in Apartheid South Africa, and how, in turn, they have shaped contemporary ideas about planetary governance in the face of environmental catastrophe.


Sophie Toupin
15 January 2021
15:45-16:00
“Eurafrican Communication Infrastructure”


Abstract ︎︎︎
Building on Peo Hansen and Stefan Johsson’s (2015) concept of Eurafrica, I propose to examine certain aspects of the communication infrastructure that was developed in Europe to facilitate a western geopolitical and economic hold over the African continent. Investments in building communication infrastructures, computers, and protocols (particularly the European X.25) was yet another means/ strategy to promote Europe's new market dominance. In the later part of 1970s and 80s, France set out to improve its crumbling nation’s telecommunication infrastructure in building a telematics system called Télétel. This system, which was to spread in West Africa, was to bind their technological and infrastructural choices with France. Britain made a similar attempt to retain its rapidly declining technological power; it started exporting its computers in the 1950s to its former colonies. Britain telematics system Prestel (later to become Telecom Gold) was to be the inspiration for Apartheid-led South African Saponet. All these ventures aimed at salvaging decreasing British and French competitive edge vis-à-vis the USSR and the emerging American internet TCPIP-based infrastructure. Even before the setting up of these telematics systems, Walter Rodney’s 1974 magna opus “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” had critiqued European communication infrastructure. Rodney had shown with great worry that telephone calls from one African city to another had to be routed through London (for the former British colonies) or Paris (for the former French colonies). For Rodney this feature of rerouting communication through former colonial powers was a form of continued underdevelopment or dependency. Nonetheless, this built Eurafrican communication infrastructure also allowed for decolonial resistance. To show how resistance was mobilised through this built infrastructure, the last part of this presentation focus on an encrypted communication system programmed to further the organisational capacity of the South African liberation movement in the 1980s. The system was designed by South African techies (located in exile in London and Lusaka) who understood the functioning of the European emerging communication infrastructure, with operational support from a South African motley crew and anti-Apartheid European activists. I end this presentation with a reflection on today’s politics of communicational infrastructures.
Bio ︎︎︎ Sophie Toupin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Her Ph.D. research examines the relationship between communication technologies and revolutionary movements in the context of liberation struggles.
International Conference 12-15 Jan 2021, Time zone WAT/CET