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Achille Mbembe first African to win Holberg Laureate award



TOP South African-based Cameroonian scholar Professor Achille Mbembe is flying Africa’s academic flag high with outstanding research which got him named the 2024 Holberg Laureate two days ago — the continent’s first intellectual to win the award.

Mbembe, a prominent political thinker and public intellectual, is research professor of history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

 The Holberg Prize is one of the most prestigious international prizes awarded annually to an outstanding researcher in the humanities, social sciences, law or theology.

 The prize is administered by the University of Bergen on behalf of the Norwegian ministry of Education and Research. Mbembe will receive the award of NOK 6 000 000 (about EUR 530 000) at a ceremony at the University of Bergen, Norway, on 6 June.

He is one of the most read and cited scholars from the African continent and receives the prize for his pioneering research in African history, post-colonial studies, humanities, and social science over four decades.

Both as an academic and as a public intellectual, he is known for his ability to bridge existing thinking on colonialism and decolonisation with pressing questions on topics such as contemporary migration regimes, global citizenship, restitution and reparation, technology, climate change and planetary futures.

As a historian and a political philosopher, Mbembe has been most concerned about the entanglement of Europe and its former colonies.

 Using Africa as a point of departure for a mode of thinking that is continuous with multiple and interlocking lineages, he has revealed the extent to which the continent is a living laboratory of thought forms and ideas, a vast world of invention, imagination and creativity.

 As a critical theorist, his deliberations on the global order have left an enduring mark far beyond debates on postcolonialism.

Drawing on African experiences, Mbembe has played a major role in advancing thinking beyond identity and difference, particularly through concepts such as “necropolitics”, “the universal right to breathe”, or “the earthly community”, which speak to the on-going struggles for recognition and repair as well as care and dignity in a racialised world.

He has written many books.

Originally written in French, Mbembe’s books and numerous articles have been translated into 17 languages. His key books include On the Postcolony (2000/2001), Out of the Dark Night (2010/2021), Necropolitics (2016/2019), Brutalism (2020/2024) and The Earthly Community: Reflections on the Last Utopia (2022), as well as the groundbreaking Critique of Black Reason (2013/2017) — a philosophical study of the meaning of Blackness as it historically emerged. In Necropolitics, Mbembe examines how power structures wield control over life and mortality, shaping the very fabric of existence for oppressed communities.

 Membe said: “What are the conditions for rethinking the world in a way that opens up alternative ways of inhabiting it, of being-in-common and of nurturing a planetary consciousness?

“How to think an open future that moves beyond the history of race, colonialism and segregation with which the present is so deeply entangled.

“These questions have been at the heart of my research over the span of my career. Behind them lurks an even bigger issue, that of life futures — how can life be repaired, reproduced, sustained and cared for, made durable and universally shared?”

He adds: “In my mind, thinking the world and thinking Africa have been inextricably tied together. I have tried to show the extent to which the African capacity for multiplicity and simultaneity provides a source for a thinking in circulation and in crossing, a thinking that is continuous with multiple, interlocking lineages.

“It is by rereading Africa, not in terms of the ultimate Other but in terms of a particular site for the production and circulation of knowledge that I have attempted to open up new sources and a new horizon for reconstituting critical thought. Both historical and philosophical, my work has been motivated by a critique of the resurgence of a spirit of closure in our times.

“Breaking with this spirit required investigating the conditions for inhabiting the open. It also meant confronting the past in order to uncover the conditions of the possibility of an open future that is inscribed in the present. “

This is what has been at the basis of my early work on memory, on race and difference, on the shifting distribution of powers between humans and machines, on democracy and of late, on planetary habitability.” — STAFF WRITER

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