As I write, the Academy of Management Africa conference is taking place in South Africa. Although I had collaborated in putting together a symposium for this conference that was accepted, we decided that we could not attended. This was mostly from the surprise of the conference organizers announcing a conference fee of $US1 375 (around $US1000 more than registration for the AoM’s main conference), and most of us not being able to justify this to our universities at a time of financial constraints in higher education (our South Africa colleagues particularly found it difficult to justify paying above normal international fees to attend a conference in Johannesburg). Colleagues from other African countries were offered the possibility of a reduced fee of $US200 and ‘The opportunity to share a sleeping room’. I’m not sure if this meant that there would be two tiers of attendance for non-Africans to enjoy better hotels and Africans to ‘share a sleeping room’. I am sure the organizers didn’t intend it that way, but were trying to help with sponsorship for those who couldn’t afford full fees and hotel accommodation, but this was the way it seemed.
The other reason that we became reluctant to attend (although I must add that the overriding reason was a financial one) was the apparent nature of the conference in providing a number of excursions. Not only again was this difficult to justify to our universities as this appeared to be the main reason for the high cost of the conference, but also took on a form of tourism that for those of us who know something about South Africa (and indeed Africa) appears irrelevant or inappropriate, and for those who don’t, somewhat patronizing. Good intentions to provide a learning guide for participants before they arrived in South Africa stated they had three roles. The first was as ‘Anthropologist’ (I won’t go into the historical role of anthropology in the colonization of Africa) in ‘….using your five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—to assess what is going on in the region and what it might mean for your work. Also rely on your sixth sense—intuition or gut feel—to connect to the universality of people, commerce, and community life’. The advice carried on much in this vein, so for the role of ‘ambassador’ the advice was ‘….please engage and share your own humanity with people you meet. That said, please be respectful of local customs..’ Although some of the trips look interesting and a worthwhile introduction to South Africa, it is slightly worrying that large groups of educational tourists will be peering into the lives of local people in Soweto and Alexandria.
I don’t mean to be overly critical of the organizers of this conference, and I really hope that it will be a great success, that academic partnerships will be formed and that appropriate research will result. It is great that the AoM is at last taking notice of Africa, after many of us have been working away over the last decades, even trying to attract the attention of AoM journal editors and convince them of the value of studying knowledge from Africa. My main concern is that this embryonic mainstreaming will result again in western theories being proselytized and tested in yet another non-Western context, that ‘indigenous’ management concepts will again be frozen in time and commoditized (as in the case of Ubuntu for example), and that ‘learning’ will be from North to South, not South to North or South to South. I do hope the overseas visitors to South Africa to this conference will learn something. I do hope this will not just mean that Africa scholars as co-researcher (or data collectors) will simply have their names attached to articles going into Western journals.