USC Dornsife historian Admire Mseba brings a fresh historical perspective to the university. (Photo: Mike Glier.)

From South Africa to L.A.: Meet the cosmopolitan historian bridging worlds

USC Dornsife’s new history professor Admire Mseba, the first to focus on sub-Sarahan Africa, draws comparisons between U.S. and African civil rights issues but hopes students will come to understand African societies in their own terms.
BySarah Frontiera

Admire Mseba describes a city that many who call Los Angeles their home might find familiar: a metropolis set between the sea and mountains, palm trees stretching skyward, the Mediterranean climate temperate and mild. However, the images he conjures in our conversation are not portraits of L.A. at all.

Mseba, assistant professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is instead recalling the trips he made to Cape Town, South Africa, when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.

“When I look at the landscape [of Los Angeles], it does really look like the landscape in Cape Town,” he muses.

The similarities between the two cities extend beyond their topographical resemblance: They are both the second-largest cities in their respective nations, they both boast commercially significant ports, and they both draw tourists and locals alike to their long, sandy beaches.

Crucially, though, they share a demographic diversity that creates a rich, cosmopolitan culture.

“Cape Town is, I think, just as cosmopolitan as Los Angeles. That is what brings them together … what makes them similar,” says Mseba, who joined USC Dornsife in early 2022. “There are many people coming from different places, making them as cosmopolitan as we could think.”

Mseba, USC Dornsife’s first historian of sub-Saharan Africa, is himself quite the cosmopolitan. The word comprises the Greek cosmos meaning “world” and polit meaning “citizen” — to be cosmopolitan is therefore to be a “citizen of the world.”

Historian traverses the globe

Born in the district of Mberengwa in Zimbabwe, not far from Great Zimbabwe, the ancient city that gives the country its name, Mseba grew up playing soccer (football to the rest of the world) and has been a lifelong supporter of England’s Manchester United Football Club. He moved to Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, in his teens and upon completing his secondary education (equivalent to high school in the U.S.), he earned his BA and MA at the University of Zimbabwe, studying economic history, archaeology and Shona, a Bantu language spoken by the Shona people of southern Africa.

Where he ended up next was quite literally half a world away, in Iowa City, Iowa, to attend the one doctoral program he applied to after graduating with his master’s degree. “I didn’t know much about the U.S. when I applied,” he confesses, but what he did know was that he wanted to work with James Giblin, a professor of history at the University of Iowa. Mseba was deeply interested in the environmental history of Africa, and Giblin specialized in the relationship between political and environmental control in eastern Africa..

Under Giblin’s mentorship, Mseba completed his dissertation and received his PhD in African history in 2015. He subsequently returned to South Africa for a three-year postdoctoral position at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and then in 2019 returned to the U.S for his first tenure-track position at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Reflecting on his years in America, Mseba says, “L.A. is not like anything that I had encountered in my time in the U.S.” Its size and diversity set it apart from the college towns of his past.

Historian shares a new perspective with students

When asked about the importance of offering classes about sub-Saharan African history at a university situated in the heart of a dense and racially diverse urban metropolis, his answer makes the comparisons he draws between Cape Town and Los Angeles all the more meaningful.

First, he says, students need to situate the African continent inside of a larger narrative about global economic development. “Africans have been intimately part of that,” he explains, noting that prevailing ideas about Africa as isolated or outside of the global stage are not only factually inaccurate but minimize the role Africans played in world history.

Second, cosmopolitanism doesn’t just describe the diversity of people within a given place, it also names the exchange of ideas that occurs across geographical borders and national cultures. One set of values that have moved between the U.S. and postcolonial African nations has been the principles of nonviolent resistance that defined the civil rights movement. Mseba says he will highlight this circulation of ideas in the spring semester of 2024, when he teaches a new course titled “South Africa: Race, Power, and Resistance.”

“The civil rights movement here in the U.S. was parallel to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa,” he explains. “The Founding Fathers of African independent countries … had gone to university in the U.S. and in London. They knew about these ideas, which they carried back home.” And those involved in the Civil Rights Movement knew about and were inspired by African struggles for self-determination.

Furthermore, says Mseba, “many of the long-standing social justice issues that people grapple with in the U.S. are things that people in South Africa and Zimbabwe dealt with before, during and after Mandela.” His course aims to show that racism, police brutality and the historic struggles of the Black community in the U.S. are not only internationally significant but also globally situated. Learning how South Africans dealt with these issues can inform civic education in America.

Students learn about African societies

And so, beyond the sunshine, the sea and the long stretches of sand, L.A. and Cape Town share a complicated legacy: They are at once racially diverse, vibrant cities, “cosmopolitan” in the best possible sense, and they also carry histories of redlining (the discriminatory practice of denying financial loans to residents of certain areas based on their race or ethnicity), segregation and oppression that must continually be addressed.

Mseba hopes that by focusing on the histories of African nations, students will learn not only to “assess patterns of long-term historical change,” they will come to understand how histories can inform our approach to current issues of injustice.

Ultimately, he wants students to understand African societies in their own terms, not as a monolithic continent relegated to the periphery of world history, but as distinct groups and nations with their own rich and vibrant cultures, essential to the cosmopolitanism he sees at the heart of Los Angeles.

Featured USC Dornsife faculty:

Admire Mseba, Assistant Professor of History