Achille Mbembe. Photo: Chanté Schatz, University of the Witwatersrand

Achille Mbembe

South Africa
Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand

Winner of the Holberg Prize

The 2024 Holberg Prize is awarded to Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe for his groundbreaking work in the fields of history and political theory.

Born in Cameroon in 1957, Achille Mbembe obtained his PhD from Université Paris 1 (Pantheon Sorbonne) in 1989 on the history of anti-colonial resistance in Cameroon. Mbembe is research professor of history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. From 1996 to 2000, Mbembe was the Executive Secretary of CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa). He has held positions at various universities, including Berkeley, California, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, and Yale. He has been a visiting professor at Maison de la Science De L’Homme in Paris and has been awarded several honorary doctorates.

Mbembe is recognized as one of the foremost thinkers of postcolonial Africa and is a key critical theorist of the planetary. He has played a major role in advancing thinking on racism and its effects on subjectivity, particularly through the concept of the ‘racial subject’. Mbembe´s refusal of all forms of racism also draws inspiration from the uneven impact of the climate crisis on the Global South. This is encapsulated in his most recent work, Brutalism (2020/2024).

Mbembe’s early work focused on colonial violence, African resistance and struggles for independence. This analysed the nature of state power and led him to rethink the notion of the ‘postcolony’.  His key books, many of which have been translated from the original French, include On the Postcolony (2000/2001), Necropolitics (2016/2019), Out of the Dark Night (2010/2021), Brutalism (2020/2024) and The Earthly Community: Reflections on the Last Utopia (2022). These cover a broad range of themes, including the contradictions inherent in democracy, race, ethnicity, biopolitics and identity politics within African states.

Mbembe’s groundbreaking Critique of Black Reason (2013/2017) is a philosophical study of the meaning of Blackness as it historically emerged. It assesses how the term ‘Black’ was used to dehumanize in the interests of capital. The analyses show how Blackness was associated with being non-human or animal-like, justifying the reproduction of oppressive and exploitative structures. Mbembe argues that some Black critiques of race have implicitly reproduced the epistemology of racial difference.

His gaze has recently shifted to developments in the current colonial-imperial world; the nature of late Eurocentrism, the impact of the Anthropocene and the implications of Artificial Intelligence for humans.

Mbembe’s oeuvre goes beyond a particularized notion of decolonization to a universalist recentring of the human. For him, this involves a dedication to facing historical truth, while learning and remembering across South-North divides.

Achille Mbembe is undoubtedly a highly worthy recipient of the 2024 Holberg Prize.

On behalf of the Holberg Committee,
Heike Krieger, Committee Chair

Achille Mbembe (b. 1957)

Achille Mbembe (b. 1957) is research professor of history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.  He is also the Director of the Innovation Foundation for Democracy. He was educated in Cameroon and in France where he obtained his PhD in History at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a Diplome d'etudes approfondies at the Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris.

Mbembe has taught at various universities in the United States, including Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at Berkeley and at Irvine, Yale University, Duke University and Harvard University.  A winner of the Ernst Bloch Award, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the British Academy.

Mbembe holds Honorary Doctorates from the Paris 8 University (France), the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) and the University of Bergen (Norway). His work has been translated in 17 languages (English, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Turkish, Romanian, Polish, Slovenian, Catalan, Finnish, and Mandarin). His latest book is La communaute terrestre (Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 2023).