The notion that societies mediate issues through certain kinds of talk is at the heart of imaginings of democracy, and often centres on the ideal of the public sphere. But this imagined foundation of how we live collectively appears to have suffered a dramatic collapse across the world, with many democracies apparently unable to solve problems through talk – or even to agree on who speaks, in what ways and where.

This collection critically examines public discussion today, but looks beyond the current moment of perceived crisis to demonstrate how public engagements have historically operated. This is not simply as debating forums of a static public sphere, but through circulating in a variety of networks, emerging and disappearing, sometimes hibernating in the byways of discussion, sometimes gathering force in public,

The 10 essays in this book combine theoretical analysis with examinations of historical cases and contemporary developments to demonstrate that forms of publicness are multiple, mobile and varied, and propose new concepts and methodologies to analyse how public engagements work in society.

The authors examine charged examples from Africa and South Africa, such as the centuries old Timbuktu archive, Nelson Mandela’s powerful absent presence in 1960s public life, and the contemporary debates around the 2015/2016 student activism of #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall.

“This finger-on-the-pulse collection offers a new theory of the public sphere. Through news media, photography, archives, hashtags, ‘art-rage’, Muslim manuscripts, and much more, this incisive book illuminates the underlying dynamics of public engagement.”

— Isabel Hofmeyr, Global Distinguished Professor, New York University, Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (2013)
“…an exciting book that brings the South African experience into the centre of debate over today’s deep crisis of public life and democracy. The interest is not just local. It is deeply relevant for understanding populism and protests around the world.”

— Craig Calhoun, University Professor of Social Sciences, Arizona State University (USA) and Centennial Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science (UK)
“This is a timely, original and sophisticated collection that thinks the idea of the public sphere from a southern location. The essays attempt, in creative ways, to move out of the impasse of quibbles over how ‘public’ the public sphere is, stressing its pluralities, capillary nature and dispersed sites of discussion.”

— Dilip Menon, Mellon Chair in Indian Studies and Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand, and editor of Capitalisms: Towards a Global History(2020).
Babel unbound

Table of Contents


  • Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton

1 Rethinking Public Engagement

  • Carolyn Hamilton and Lesley Cowling

2 Tracing Public Engagements in Visual Forms

  • Carolyn Hamilton, Litheko Modisane and Rory Bester

3 Media Orchestration in the Production of Public Debate

  • Lesley Cowling and Pascal Newbourne Mwale

4 Fluid Publics: The Public-Making Power of Hashtags in Digital Public Spaces

  • Indra de Lanerolle

5 ‘Now we see him, now we don’t’: The Media and the ‘Black Pimpernel’

  • Litheko Modisane

6 Archive and Public Life

  • Carolyn Hamilton

7 Iconic Archive: Timbuktu and Its Manuscripts in Public Discourse

  • Susana Molins Lliteras

8 The Politics of Representation in Marikana: A Tale of Competing Ideologies

  • Camalita Naicker

9 Art-Rage and the Politics of Reconciliation

  • Nomusa Makhubu

10 Anger, Pain and the Body in the Public Sphere

  • Anthea Garman

An e-book is available from Kindle, Amazonand Takealot. A hard copy can be ordered from

Independent Distributors: Blue Weaver

Contact person: Kirsten McArthur number 021 701 4477.

Events and articles related to Babel Unbound:

"The most wanted man" Africa is a Country, 10 June 202, Excerpt from Chapter by Litheko Modisane



"New Books | Babel Unbound" New Frame, 22 July 2020, Excerpt from Chapter by Anthea Garman Access a pdf of the article here.

Colloquium: Public Life: Past, Present and Future. (7 August, 2020) This day-long colloquium took stock of new methodologies, fresh theoretical insights and new research in the area of public life, and its histories. The first session engaged with Babel Unbound. The second session focussed on interventions by Prof. BhekiPeterson on the Black Humanities in public life, while the third one considered contributions to an in-press book, Public Intellectuals in South Africa: Critical Voices from the Past, edited by Chris Broodryk, with essays by Chris Broodryk, KatlegoChale, Lesley Cowling, LuvuyoDondolo, Rory Du Plessis, Carolyn Hamilton, PfunzoSidogi, KeyanTomaselli, and Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren. For information and audio from this event, click here.

“A protest not yet understood” Sunday Times  16 August, 2020, opinion piece by Camalita Naicker on the anniversary of the 2012 Marikana massacre, drawn from her chapter “The Politics of Representation in Marikana.” or Access a pdf of the article here.

"Iconic archive: The manuscripts of Timbuktu" Daily Maverick, 21 September 2020, Maverick Life Book Excerpt by Susana Molins Lliteras

Webinar: Unpacking Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life (23 September 2020). Linkto information about the event. The webinar is hosted by Wits Journalism and the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies.

Liberating the archive(15 October 2020). Authors Prof Carolyn Hamilton, Prof Jacob Dlamini & Prof Imraan Coovadiadiscussed their new books exploring the nexuses of archive-discourse, public-private & violence-peacemaking. Link to a video of the event and more information about the event:

“Author Meets Critic: Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and the Rethinking of Public Life” panel (21 November 2020) at the 2020 African Studies Association (ASA)’s 63rd Virtual Annual Meeting, “The Hour of Decision: Power, Persistence, Purpose, and Possibility in African Studies” (19-21 November 2020). Click here for the programme and to read more about this event in the APC Gazette, please click here.

Link to Wits University Press website.