Decolonisation should be about appreciating difference, not despising it

The skylines of Alexandra township and Sandton City. Decolonising education involves helping students understand how different experiences shape our world. Reuters/Kim Ludbrook

My concern with grand narratives such as “decolonisation” is that they tend to silence what I would call “local narratives”. They are often accompanied by populist, often overwhelming rhetoric in ways that silence (if not obliterate) smaller narratives about who we are, where we are, how we got there, and how we can move forward.

What is implied within the decolonisation rhetoric is well captured by University of Dar er Salaam linguistics and foreign languages expert Doctor [Michael Kadeghe](,+M.+(2003). He points out:

One only learns within the familiar habits of thought, experience and expression suggested by one’s traditional culture; and that colonialism occasioned a disruption of the natives’ traditions and experience that left them culturally impoverished, spiritually dislocated and in a state of moral decline.

While there is some truth in this, what it suggests is that culture, including how we know, what counts as knowledge, who is the legitimate author of it, is an entity that stays the same, remains pure and unadulterated.

In this narrative, later generations will “always find” the culture, and it will still be usable generation after generation. All they need is simply to go somewhere and find “it”. Hence, it is within their traditional culture that people are most at ease with themselves, and that there is a comfortable coexistence between the world and them.

Within this is an idea of African identity as an irreducible essence of the race, whose objective existence is the traditional culture as the only thing that defines the world. This has developed into some kind of an African philosophy, or way of life and society.

Inherent in this logic is an erroneous belief that African traditional values and a concept of the world form significant, if not permanent, essences of our identity. And, as such, the use of knowledge other than our own leads us to become something other than our “real selves”, a state of affairs at the root cause of our underdevelopment.

It follows then that as a corrective measure, the way forward is to reclaim African “ways of being” (I’m not sure exactly what this means) in knowledge generation, learning and academic expression. One may ask:

Can one only learn within the familiar habits of thought, experience and expression suggested by one’s traditional culture?

Smaller narratives

Smaller narratives, I argue, get obliterated as the decolonisation grand narrative takes over. Right now my students are here to learn the specific disciplinary content they wish to specialise in. But, they are also getting educated to become critically aware citizens who live in a country with a constitutional democracy, where different races, cultures, life styles and religions coexist.

This means I need to create opportunities for my students to learn knowledge from Africa, but also the world. In other words, I want my students to learn to appreciate difference, rather than despise it.

For me as an academic, decolonisation means creating an environment for my students to receive a holistic educational experience which will ensure intellectual exposure to aspects of life in general that formal disciplinary content may not necessarily offer.

In the context of South Africa, for example, the Group Areas Act ensured that South Africans were raised apart from one another. While it is true that today’s generation of students is different to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s generations, as a nation, South Africans still do not fully know one other.

In this context, decolonising education will mean exposure to opportunities that will ensure that students learn more about other fellow South Africans who might be different to them.

A law student, for example, needs to understand reasons we find prisons populated mainly by a specific race group and gender. Or a Bachelor of Commerce student needs to understand why the expression “I’m broke” means completely different things to different people. For example it means one thing to someone living in leafy Sandton in Johannesburg, and another to someone living in the neighbouring black township of Alexandra or in Rhini (Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape.

You often hear students, and sometimes adults, labeling certain groups of people as lazy and others as “working hard”, simply on the basis of different economic positions they find themselves.

There is no realisation, for instance, that privilege or under privilege are in fact generational. This realisation has the potential to inculcate creative, sensitive and context responsive future professionals that would commit to rebuilding our beautiful land. What I call the “after colonial occupation” land".

There are enumerable examples that could be used to educate our students in ways that decolonise their minds. But the decolonising should be in ways that respond to the “local narrative” and take them beyond mere disciplinary knowledge whose focus and scope often limit them to just being learned, but not educated. Colonial education produces learned people. Decolonised education produces educated citizens.

This is not some kind of dogma. Just my thoughts.