In the two years since student protests kicked off at South Africa’s universities, people have become increasingly interested in what decolonisation means. This stems from students’ calls for university curricula to be decolonised. People want a precise definition. But it’s not that simple.
“Decolonisation” is a nuanced, layered concept. Its meaning cannot be unlocked using a scientific formula, recipes or definitions. An understanding of the process of “decolonisation” lies more in its detail than its definition.
For instance, little attention has been paid to how universities still reproduce colonial methodologies and practices that may not be relevant in South African universities today.
Committee meetings are one example of an inherited practice. A meeting is a gathering of a group of people to make decisions. Most groups use some form of western parliamentary procedure for their meetings. “Parliamentary procedure” is a set of rules for meetings which ensures that the traditional principles of equality, harmony and efficiency are kept. Robert’s Rules of Order, the best-known description of standard parliamentary procedure, is used by many different organisations as their rule book for conducting effective meetings.
The thought of a two-hour committee meeting – a staple of university life – fills many academics with dread. They know what will happen: they’ll sit and listen passively, contributing only when asked to; watching others dominate the space and push their own agendas. They’ll glare at anyone who dares to object or raise a point. Everyone just wants to escape.
So why do things continue this way and, some may ask, why does it matter?
There are many similarities between how students experience colonial classroom practices and how these manifest in university meeting practices. In both scenarios those who can speak are those who already have the currency to do so. Others, concerned about how their accents, use of language and lived experiences will be judged, remain silent and left out.
There are other ways to conduct meetings and present lectures; many are already part of South Africa’s cultural heritage. Could adopting, adapting or even just understanding more about these help universities to release colonialism’s grip on their practices?
Rethinking traditional practices
In African settings, different “meeting” practices are followed. For example in traditional historic African societies, “meetings” were gatherings to make decisions and to discuss issues that affected the community.
The traditional lekgotla, for example, has been used for centuries for village assemblies and village leaders’ meetings. There’s also the indaba, historically an important conference held by the principal men of a particular community or with representatives of other communities; and the imbizo, a forum for policy discussion.
There are no doubt many more variations from a wider range of perspectives that could provide different “meeting” approaches.
The lekgotla, indaba and imbizo have featured in meetings and conferences for some years now. But have these cultural practices been appropriated in name only? Do people really engage with what it means to be part of such a gathering?
Ideally, by bringing individuals into a collective space, organisers should be inviting different knowledge and thought perspectives. Changing the way that “meetings” are convened and conducted is a chance to canvass wisdom and experience.
During a recent executive meeting of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA), we decided to put this thinking to the test. Our approach was informed by some scholars’ writing about decolonisation as a “de-linking” gesture.
The “de-” in decolonisation, they argue, is an invitation to be active in making a “gesture” that breaks with colonial ways of doing things – especially those that continue to alienate, marginalise and silence people and their experience.
We attempted to do things differently, and the ways of interacting that emerged drew on members’ background, context, disposition and theories of change in meaningful ways. The feedback from members showed that individuals were able to find their voices, contribute meaningfully to discussions and felt valued through the personal and professional narratives and expertise they brought in.
A different approach
The agenda was designed to include time for members to introduce themselves, share their vision and connect with each other in the group. They did this by dialogue and participatory techniques such as reflective exercises and drawings. They explained who they were, where they were located in higher education, and also reflected on their journeys into higher education as well as their reasons for being on the executive team.
This was an important break from traditional meeting procedure, where the chairperson makes the introductions and effectively speaks for everyone. Our approach was a chance for people to speak for themselves and to bring their authentic selves, contexts and backgrounds into the room.
The traditional academic-support staff divide in universities relegates administrative work to those who are lower on the academic hierarchy. Menial tasks are ascribed to secretaries and administrative support. Cognitive labour is carried out mainly by academics. By bringing people into the “meeting” space on more equal terms, irrespective of their assigned roles – chair, secretary, treasurer - we started to “populate” the room in a different way that validated and acknowledged the team’s varied expertise and energies.
The question of agency in any organisation is critical. The power and ability to make decisions cannot rest with leadership alone. By empowering people in meeting spaces you enable them to exercise their agency to ask more questions, offer more suggestions and contribute more meaningfully to decisions.
Those who oppose decolonisation might argue that you cannot just throw out all the current ways of being and behaving; that not all structures or practices are harmful.
But by exercising agency in this collaborative and responsive way, meetings can be seen as a spiral, not a linear process. People in academia should constantly move backwards and forward in their quest to find a solution. While striving for better ways to understand South African higher education today, those in the sector should look back and assess which ideas are still relevant and which should be done away with.
If higher education is to re-centre itself, academics and other staff must be invited to engage with the “powerful knowledges” they bring in. They have a wealth of cultural resources that the academy must value. How can academics reconceptualise and reframe what they know and do in their own fields – and then bring these visions into meetings and similar spaces?
The changed meeting procedure we’ve described here may offer some answers to these hard questions. It was a way to learn about others’ narratives, disciplines and practices in much more nuanced, gentle, respectful, imaginative ways. It created opportunities for dialogue characterised by mutual vulnerability that we hope can be sustained and valued in future.
Vulnerability, authenticity and respect – as well as imagination – are so vital in the decolonisation debate to ensure we really sink our teeth into the detail rather than bellowing at each other only about definitions.