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Decolonisation: academics must change what they teach, and how

Students in South Africa are tired of Western, Eurocentric university curricula. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The idea of decolonisation frightens many South African academics. Since students launched the movement to decolonise higher education in early 2015, I’ve heard several of my peers ask, “What do ‘they’ mean by decolonisation? Going back to the Stone Age? Teaching only about South Africa and Africa? Isolation from the rest of the world?”

Legal academic Joel Modiri points out that these “cynical queries by mostly white academics, demanding that students explain to them what decolonisation even means, suggests their own illiteracy about the history and intellectual debates in their disciplines”.

These sorts of questions also show a distinct lack of engagement with the African continent. After all, other African countries have grappled with precisely the same issues for decades. In Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana, academics and intellectuals have long tried to break down colonial shackles and decolonise their disciplines and universities.

Reconstructing and rethinking

More than two decades after apartheid ended, South African universities still tend to offer a view of the country and continent that is rooted in colonial and apartheid thinking.

The university curricula remain largely Eurocentric, dominated by what some academics have called “white, male, Western, capitalist, heterosexual, European worldviews”.

Students are railing against this dominance at the expense of theories, thinkers and ideas from Africa and the global South. Black students also complain that their own lived experience isn’t reflected in lecture halls. In the old colonial fashion, they are the “other”, not recognised and valued unless they conform.

Decolonisation, for them, involves fundamental rethinking and reframing of the curriculum and bringing South Africa and Africa to the centre of teaching, learning and research.

Decolonisation is also about reconstructing the African continent from various perspectives. The continent’s history, the way its cultures and civilisations are studied and understandings of its political economy have been shaped by European thinkers.

It’s time for Africa to tell its own stories in university classrooms.

As I argue in newly published research, universities also need to end epistemic violence. This concept has been defined by the Indian scholar Gayatri Spivak as the Eurocentric and Western domination and subjugation of former colonial subjects through knowledge systems.

The world views expressed through colonial knowledge systems were designed to degrade, exploit and subjugate people in Africa and other parts of the formerly colonised world. These views persist today at South African universities. Black students are confronted by texts and theories that negate their own history, lived experiences – and their dreams. They get little exposure to their own continent and all its complexity.

When Africa does appear in the curriculum, argues scholar Mahmood Mamdani, it is no more than a version of the continent offered by apartheid’s reviled Bantu education system:

… students are being taught a curriculum which presumes that Africa begins at the Limpopo [River, which divides South Africa from Zimbabwe and Botswana], and that this Africa has no intelligentsia worth reading.

So how might South Africa tackle epistemic violence and usher in an era of decolonisation of knowledge?

African universities

Contrary to what some academics fear, decolonisation is not about moving backwards to “the Stone Age”. Nor is it about isolating South Africa’s universities from the rest of the world.

The country’s Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has made this clear, saying at a 2015 summit that

Building African universities does not mean creating universities that are globally disengaged. They should be globally engaged, but not only by being consumers of global knowledge. They should be producers of knowledge as well, knowledge that is of relevance locally, continentally, in the South and globally.

Universities must incorporate epistemic perspectives, knowledge and thinking from the African continent and the global South into their teaching and research.

As the academic Achille Mbembe points out, decolonisation “is not about closing the door to European or other traditions. It is about defining clearly what the centre is”.

South Africa is not alone in the push to do away with colonial education. In fact, it’s very far behind the curve.

For example, the movement to decolonise education in Kenya started at the end of the 1960s, after the country won independence from Britain. Author and academic Harry Garuba, writing of this time, says that a “fundamental question of place, perspective and orientation needed to be addressed in any reconceptualisation of the curriculum”.

And, he points out, one of the decolonisation movement’s main desires was that “Kenya, East Africa and Africa needed to be placed at the centre of teaching, learning and research at Kenyan universities”.

According to Garuba, the work that began more than four decades ago has led to “major curriculum transformation” not only in Kenya but across East Africa.

Still, while Kenya is far ahead of South Africa, the decolonisation process there isn’t over yet. One of the main reasons for this, it’s been argued, is that the majority of academics in Africa “are cut from the cloth of Western knowledge” and are often “reluctant to repudiate their very make-up” through dismantling colonial knowledge systems.

South African higher education system faces a similar challenge. Its universities will not be decolonised overnight. But the process is non-negotiable. The question is whether those academics who fear decolonisation will go along for this important ride.

Academics must come on board

The decolonisation project needs to encompass more than just changing the curriculum. How things are taught and academics’ attitudes to this process matter just as much.

Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o writes that decolonisation of knowledge “calls for more than choice of materials”.

While adding the literature from the African continent and the global South is crucial in the decolonisation project, it is not enough. The attitude to the materials used in the curriculum – as wa Thiong'o points out – is as critical.

This presents a massive challenge. Universities can easily prescribe new readings and other materials but what about the academics’ attitudes to these and to new ways of thinking?

Research by the then Department of Education in 2008 found that many in the South African academy still assume that Western knowledge systems “constitute the only basis for higher forms of thinking”.

Are these academics willing to change today? Are they ready to unlearn, learn and fundamentally transform as academics and individuals? Are they ready to decolonise their minds, to borrow from wa Thiong'o?

If not, the country will require new generations of academics and administrators. They must be at least literate about the historical injustices and diverse intellectual debates within their disciplines, to paraphrase Joel Modiri, if they’re to reach senior university positions.

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