Decolonising the curriculum: the only way through the process is together

Police guard a building at the University of Cape Town – from whom, since knowledge is not really owned by anyone. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

As a young black undergraduate studying in the UK more than 15 years ago, I can remember the first time I came across a viewpoint from a black academic – because it was that unusual. The academic was Stella Nkomo, a pioneer in the research of race and gender in organisations, and the experience for me was profound. I was not alone.

So when South African students talk about feeling alienated because the examples in their curricula are all from overseas or feature dead white men, I know exactly how they feel – and why it is important to change this.

How to do so is far from clear. The theme of decolonisation is not new. It is a field of study several decades in the making. Yet the problem remains essentially unresolved, and, in recent times, there’s a sense that it has been somewhat sidelined.

Much of the talk within South African academia is of inclusion. But for many, the felt reality is of a status quo that is more concerned with maintaining the hegemony of whiteness than including other knowledges, systems and values. There is an eerie absence of the other, because – quite literally – only half of the country and the continent’s story has been told.

As scholars Martin Fougere and Agnet Moulettes argue in a recent paper, the tendency has been towards political correctness. The importance of “cultural sensitivity” is named in discussions about curricula, but not really embodied. And an awful lot has been left unsaid about colonial history. There has been a kind of glossing over the issues at the expense of real change and engagement.

A certain amount of this has undoubtedly happened at institutions in South Africa. Fixing this is no easy task. It is difficult to establish what the board looks like, never mind starting the game. But there are a few questions that can be posed and unpacked if universities are to move towards genuine decolonisation.

Crucial questions

For instance, what is this thing called Africa or African that people wish to infuse into curricula? Unpacking it makes clear that the notion of “Africa” is a largely a social construct that’s not borne out by the facts. Somalia is different to Zimbabwe. One cannot mistake Egypt for South Africa.

And if the continent is just one big happy family as this narrative of an African identity suggests, what is the xenophobia that’s played out across South Africa in recent years all about?

It’s also difficult to get to grips with what people are trying to decolonise. What is this “Western hegemony” that’s so often mentioned? Philosopher and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in The Guardian recently that the use of the term “West” is itself problematic. Is it a contrast between east and west/Europe and Asia – as it was used in the 18th century – or between communism and capitalism as during the Cold War?

In recent years, Appiah writes, “the west” seems to mean the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America:

The opposite here is a non-western world in Africa, Asia and Latin America – now dubbed “the global south” – though many people in Latin America will claim a western inheritance, too. This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that “western” here can look simply like a euphemism for white.

Theorist Edward Said has pointed out that when caricaturing and parodying the other, one runs the risk of absurdity. Additionally, if people lose themselves in an obsession with the terms, they run the risk of being trapped in these identities and miss an opportunity to forge something larger.

The difficulty of laying claim to knowledge

Even if questions like “What is Africa?” and “What is Western?” are satisfactorily answered, there’s another thorny question on the path towards decolonisation: What is knowledge? More specifically, who owns it?

Knowledge is not really owned by anyone. It’s a cumulative, shared resource that is available to everyone.

There is perhaps no better way to illustrate this than with the fact that the classical inheritance of Greek and Roman learning, hailed by many as the foundation of western civilisation, is actually an inheritance shared with Islam – traditionally an enemy of the west.

In the BBC documentary Mistaken Identities, Appiah points out that the Islamic world played a significant role in preserving this knowledge during the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. In Baghdad of the ninth century Abbasid caliphate, the palace library featured the works of Plato and Aristotle, Pythagoras and Euclid, translated into Arabic.

The knowledge did not belong to the Europeans any more than it belonged to the Caliphate. It was useful to the human project more broadly.

So, back to South African universities. The conversation here would be more beneficial if it was not about what needs to be taken away. The country should be striving for the best of both worlds, not an either or. If there is African indigenous knowledge out there then yes, I want more of it. But if some “Western” scientist has the cure for cancer – then hell, I want that too.

The only way through this is together.

Dialogue and debate

Rather than polarisation and othering in the best traditions of colonial inheritance, South Africa needs to move towards the middle ground where ideas can be exchanged and built upon.

It is crucial to foster dialogue to facilitate this exchange. Universities are traditionally the spaces where ideas can be rigorously and critically debated. They need to step up and own this space at this difficult and exciting time in the country’s history.

As the distinguished scholar Philip Altbach has pointed out, education has certainly been one of the most important (however insidious) vehicles of colonialist appropriation. It also, therefore, has the power to play a crucial role in forging a new narrative for South Africa and for Africa that is both global and local.