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Decolonising universities isn’t an easy process – but it has to happen

Students want colonial symbols, such as this statue of Cecil John Rhodes, gone from their universities. EPA/Nic Bothma

South African universities have become protest sites. Beginning in 2015 and continuing this year, students have organised against colonial symbols, fee structures, worker exploitation and sexual violence. The anger displayed during these protests speaks directly to students’ frustration with the slow and skewed transformation of society at large – and in the academy particularly.

Universities have been under enormous pressure to increase access for black students, who were historically kept out of higher education or pushed into institutions reserved for “non-whites”. There’s a drive to promote equity and to become “internationalised”.

At the same time they’re dealing with massive financial constraints. Most universities have been able to increase access for black students. But they have not spent adequate resources and time reviewing the cultures and curricula of these institutions. Students’ demands, then, coalesce under the rallying call for decolonisation - of symbols, aesthetics, language, culture, knowledge, representation and more.

What is meant by decolonisation in South Africa’s current context? What should the process entail, especially in relation to the curriculum, teaching and learning? Universities are grappling with these and other questions on a number of platforms. Our own institution, the University of Johannesburg, has hosted three well-attended panel discussions about decolonisation. These have thrown up some interesting, challenging ideas that hold important lessons for all universities.

A long history

Calls for the decolonisation of countries, institutions, the mind and of knowledge are not new. They emerged from global anti-colonial liberation movements. They found expression in the Pan Africanist, Negritude, Black Consciousness and African Renaissance movements.

Universities, too, have long been at the centre of decolonisation debates. Discussions have been held for decades about the space for African indigenous knowledge systems and the role of African philosophy. Several theories and areas of study have sprung up from these debates: critical race theory, post-colonial studies, Subaltern studies and feminist theories from the global South. There were attempts particularly at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Makerere in the 1970s to provide alternative epistemologies. The University of Cape Town also engaged with the issue of decolonisation during the 1990s when Professor Mahmood Mamdani was appointed as chair of African studies.

Scholars within these thought systems have critiqued the dominance of western epistemology, methodology and scholarship. They’ve railed against the silencing of the ‘Other’ – particularly African scholars. They’ve objected to what theorist Raewyn Connell calls the rendering of Africa as “a place to learn about and not from”.

Given this long history of debate, thought and agitation for change, why are universities lagging so far behind? Part of the answer may lie in a comment Puerto Rican Professor of Ethnic Studies Nelson Maldonado-Torres made during one of our institution’s panel discussions. He noted that the very act of decolonisation generates anxiety. It unsettles one’s sense of well being and belonging. It calls identities and the project of enlightenment into question.

It’s not about replacement

The South African academy is experiencing this unease right now. It manifests in several ways. Many students and staff simply refuse to engage with the debates at all. Some staff ridicule students’ demands for a multiplicity of knowledge systems by denying that these systems exist or debunking them as inferior to western theories and systems. Many academics have responded to calls for an African-centered curriculum by saying this would render South Africa’s universities parochial.

This last point may, in certain instances, be the case. But then one can make the same claim about so much of the work that emanates from the West. What’s important is to expose students to different forms of inquiry and to enable them to think critically about all forms of knowledge production.

Decolonisation of knowledge demands that universities revisit their curricula and include – not in uncritical ways – epistemologies, texts and scholarly work that have been previously excluded or marginalised. During this process of inclusion, academics must also explain why certain forms of knowledge and values have been privileged; the academy’s assumptions about what constitutes knowledge, and the impact that this has had.

Professor Desiree Lewis of the University of the Western Cape, who spoke on one of the panels, pointed out that it’s not enough to simply replace one body of content with another and keep the power relations and teaching and learning processes as they have been.

Knowledge is hybrid and interactive. It is imperative that universities examine the relations between knowledge and power. The reluctance to do so, we would argue, stems primarily from a fear of the unknown. Lecturers are worried about needing to reskill to be able to deliver a new curriculum. Academics have not reached this place voluntarily or through consensus: students are pressuring us to reflect on how we teach, and this is forcing us to rethink and revise what the academic project should be.

Students must play a central role in the decolonisation of knowledge. They need to participate in the attempts to revisit how and what is taught.

The journey ahead for the academy will be a long and unnerving one, but it has to be undertaken. The consequence of not doing so is to continue to be complicit in the reproduction of social and cognitive injustices; to condemn students to be perpetual consumers of knowledge. In fact, students have pointed out that if knowledge isn’t decolonised academics, too, will remain perpetual consumers rather than creators and authors.

Asking new questions

Universities need to be asking a new set of questions about the nature of society, the kind of students they want to produce and the best paths for achieving this.

When students question the 1994 transformation and reconciliation project, they in effect are asking academics to revisit the paths to political, social and economic development in this country so that they address the needs of a future generation. Part of the purpose of a university is to think through these broader societal challenges and to provide students with access to alternative ways of envisioning the world and interpreting their experiences.

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