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South Africa’s business students want their own industry superheroes and success stories in the syllabus – study

In the past few years there’s been much discussion globally about the need to decolonise education. Decolonisation is the process of undoing the impact of colonial thinking and its influence in the present.

Scholars have differing opinions about the best way to achieve this, or whether it’s even necessary or desirable.

In South Africa, the issue of decolonisation was spotlighted by students during 2016’s #FeesMustFall protests. Eight years on, I was interested in finding out what the current cohort of students thought decolonisation could look like in their classrooms. So I asked final-year students in the management and commerce faculty at a rural campus in the country’s Eastern Cape province to take part in a study that would centre their voices and opinions.

Students expressed a desire for decolonisation to embrace two important activities, especially in commerce education. First, students needed their curriculum to feature more business and industry leaders (framed in my study as “superheroes”) from South Africa and the continent more broadly. Second, students advocated for more localised stories and case studies in the courses taught in higher education.

The main issue and thread uniting the two findings? Relatability. These findings offer insight into how a decolonised curriculum can be created by striving for the infusion of relatable “superheroes” and stories.

The status quo

Much of management and commerce teaching globally can be described using the acronym “WEIRD”: it’s dominated by western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic countries. This reality was flagged by many of the participants in my research.

They saw it, for instance, in which theorists’ and experts’ voices were used versus whose were not. Take US economics scholar Michael Porter: in 1979, in an article for the Harvard Business Review, Porter outlined what have come to be known as “the five forces”. His framework is useful in understanding the factors that drive competition in industries.

Students extolled the value of this work and did not suggest that it be removed from the curriculum. Instead, they suggested that more African examples be included – for instance, the work of the late Zimbabwean scholar Lovemore Mbigi, who contributed enormously to research on ubuntu (a concept that emphasises the importance of including everyone and building a strong community) in business leadership.

Read more: Lovemore Mbigi will be remembered for his teaching on ubuntu in business leadership

To the participants, decolonisation meant giving voice to scholars like Mbigi and increasing the volume of their contribution in classrooms. This would require lecturers to be more intentional in spotlighting what they called “superheroes”: African researchers and experts whose work was relatable to the students’ own context.

There have been efforts in South Africa to encourage case-based teaching similar to what my study advocates for. For instance, the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria has a dedicated portal that houses and offers resources on case-based teaching. Many of these case studies are from South Africa or elsewhere on the continent.

Context and relatability

One participant said:

In our (focus) group there appears to be consensus of the need for a change. The type of change that places importance on the role of giving more South African and even African business leaders a chance to be heard. This for us was what decolonisation was all about.

The students suggested that management and commerce teaching lent itself to decolonisation by the very nature of the discipline, which focuses on problem solving and case studies.

One participant reported how their focus group saw decolonised teaching having resonance when it came to business protagonists (that is, leaders in their fields):

At the core of strategic management instruction is a protagonist, the one that is faced with a dilemma. There needs to be more effort in seeing case examples and the lives of protagonists we can relate with.

Another group reported:

(We) made important links with the entrepreneurship space. There is (a) need to bring in the experiences of entrepreneurs from the township and even rural community to the classroom. (This) would edify the teaching experience.

And another said:

Some great stories from South African business leaders fail to see the light of day in making it to the classroom. The challenge could be that researchers are not being active in making sure these stories make it to the classroom.

The students said some lecturers did introduce such examples in class and praised them for creating a pathway for African stories into the curriculum.

So what happens next?

I propose three points of consideration, especially for those working in higher education.

First, lecturers should be aware of the context in which they teach, including the material conditions around the students in their classroom.

Second, lecturers need to look for “superheroes” their students can relate to. Such examples are everywhere and their experiences are potentially rich learning fodder for the classroom.

Third, lecturers should be deliberate about making content more relatable. The process could be to train students in case-based writing or investigation skills. Students, through partnering with their lecturers, can help get local cases into the classroom.

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