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Why Africa’s professors are afraid of colonial education being dismantled

Will academics keep standing on the sidelines while students dismantle symbols of colonialism like the statue of Cecil John Rhodes? Reuters/Mike Hutchings

A series of student protests in South Africa has thrown up a number of questions. Many of these are linked to the problem of decolonising institutions. And at least one implicates the country’s professoriate by asking: how do academics transcend Western knowledge systems and ways of learning in African universities?

This needs an urgent answer. The professoriate - not bureaucrats or administrators, but those who are at the coal face of academia - should provide thought leadership. But aren’t the students and their supporters asking too much from the professoriate? I pose this question because a large proportion of African university teachers are cut from the cloth of Western knowledge. As the philosopher Kwame Nkrumah observes in his book Consciencism, African intellectuals and professors are:

…anointed with a universalist flavouring which titillates the palate … so agreeably that they become alienated from their own immediate society.

How, then, does a professoriate change the essence of its edifice?

Edifice of professorship

In most South African universities the professoriate is still almost entirely white. This is despite ongoing calls for “transformation” in the higher education sector - that is, in part, a change in the make-up of student bodies and the professoriate to better reflect the country’s demographics.

However, being white does not necessarily mean being anti-transformation. In the same way, being black is not synonymous with transformation. There are white professors whose sense of transformation is more remarkable than that of some black professors. So, reference to black and white is beyond pigmentation. It is, in the logic of the Black Consciousness philosophy, about a state of mind: ideas and attitudes that ought to underpin a strategic gaze to transformation.

This is not to underplay South African universities’ transformation imperative. The point I am making is simple: transformation of higher education generally in Africa and specifically in South Africa requires a professoriate with a decoloniality posture. Today, the transformation of higher education is increasingly being pursued through the prism of decoloniality.

But the continent’s professoriate is schooled largely in the white tradition. This imprinted the culture of whiteness in its making, which is not surprising. Western education in Africa as we know it is designed to proselytise blacks. African academics may be reluctant to repudiate their very make-up.

Creating a black professoriate

Tshilidzi Marwala, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, has agitated for the making of a black professor. But what constitutes a black professor? In trying to theorise, it’s worth invoking Steve Biko’s explanation from his celebrated book I Write What I Like:

…being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.

Black Consciousness philosophy introduces the concept of non-white, which means neither black nor white. This refers to the category of those whose “aspiration is whiteness”. Much of the African professoriate falls into this category, simply because its edifice is embedded in Western knowledge systems. What does this mean, in the context of Marwala’s pursuit? The making of a black professor is no easy task. It requires a revolution of the mind, which should draw insights from decoloniality theory.

A galaxy of scholarship

There is a body of knowledge from which the decoloniality discourse could draw theoretical and philosophical insights to spawn African knowledge systems. This galaxy of scholarship includes the works of, among others, Archie Mafeje, Dani Nabudere, Cheikh Anta Diop, Molefi Kete Asante and Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane.

In Nabudere’s words, Mafeje “tried to deconstruct structural functional Anthropology and attempted to construct a new research methodology that was free from … colonially inspired disciplines, within the wide social sciences discourses”.

Nabudere himself challenged the colonial theorisation of Africa. He sought to mainstream indigenous knowledge systems. Diop situated the origin of civilisation in Africa and, in the process, nullified German philosopher G.W.F Hegel’s contention that Africans do not have history.

Asante, meanwhile, aggregated pan-African thoughts into Afrocentricity. He described this as a paradigm that represents

a revolutionary shift in thinking proposed as a constructural adjustment to black disorientation, decentredness, and lack of agency.

Magubane is best known for his work that untangled the political economy of race and class in South Africa. He also exposed the falsehood of colonial apartheid and liberal narratives of history. He asserted African perspectives in the centre of historical consciousness.

The works of these scholars are important for theoretical insights into decoloniality.

Heed students’ calls

But, how much does a professoriate engage with this body of knowledge in their curricula development endeavours? I am asking this question to caution against decoloniality becoming an ideological rhetoric for student activism rather than cause for knowledge revolution.

These questions are relevant because, as academic Ziauddin Sardar puts it, “the real power of the West is not located in its economic muscles and technological might. Rather, it resides in the power to define.” Those who refuse to conform are “defined out of existence”. Most African academics have accepted the definitions and prescriptions of the West as the template of their world outlook. This is a defeatist posture. Or perhaps it’s cowardice?

The professoriate must heed the multiple cues of the millennial generation’s activism, particularly when it comes to decolonising university curricula. If it doesn’t, it won’t be the West that defines Africa’s professoriate out of existence - it will be they, themselves.

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