University Decolonization: More Than Mere Iconoclasm


Rhodes statue removed
A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town in 2015.(Photo: Desmond Bowles/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

When South African students launched the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign in 2015, one of their major demands was that the university curriculum be decolonized. This seems to have fallen off the agenda, overtaken by the push for free higher education.

It would be a pity if funding challenges – important as they are – preclude a focus on challenges related to higher education’s core functions: teaching, learning and research.

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This article by Ahmed Essop originally appeared at The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “Decolonisation debate is a chance to rethink the role of universities”

The decolonization debate raises critical issues about the relationship between power, knowledge and learning. It provides an opportunity to rethink the role of universities in social and economic development and in fashioning a common nation.

There are two underlying issues that should be unpacked to take the decolonization debate forward.

Institutional cultures in focus
The first issue is to recognize that decolonization is about more than the curriculum. It involves more than changing reading lists through adding texts by African writers and those from the global south. It is about how knowledge – and the assumptions and values that underpin its conception, construction and transmission – is reflected in the university as a social institution.

It is in essence about institutional culture: the ways of seeing and doing that permeate a university and are reflected in learning and teaching. In this sense it is both about the formal curriculum and the informal or “hidden” curriculum. This includes the symbols and naming conventions that privilege and affirm certain knowledge and cultural traditions while excluding others.

Decolonization is first and foremost about inclusion, recognition and affirmation. It seeks to affirm African knowledge and cultural traditions in universities, which remain dominated by western traditions. As a student commented during a panel about decolonization at the University of Johannesburg (UJ):

Please let us see ourselves within the degrees that are taught – otherwise, UJ, how is it an African university?

All of this means reflecting on and unpacking an institution’s culture. Universities must guard against solutions that may, in the very process of inclusion, lead to exclusion.

To illustrate this from beyond the world of higher education: my children attended a primary school in Johannesburg that celebrated all religious festivals – Eid, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah. At a special school assembly each year, children from different religions explained what their festivals symbolised.

But Christmas was celebrated through a nativity play in which all of the students participated and which all the parents attended. So the process of inclusion privileged one tradition, Christianity. Non-Christian traditions, although unintentionally, were marginalised as “other.”

Narrow lens
The second issue is to recognize that decolonization is too narrow and limiting a lens through which to engage the debate on curriculum change.

Decolonisation refers to the historical process whereby countries that were ruled by foreign powers obtain their independence. It is about replacing the foreign with a national power, both of which are assumed to be homogeneous. It isn’t about changing or transforming a colonised society’s institutional structures.

This is also a key conceptual weakness in curriculum decolonisation. It assumes that different knowledge systems are homogeneous. This ignores the social underpinnings of knowledge – the fact that all traditions feature dominant and marginal knowledges. These are based on power relations and worldviews linked to race, class, gender and other societal divisions.

This leads to two dangers: racial essentialism – replacing white with black or Freud with Fanon; and social conservatism, which pits modernity against tradition. It calls for African solutions to African problems. But it does this in a context where tradition is viewed as static rather than dynamic – evolving with changing social and economic contexts.

As South African President Jacob Zuma has argued in response to his various legal challenges, the law (West/modern) is cold; the body (Africa/tradition) is warm.

These dangers can be avoided if knowledge is understood in terms of epistemological diversity. This recognises the universality of knowledge. It is premised on an open dialogue and the interdependence of – and porous boundaries between – different knowledge traditions. It enables the reclaiming and affirming of African knowledge traditions.

It also acknowledges that the Enlightenment, the cornerstone of modern (western) social and economic thought, was itself influenced by ideas that emanated from other traditions.

On the edge of an abyss
The issues and problems raised by students are not new. The need to transform institutional cultures has been a constant refrain in higher education policy debates since 1994. It was brought to the fore by the Reitz affair at the University of the Free State in early 2008. There, a group of white students at a university residence humiliated black workers.

This caused a national outcry. It led to the establishment of a ministerial committee to consider issues of discrimination, transformation and social cohesion in higher education.

The committee’s report offered a comprehensive set of recommendations to both the ministry of higher education and training and individual universities. The failure to implement these systematically has led to the current crisis of legitimacy confronting the higher education system.

The committee’s views on curriculum change were prescient. It placed epistemological transformation at the centre of the higher education transformation agenda. It called for a macro-review to assess the appropriateness of the “social, ethical, political and technical skills and competencies embedded” in the curriculum.

It’s important, the committee argued, to consider whether the current curriculum prepares young people for their role in post-apartheid South Africa, in Africa and the world. Does it enable them to grapple with what it means to be human in South Africa in the 21st century?

But the voices that speak of the pain of marginalization and plead for affirmation that leap out of the pages of the committee’s report were not listened to. Ignoring students’ voices in 2016 will lead higher education to the abyss.

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Author’s note: This article is based on speaking notes as a respondent to professor Brenda Leibowitz’s inaugural lecture, Power, knowledge and learning: A humble contribution to the decolonization debate. This was delivered at the University of Johannesburg on April 18, 2016.
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