Time has come to decolonise African universities

A file picture shows students surround the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, top left, as the statue is removed from the campus at the Cape Town University. Picture: AP

A file picture shows students surround the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, top left, as the statue is removed from the campus at the Cape Town University. Picture: AP

Published Jun 7, 2023


Fuzile Jwara

Pretoria - Since 1994, South African universities have somewhat transformed in representation and personnel.

Nonetheless, one could argue that the university spaces are still somewhat hostile to proper redress and transformation.

The concept of decolonisation of the university entails the transformation of academia in line with the language and knowledge systems of the indigenous people, according to scholars such as Anye Nyamnjoh, Mahmood Mamdani and Savo Heleta.

The concept of decolonising the university gained popularity during the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements of 2015 and 2016. In this, the concept of the African university came to the fore. What does an African university look like, and what should be on the curriculum?

Firstly, it is important to note that the fight for transformation also concerned university academic personnel.

Students had felt that very little radical reform had taken place and that black people were under-represented in many academic spaces. The Biko definition of black applies, which encompasses coloured and Indian people that identify with the Struggle against white supremacy and domination.

Now, in 2023, how far has the university really implemented decoloniality to address the issues raised by students during the #MustFall movements? The battle to decolonise the university will rage on for decades to come.

The scholar Mahmood Mamdani importantly asserts that the function of the African University was part of the colonial project to reproduce coloniality through the erasure of histories and knowledge of indigenous people. This argument was also expressed by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his deposition of power and knowledge.

A critical element of the university is the continued perpetuation of Eurocentric ideologies and the reinforcement of western dominance in the production of knowledge. This means that in the current state, black people are merely subjects of interest in the creation of knowledge. As such, what many learn in the university reflects very little of their social realities. In this sense, many burgeoning young black students feel very alienated in the academic space.

An explanation for this could be that decoloniality encompasses repercussions that extend beyond the university curriculum but could possibly subvert Global North-South relations as they are currently.

The production of knowledge outlines the power relations, where knowledge is determined through Eurocentric standards that disregard anything out of its rigid system of knowledge creation. For example, many African societies determine roles based on seniority and not gender.

A grandmother can be the most decisive person in family affairs due to her status as an elder. As such, there is often this contradiction between western values and what African people know as their own familial and social realities.

Indigenous knowledge is suppressed unless it is found to be beneficial for western knowledge production.

The power dynamics of knowledge are also linked to the global political economy, where Africa has always been a source of extraction, whether it is its resources, people or their histories and epistemologies.

This is what is meant by Africans being subjects of western domination. The realities of indigenous people are suppressed by western knowledge. For instance, during the Covid-19, there was an essential push-back on people utilising eucalyptus to steam as a means to manage Covid symptoms.

However, it became widespread when experts agreed that steaming alleviates the severity of the symptoms.

Steaming is a well-known indigenous treatment for many ailments; thus, this came as no surprise to many, where many still use traditional herbs as the first point of reference when sick. Nonetheless, there was clear suppression of knowledge that did not initially fit the western definition of scientific knowledge.

A view that counters the need to push for decolonisation is that the world is globalised. Thus, indigenous people ought to have more globalist perspectives of their surroundings.

However, part of the issue with African universities is that they have always emulated western knowledge production, in turn alienating indigenous students from contextualised curricula that better explore their identities.

African students cannot continue to be mere objects of western research, where knowledge is commodified in alignment with the Global Political Economy, a paternalistic outlook that insists that indigenous people are incapable of deciphering knowledge. Thus they need to be “taught“and “civilised”. In many ways, universities in South Africa still reflect colonial structures and functionalities.

Indigenous knowledge is suppressed unless they are found to be beneficial for western knowledge production.

This criticism focuses more on the content of the curriculum than the simplistic view that more black people in academia will bring about change.

Many South African universities have a black vice-chancellor but attained minimal structural and ideological realignments.

What the students are learning is more important than anything.

At this rate, our universities remain exclusionary spaces that reproduce inequality and are somewhat removed from the average person in South Africa.

Hence, one can argue that academics sit in an ivory tower, assuming that what they know is reflective of the multiple realities experienced by students and greater society outside the university space.

The road to decolonise the university may prove to be very treacherous, but it is necessary for indigenous people to undergo this journey of self and collective rediscovery. It is crucial to the re-imagination of the African future.

Our universities need to be an extension of our identities, where we learn about ourselves and not our colonial masters.

* Jwara is an MA in Sociology Candidate at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

Pretoria News