Decolonising South Africa’s ivory towers

Adekeye Adebajo

Business Day, 3 April 2017.

After the formal end of apartheid in 1994, the imperative was to transform South Africa’s racist institutions so that they also reflected the cultures, identity, and aspirations of the country’s black majority. Many government-funded universities, however, remain stubbornly untransformed both racially (at faculty level) and intellectually (at the curriculum level). They also continue to lack a sense of a Pan-African intellectual awareness or identification with their geographical roots in Africa. As the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani noted after a frustrating stint at the University of Cape Town (UCT) between 1996 and 1999, “South Africa lacks an Africa-focused intelligentsia in critical numbers … the institutional apparatus of learning continues to be hostile to Africa-focused thought.”

Mahmood Mamdani … frustrating stint at SA university

One of apartheid’s most powerful weapons was to construct rigid identities which still linger today in academia, the media, and the popular imagination. Excellence is often equated with whiteness, and “lowering of standards” with blackness. The South African scholar Joel Modiri, however, recently noted that “one of the more noteworthy revelations of the Fallist student movement has been its exposure of the mediocrity and ignorance – not of the students but of South African academics”.

Most African countries north of the Limpopo had universities created by their colonial powers only from 1948. Universities are thus fundamentally colonial creations. With the independence of African states, these institutions were decolonised from the 1960s, transforming both faculty and curricula. In the process they created some centres of excellence of African knowledge production such as the Ibadan School of History, the Dakar School of Culture, and the Dar School of political economy.

Can an institution like the University of Johannesburg lead efforts today to create a Johannesburg School of Pan-Africanism? It should be noted that it was students in the United States who, from the 1980s, drove efforts to introduce multiculturalism into Eurocentric curricula in which they could not see themselves reflected: African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. What lessons are students in South Africa learning from Africa and America in driving their decolonisation agendas?

Edward Said … promoted a positive synthesis of cultures.

There are four important areas in which decolonisation efforts should focus. First, research is crucial.  Solid African literature exists in many disciplines which must become an integral part of curricula.  The Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui’s idea of ‘counter-penetration’ argued that Africans must also educate the West on African issues to ensure that thinking about the continent is less Eurocentric.

Second, teaching is critical. Universities need to move from committees, statements, and charters – important as these are – to developing and rolling out Pan-African curricula that reflect the African context in which South Africa is located. This is not necessarily just an effort to displace the Western canon, but African thought must be at the centre of these efforts, and enter into a contestation of ideas with Western scholarship, as exemplified most brilliantly by the work of the Palestinian-American Edward Said. Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe also supported this approach, noting that after the colonial powers left, Africans found themselves with ‘two hands’ steeped in a biculturalism which they could use to their advantage.

Said promoted a positive synthesis of cultures, recognizing the globalising, potentially positive impact of the post-imperial world. He used the work of anti-colonial writers like Frantz Fanon, C L R James, Walter Rodney, Wole Soyinka, and Pablo Neruda to show how ‘the Empire’ had struck back with its own counter-narratives that challenged the arrogant and racist misrepresentations of some Western authors.

Third, public dialogues and outreach are critical to the decolonization project. These are essential to disseminating Pan-African knowledge and to engaging the broader public including civic groups, community leaders, opinion-shapers, and learners in promoting greater Pan-African awareness. Fourth, strategic partnerships with key institutions in Africa and the Diaspora – the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe – will be critical to promoting academic exchanges, joint courses, strengthening curricula, and leveraging comparative advantages.

Finally, Mahmood Mamdani made the point that while at UCT in the 1990s, if students wanted to study the white experience, they would go to history, politics, or sociology. To get the black experience, such students had to go to the Centre for African Studies which Mamdani considered to be a centre for Bantu studies. Decolonisation would have been achieved when universities stop talking about it, and students simply take African thought and epistemologies as normal across disciplines. South Africa’s ivory towers must be transformed to look more like ebony towers. From Johannesburg to Jamaica, we must reimagine a new Pan-Africanism.