3. Mazrui, epitomé of decolonisation

The Star Early Edition 30 May 2017

STUDENTS calling for a decolonised tertiary curriculum would have had an ally in the esteemed Professor Ali Al’amin Mazrui, who was a strong proponent, said Professor Adekeye Adebajo, the director of the Institute for pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

He said the Kenya-born scholar embodied decolonisation throughout his career and wanted to see the continent adopt a more pan-African education system. For the last two years at least, students across South Africa have been on a concerted campaign to “decolonise” university education.

Writing in the Sunday Independent in March, financial services sector professional Thabile Wonci analysed the “decolonisation programme”, saying it was driven by students under the #FeesMustFall movement. “This progressive cult of young people has realised that the miseducation of the African child in our institutions of higher learning has led to the imprisonment of the African child in white belief systems and knowledge bases,” he wrote.

“The students have realised this miseducation of the African child effectively restricts their range of thought as the education system effectively draws from the Western traditional norms.” This is why Adebajo believes professor Mazrui would have supported South Africa’s students.

He said Mazrui achieved several tertiary qualifications in the West – including his doctorate from Oxford University, UK – but came back home to Africa to teach at Makerere University in Uganda because he believed in educating African students in a decolonised manner. “Decolonised education is what Professor Mazrui was all about. Even though he spent the rest of his career, almost four decades, in the US, he was still coming back to Africa and it was almost as if he never left – he was African throughout,” Adebajo said.

“He put Africa at the centre of everything he did. He wrote about African society, politics, culture, economics and everything else that you could think of – he helped shape ideas about Africa.” Adebajo said Mazrui was the most important public intellectual of the last half century to come out of Africa because of how he lived the ideal of decolonising African universities.

“He even talked about how Africans were not using their own languages more effectively, and how African administrations and education systems have neglected their own languages. Even in African diplomacy, he argued that we were using foreign languages – until Swahili was introduced into the AU only as recently as 2004,” he said. “So, definitely, in terms of decolonised education, Ali Mazrui would have been somebody who would’ve been supportive of this agenda. South Africa was a country he took seriously and wrote about, and always felt that South Africa needed to be a leader for African liberation in many ways.”

The concerted call for decolonised education was echoed last week at an Africa Day rally in Joburg by EFF leader Julius Malema, who, when lamenting xenophobia, blamed the country’s lack of awareness about the history of indigenous African knowledge and a “united Africa” on the legacy of colonialism that he feels lingers in society. “A united Africa is a threat to imperialism, it’s a threat to colonialism (and) a threat to capitalism…that’s why the decolonised education is very important because, through decolonised education, we will know that we are the founders of knowledge,” Malema said.

Meanwhile, Adebajo added he was attracted to Mazrui’s work because he had consumed only Western literature when he was studying at university in the US and UK, and was drawn immediately to Mazrui’s radical literature when discussing Africa.

“I happened to stumble upon Ali Mazrui’s work and I was really drawn to, first, the sheer elegance and beauty of the language but also his radical, uncompromising pan-African commitment,” he explained. “He was also a liberal, which was unusual because a lot of the radicals in the last century were Marxists. For me, what he did was write about Africa in a way that was uncompromising.

“He criticised what needed to be criticised in terms of the dictatorships, lack of development and corruption. But he also criticised what the West had done historically in terms of colonialism and some of the neo-colonial structures and economic inequalities that kept Africa where it was.” Special homage is paid to Mazrui by academic luminaries from around the world in a book of honour titled A Giant Tree Has Fallen.

About the book, Adebajo said it was a compendium of tributes to regale to the world how respected Mazrui was by his peers and students.

“The book really captures the 50-year history of Ali Mazrui’s work. He was around for a really long time and he had a great deal of influence, and a lot of that was captured in this compendium,” he added.