126. Pan-African Lessons for Transforming SA Curricula

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 14 December 2020
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: Jacana Media

After two and a half decades of a black-led government in South Africa, the country’s education system is still stalked by colonial epistemologies. Western thought remains ubiquitous, and African epistemologies are often marginalized. A recently published edited book on Transforming Humanities Curricula in South Africa, Africa and African American Studies – sponsored by the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation – explicitly seeks to draw on transformation lessons from post-colonial Africa and post-civil rights African-American Studies.

The student-led “Rhodes Must Fall” movement at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and similar initiatives at Wits and Rhodes, were at the forefront of contemporary efforts at curriculum transformation and reforming institutional cultures. They have noted that South Africa’s higher education sector reflects an inheritance of three and a half centuries of colonial and apartheid domination. Racism permeated the country’s historically white universities, from which the black majority was largely excluded before 1994. Given this difficult inheritance, there was an obligation to encourage a university curriculum that reduced the dominance of Eurocentric epistemologies and reflected the aspirations and cultures of the long subjugated black majority.

European colonial powers created universities in African countries outside South Africa mostly as late as 1948. African governments supported both decolonization and Africanization of these institutions from the 1950s, replacing foreign staff and Eurocentric curricula. There were also efforts to build African nationalist historiographies and challenge Eurocentric curricula. The Ibadan School of History sought to counter European misrepresentations of African history as “primitive” and lacking any agency. Scholars such as Kenneth Dike and Ade Ajayi innovatively used oral sources to write pre-colonial and colonial history from an African perspective. In the process, they produced much of the educational text-books of Nigerian history. Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy similarly emerged in the 1960s from efforts to build a nationalist historiography. The School was led by scholars like Guyana’s Walter Rodney who advocated African self-reliance and self-sustainability, reinterpreting the slave trade from an indigenous perspective.

The Dakar School of Culture was led, from the 1960s, by Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop, a forerunner of the US Afrocentric approach of the 1980s led by scholars like Molefi Asante. Diop challenged the cultural bias in Western scientific research, and what he regarded as racist Eurocentric scholarship. In Kenya in 1968, a group of three young academics – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Henry Owuor-Anyumba, and Taban Lo Liyong – led efforts to Africanize the Literature curriculum.

Similar to South Africa with the end of apartheid, it was after the civil rights struggle from the 1950s that black American students entered predominantly white institutions in large numbers. This resulted in persistent agitation for Black Studies courses by students alienated by Eurocentric curricula that often did not recognise their own history and cultures. Black feminist scholars like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Bell Hooks, also forced the establishment of Black Women’s Studies by the late 1970s.

Finally, two African-American schools of thought are of potential relevance to post-apartheid South Africa: the Atlanta School of Sociology, and the Howard School of International Affairs. The Atlanta School, from the 1890s, led by scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, had the explicit goal of using rigorous social science research methods to disprove the racist claims of white social scientists of black inferiority. The Howard School was led, from the 1920s, by thinkers like Merze Tate, Alain Locke, and Eric Williams. These African-American and Afro-Caribbean scholars challenged conventional Western ideas about empire, slavery, and race. In both cases, this scholarship was largely marginalized by mainstream Western sociology and international relations, but has more recently come to be regarded as innovative.

There are surely lessons that post-apartheid South Africa can learn from these rich Pan-African experiences in transforming university curricula.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.