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Recolonising the mind: The rise of African National Education

That “Africanisation” of higher education has been or should be the hallmark of post-apartheid higher education reform is an assumption that has a thin common sense basis.

This basis turns out to be extremely brittle in the face of the contradictions and quagmires of the expectations, blueprints, norms, practices and consequences that are tied up with it.

The current rhetoric of Africanisation ostensibly refers back to pan-African or national-liberationist ideals. Participants of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) workshop in Dar es Salaam in February 2005 on academic freedom, social responsibility and the state of academia invoked the debates of the 1960s and 1970s, recalling the names of Frantz Fanon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Amilcar Cabral and Julius Nyerere as sources of inspiration.

East African legal theorist and activist Issa Shivji remembers a vibrant intellectual culture radiating out from the university that embraced town and countryside, celebrated the publication of books, encouraged engaged reading and debate, staged performances, and animated creative writing: “The university flourished. It became a hotbed of radical nationalism where researches were done to reclaim our history; where debates were conducted to debunk domination; where students demonstrated and protested against injustice and oppression, exploitation and discrimination, imperialism and apartheid. It mattered not whether the victims of injustices and oppression were white, black, brown or yellow. Human liberation and human freedom are indivisible.”

Since then, there have been dramatic shifts that have led some of the same educationists to talk of “the African university in ruins”. Most academics writing on the “transformation” of the African academy make no secret of a sense of nostalgia for the “old style” anti-colonial nationalism on the wings of which African universities and networks among intellectuals were established — notably in West and East Africa. There is a sense of loss in contemplating the present African university in ruins from the perspectives of the ideals of anti-colonial or decolonising movements.

The expression of such a sense of loss initially seems puzzling, seeing that a new generation of Africanisers goes to great lengths in establishing virtual connections with the erstwhile African models, statesmen, programmatic pronouncements, landmark conferences and diasporic networks.

There is a burgeoning productivity in this field in South Africa, if not in higher education policy, than in the lengths to which various institutions are carrying the proclaimed Africanisation agendas.

“Africanisation in Tuition” at Unisa, for instance, comes with a list of mandatory “reorientations” closely in line with Thabo Mbeki’s version of the African renaissance, now bolstered by the establishment of a Thabo Mbeki leadership institute to be based at Unisa, in addition to the Centre for African Renaissance Studies. Afrocentrism, the valorisation of things African, Afro-dynamism and Afro-optimism are central to this mission.

A new division is being created between “the Africanised” and the “un-” or “anti-Africanised”, implying a call for the policing of this division. Ways and means have been announced to enlist staff participation in and support for Africanisation. Preferably, staff should support this initiative “freely and voluntarily”, failing which “it may become necessary to develop some specific instruments”.

Unisa’s philosophy department has been “reoriented” to mainstream and foreground African philosophy courses. A division between “African” and “Western” philosophy structures the undergraduate courses.

Highly acclaimed educational researchers are publishing prolifically on “Africanisation in education”, broaching a “fundamental question” — “What do Africans mean and understand when they say they know something?” — and explaining “how the African thinks”.

The South African government’s then department of arts, culture, science and technology was mandated to draft a policy on indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). The theme of IKS, likewise, features prominently as one of the research focus areas of the National Research Foundation.

It comprises “indigenous technologies”, “traditional medicine and health”, “indigenous food systems”, “socio-cultural systems”, “arts, crafts and materials” and “cross-cutting and supportive systems in IK, IKS and IT” as subcategories. Preparations for the introduction of the study of IKS into higher education curricula in 2010 are under way at certain historically disadvantaged universities.

The question remains as to what it is — in this plenitude and among all the plenipotentiaries of Africanisation by decree or policy or strategic plans or recurriculation — that evokes the sense of loss increasingly articulated by African intellectuals in the middle of these transformation processes.

The explanation adduced by activist educationists who have known better times refers to neoliberal restructuring of higher education. The return of the colonised mind to the African university and of the African university to the colonised mind, according to Shivji, came with the commercialisation of higher education.

And this is where his analysis departs from that of his Africanising fellow travellers-for-part-of-the-way in the south. The “transformation” in higher education is unmasked as commercialisation and corporatisation: “Imperialism and capitalism masquerading as globalisation and free market set the rules of the game. Universities were dubbed white elephants. We did not need thinkers, asserted our erstwhile benefactors. We needed only store keepers and bank tellers and computer operators and marketing managers, who could be trained in vocational schools. Universities are not cost-effective, decreed the World Bank… The university was condemned.”

The transformation of African universities is effectively one “from sites of knowledge production to sites of hotel construction: from building lecture halls to prefabricating shopping malls”; “from the culture of collegiality” to “the thick of corporate vultures”.

Academic concerns are now centring on the manipulation of mark sheets to show passes, says Shivji.

However, this change came not only from outside the university, along the inroads made by policies, goals and orientations of “neo-liberalism” and the World Bank. They were met with the internal reorganisation of curricula, of the relationship between different disciplines and academic units and of university structures.

Moreover, the notions of transformation envisaged by decolonising and neoliberal agendas were not at odds with each other in all respects. What has facilitated a smooth transition or easy sliding between them in transformation talk?

Demands for social and economic justice addressed to a developmentalist state found their spokespeople in the higher education arena, advocating “skills-based applied knowledge”. Curriculum restructuring to the effect of introducing more applied sciences and vocational programmes went at the expense of basic sciences. One of the transmission belts moving between a liberationist notion of transformation and the restructuring of academic teaching and research in line with market demands is IKS. This new arrival in the restructured academic landscape is linked to “skills” and “knowledge products”.

Without reflecting on particular orders and histories of disciplines, “Western knowledge” is pitched against “African indigenous knowledge”. What makes “Afrocentric knowledge” allegedly “more empowering” is its link to economic opportunities held out by the highly socially mobile and globally networked domain of “indigenous peoples and cultures”, which in turn has attained a place in the tourism, heritage, crafts, music, food and eco-bio industries.

Capacities not singled out for “building” in such “skills-based” courses, and conspicuous by their absence in postcolonial Africanisation blueprints, are those of interrogating, searching, investigating, critical thinking and judging, debating and public-intellectual engagement.

Any references to a public-intellectual culture are excoriated from postcolonial Africanisation agendas. Ali Mazrui talks of the decline of intellectualism with the decline in of pan-Africanism. Frantz Fanon insisted on “Africanity” as a “universal standpoint” — a counter to “national culture”.

To the extent that African intellectuals transcended the idea of a national culture to embrace a pan-African vision as a form of universalism and inclusive citizenship, they had their hopes dashed by the national chauvinism of post-colonial elites, which was inimical to expressions of independent critical thought.

To the extent that African intellectuals expected their visions for political and social transformation to be taken over by the postcolonial developmentalist state, their hopes were dashed by the recession of the state and the simultaneously tightening grip of repression.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between Africanisation and academic freedom: those universities most emphatically promoting Africanisation appear to be those most insistently foreclosing upon or clamping down on freedom of expression, of inquiry and critique.

As institutional power bases and corporationally aligned incomes spawned by a new form of cultural capital closely associated with transformation become socially more widely contested, visions of Africanisation are increasingly nervously hedged by its advocates.

As intellectuals and students from other African countries come to South Africa and knock on the doors of culture and learning, Fanon’s spectre of national chauvinism comes to the fore. If, as sociologist Mike Neocosmos says, “Africa seems to be an embarrassment to the new elite”, then Africanisation is likely to be cut to the national size of “indigeneity” and “South Africanisation”.

Nationally exclusive “growing your own timber” programmes and the distinction between equity and diversity candidates entailing positive discrimination in the case of the former, and negative discrimination against the latter, are indications that this process is under way. Revisiting and rediscovering the impetus of pan-Africanism for intellectual culture, in contrast, would entail an engagement for transnational (academic) citizenship as integral to academic freedom.

Ulrike Kistner teaches at Unisa. An extended version of this article is forthcoming in the journal Mediations, volume 24, No 1, 2009.

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Ulrike Kistner
Guest Author

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