Rehumanising the colonialities

Knowledge ‘bias’: Carl Sagan struggled to accept the idea of an advanced, independent African astronomy. (Supplied)

Knowledge ‘bias’: Carl Sagan struggled to accept the idea of an advanced, independent African astronomy. (Supplied)

Almost all graduate students have felt some sort of angst about their chosen positions and their possible futures, as Suren Pillay suggested in last month's Getting Ahead ("Decolonising the humanities", April 5).

For a humanities student in South Africa, however, this angst has very specific dimensions. Wondering how it is possible to get that prestigious bursary to go overseas to study or attend a conference has become a staple in graduate thought — one that constantly tends towards the international to find solace.

One of the reasons for this constant mental flight lies in what is taught, and how it is taught, in humanities faculties in South Africa. The syllabuses are more often than not steeped only in the tradition of European intellectual history. This is discernible not only in the material chosen but also in the way it is presented: Phaswane Mpe and Bernard Magubane's work may be part of the syllabus, but they are taught as "alternative" writers and thinkers. The dilemma of a graduate student in the humanities in pondering admission to a European or American PhD programme is partly owed to this dislocation of knowledge and experience.

As graduate students in the humanities, we have been taught about certain experiences, thoughts and intellectual trends that we have found more and more difficult to use in answering questions that present themselves to us every day. South African questions on racism, poverty, feminism and education have proved impossible to address from a purely European or American perspective. In South Africa the university continues to present experiences and understandings of the world and Africa from a perspective that is distinctly, and even deliberately, non-African. 

The history of higher education in South Africa shows us that the university was originally founded as a place to keep the children of the conqueror abreast with their counterparts at "home" — that is, Europe. Informed in part by the obsession not to become deformed by the distance from home and time spent on the "dark continent", the university was organised and constructed in such a way that it became a European university in Africa.

When the university was opened to the conquered people, the objective was that they should learn the ways of their conqueror and become European or non-African. If the African was not properly human then the university was none of her/his concern. But if Africans could acquire humanity, as more liberal colonialists held, then their place at the university was as converts, as objects to be arranged and reorganised into more proper human beings. The university was not to be engaged according to the experience of the African, and the world, too, was not seen from the African experience.

This dislocation of experience and space is what Valentin Mudimbe refers to in his book, The Idea of Africa. Mudimbe goes to great lengths to show the epistemological bias held by the "developed" West towards the "undeveloped" South — from tourist art to Carl Sagan's inability to believe that the Dogons could have advanced knowledge of astronomy that was not derived from the West.

In his first chapter, aptly titled "Discourse of Power and Knowledge of Otherness", Mudimbe argues that both colonists (the settlers of a region) and colonialists (the exploiters of a territory through the domination of the local citizens) tended to transform non-European areas into European ones. This was done on the basis of a self/other relationship that automatically reduced the other to something alien and abject. For there to be "an other" there must, however, also be a subject in a position to conclude the existence of "an other" — a subject who is in the sovereign position of proclaiming "otherness".

Decolonising the university speaks precisely to a destruction of this specific way of experiencing South Africa as non-Africans. The role of African thought, to follow Tsenay Serequeberhan, is to deconstruct the dichotomising logic, instilled by colonialism, which proceeds from the distinction between subject and object.

The point, however, is not simply to replace the pedagogically unjustified Western paradigms and curricula with a set of representative alternatives from the "global South". The African experience cannot be for the student in Africa simply an experience among others: it is, on the contrary, precisely the experience through which all other experiences are to be experienced. 

Breaking up forms of knowledge into sovereign entities unable to speak to each other is also just a continuation of the dichotomising logic of colonial education (them/us, developed/undeveloped). To theorise the South African experience is not to throw away the global, but it is also not to attempt to put everything South African into a European or American framework.

As students in Africa we cannot leave the university unable to explain or understand the phenomena that affect the majority of the society in which we find ourselves. A critical approach needs to be developed with which to engage South African issues without automatically disavowing everything that is not South African. A space for a "polylogue" should be developed in which these discussions can take place, with the university being unapologetically African while still being open and willing to engage meaningfully with different perspectives.

In South Africa, academic freedom should be understood as also containing a responsibility — a responsibility to engage with thoughts and trends that are from Africa and to present students with thoughts and trends that are African. We should engage our history, and the history of the world, in a critical way from our position as South African citizens.

Ndumiso Dladla and Terblanche Delport are completing their MA degrees in philosophy. They teach institutional philosophy in Pretoria, each on a different side of the hill — Dladla at Unisa and Delport at the University of Pretoria

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