The #RhodesMustFall protests have left the word “transformation” on everyone’s lips. But there is no one definition of transformation and many people can’t agree on what it means.
We postgraduate students in the political studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand asked ourselves: To what extent do we, as Africans, want to copy the West and its ideas in our studies? By whose standard do we judge ourselves, and why is there this constant focus on the West?
We live in Africa, yet our knowledge is largely composed of the ideas of Western white men. This is a problem and begs the question of what we value more. We are not saying the thoughts that come from the West are not valuable. But we are saying we know our own situations best and should strive to theorise and teach about our context using the work of scholars from Africa and the Global South.
For us, our process of transformation began at the end of 2014 and was unanimously agreed on. Like students from the University of Cape Town, we realised that if we wanted change, we would have to effect it ourselves. Our movement is very different to UCT’s. That said, each movement is based on the institutional culture of that university and has its own merit.
We wrote a “transformation memorandum” that highlighted four main concerns: the lack of black African staff, the lack of student representation in decision-making structures in the university, limited academic development and lastly, and, most importantly, poor African and Global South scholarship in our curriculum.
We gave suggestions to our departmental heads of potential courses and thinkers that could be taught. The point of the memorandum was not just to point out problems, but to offer viable solutions.
The fact that our department had not one black lecturer (that is, not including Indian and coloured people) was unfathomable. Many of us have been at Wits for five or six years, yet our lecturers were predominantly men (more often than not white men) teaching us the thoughts of Western thinkers. How are students meant to feel safe, understood and comfortable if they cannot see themselves in the people who lecture them, the buildings they sit in or the work they are taught?
The memorandum was received with mixed feelings. Some lecturers welcomed the initiative and criticisms and others were apprehensive. At the beginning of this year a meeting was attended by all postgraduate students and staff to discuss the memorandum, give the department feedback and pave a way forward.
As a result of the memorandum and meeting, a transformation working group has been established, consisting of students and staff, and its purpose is to create a sustainable body that oversees the process of transformation in the department.
The initiatives are twofold: initial and long-term. For now, we will host panel discussions and debates on numerous topics with academics and students. And we will establish a reading group that will read the works of scholars who are not part of the curriculum.
The long-term phase will research the process of transformation within Wits structures over a period of 10 years (including looking at Senate, professoriate, lecturers and staff) and this research will form part of academic articles that will be written by students and will tie in the readings done in the reading group.
In addition, it was suggested that there be a postgraduate student representative who will be the voice of all students in staff meetings and processes. Last, the department will implement changes to the courses currently on offer and add new courses. The new courses are: genealogies of Frantz Fanon (offered at postgraduate level); postcolonial studies; and black radical thought (offered at undergraduate level). The existing postgraduate course on feminism will be adjusted to focus on postcolonial feminism.
The main point is we will be moving from a Western dominated tenet to the inclusion of black African theorists. This means not only do we move away from the perspective of the oppressor but we also begin to legitimise African modes of thought and theory. Postcolonial studies are important because they are in direct opposition to Western theories of liberty and freedom. They grapple with the African experience of sovereignty and citizenship, for example.
Democracy in Africa is very different to what it is found elsewhere in the world and black radical thought is fundamental to understanding the foundation on which many black communities have made claims on space, power and recognition. People can only give superficial and often problematic views on uprisings in Africa and South Africa if they don’t know what black radicalism is.
In short, it is unacceptable for a 2015 politics graduate to not know who Archie Mafeje, Ali Mazrui, Ben Magubane and Zine Magubane are. We will only begin to produce truly African forms of knowledge when we build on the foundation of those who thought and theorised before us.
Regarding the feminism course, we first need to understand that women have mostly been left out of history and society and, when they fought for space in the public realm, the fight was done by white women for white women. White feminists left black women out of the feminist movement and later began to speak on their behalf about their experiences, instead of black women speaking for themselves.
Politics students need to learn that the experience of white suffragettes in the 1920s was nothing like the contemporary experience of patriarchy and misogyny that black African women experience. Hence, a postcolonial feminism course is imperative in articulating black African women’s experiences of oppression.
We recognise, however, these changes are not enough; we believe they are an important step towards substantial curriculum change.
There is an almost tangible sense of resignation about the way things are in South Africa’s universities. Many lecturers have been in their posts for a long time and have taught the same courses year after year. They are content. Why should they put in the effort to introduce new, thought-provoking material when they can merely regurgitate the same curriculum every semester?
But they must put this effort in if universities are to avoid being reduced to spaces that reproduce the apartheid-era notion of “apartness”.
Many students, unlike lecturers, are not content. We are not resigned to watching the same Eurocentric curriculum being consumed by generation after generation of South African students.
We can’t accept that, 20 years after liberation, universities still don’t reflect the country’s demographics when they should be a microcosm of the society in which they are located. Why do we have to fight and beg for an education that is all-encompassing and focuses on who we are, our history and situations?
A reformed pedagogy that addresses the South African experience will help heal the emotional and psychological scars left by the barbaric apartheid regime and will go a long way towards realising complete democracy.