/ 24 August 2015

Birth pangs of an African meritocracy

(Leon Nicholas)
(Leon Nicholas)

In a piece headed “ To make hope and history rhyme, listen” (Getting Ahead, July 3), Firoz Khan wrote in the language of the younger revolutionaries,

for whom the old guard of the liberation movement has, for the most part, been willingly co-opted by the white establishment into the empty concept of a rainbow nation, in which reconciliation must happen without redress.

The key word in Khan’s essay is “redress”, which acknowledges something was done incorrectly and must be put right.

The question is: What exactly must be put right? At the root of the South African problem has always been a small group of people who want wealth, income and power to be concentrated in their hands, without proper justification.

At the base of that edifice of privilege is the concentration of advanced knowledge, which in turn seeks to set the level of imagination, ambition and aspiration for the entire society. This is where the South African universities, by and large, come in.

The bulk of South Africa’s black majority has been advised and indoctrinated to believe all valid knowledge and wisdom comes from white people, and more particularly that the base of all sound knowledge is Western philosophy and the European-style university.

You cannot be erudite unless you can rattle off three or four quotes from Western scholars to validate whatever you want to say.

If we take this line of thought, we must intentionally forget that even the British Empire and the English language were preceded in history by great African philosophers and empires that supported the rise of Greek philosophy and scholarship, as Molefe Kete Asante argues.

Yet white people would want us to believe that they are the parents of scholarship and that Western epistemology entered African minds that were blank.

There was apparently no knowledge, ethics or wisdom in Africa until they came.

Western scholarship and Western philosophy are not the only system of knowledge creation.

There is robust Asian philosophy, in its multifaceted variety, which has decolonised itself and produced top-performing economies and sophisticated societies, at a time when Europe is in total crisis.

African societies are varied and have their own rich history of sophistication, starting with Zimbabweans and Ghanaians.

Even Nelson Mandela drew from the philosophies of the abaThembu, just as much as Oliver Tambo drew from the philosophies of Eastern Mpondoland, to achieve democracy in South Africa.

The first step in redress is to put African philosophy, scholarship

and literature at the centre of any university on African soil, in a manner that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has argued since the 1960s – and, I believe, Kwesi Prah is also agitating for this in his own way.

It is also important to understand the priority of universities: Is it to win accolades in Western ranking systems, or actually to produce graduates who create a sophisticated society that reverses inequality in terms of wealth, income and power, while raising access to high quality, accessible higher education?

If our engineers can run factories, make trains go and our lights come on, then who cares if we are ranked in the top 100 or the top 2 000?

It is in those circumstances that black students will excel – when the philosophy and the nature of how problems are identified and solved is Afrocentric and community-focused. Then we will be able to measure true academic merit and social impact.

It is also a statistical fact that,

just as a matter of natural progression, within the next 20 years, the top students in all degrees and all years of study will be black.

Similarly, the symbols of excellence that were defined at the centre of the British Empire – at Oxford, Cambridge and by the British royals – must not be the ones that inspire our students.

Instead, African achievers and scholars need to be the ones our youth see on their campuses and whose works they study. I think of the likes of Ali Mazrui, Archie Mafeje, Es’kia Mphahlele, Loyiso Nongxa, Jakes Gerwel, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

African universities must be thoroughly African and based on merit. The current system is rigged: it seeks to maintain the privileges of apartheid’s elites and the nouveau riche.

The two groups in South Africa that have claimed privilege and inherent racial supremacy, in various guises, are the Afrikaners and those of British descent.

This needs close scrutiny and must, in fact, be negated – because both groups flourished in the past 400 years, and they have done so through violence, not merit.

A large number of Afrikaners were second-class citizens when they went to the polls in the 1948 election, and they had to retard black education aggressively and create the colour bar and so on in order to advance themselves, as the University of Cape Town’s Professor William H Hutt has cogently argued.

All in all, black students and black academics must be aware that the current elites have enjoyed privilege for at least the past 80 years in South Africa universities.

It will take daily, uncompromising struggle and sophisticated tactics to dislodge this unjustified privilege and create true meritocracies – where, indeed, the doors of learning and culture are opened to all.

Black students must flood all our universities. They must be intent on taking up and keeping professorships, so they can drive the African renaissance from within – and flood Africa with advanced knowledge in all disciplines.

Sandile Swana is an independent ICT entrepreneur, who teaches municipal finance part-time at Wits Business School. The views expressed here are his own