Why Africa’s professors are afraid of colonial education being dismantled

A series of student protests in South Africa has thrown up a number of questions. Many of these are linked to the problem of decolonising institutions. And at least one implicates the country’s professoriate by asking: how do academics transcend Western knowledge systems and ways of learning in African universities?

This needs an urgent answer. The professoriate – not bureaucrats or administrators, but those who are at the coal face of academia – should provide thought leadership. But aren’t the students and their supporters asking too much from the professoriate? I pose this question because a large proportion of African university teachers are cut from the cloth of Western knowledge. As the philosopher Kwame Nkrumah observes in his book Consciencism, African intellectuals and professors are: “…anointed with a universalist flavouring which titillates the palate … so agreeably that they become alienated from their own immediate society.”

How, then, does a professoriate change the essence of its edifice?

Edifice of professorship
In most South African universities the professoriate is still almost entirely white. This is despite ongoing calls for “transformation” in the higher education sector – that is, in part, a change in the make-up of student bodies and the professoriate to better reflect the country’s demographics.

However, being white does not necessarily mean being anti-transformation. In the same way, being black is not synonymous with transformation. There are white professors whose sense of transformation is more remarkable than that of some black professors. So, reference to black and white is beyond pigmentation. It is, in the logic of the Black Consciousness philosophy, about a state of mind: ideas and attitudes that ought to underpin a strategic gaze to transformation.

This is not to underplay South African universities’ transformation imperative. The point I am making is simple: transformation of higher education generally in Africa and specifically in South Africa requires a professoriate with a decoloniality posture. Today, the transformation of higher education is increasingly being pursued through the prism of decoloniality.

But the continent’s professoriate is schooled largely in the white tradition. This imprinted the culture of whiteness in its making, which is not surprising. Western education in Africa as we know it is designed to proselytise blacks. African academics may be reluctant to repudiate their very make-up.

Creating a black professoriate
Tshilidzi Marwala, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, has agitated for the making of a black professor. But what constitutes a black professor? In trying to theorise, it’s worth invoking Steve Biko’s explanation from his celebrated book I Write What I Like: “…being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”

Black Consciousness philosophy introduces the concept of non-white, which means neither black nor white. This refers to the category of those whose “aspiration is whiteness”. Much of the African professoriate falls into this category, simply because its edifice is embedded in Western knowledge systems. What does this mean, in the context of Marwala’s pursuit? The making of a black professor is no easy task. It requires a revolution of the mind, which should draw insights from decoloniality theory.

A galaxy of scholarship
There is a body of knowledge from which the decoloniality discourse could draw theoretical and philosophical insights to spawn African knowledge systems. This galaxy of scholarship includes the works of, among others, Archie Mafeje, Dani Nabudere, Cheikh Anta Diop, Molefi Kete Asante and Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane.

In Nabudere’s words, Mafeje “tried to deconstruct structural functional Anthropology and attempted to construct a new research methodology that was free from … colonially inspired disciplines, within the wide social sciences discourses”.

Nabudere himself challenged the colonial theorisation of Africa. He sought to mainstream indigenous knowledge systems. Diop situated the origin of civilisation in Africa and, in the process, nullified German philosopher G.W.F Hegel’s contention that Africans do not have history.

Asante, meanwhile, aggregated pan-African thoughts into Afrocentricity. He described this as a paradigm that represents “a revolutionary shift in thinking proposed as a constructural adjustment to black disorientation, decentredness, and lack of agency.”

Magubane is best known for his work that untangled the political economy of race and class in South Africa. He also exposed the falsehood of colonial apartheid and liberal narratives of history. He asserted African perspectives in the centre of historical consciousness.

The works of these scholars are important for theoretical insights into decoloniality.

Heed students’ calls
But, how much does a professoriate engage with this body of knowledge in their curricula development endeavours? I am asking this question to caution against decoloniality becoming an ideological rhetoric for student activism rather than cause for knowledge revolution.

These questions are relevant because, as academic Ziauddin Sardar puts it, “the real power of the West is not located in its economic muscles and technological might. Rather, it resides in the power to define.” Those who refuse to conform are “defined out of existence”. Most African academics have accepted the definitions and prescriptions of the West as the template of their world outlook. This is a defeatist posture. Or perhaps it’s cowardice?

The professoriate must heed the multiple cues of the millennial generation’s activism, particularly when it comes to decolonising university curricula. If it doesn’t, it won’t be the West that defines Africa’s professoriate out of existence – it will be they, themselves.

Mashupye Herbert Maserumule, Professor of Public Affairs, Tshwane University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

DA’s policy proposals are counter-transformative

The DA is stuck in classical liberalism when there are new ways of thinking about capitalism and the role of the state - and its denial of race as a concept is disingenuous

The Portfolio: Tommy Busakhwe

Photographer Tommy Busakhwe, a participant in the Communities of the Kalahari Advocacy Project, uses his camera to tell stories of home, land and the people who live and work on it

Inclusion boosts the bottom line

New research shows that while South African organisations have made strides in achieving greater diversity and transformation, too many people still feel excluded in workplaces – and this has significant consequences for productivity and company performance

Use African languages to promote learning

The use of English in lectures can alienate and silence students because they feel inadequate

The fable of SA’s special economic zones

The country is being pushed to develop more SEZs. But is this a viable strategy, given unemployment and ‘deglobalisation’?

Transformative leadership is about building relationships

Universities across the globe are adapting to a changing world. It’s crucial that leaders set a good example

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday