South Africa is battling to free itself from “arrested decolonisation”, a term coined by Nigerian academic Professor Biodun Jeyifo.
It is struggling to transcend and learn from the legacies of colonialism and apartheid. Perhaps nowhere is the deferral of decolonisation more apparent than in the tertiary institutions.
There has been a blatant failure to decolonise and transform the academic curriculum, and this has resulted in the fractious atmosphere at universities. This, though, is just one among other problems besetting universities in post-apartheid South Africa — tuition fees, outsourcing jobs, securing places in student residences, racial discrimination, language of instruction, the possibility that the ANC-led government, which is facing allegations of corruption and misgovernance, has a fight on its hands — as do the administrative and managerial hierarchies at the universities.
It is also important to draw attention to the excesses of the mostly “born-free” generation that comprises the #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall movements. Many of them act as if they feel the lash and pain of oppression more deeply than those who actually suffered during apartheid. The noisy, impetuous types in these movements are sometimes wilfully wrongheaded, ill-advised, pompous and self-righteous in the arrogant certainty of the “my way or the highway” attitude that they bring to bear upon the way they conduct themselves or treat others — for example, denying white students (and staff) the right to ask questions at gatherings because they are perceived, simplistically, as the oppressor or descendants of the oppressor in a post-apartheid dispensation.
Many seem blithely ignorant of the basic fact that not all white students and staff are against them and not all black students and staff are for them.
There is also the reality that the successful attempt by #RhodesMustFall to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from the entrance to Upper Campus, University of Cape Town on April 9 2015 was a symbolic gesture, even if a victory for the student protest movement, because it has not yet guaranteed real change and transformation.
“Tell me,” an interlocutor once asked in an online conversation, “how can you ‘decolonise’ universities when there were no universities in Southern Africa prior to colonisation? And how will you ‘decolonise’ medical science? And physics and chemistry? And engineering? And evolutionary biology? And geology? Please tell me how you will drop ‘Western thought’ from these disciplines? Name one university in sub-Saharan Africa prior to colonisation.”
That interlocutor is surely not alone in harbouring such presumptions.
The suggestion that there was no university in sub-Saharan Africa before colonisation is spurious and disingenuous. Just as Africa had a plurality of histories and cultures before colonisation, it also had centres and institutions of learning. One university in sub-Saharan Africa prior to colonisation was the University of Sankore, Timbuktu (in the old Mali empire), which, in about the 12th century, could command an attendance of 25 000 students in a city of 100 000 people. It is reputed to be the world’s first and oldest university, and Timbuktu, the ancient city that is home to the historic Sankore University, was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1988.
Nevertheless, those questions and the answers they require are more significant today than they have ever been. We are living in a post-colonial, post-apartheid period and are dealing, for better or worse, with the legacies of colonialism and apartheid. We are also compelled to reach further back into history to understand the damage, both material and psychological, that decades, if not centuries, of oppression have done to Africa and its sense of self and subjectivity, agency and autonomy.
Over the course of the 20th century, it has fallen to writers and thinkers from Africa and its diaspora to break through centuries upon centuries of psychological damage wrought by slavery, racism and colonialism, and to offer a discursive contestation of the hegemony of Western discourses — discourses constructed by racist, colonialist European thinkers from Hegel to Hugh Trevor-Roper, who claimed Africa had no history or heritage.
The likes of WEB DuBois, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, CLR James, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amílcar Cabral, Wilson Harris, George Lamming, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Walter Rodney, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Steve Biko and a host of others embraced the responsibility of theorising, with varying degrees of insight and foresight, on Africa and the diaspora, history and colonial modernity, anti-colonial resistance and the colonised psyche, race and historical trauma.
Another, more urgent kind of contestation might start in any number of places, depending on its nature and scope. In a world of ever-increasing interconnection, hybridisation and globalisation, an important area of research is concerned with how disciplinary knowledge is constituted and disseminated in the institutional site of the university in Africa.
To decolonise and transform the academic curriculum in universities, it is important to first define the objects of study and modes of inquiry, the conceptual and theoretical anchors which constitute the formative and foundational core of the disciplines. It is equally important to record and recognise the discursive hegemony of specific paradigm shifts which silence, erase or delegitimise other possible narratives, other ways of being or modes of thought.
It is necessary to interrogate the assumptions and, yes, even the subliminal prejudices that underpin the practices and protocols of disciplinary knowledge production so as to critique the establishment of such hegemony for what it excludes or treats as minor, as opposed to what it includes or treats as major and worthy of academic recognition.
By the decolonisation and transformation of the disciplines, one does not advocate the abolition of Western knowledge, but the curricular and disciplinary recognition of African and other non-Western modes of knowledge and thought alongside already entrenched Western thought — a curriculum that draws on thought and knowledge production from Africa and the West in a cross-fertilisation that is meaningful and beneficial on the continent and beyond. Disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, economics, history, English and literature in English, philosophy and sociology are still largely defined and designed through the prism of Europe in particular or the West in general.
What one is arguing against is Africa as something primitive or other; as anonymity, silence, erasure.
Even subject areas such as medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology and geology need to be studied or taught in a way that, while establishing the facts and features of their disciplinary formations, should demonstrate, in the first instance, a relevance and resonance for the students and scholars from the continent. There should be no harm, for example, in acknowledging the efficacy and legitimacy of African traditional medicine, alongside Western medical science.
One way to decolonise the general discipline of medicine is to encourage and facilitate experiments with certain plants, herbs, shrubs, leaves, roots and stems that have been proven to be effective as panaceas for particular illnesses — through iteration, reiteration or the repeatability of different results over a period of time. The same principle of tests and experiments involved in determining the efficacy and legitimacy of different kinds of Western medicine would apply in demonstrating similar cause and effect in African traditional medicine.
Western modes and forms of knowledge are important, but they are not the only valid or viable kinds; other forms of modern knowledge and thought, just as advanced and even groundbreaking, are available in cultures and civilisations the world over.
Modern universities require syllabuses and curriculums that reflect not intellectual insularity but a formation, as well as a dissemination, of disciplinary knowledge that is enriching and enterprising, plural and protean — a rich and rewarding conceptualisation of the disciplines.
Idowu Omoyele is a student at the Graduate School in Humanities at the University of Cape Town