The nationwide decolonisation campaign started by students in 2015 risks undermining the country’s higher education system and its capacity to support national development, a recent public discussion in Cape Town organised by the Centre for Conflict Resolution concluded.
Students should avoid playing into the hands of political elites who may seek to exploit their protests for their own limited ends with little care for the longer-term public good that universities can bring to the country, said Professor Nico Cloete, who holds posts at the universities of Oslo, the Western Cape and Stellenbosch. He nevertheless advised that university curricula, particularly in the humanities, need to be decolonised as a priority.
Fellow speaker Professor Rajendra Chetty, formerly of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), described the issue as a sociocultural problem among South African academics, who were unwilling to celebrate the heritage of African literature and were “disinclined to be Africans teaching African students”.
“They need to read new books, re-examine their world views and their histories and question their privilege,” he said during the discussion on Decolonisation or Development? The Role of Higher Education in South Africa.
Chetty, who is president of the English Academy of South Africa, laid much of the blame for the failure to change on what he described as “Eurocentric curricula” and at the door of the government. He said the ruling ANC had retained underlying structures of class exploitation and inequality and in effect silenced critical voices within the academic community by co-opting them.
Members of the audience also emphasised the sense that universities are alienating institutions, because they fail to address the needs of black students. One participant talked about how “part of our being” was excluded in higher education institutions.
The theme was highlighted by panellist Karabo Khakhau, president of the student representative council at the University of Cape Town, who talked about walking around her alma mater in an African blanket, hoping that “I won’t be looked at and thought of as someone who is primitive”.
She said knowledge acquired outside the context of socioeconomic and cultural realities was insufficient. She stressed the importance of science graduates, such as doctors and engineers, having to study some sociological thought, which would give them an understanding of the needs of the majority of South Africans.
She said she was shocked by the limited diversity among academic staff in the research hubs and the institutional culture of universities. She also reflected on the dominance of English as the language of learning, although it is only one of the country’s 12 official languages, including sign language.
But Cloete, who is the director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust and co-ordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, said #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protesters and their supporters should examine their own values and received ideas rather than just pointing fingers at white lecturers, demanding that they transform university curricula.
He stressed the importance of safeguarding the postgraduate capacity for original research in the context of a continent that produces only a fraction — 2% — of new global knowledge. He expressed concern that the decolonisation debate was failing to address broader issues of development.
Khakhau said that until South Africa’s higher education system produced African-centred knowledge that was internationally recognised, it would not have been properly decolonised.
Chetty, who is now a professor at the University of the Western Cape, spoke of the danger of universities being turned into “graduate factories” to satisfy the demands of business and the state.
Cloete identified contestation among national political elites in Africa as a crucial obstacle to the establishment of developmental states and comprehensive developmental programmes. He reflected on the fears of Martinican political philosopher Frantz Fanon, a popular author among student protesters, who foresaw a post-liberation political culture in which the new ruling classes assimilated the most corrupt forms of colonialism.
Cloete argued Fanon’s dystopian vision of the post-colony had been realised in South Africa under the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma, which raised the question: Why are the country’s students focusing their discontent on colonialist academics rather than the prime movers of the Fanonian nightmare, the government itself?
Given this, Cloete accused the student protesters of practising rent-seeking behaviour, noting that their call for universal free education would primarily benefit the rich and middle class, who constitute the majority of the cohort at South African universities. Only 1% of the poor go to university, Cloete said. “The poor’s problem is, in the first place, that they don’t go to university.”
Acknowledging the importance of decolonising curricula, Cloete urged policymakers and university leaders to think carefully about how best to handle the pressure for decolonisation and the tensions between the students and the state to prevent serious damage to the higher education system. Accordingly, he urged students to take greater intellectual responsibility for decolonising their institutions and themselves.
“A university is not meant to be a home; it is supposed to challenge your mind and confront you. If you are comfortable at university, you are already part of the bourgeoisie, living the good life. The university must confront you with your values and your ideas — and it is in that process that you decolonise and empower yourself,” Cloete said.
Chetty said the overarching objective of decolonial perspectives was to unmask hypocrisy and challenge what Martinican poet Aimé Césaire termed the fundamental European lie, which defined colonisation as a vehicle of civilisation. He described decolonisation as a revolutionary activity.
“We are now witnessing a counter-movement within students and civil society,” he said, noting that the number of cases of civil unrest in 2015 was higher than in the period that then apartheid defence minister PW Botha in 1977 described as a “total onslaught”.
Decrying the state’s militarised response and criticising university vice-chancellors for behaving like spaza owners, calling in private security to control student protesters, he called on academics to engage with social movements and education communities.
Similarly, Khakhau argued that decolonisation should not just be seen as the responsibility of the higher education institutions but also as a broader social and governmental responsibility.
“We have for a long time preached of a society in which everyone can belong,” she said. “But [the challenge is] how, in our daily living and experience, and in our policies, curricula and institutional cultures, [we can] ensure that this reality is manifested.”