Academics need to respond to the needs of their communities, writes Vuyisile Msila.
The Rhodes Must Fall Campaign ignited so many debates that questioned the culture of African institutions this year. Many role-players also started posing relevant questions and discussing why all African institutions need an African philosophy. Why an African philosophy at a higher education institution?
Aren’t these institutions supposed to cover more than this, one colloquium participant asked flippantly three months ago, much to the disdain of many in the audience.
Over decades I have noted that when it comes to African philosophy or related fields, people pose many questions that betray their derision. For many of these folks, there is nothing wrong with Greek mythology or German Classics and ancient Western philosophies. These have paradoxically become part of modernity, yet studying anything African “stalls civilisation as it takes us back a few centuries”.
There are numerous institutions of higher learning that have been complicit as they ignored an agenda to include the African philosophies in their curricula. Some may introduce that one course or module that deals with elementary Sesotho or isiNdebele and will vouch that their curricula are transformed and Africanised. On the one hand, this can be a naïve and sometimes innocent belief that they have indeed Africanised. On the other, though, it is a deliberate malicious intent to exclude the real Africanisation agenda.
The major challenge to many institutions of higher learning has been the need for African universities to respond to the challenges of the continent. There are still a few who try to move beyond theory. African institutions do not just need one module in African philosophy. The philosophy should cut through their modules across the curricula; otherwise the practice will be a farce.
Yet, one cannot ignore the fact that there are still many in the academia who disparage African philosophies and question these as oddities that have no place in any institution seeking global diversification. With the challenges that African philosophies encounter, one has to applaud the institutions that have just discovered the existence and the need for these African philosophies.
The realisation that we have to nurture an African university can never be underestimated. However, the quagmire that our universities get into as they attempt to Africanise is threefold. The first one is involving the community, second, there is the research agenda that needs to be followed and the critical time at which to sensitise our students on Africanisation.
In most cases our higher education is dead as it fails to respond to the needs of the communities living in the African landscape. There is a tendency by academics to believe that the communities are peripheral to what is happening within the higher education institutions. The academics may believe that they are the sole authority who ought to jealously lead the development of curricula. Nothing can be further from the truth. If our institutions of higher learning should embrace Africanisation, they need to start with the communities, because understanding what the communities want is among the best ways in addressing the issues of relevance.
Rural universities in Africa for example should be able to know how to connect with the communities by assessing what the community needs are. Some rural campuses are far from cities and the communities around have special needs such as preservation of water and community health research. The universities should have programmes that address these and similar challenges. But this also needs one to have an understanding of how African communities work because in many cases people have to negotiate entry into villages through the chiefs, hence this then requires the understanding of the African set-up.
Second, the idea of relevant research is crucial for all African universities. On a theoretical level, there are still numerous African institutions that would like to reincarnate their systems to learn towards Africanised philosophies. However, they still find it hard to define what their African philosophies entail. The paradox of many in African institutions is the need for them to be re-Africanised after years of being enmeshed in exclusive Western values.
More researchers have to take it upon themselves to lead in curriculum reform that would ensure that African models in research form part of the curriculum. Where there is no literature, universities need to create these through meticulous research. There should also be practical research to address challenges such as malaria, farming and planting. There are many other challenges which include corrupt governments, running democratic elections and how to merge traditional aspects and Western models. African universities should lead in these areas.
Moreover, education remains the uppermost important factor that can change countries’ economies and future. Research all over Africa should endeavour to find ways of critically engaging role-players on to how to better education. Frequently, universities try to introduce African philosophies to students at university. If the students are fortunate, there may be a chapter in a module that deals with African philosophy. Again, if they are lucky, they may get an entire course on this philosophy. However, this is where the problem lies, for it may be late to teach African philosophy for the first time at university. Schools should begin the journey of empowering the pupils in African philosophies. By the time the students reach university, they need to have a full understanding of what it means to be an African.
The irony of introducing African philosophy for many African institutions of higher learning is that this will shock the system as it transforms embedded institutional cultures.
One author speaks of the need to reincarnate institutions of higher learning. Reincarnation may mean rebirth and revitalisation of an African ethos. Indigenous languages struggle in African universities, yet African institutions of higher learning are supposed to reflect the cultures of the continent rather than exclusive Anglo-Saxon traditions. The late Russel Bot from the University of Stellenbosch once spoke of the need for multilingualism in African institutions, a picture that would portray what Bot called “an Ubuntu of languages”.
African higher education institutions are still battling to achieve this. They ought to be a beacon of hope to Africa’s rebirth and, unfortunately, we still have to achieve this. In the 1940s Anton Lembede spoke of the need for an African spirit that would be informed by the culture and history of Africa that we all need for a rebirth.
* Professor Msila is head at Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.