Cheering students surround the decades old bronze statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed from the campus at the University of Cape Town. AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
Cheering students surround the decades old bronze statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed from the campus at the University of Cape Town. AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

Time to decolonise our universities

By Shose Kessi Time of article published Apr 12, 2015

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Removing a statue is not enough to transform UCT. It needs a fresh way of thinking, with African knowledge at the centre, writes Shose Kessi.

Universities are key institutions in society. The thinking and research that take place in these institutions is closely linked to how we understand and participate in society.

Therefore, a discussion about the transformation of universities must be in the light of the society in which they are found.

It follows that the transformation at the University of Cape Town should be closely linked to broader social change.

As role-players in this university and as active participants in this city, country and continent, it is incumbent on us to engage with transformation and determine what we mean by it.

As a starting point, I suggest a change in the discourse of transformation. Instead of transformation, what we should be speaking of is the “decolonisation” or “Africanising” of UCT and other institutions of higher learning. As Professor Mahmood Mamdani observed, in Africa we have built many universities, but none are African.

The reality is that the transformation discourse serves to sanitise, normalise, or conceal oppressive practices. When we speak of decolonisation, it becomes obvious why Rhodes must fall, whereas “transformation” inserts doubt or the possibility of “dialogue” into what are clearly cultural symbolisms of oppression and violence.

By talking of a decolonised university, we highlight the historical legacies of capitalism, racism and patriarchy as intrinsic to UCT culture and practices and we foreground the need to break from this past. It is to this that Professor Ali Mazrui pointed, saying that African universities are “colonial in origin, disproportionately European in traditions” and “the major instruments and vehicles of cultural Westernisation on the continent”.

By talking of an African university, we move away from Eurocentric theorising and locate ourselves in a national and regional context that centres the African and African knowledge and practices as vital to human relationships and growth.

Recent events surrounding the #RhodesMustFall campaign have reinvigorated this drive. This movement is not just about a statue but about the need to decolonise the institutional culture and practices of the university more broadly.

Black academics, students and staff have been involved in a series of conversations about what it is we mean when we speak of decolonisation. Central to these conversations have been ideas about what a decolonised university would look like and what the role of the university is in decolonising society at large.

Universities, and in particular university students, have been and continue to be central in driving social change within the institution and in society. Change at UCT must be tied closely to change in our society.

Emerging from the conversations at UCT, a particular focus that resonated with me was the legacy of violence – economic, political, cultural, psychological and epistemic violence. We live in contexts characterised by vast differences in access to resources, where competition and conflict are pervasive and palpable.

Economic poverty, health concerns such as HIV/Aids, malaria and Ebola outbreaks, gender-based violence, xenophobia and racism are all manifestations of the historical power dynamics that have given rise to social inequalities and which have created the contexts for poverty, discrimination and violence to flourish.

These forms of violence are key issues that universities should be addressing.

Suren Pillay, one of the scholars participating in these conversations, mentioned the centrality of epistemic violence as one that facilitates all other forms of violence. This is because when we can think of “others” as less than human, then it is possible to act towards them in dehumanising ways.

Our disciplines, whether psychology, anthropology, engineering or law, etc, have historically prioritised thinking and practices that legitimised apartheid and colonisation. In other words, universities focused on theories, methods and projects that served the interests of the dominant and the privileged.

Therefore this epistemic violence, which is at the heart of the modern university, is also at the heart of how we understand and intervene in social inequalities and conflict, and social change.

It is our task as scholars and role-players in this institution to rethink the role of our university in relation to our social context.

Is the knowledge that we produce relevant to the societies in which we live? Is it serving those who are most marginalised in society or does it serve to further marginalise and oppress?

Many scholars have argued that approaches to learning should value and prioritise the experiences and knowledge of those who are marginalised in society. These questions point directly to questions of decolonising UCT and the role of academics, students and staff in this institution. Our ability to participate in and generate research that can reshape this society depends on our ability to be recognised for our lifestyles, knowledge and world views.

A decolonised university is one that explores the linkages between what is globally recognised as academic knowledge in relation to the everyday experiences of black people in this institution, and the everyday experiences of the vast majority of people in this country and continent. Indeed the experiences of blacks at UCT point to feelings of alienation that affect academic scholarship and aspirations.

A shift in the discourse from transformation to decolonisation opens up new possibilities for thinking. It would shift the discourse on standards and excellence away from ideas of blackness compromising the university and black students and staff needing to catch up with white colleagues.

Our engagement should be premised on a discourse of standards and excellence that is contextualised and which resonates with the needs and conditions of black people. Instead of our professional competencies being measured through our visibility in “international” journals for example, usually Euro-American journals, our recognition as black and African scholars should be the extent to which our research impacts on the decolonisation and transformation of our societies.

Instead of presenting “academic freedom” as an ahistorical, value-free and neutral concept, academic freedom should be contextualised and emerge through the relationship between academic knowledge and the knowledge of people located on the margins of society: young people, women, LGBT people, the disabled, the economically and politically disenfranchised, or those who have suffered displacement and other forms of oppression.

Recentring the discourse and re-centring Africa would then necessarily lead to structural and practical questions, such as: what kind of research is prioritised and recognised? Who decides on research ethics and how are they decided upon?

Fundamentally, too, we can talk about who teaches, what is taught, how it is taught. Alongside that, we can talk about who is taught and for whom or for what purpose.

We can interrogate our conception of governance, such as asking what type of management structures or lines of accountability facilitate or impede the project of decolonisation.

The low number of black academics at UCT is unacceptable. Compounding this is that there are departments that do not have a single black South African academic. Such facts highlight the slow pace of change and the need for a renewed commitment.

One explanation for this slow pace is that what we call “transformation” at UCT tends to take place through short-term and piecemeal projects, such as Kuluma, rather than as a global project that is central to all institutional practices.

Other projects do not target black academics specifically, such as the new academic practitioners’ programme, the emerging researcher or the programme for the enhancement of research capacity, which are often cited as examples of transformative practices.

What we need to work towards is a comprehensive and collaborative process of decolonising our institutions.

Given the momentum generated by the #RhodesMustFall campaign, in particular the central role of students, an organised group of black academics and the participation of organised labour at the university, UCT – with the support of its alumni and as one of the leading institutions on this continent – should continue to take a leadership role in this process.

* Kessi is senior lecturer in social psychology at UCT and a founding member of TransformUCT: The Black Academics Caucus. This is an edited version of her talk given at the black alumni panel discussion at UCT on April 7.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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