Universities enmeshed in the fabric of colonialism

05 January 2015

Assoc Prof Zine Magubane
Van Zyl Slabbert Visiting Chair, Boston College, US

Why is it necessary that we not speak of transformation, but decolonisation? Often these terms are used interchangeably. Although they are quite obviously interrelated, they speak of two different aspects of what must happen to the university in a postcolonial age.

Universities not only emerged in and through the colonial moment, but the disciplines (housed within them) were constituted as forms of colonial knowledge. This means the conditions of their emergence were often predicated upon a search for knowledge that was part and parcel of the colonial project.

When we talk about the decolonisation of the university, the first impulse must be one of deconstruction. That is the moment we are in now. It is the moment where we explicitly acknowledge the importance and the centrality of colonialism in the construction of the disciplines. We look seriously at the ways our theories, methods and practices are deeply implicated as colonial forms of knowledge. It must be a project of recognition - in other words, of allowing the conversation to happen. We are in a preliminary moment of decolonisation where it can be spoken about, since one of the main ways in which colonialism operates is to continually deny its own presence.

This space-clearing gesture of allowing the knowledge of the implication of colonialism in universities must be followed by a process of reconstruction. When one speaks of transformation it may be possible to think you can keep things as they are and simply add in. I'll add in African studies. I'll add in gender studies. I'll add in queer theory. I'll add in women, black and queer people. Decolonisation is to fundamentally and rigorously examine the types of practices – academic, cultural and social – that have been part and parcel of why certain persons have had to be brought back into the university.

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