The challenge of decolonisation: UCT's transformation journey

05 April 2016 | Story by Newsroom

By Max Price and Russell Ally

Since the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, UCT has been in the midst of a far-reaching change that will see a fundamentally different university emerge.

This change is part of a national dialogue taking place about higher education. While what happens nationally will have profound implications for UCT, how UCT deals with its own challenges will in turn influence the national debate. Indeed, the ramifications are international: when "Rhodes Fell' at UCT, it triggered a re-examination of our colonial legacy, not only in South Africa but also in the colonial heartland itself, Great Britain. On campuses around the world, heritage symbols, names and statues are being challenged and the invisibility of those who suffered, resisted and overcame those race- and slavery- based colonial systems of power is being highlighted.

What 'new UCT' will emerge is still contested. But what is indisputable is that the old UCT of white historical privilege is being transformed, if for no other reasons than history and demography.

Indeed, the very language that is used to describe the transformation process is contested. The language and content of “transformation” is argued by some to surreptitiously maintain the status quo against which the alternative of decolonisation has to be championed. The former, it is argued, is about reconciliation, redress, affirmative action to achieve equity, academic support programmes to counter the effects of schooling deficits, and ultimately the incorporation of those previously disadvantaged into the economic and power structures of society.

The latter, decolonisation, as a language of resistance has a long history in the struggle for human rights, equality and social justice. Because of the peculiarly South African phenomenon where the vast majority of the former colonial population became citizens, the term 'colonialism-of-a-special type' was developed to describe the particular form that the struggle for democracy would take in South Africa. In recent times, this language has been revived in the context of the institutional culture, symbolic representation, academic orientation, axes of privilege and black experience at UCT.

Decolonisation is not self-explanatory, nor unproblematic conceptually, and in the intensity of the challenges faced, it is easy to fall prey to either simplification or caricature. It should certainly not be reduced to some naïve atavistic desire to return to a pristine, unblemished Africa before the arrival of the settlers.

In its most radical form, it is presented in the polar opposites of white privilege and black pain; the exclusion and marginalization of 'black bodies' by white domination. The manifestation of this takes the form of a number of allegations: for instance, about the biased content of the curriculum celebrating white intellectual accomplishment; the calculated holding back of black academic promotion; the recurring toll of black financial and academic exclusions; or the outsourced exploitation of black workers.

This version of decolonisation is thus profoundly about race and pitches black liberation against 'whiteness' conceived as some homogenized form of identity defined mainly by the happenstance of pigmentation. As such, it risks polarization as it implicitly rejects non-racialism as a form of co-option limiting the engagement that is necessary if we are all to embrace transformation as a shared commitment.

Yet the call for decolonisation holds an essential and valid critique of the failure of transformation as conventionally understood to challenge old value systems, notions of what counts as excellence, or the validity of the old hegemonic cultural norms. We should not lose this by uncritically rejecting the paradigm and language of decolonisation.

If decolonisation can instead be viewed as an integral part of transformation which must involve not only an epistemological and intellectual paradigm shift, but also an internal personal willingness to interrogate our own value systems, prejudices and inherent assumptions about ourselves, our histories, cultures and convictions that are tied up with our identities, and also about the 'other', then just maybe the fall of Rhodes can begin to signify the re-emergence of UCT as a place for all of us. And if the critique of 'whiteness' can be understood as a rejection of the perpetuation of historical entitlement in all of its forms, then maybe (to paraphrase Joel Netshitenzhe) 'blackness' can transcend being 'defined by howls of pain in the face of a stubborn and all-encompassing racism' and instead 'position itself as an integral and equal part of humanity in dogged pursuit of excellence on a global scale'.

A task team at UCT has already begun the process of interrogating all the artwork and photographs in public spaces across the campus to consider and consult on what the university community as a whole would want to see celebrated, venerated and commemorated. This could begin a process of deep engagement and reflection on cultural diversity, affirming identity, and how to achieve an inclusive environments.

Furthermore, a Curriculum Planning Group has begun the process of conceptualising what decolonising a curriculum really means, and will develop some concrete examples in different disciplines for academics and students to debate.

A really meaningful and powerful gesture in this context would be for the university community as a whole agree to rename Jameson Hall, the University's iconic assembly and graduation venue, at the same time that it reconsiders the names of other buildings.

Renaming buildings and spaces should not be interpreted in any way as an attempt to erase our past; rather as a conscious effort to confront this past by neither being captive to it nor by being ignorant of it.

The outcome of such a process may yet surprise all of us. Because not only will we have to decide how we confront our past, but more fundamentally what future we want to inhabit.

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