Owning UCTʼs african identity

04 November 2022
Khoi and San land cleansing ceremonies were held at three locales  on UCT’s campuses, led by the A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum.  The rituals are an important part of the Khoi and San spiritual  heritage, with a restorative significance at UCT.
Khoi and San land cleansing ceremonies were held at three locales on UCT’s campuses, led by the A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum. The rituals are an important part of the Khoi and San spiritual heritage, with a restorative significance at UCT.

How is the university centring its African identity through scholarship, teaching and learning practices, or activist initiatives?

Owning UCT's African Identity
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What is being tested?

Integration Afrocentric actions H.1 Actions taken which adopt an Afrocentric lens, centre the African continent, or critically respond to UCT’s African identity within curriculum, pedagogy, research, through workshops, trainings or discussions, co- or extra-curricular activities, through supporting international students and challenging xenophobia within the learning environment.

What does the benchmark reveal?

In parallel to benchmark D (Place and Space), this benchmark focuses on centring the African continent and employing and Afrocentric lens within UCT. Many departments reported achieving this benchmark, however it’s important to question the impact of these actions. For example, do actions critically engage with the complexity and vastness of the African continent? Do actions meaningfully unpack the dynamics of power and violence within the African continent as is apparent in patriarchal, homophobic and transphobic practices; undemocratic governance practices; or violence fuelled by socio-economic disparities? These are some of the questions that can assist in making sense of the actions taken under this benchmark.


Several departments and faculties centred UCT’s African identity through research initiatives, Heritage Day discussions or through integrating Afrocentric content into teaching and learning.


Many of these efforts didn’t critically engage with UCT’s African identity, and focused on African identity solely through events such as Heritage Day, while others included African content in courses without challenging Euro-American epistemic and pedagogical practice.


Across UCT, many programmes and interventions have a specific focus on Africa and attempt to recentre content through the lens of Africa as an epistemic location. Entities reported the following actions:

  • Several entities reported activities that prioritise Afrocentric research, by African researchers tackling African problems. This was done through partnering with African institutions or working through networks which enable collaboration across the continent.
  • Career Services and IAPO work in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Programme to support scholars from various African countries. The programme aims to create transformative leaders through volunteering, mentorship and leadership development activities. This programme and other efforts to support African students and staff are an acknowledgement of the skills, capabilities and lived experiences African students and staff bring to and offer UCT.
  • The Centre for Comparative Law in Africa was established in 2011 to promote the study of the diversity of legal cultures in Africa and draw on the strengths of comparative methodology to research the multifaceted field of law in Africa.
  • Entities also highlighted cultural activities marking events such as Heritage Day and Africa Month as examples of efforts to highlight cultural diversity, and challenge Afrophobia and xenophobia.

Who contributed tothis benchmark?

Seven faculties and five non-academic departments contributed to this benchmark.

How effective were the actions?

This benchmark aims to capture how the university is centring its African identity through scholarship, teaching and learning practices, and activist initiatives. In 2021, UCT achieved this benchmark through prioritising Afrocentrism in research, supporting African students and hosting cultural activities to mark Africa Day and other important celebrations. While some of these actions (such as the focus on research) are likely to critically engage the African continent and African epistemic practices, others – such as marking Africa Day – are unlikely to have the same level of critical impact. In addition, while UCT does support a small number of students from other African countries to study at UCT, this doesn’t take away from the grossly xenophobic context, in the form of regressive legal practices towards foreign nations and xenophobic social and behavioural norms.


Efforts that seek to centre UCT’s African identity need to do so in a critical manner. In order to better meet this benchmark, UCT’s own positionality needs to be acknowledged, so that its efforts to centre its African identity disturb rather than accept systems of power on the African continent.

An example of a good practice

The Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) African Epistemologies Advanced Seminar Series: The African Epistemologies Advanced Seminar Series aimed to showcase African knowledge systems and traditions, especially those not granted adequate visibility or centrality in hegemonic academic curricula. African and Africanist philosophers are prominently featured, but overall, the series encompassed an interdisciplinary orientation. Apart from the central themes of African philosophy, the series also invited speakers to reflect on the questions of African feminisms, pan-Africanism, race, interculturality and the conundrums of protohistory.

Institutional transformation projects: The A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum

The forum is based at the Centre for African Studies and provides a platform to centre indigenous knowledge and activism. The A/Xarra Forum established a Khoekhoegowab Curriculum Review Committee to guide the rollout of Khoekhoegowab language teaching on an ongoing basis and to situate the programme centrally within a decolonial pedagogical online framework. The online course was a first of its kind in socially responsive teaching in higher education in South Africa during COVID-19. While most of the participants were from the Cape Metro, the programme attracted interest from as far as Barrydale, Swellendam, George, Oudsthoorn and Gauteng, which really expanded the outreach of the language offering.

Attempting to critically engage with African identity in a context where there are diverse perspectives and romanticised notions can be difficult. At UCT sometimes the easier option is taken – that is using cultural and celebration days to share food and dress, and in so doing, connecting across differences and possibly building solidarity. While these events are useful, they do not often lead to critical engagement on Africanness or reflect on the power dynamics at play within the continent. To create an environment in which UCT owns its African identity, it’s important for programmes and actions to encourage a deep reflection and response to Africa’s unique challenges and innovations. This would involve stronger partnerships with African institutions (as has emerged in 2021), which contribute to advocacy and activism in addition to research, teaching and learning.

Warning Signs

Warning signs

In the first three years of capturing data on the benchmarks, entities reported meeting 55–90% of the Owning UCT’s African Identity benchmark requirements. While on paper this looks positive, it’s important to appreciate that the criteria of this benchmark are vague and therefore easier to meet, and the quality of the actions varies vastly across entities. Work in this area needs to be meaningful rather than a tick-box exercise.



While the above challenges are present, there are several hopeful sparks of change. For example, the focus on African epistemologies (HUMA), Afrocentric research (the FHS and others) and supporting African students are all hopeful sparks of change.


Transformative awakening

The focus on Afrocentric research is emerging in different spaces within the university simultaneously. If these initiatives connect, share knowledge and resources, the overall impact at UCT can be greater.


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