Decolonisation is not unique to South Africa

05 January 2015

Assoc Prof Pumla Gqola
Wits University

Decolonising our universities requires mindfulness of our contexts and location in history. It requires that we confront quite directly what it means to be a university in Africa today, beyond the jargon, beyond saying things like 'a leading, world-class African university'. It requires that we interrogate the anxiety in qualifying 'African university' with 'world-class'.

There is another aspect of the 'decolonisation' debate which has received less attention, but which, in my view, is the most important: we seem to have forgotten that the entire curriculum structure is part of our colonial inheritance. The three year bachelor's degree is not a universal norm. Many countries around the world - including the US and China - have a four-year undergraduate degree. Hong Kong in 2012 shed its colonial curriculum structure to align itself with China and the US. The problem with the three-year degree in South Africa is that it makes assumptions about what it means to be prepared for university - which, if one looks at the national data on drop-out rates, are patently not true.

We pretend that the only intellectual traditions that exist come from the European and American academies. A more historicised and attentive orientation is needed towards intellectual traditions from Latin America and the rest of Africa, where the same discussions we're having today were had in the 1960s and 1970s. These discussions led to transformed universities where you can barely recognise what the colonial academy looked like. The fact that we are having these kinds of conversations in southern Africa as though they are new, stems precisely from our inability to engage, think about, read and take on board what it means to exist in ways that mark us as decolonised, African universities.

We don't have to think of these traditions because we don't know about them. We don't know about them because the very disciplines responsible for transformation do not teach them. In a staggering display of wilful ignorance we continue to have conversations that have already been had as though we had just discovered them. A decolonised university would allow us to understand that conversations and theorisations about decolonisation have a strong foothold in Latin America, in Native American thought and in various traditions of South Asian thought, and that they have transformed other academies on the very continent on which we find ourselves. We cannot be an African university, a world-class university, when to think about Africa is to think about South Africa.

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25 May 2015

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