Blame us Africans for neo­colo­nial­ism

CityPress - - Voices - Letepe Maisela voices@city­

The #FeesMustFall move­ment added a new de­mand to its calls for fee-free tu­ition by ad­vo­cat­ing the de­coloni­sa­tion of our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem. This seems pre­ma­ture, given that we Africans need to de­colonise our minds first.

Wikipedia de­fines de­coloni­sa­tion as “the un­do­ing of colo­nial­ism”. It was anti-apartheid ac­tivist and writer ex­traor­di­naire Steve Biko who pointed out that the most lethal weapon our erst­while op­pres­sors had in their arse­nal against Africans was the African mind.

It is amaz­ing how Africans, in par­tic­u­lar, have clung to a colo­nial cul­ture like drown­ing men to the branch of a tree. At the same time, they con­tinue to clam­our for de­coloni­sa­tion. The rea­son for this is trag­i­cally sim­ple: When colo­nial­ists left the con­ti­nent, they had en­trenched a colonised mind-set.

Ex­am­ples of this ig­no­ble legacy abound. Here are a few. Firstly, most African coun­tries and their sub­jects failed to ac­knowl­edge the re­la­tion­ship be­tween names and colo­nial­ism. So, even as the colo­nial­ists de­parted, the na­tives clung tena­ciously to the colo­nial names they were given. This also ap­plies to AfricanAmer­i­cans who, once legally freed from slav­ery in 1865, failed to re­vert to their orig­i­nal African names, which were erased by the slave masters.

Trav­el­ling through African coun­tries, now free from colo­nial rule, I am amazed at how the “freed” sub­jects have kept their colo­nial names. It is the height of ig­no­rance not to re­alise that by re­tain­ing th­ese names, Africans’ minds re­main colonised.

The spu­ri­ous rea­son given by colo­nial­ists and slave masters alike for this re­nam­ing was the dif­fi­culty they had in pro­nounc­ing their cap­tured sub­jects’ monikers. Hence, the cap­tors made en­cul­tur­a­tion easy while wip­ing out African her­itage. That it was an act of sub­ju­ga­tion, deny­ing peo­ple their hu­man dig­nity and iden­tity, is ob­vi­ous.

It is sad that now, cen­turies af­ter slav­ery and decades af­ter colo­nial­ism, this gen­er­a­tion still hangs colo­nial name tags around its neck. Angli­cised names are proudly passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, like a cal­abash of African beer, show­ing that we have yet to break the his­tor­i­cal ties of our bondage to our for­mer con­querors. It is sig­nif­i­cant to note that those con­querors, who were on our shores for cen­turies, never adopted African names.

A sec­ond as­pect of the legacy of slav­ery and colo­nial­ism is their ef­fect on our African cul­ture. Ad­mit­tedly, cul­ture is a dy­namic phe­nom­e­non, sub­ject to the vi­cis­si­tudes of time. But there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween a change oc­cur­ring nat­u­rally and the as­sault on African cul­ture by conquering forces. Some cul­tures were oblit­er­ated. The rea­son prof­fered by the colo­nial­ists for do­ing so: African cul­ture was “unChris­tian”.

So­ci­ol­o­gists place lan­guage at the epi­cen­tre of cul­ture. So, when the colo­nial­ists forced their sub­jects to learn Euro­pean lan­guages – as a power ploy as well as for ex­pe­di­ency – Africa’s cul­tures suf­fered. Ini­tially, th­ese sub­jects may have com­plied to en­sure their sur­vival, but so suc­cess­ful were those years of sup­pres­sion that to this day, many Africans re­tain the cul­ture of their for­mer sub­ju­ga­tors.

It never ceases to amaze me that in most African coun­tries, es­pe­cially in so-called Fran­co­phone and Por­tuguese Africa, in­hab­i­tants speak only one lan­guage – that left by their erst­while colonis­ers. It is no­table that French and English have since be­come en­trenched as the lin­gua fran­cas here and in the rest of the world. And we Africans per­pet­u­ate this. I can­not un­der­stand why African chil­dren are for­bid­den by their par­ents to learn their na­tive African tongue in favour of ac­quir­ing English or French. Com­pare this with of­fi­cial poli­cies in China and Ja­pan, where chil­dren re­tain their mother tongue and learn English or French at school.

An­other colo­nial habit adopted by our African gov­ern­ments and their sub­jects re­lates to life­style choice. The herbal plant, dagga, grows eas­ily in our back­yards and had been used for cen­turies in Africa for recre­ational and medic­i­nal pur­poses, long be­fore the colo­nial­ists came here. On their ar­rival, they re­alised that the friendly na­tives were al­ways high and happy on the stuff, so they duly crim­i­nalised it.

Dagga was de­clared to be a mind-bend­ing drug be­cause the colo­nial­ists could not com­mer­cialise and tax it, as any vil­lager could grow it among their crops in their back yards. The con­quer­ers banned dagga while si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­tro­duc­ing toxic, habit-form­ing sub­stances such as ni­co­tine and al­co­hol.

And, un­like cig­a­rettes and phuza, the jury is out on whether dagga is an ad­dic­tive sub­stance.

While African gov­ern­ments con­tinue to up­hold the colo­nial law ban­ning dagga, some of the same Euro­pean coun­tries from where colo­nial­ists hailed, such as the Nether­lands, have de­crim­i­nalised the weed. Oth­ers have fol­lowed suit. In the US, an in­creas­ing num­ber of states have come on board to de­crim­i­nalise the us­age and pos­ses­sion of dagga.

What is bound to en­sue is this: Lab­o­ra­to­ries over­seas will have a head start in ex­plor­ing the full medic­i­nal virtues of the herb, while here in Africa, where the weed orig­i­nated, au­thor­i­ties will con­tinue to raid vul­ner­a­ble vil­lagers and jail them for their home-grown in­dul­gence. The tox­i­c­ity con­tained in al­co­hol and cig­a­rettes, and their re­spec­tive health haz­ards, are gen­er­ally ig­nored by African gov­ern­ments, in yet an­other per­pet­u­a­tion of neo­colo­nial­ism.

This brings me back to the Fal­lists. De­colonis­ing our ed­u­ca­tion is daunt­ing, given that his­tor­i­cally, Africans have re­sisted shed­ding their colo­nial cloaks – even when free­dom was achieved. The colo­nial bag­gage is not easy for Africans to shed. And it will be all the more dif­fi­cult to de­colonise ed­u­ca­tion as it has since be­come a global com­mod­ity.

To­day ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion glob­ally equips one with knowl­edge that can be ap­plied uni­ver­sally, hence the term ‘uni­ver­sity’. So, be­fore we talk of de­colonis­ing our ed­u­ca­tion, let us start with free­ing our minds.

Maisela is a man­age­ment con­sul­tant and au­thor of the chil­dren’s book Thabo, the Com­puter and the Mouse


Wits Uni­ver­sity aca­demics protest in sup­port of #FeesMustFall stu­dents

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