Blame us Africans for neocolonialism
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