George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.
IRECENTLY attended a most successful and interesting Conference of the South African Law Teachers Association at Swakopmund in Namibia. One of the important issues that emerged from the conference proceedings was the challenge presented by “decolonisation”.
Although the term has transpired to be mired in considerable controversy, it has become part of our social, political and educational discourse relating to transformation.
Informed political commentators accept that genuine transformation is essential for the health and survival of democracy in South Africa. All things considered, it is apposite to use the term decolonisation in this regard.
It is also submitted that an intelligent and informed debate on decolonisation in relation to tertiary education should be beneficial for the process of transformation in South Africa.
Decolonisation must obviously amount to much more than merely changing the names of buildings and the removal of statues from university campuses.
It must of necessity involve a process of renewal and regeneration that impacts profoundly on the curricula, content of courses, language and management of the universities so as to reflect the ethos of African universities that serve the interest and needs of all our people.
This will require a process and most certainly cannot be attained instantaneously.
If approached and addressed correctly, it could be an inordinately enriching process. For this to occur it would have to involve the students, academic staff and management.
It would involve the infusion of indigenous knowledge and culture into the body of learning and scholarship, the syllabi, curricula and methods of learning and teaching at tertiary institutions.
This would have to involve the development and use of indigenous languages so that they could be used side by side with the English language.
Scholars would have to contribute to inter alia learned journals in relation to content and modus operandi of such decolonisation and transformation to give an intellectual and academic content.
A meaningful discourse on decolonisation and transformation should be accepted as an intellectual challenge to all academics and not as a threat.
The inestimable value of Western scholarship, philosophy, literature and science will not be abandoned in the process of renewal and invigoration that will take place in terms of such transformation but subject to re-interpretation and evaluation from an African perspective, but within the framework of universal human rights and non-racialism.
Unfortunately there are some political activists who under the banner of critical race theory are advancing a far more radical racial national agenda.
They reject non-racialism, as reflected in the South African Constitution, because it supposedly denies the centrality of “black pain”.
So for instance the #RhodesMustFall mission statement rejects the Constitution’s conception of race “as fundamentally racist because it presupposes that racism is a universal experience, thus normalising the sufferings of those who actually experience it”.
According to such reasoning only whites can be racist and only blacks can experience the suffering of racism. That is why “whiteness” is the core problem and must be eliminated.
This very radical, subjective and simplistic approach, appears to demonise all white persons and entirely reject the Western tradition and content of scholarship.
It it is an intellectually indefensible approach, found not only in South Africa but also in the US, where it apparently has its genesis and where its proponents declare: “I don’t want to debate, I want to talk about my pain”.
The proponents are obsessed by race and declare South Africa’s core problem is one of “whiteness” and define whites as alien in South Africa and its institutions.
This highly emotional and inward looking approach, elevates the African “culture of pain” caused by colonial oppression to a seminal tenet, which must take preference over both diversity and equality, and would require the constitution to be brought into line with this central theme based on the supremacy of a dominant black racial culture.
This by necessity would require the negation and removal of the influence of Eurocentric ideas and philosophy, in a virtually revolutionary, as opposed to an incremental, manner.
It would be the South African equivalent of the Cultural Revolution propounded by Mao Zedong that occurred in China in the 1960s.
It is finally realistically submitted that it would easily produce or condone violence in the process of transformation, which would inevitably have profoundly negative, if not disastrous international and domestic consequences for South African universities and indeed our body politic.
It should be unequivocally rejected and instead we should embark on a creative process of renewal, innovation and change involving debate, discussion and discourse under the banner of transformation and decolonisation.
CLEANING UP: A worker cleans off paint left by protesting students the day after violent protests at the University of Cape Town.