De­colonise your mind be­fore your cur­ricu­lum

‘Self-de­coloni­sa­tion’ should be pri­ori­tised, says former vice-chan­cel­lor. Anna McKie re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Aca­demics must crit­i­cally en­gage with their own as­sump­tions if the drive to de­colonise schol­ar­ship in African uni­ver­si­ties is to be suc­cess­ful, ac­cord­ing to a former vicechan­cel­lor.

Ihron Rens­burg, who led the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg be­tween 2006 and 2017, in a Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in­ter­view called for a “bot­tom-up, aca­demic-based move­ment, which sees in­di­vid­ual aca­demics re­ally seize the mo­ment, re­ally step up and get their agency back”.

He was speak­ing dur­ing a visit to Lon­don to de­liver the an­nual Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute lec­ture, in which he dis­cussed how African uni­ver­si­ties could end the Western dom­i­nance of their cur­ric­ula and in­stead adopt a teach­ing and re­search agenda char­ac­terised by “global African per­spec­tives and ap­proaches”.

This goal – which was put into sharp fo­cus in the wake of the cam­paign to re­move the statue of Ce­cil Rhodes from the Univer­sity of Cape Town’s cam­pus in 2015 (pic­tured be­low) – would not be reached sim­ply by adding a wider range of au­thors to read­ing lists or of­fer­ing lo­cal case stud­ies, said Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg (pic­tured right).

In­stead, the vet­eran of South Africa’s anti-apartheid move­ment – who spent much of the late 1980s de­tained with­out trial for his work with the United Demo­cratic Front and had spells of up to nine months in soli­tary con­fine­ment – said that it de­manded “self-de­coloni­sa­tion”.

“Just be­cause I’m an aca­demic or an in­tel­lec­tual, I can’t just wake up one morn­ing and say ‘I’m de­colonised’,” Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg said. “The first step is self-de­coloni­sa­tion. We carry the myths and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions prop­a­gated by colo­nial­ism within us, whether you are African or English, and we have car­ried them for gen­er­a­tions.”

In his Hepi lec­ture, Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg called on aca­demics to “ex­ca­vate and re-en­gage crit­i­cally” with “dis­missed, sup­pressed, and den­i­grated global African philoso­phies, sciences and his­toric­i­ties”.

While the West has for cen­turies as­serted the undis­puted su­pe­ri­or­ity of its phi­los­o­phy and thought, this is a myth and a legacy of em­pire, said Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg, who high­lighted that Africa’s old­est ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions far pre- date Europe’s first uni­ver­si­ties.

By also crit­i­cally re-en­gag­ing with Western schol­ar­ship and sep­a­rat­ing out “that which is myth from that which is sub­stance”, African aca­demics could cre­ate syn­the­ses that would al­low them to, for ex­am­ple, “demon­strate a global African ap­proach to en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics”, Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg said.

How­ever, Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg told THE that colo­nial myth-mak­ing and its de­struc­tion of the cul­tures, tra­di­tions, sciences and arts of the colonised would take a long time to un­pick.

“We have to put those mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions and myths in front of us and en­gage crit­i­cally with them… we also have to ex­ca­vate that which they have buried,” he ex­plained.

Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg said that the process was not about spend­ing breaks sim­ply read­ing. “It is a far more de­tailed and sub­stan­tive process and hope­fully at the end of that – though there is no end of the de­coloni­sa­tion process – one is far more con­fi­dent and coura­geous about the dif­fi­cult ques­tions and is­sues,” he said.

The voice of stu­dents would re­main im­por­tant, while di­a­logue would take place be­tween “col­leagues who will cham­pion the cause”, Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg ar­gued.

How­ever, de­coloni­sa­tion could not be led through “edicts from above”, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg, who said that vicechan­cel­lors and politi­cians might be able to achieve short-term change but would be un­able to ef­fect longterm trans­for­ma­tion.

“We don’t want new reg­u­la­tions, we don’t want a new ac­count­abil­ity mech­a­nism and we don’t want the min­is­ter to say ‘I want an an­nual re­port’ – al­though that is the de­fault,” he said. “The longer and fur­ther away politi­cians stay from the aca­demic project, the bet­ter.”

Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg added that, al­though his ad­vice was mainly di­rected at South African aca­demics, it could and should be ap­plied around the world, in­clud­ing in the West. “The colony and the metropole are linked; we can’t speak de­coloni­sa­tion in the colony with­out speak­ing de­coloni­sa­tion in the metropole…it’s equally rel­e­vant in the former colo­nial metropoles,” he said.

Re­gard­less, Pro­fes­sor Rens­burg ar­gued that, in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall move­ment, there could be no go­ing back and African aca­demics must fo­cus their at­ten­tion on de­coloni­sa­tion. “It would be ab­so­lute folly to go to sleep again, to sim­ply re­vert to the sta­tus quo…we must seize the mo­ment and the op­por­tu­nity,” he said.

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