FrankTalk: What does Africanisation of Higher Education mean?

Africans need to be cured of cultural amnesia

The Steve Biko Foundation, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Mayibuye Robben Island Archives joined forces last week to host the third annual FrankTalk Dialogue. This week we reflect the thoughts of two of the four panelists, as part of our Meqoqo (Conversations) series.

“Policies that come out of academia usually become policies of a country and so, if we want to change society, we need to start at universities.”

This is the view of Obenewa Amponsah, the Chief Executive Officer of the Steve Biko Foundation (SBF).

She was sharing a panel at the FrankTalk Dialogue with Dr Birgit Schreiber, Leigh-Ann Naidoo and Professor Simphiwe Sesanti.

“Research informs the decisions we make and also the mentality of people who are going to be future leaders is largely shaped in universities. So, that’s why I feel the issue of Africanisation at universities is very important,” she said.

The panellists aimed to answer the question: “Africanisation of Higher Education. What does that mean?”

The Frank Talk Dialogue is a versatile programme titled after the pseudonym under which Steve Biko wrote. This platform, which uses Biko’s methods of pursuing critical, constructive debates through frank dialogues, was created for students and the public to openly discuss issues.

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“We really need to make changes, say like having more black staff at universities and looking into what the criteria there are for professorship,” said Amponsah.

A foreign curriculum

She outlined her view of the purpose of a university in an African and South African context.

“For me that is total empowerment. If we understand that then we can tailor the universities, not necessarily along a Western mode, but really mould them into our universities,” she said.

She said the current curriculum did not reflect African identity. “When you speak about this people think that you’re saying we should not read Shakespeare. We should never read Jane Austen. That’s not what we’re saying.”

“We are saying that it is fundamentally a problem when African people go to universities for years at a time and in those years they never encounter anything of themselves. It reaps this idea that black people have never contributed to anything, that they have not helped to shape history and then it reinforces the notion that we cannot be change agents of our society,” she said.

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“So, I’m not saying that we should never read Jane Austen. What I am saying is that there are core writers who speak to who we are, such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie and others. These are people who will talk about African philosophy,” she said.

“The world is and will always be interconnected. The problem is that we never look inwardly,” Amponsah said.

A call to re africanise Higher Education

Simphiwe Sesanti, an associate Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) argued that higher education should be re-Africanised.

“There is an assumption that education is not African and the assumption that has been imposed and entrenched by the western world is that they have given us education,” she said.

“What I’m saying is that our education needs to be re-Africanised so that we retrace the steps of African culture that have contributed to education as it is supposed to be. This is not new nor derived from the West and is authentically African,” he said.

“This term of re-Africanisation has been borrowed from Amilcar Cabral, one of the greatest revolutionaries that Africa has ever produced,” he said.

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Sesanti said that the sons and daughters of the soil were suffering from cultural amnesia and re-Africanisation, reminds them of who their ancestors are.

“Those of us who are in academia now are European educated Africans. We come from a colonial kind of education. The first responsibility for us is to relearn what it means to be African. To study African culture so that we can re-Africanise ourselves. Having done that then, we can insert that into the curriculum of universities and the entire national sphere,” he said.

Sesanti drew much context for his speech from the writings of seasoned African writers such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Ifi Amadiume.

He concluded his talk with a parting thought: “There is a need to transform the centre, but the centre will not be transformed until we change ourselves.”

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