Decolonising the curriculum: Now for action
Following Fees Must Fall protests last year, universities across the country have provided platforms to contemporary dialogues on transformation and decolonisation of knowledge in higher education institutions, looking at how to adapt current western norms of the university curriculum. But can these institutions move beyond the ‘talk’ and truly get universities to the point of driving social change?
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) held a series of panel discussions on decolonisation earlier this year, particularly addressing the question: ‘what is the relationship between social justice and the decolonisation of knowledge’. These discussions aimed to deconstruct ideas around teaching and learning, and shed light on the everyday practices that continue to favour western approaches to educating and learning.
“The intellectual challenges that lie ahead of us cannot be underestimated in the implementing of decolonisation of knowledge, and linking this discussion to broader aims of ensuring the relevance of curriculum and teaching practices,” said Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede, journalism lecturer at UJ.
The discussions recognised that the decolonisation of knowledge, as well as curriculum transformation, should not be separated from broader issues of transformation, equality, access and redress in the higher education system.
Tobia Serongoane, SRC representative and an LLB student, acknowledged the challenges of the very concept of decolonisation, and what exactly is being decolonised within the university space. He argued that higher education institutions have formed knowledge on the basis of western thought, presenting difficulties for students who wish to go back to their communities to teach others. “What makes us unique as African when our curriculum reflects and copies western universities?” he asked.
Mary Metcalfe, Professor of Education at Wits and Corruption Watch board member placed the constitution in the context of the discussion, with the right to education enshrined in the rights of all South Africans, but also suggested that societies and South Africa at large is an amending environment.
She further argued that decolonisation is a collective effort and for knowledge to be decolonised the injustices of the past must be considered as well as apartheid’s enduring legacy that leaves the majority of the citizens with unequal access to resources.
Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town (UCT) highlighted that the Black Academic Caucus, a collective of black academics committed to transformation at tertiary institutions, has broadened discussions and pushed for symbolic changes in formerly white institutions, driving the need to restructure professorial appointments and challenging issues of patriarchy.
Buhlungu said that who gets invited to engage in discussion, and who is left on the fringes speaks volumes about the process of decolonisation, and posed questions about sustaining the platform so that transformation is not reduced to a ‘trend’.
“Social justice and decolonisation are two sides of the same coin,” said Buhlungu, adding that decolonisation is needed to dismantle colonial hierarchies of knowledge and power.
Advocate Adila Hassim, Director of Litigation at Section 27, presented potential solutions, noting that decoloniality is the answer to unravelling the question discussed. She looked at racial exclusivity, power and lack of access, patriarchy, heteronormativity and barriers of language as obstacles that need to be addressed in order to advance decolonization. She added another question to the discussion: “What are the practices that can reinforce one’s history and what do we count as knowledge? Knowledge is not linear”, she said.
Hassim spoke on language as a form of subjugation and cautioned that everybody must avoid mechanisms that build and sustain oppressive systematic structures and to recognise potential in university students from underprivileged backgrounds. “Decolonisation is about excellence”, she said.
With much more to discuss, this is just the first of many more platforms for academics, students, and members of civil society to engage in order to provide a holistic approach to the topic of decolonisation.
What many came away with following the series of panel discussions is that while the discourse continues to favour western approaches of educating and learning, the African narrative is too often omitted, even though the latter could assist in the process of the decolonisation of knowledge. It is the responsibility and role of lecturers and researchers in higher institutions to push for change, encourage collaboration and engage students on a deeper level. The talk is important, but only if it leads to action.
Images courtesy of the University of Johannesburg.