Taking the baton from the 1976 generation
On Youth Day, 16 June the 2017, South Africa paused to remember the sacrifices of the youth of 1976, who protested the forceful introduction of Afrikaans as a first language medium in schools. The Soweto uprising was a defining moment in South African history and in the transformation of the country’s education sector. Fast forward over 40 years later, and another such defining moment is underway.
Tertiary education institutions are currently forced into a space of obligatory transformation on various issues brought to the fore by the student movements that halted academic activity nationally, in order to shed light on their experience of the university environment as alienating, and exclusionary.
Numerous issues were brought to light: the coloniality of the physical university space, the commodification of education through exorbitant fee structures, the exploitation of workers through outsourcing, gender discrimination, racial inequality and unsuitable curricula. Students also demanded free tertiary education, which critics argue to be too ambitious in relation to South Africa’s mismanaged state coffers.
Whilst some members of the academic community agree that these issues are valid, others dismiss the claims made by students as youthful ignorance. To the author, it is plausible that the university designed through the University Act of 1955 carries the legacy of exclusion in many ways, evident through the dominant languages, academic practices, monochrome staffing demographic profile and Eurocentric content. What is evident is that an opportunity has been presented to higher education nationally, to transform, concurrently, and holistically. Thus a tension exists between the university as it was, the university as it is and the future of what the university will become.
Conversations around the transformation of the fee structure, labour practice and physical space are ongoing, and yield interesting research around what the university of the future could look like and what purpose it could serve. Other conversations which are equally as prominent, are around the decolonisation of the curriculum. The collective sigh of a rigid academic community can be heard when the issue of decolonisation of the curriculum is raised. With many expressing immediate concerns for the standard of education that would instantly drop through the introduction of African influence, whilst others resort to the Helen Zille rhetoric of colonisation as gifting the Africans with infrastructure and modernised practice. Very few are comfortable with grappling with the question of what decolonisation is, and how it could impact the curriculum if seriously considered.
Prominent writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Catherine Odora Hoppers and Achille Mbembe take a different approach to this issue, and assert that the university must be rethought in relation to the postcolonial reality of African indigenous peoples, their languages and their reparation. With many voices offering differing perspectives on this issue of decoloniality it is necessary for those involved in the Higher education sector to consider decolonisation in relation to the sordid history of exclusion within the sector.
If decolonisation is the acknowledging of ‘othered’ knowledges and the incorporation of African epistemologies, then decolonisation could add value to the recurriculation imperative faced by higher education institutions at present. If decolonisation means acknowledging the local, it could add to the development of a curriculum which addresses the context which students come from, and the context in which they will work, after their university preparation.
What is required of us, is to pause, and ask: What is the purpose of the university in South Africa? Who are our students and where do they come from? For what purpose are we preparing graduates in various disciplines? Does the curriculum sufficiently prepare graduates for the contexts which await them in the professional environment? And does our research further emphasises the South African context or simply duplicate European knowledge? It is only through this questioning that we can, as the youth, continue the journey started by the class of 1976 in redefining African education.