What would decolonising US entail?
I have frequently questioned Stellenbosch University’s enthusiastic embrace of this word and its intention to apply it liberally across the existing system. It is clear that there is a gaping chasm of miscommunication between those who vociferously call for decolonisation, and those who promise to administer this change. Perhaps no one has paused to wonder if there is a discrepancy between what the university means by it, and what those who actually invented the term do. It would certainly seem that our own VC is at a loss, and I do not blame him.
Decolonisation, in essence, is the undoing of colonisation. Considering that South Africa has been officially decolonised, in the purest and most literal sense of the term, since 1910, it is not hard to deduce that the concept has been ascribed some uncertain and incongruous new-age meaning. One could almost be forgiven for still not knowing just what exactly it calls for.
As an aspiring scientist, I am well aware of the fleetingness of the entire human existence in the time span since the origin of our universe. Within this time span, the human race has progressed intellectually by leaps and bounds, and has also been very mobile. It is a characteristic of our species to venture into new territories. Indeed, for most of human history we were a nomadic species, traveling across the land and never settling down until the advent of the Neolithic Revolution gave rise to the domestication of crops and animals. Only then did the concept of being able to “own” land take root. Even so, with our turbulent history and desire to explore, ownership kept changing. Looking back at the origin of our species; Africa was the cradle of humankind. So we have to ask ourselves, how far are we going to trace our history back? Fifty years? A century? Thousand or even millions of years? Each of these brackets will give one group of people preference over another in terms of location. If we reach far enough back, every human on earth can lay claim to African land.
The above information might seem like I have veered off into an entirely inane tangent but it serves to illustrate the point that the history of humankind is, in essence, dynamic. Things are constantly changing as a result of several factors that come into play, and as soon as one thing changes, so does another. This inexhaustible cause and effect cycle is an unchanging characteristic of time as we know it. To me, it is thus illogical to want to erase an entire segment of human advancement to appease a group that feels that they continue to be exploited by the harbingers of certain changes. Even more frustrating is the fact that only a select few of these changes must be erased, while others may stay. Where do we draw the line between which designs of colonialism we must keep, and which must get the boot?
A university, in essence, is an institute that inspires and facilitates the pursuit of knowledge. Not only to attain and come to terms with preexisting information that has been built upon for centuries, but also to stimulate the advancement of it into new, previously unexplored territories. There is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind “decolonisation”, which is that a certain type of knowledge belongs to a single civilisation. What these movements fail to understand is that our global body of knowledge is a product of the human race in its entirety. Different types of knowledge cannot evolve independently in each culture to produce varying information. There can be no such thing as, for example, African mathematics vs European mathematics. No, these subjects and their fundamental concepts are universal and forms an integral part of our understanding of the world we live in. Therefore, it will always just be mathematics; a science that is the sum total of thousands of brilliant minds from all corners of the globe that each contributed an essential building block over hundreds of years.
It is, consequently, not much of a stretch to see why the concept of decolonisation as it is sold to us in discourses and presentations is innately hypocritical and entirely flawed. “Decolonising university”, to my mind, is an oxymoron. How is it possible to decolonise fragments of an establishment that is intrinsically colonial in its entirety? It is for this reason that I have questioned how a renowned institute of higher education can subscribe and give credence to such an illogical sentiment.
This of course leads us to what SU management comes to understand around decolonisation, which, to say the very least, is a very vague stance. One notion that I have found, and which I fully and wholeheartedly believe that everyone can support, is the diversification of faculty members and the addition of certain modules. It is important to make the distinction between the addition of various new subjects as opposed to the modification of pre-existing modules to fit within a certain narrative, which is what some forerunners of the decolonisation movement calls for. I have attended enough discourses and taken enough notes to understand what decolonisation means to the typical Fallist, and I do believe that it is at odds with what any rational university should intend to apply to its curriculum across the board. If we were to upheave our curriculum, strip it of its so-called “white man” aspects and redress it in pre-colonial attire, it would be a sad day for academia indeed.
This is not to say that I want to deny anyone the freedom to learn about African philosophers, music, history or art. In fact, I feel that we have an immense privilege to be in a place that is so culturally diverse, and that we have access to this knowledge that is unique to our continent and country. We should embrace that honour and pursue this knowledge wholeheartedly, but, and this is the cardinal caveat, not at the expense of Plato, Shakespeare and Bach. You do not need to be of European descent to be able to appreciate the works of the creative genius that humanity has produced, and it is important to acknowledge their contribution to the arts as we know it today. To put it simply, there is absolutely no reason why Mozart must fall in order for Miriam Makeba to rise.
In conjunction, I believe another issue that needs addressing is the diversification of lecturers. Speaking from personal experience, all but one of the fifteen lecturers I have had at this university has been white. By no means am I implying that positions should be afforded to people that are not qualified, but surely the university can facilitate and encourage a more diverse assemblage of lecturers? This is especially important in first year, where many students are still unsure of themselves and their ability to rise within the ranks of academia. Feeling a kinship to the person that stands before you in the lecture hall goes a long way in instilling the encouraging feeling that “that could be me one day”.
Furthermore, SU should launch an enthusiastic effort to advance certain components of South Africa’s ethnic heritage in order to broaden our module spectrum. They must provide the necessary resources for African cultures to not only exhibit the things that are of import to their custom, but also to provide them with a platform to be able to share this knowledge. This can go a long way in offering students of all nationalities an opportunity to study the body of knowledge, art and wisdom their ancestors have gathered. This is especially relevant in subjects such as history, music, art and philosophy.
In conclusion, the only facet of the recent decolonisation revolution that I feel is reasonably applicable to SU, or any university for that matter, is diversification. Diversification of lecturers who are the representatives of their respective faculties, and diversification of presented modules. I cannot agree with the suggestion that existing modules should be altered to include a pre-colonial African perspective. The perception of science is universal; it has no race or nationality. It is not European or “white man” knowledge; it is humanity’s knowledge.