Decolonising the curriculum – A student call in context

South Africa’s student movement focussed around calls for the removal of a statue of the imperialist megalomaniac and renowned ‘philanthropist’, Cecil John Rhodes, from the University of Cape Town. Rhodes was an avid businessman whose accumulated wealth stemmed largely from mining in Southern Africa, and he was also the colonial driver instigating the creation of the Rhodesian territory.

The protest actions, since their inception, demanded the removal of the statue along with firm commitments to address worker rights, curriculum and several other issues that were laid out in full in a petition by the aptly named #RhodesMustFall movement in March 2015, which called consequentially for ‘decolonisation’ of the university and South African society as whole.

Calling the university into question

In centring the demands for curriculum decolonisation, we find ourselves at a clear juncture where we call into question the very project of the ‘university’ and in particular in its relation to colonialisation as a process.

Decolonisation therefore becomes the process through which the negative effects of colonialism are fought against, with the intention of giving rise to an environment where self-reliance and self-determination become possible.

With those crucial elements in mind, we begin to ask at a macro-political level, ‘To what extent do universities in South Africa provide content and programmes that respond to the social context that is among the most unequal on the planet?’

Narrowing the scope, we consider to what extent classrooms themselves are providing spaces for students and teachers to interrogate their contexts, material conditions, experiences, ideals and dreams in the learning effort, and by consequence to what extent are they able, collectively, to generate more contextually relevant research that resolves our society’s contractions instead of reinforcing them.

The wide ranging effects of this extend to the opportunities and limitations presented in physical locations, layouts of classrooms and more broadly the dispositions of our existing institutions to industry, state and society tensions 22 years into post-apartheid South Africa.

One of the easiest ways to begin with this analysis is by looking at the vastly different ways in which historically white and black institutions are framed and who they consider their peers.

Historically white campuses often openly and unapologetically declare development paths that ring of aspirations to be like Harvard and Oxford, both through form and function, reinforcing hierarchies that reproduce and reflect global political dynamics instead of resisting them, as the student movements may have wished would be the case.

Later in 2015, during October and November, the nationwide #FeesMustFall campaign was formed involving a largely informal coalition of student movements to push back against tuition fee increases and demand ‘free decolonised socialist education’.

The movement successfully fought off the fee increase for the 2015-16 period but has struggled to continue to fight back against factionalism along with campus and state repression.

Old questions, new ideas?

The issues raised around the impact of curriculum during this period are of course questions as old as the formation of universities themselves, such as 'What is knowledge? How is knowledge produced? Who is ‘allowed’ to produce knowledge? What assumptions are made about the ideal learner? What are the student-teacher relationship models?'

An interesting example of how these questions play out relates to the so-called ‘hard sciences’ and applied fields, including but not limited to the expanding branches of engineering.

These ways of seeing and developing knowledge have themselves developed out of particular needs and conditions within society and are grouped together in discipline and profession in ways that must be reflected on critically.

The departments and faculties in charge of the production of these kinds of knowledges and training find themselves housed in public institutions, contributing in particular to the technological requirements of ‘modern’ society accelerated undoubtedly by the industrial revolution and warfare, notwithstanding the demands of infrastructure, health care and energy, to list a few.

The process of ‘decolonisation’ therefore, as it relates to the so called ‘hard sciences’, does not reject the study of atoms or organic molecules as perversions of euro-centric thought but looks at the nature of curriculum itself and critically engages with the impact of different ‘ways of seeing’ on the knowledge production process as a whole.

In raising the proverbial mirror to the work that we do, the call for decolonisation encourages us to be intentional in work that we do and mindful of what it contributes for better or worse providing direction as to the trajectory of our efforts.

A matter of class

One possible example would be to question the ways in which class divisions between technicians and engineers in the academy and in industry are reified by the enlightenment project-influenced academy that places certain kinds of thinking in a hierarchy of what is regarded as ‘practical’ knowledge or even the act of doing in and of itself.

The division between ‘body’ and ‘mind’ is reproduced in the values of institutions reinforced through the ritual and doctrine that knowledge is simply of mind and thought and the body for action and movement. This discontinuity introduces an unnecessary hierarchy that itself serves no purpose beyond the production of an elite class.

Critical reflection is also needed when looking at the gains of hard-fought institutions and experimentations around what worker education could look like.

These range from lessons from worker colleagues at the University of the Western Cape through to programmes such as Wits PLUS at the University of the Witwatersrand, which provide spaces for academics, students and workers alike to begin to make serious inroads into the democratisation of knowledge and its production.

Creative possibilities – beyond what detractors for worker education in the university setting will argue exists at other kinds of tertiary institutions – can be made possible once we make the seemingly unthinkable leap to humanise exploited workers who keep the institution running on a daily basis.

Admittedly the curriculum debate finds itself in the context of a national climate that has higher education strained from various quarters. Lack of funding from government and increasing running costs and rising student access make time-intensive learning processes all the more expensive and undesirable from the managerial perspective.

These sharp tensions in a country embroiled with South Africa’s level of inequality have led to frustrations in the forms of demonstrations that while somewhat unfamiliar to the elite campuses are old and have long histories in historically black institutions that are in dramatically more difficult positions.

Forging movements then for processes like ‘decoloinsation of the curriculum’ are difficult when the black student organisers, regardless of their individual class status, inherently reflect – to some extent – the class status of the university they operate in.

In this way it seems to me to be no surprise that the early alliances between black student organisers in the wake of #RhodesMustFall are strongest between universities that are considered the elite class of higher education institutions in the country.

Domination and the curriculum

If we take this example one step further, we look at the recent wave of attention surrounding the demonstrations at the Oxford Union regarding an unquestionably racist programme invitation, a protest demonstration by ‘Rhodes Must Fall Oxford’ and consequently a motion that had been passed in the structure declaring the union ‘institutionally racist’.

These events, organised – seemingly – by not more than a handful of people caught the attention of a multitude of international news agencies.

Through their proximity to whiteness, proximity to the empire, it would seem that acts of resistance echo loudly from the high chambers of Oxford out into the colonies in a manner that is simultaneously exciting, full of potential and deeply concerning.

It becomes concerning for me as I begin to consider the role of graduates from the likes of Oxford (not at all dissimilar to the likes of the University of Cape Town) in the continued domination of the continent.

While we have many heralded scholars, heroes and activists who have re-appropriated Western platforms and resources to subvert the domination of the empires, we also have a long history of children of the colonies who have left countless shores in search of affirmation from the West en route to ruling class positions in the likes of the World Bank, IMF or comfy ‘leadership’ positions in the top tier of their home colonies.

We need to critically interrogate the role of curriculum in generating inequality and take steps to find ways that this can be radically undone through curriculum change processes, and not simply reintroduced under a different name using different terminology without engaging with material contradictions of elite spaces and their ability to reproduce and control.

The fight for the curriculum is, for the moment, a less explosive topic in the context of a nation embroiled in fire, both physical and proverbial.

While this remains the case, converting the gains made by social movements into a critically reflexive, creative and socially responsive curricula and learning environment provides us with an opportunity to combat and subvert neo-liberalisation from the inside out.

Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based writer and electrical engineer by trade committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle towards African liberation.