University decolonisation – A fight against capitalism?

One of the main demands of the #FeesMustFall protests was the implementation of a process towards achieving a decolonised and Afrocentric education. But there doesn't seem to be any widespread consensus on what that means. In the meantime, the patience of students is wearing thin.

In an article for The Conversation, Rhodes University Professor of English Language Teaching and Literacy Development, Emmanuel Mgqwashu, describes it as the process of ridding universities of the procedures, values, norms, practices, thinking, beliefs and choices that mark anything non-European and not white as inferior.

This very broad definition is in line with what the Student Representative Council president of the University of the Witwatersrand or Wits University, Kefentse Mkhari, says students are fighting for. Ideological in nature, the students’ argument seems to be based on market failure and the flaws of capitalism.

Capitalism as a foreign concept

“It cannot be that we are still talking about education that perpetuates capitalism, which is a strong instrument of colonisation. Capitalism itself is a foreign concept in the African context,” says Mkhari, adding that education is colonial once it is used as a tool to oppress others; that is, once it is used as a gatekeeping mechanism, preventing people from accessing the economy and participating in it efficiently and sufficiently.

“Today, when we meet our black brothers and sisters, it seems they would go to any extent in pursuit of materialism. They forget that black people are not materialistic by nature. We are spiritual people, and once we deviate from that in pursuit of material things, we become agents of colonialism because we start to even exploit our own people in trying to amass wealth."

In terms of the curricula specifically, Mkhari says decolonisation is about teaching African children how to solve African problems. He says it cannot be, for example, that African countries are still not mastering their own production and output. In his view, exporting of raw minerals to be processed into more valuable final products abroad reflects colonisation of the highest form. It implies that an African child cannot benefit fully from what their land produces for them.


Language is also an important factor for Mkhari because studies have proven that when children are taught in their home language, they perform better than children taught in a foreign language. Referring to China and Germany as examples, he said those countries are able to produce high levels of literacy because their people are taught in their mother tongues.

In the African context, it becomes difficult because there are so many languages, which in itself is a result of the way colonisation has perpetuated itself, particularly within the South African context, according to Mkhari. This is because geographical segregation led to the cultural separation and tribalism that often creates conflict and ignorance among black people.

Says Mkhari: “However, even if it is difficult to coordinate the language factor, we can still use English and own it. But the content that we teach in English must resonate with us as Africans. We need our own philosophers and scientists to be celebrated."

Professor Pitika Ntuli, poet and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Durban-Westville (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), is of the view that South Africa missed its golden opportunity to reinvent and reimagine the tertiary education system when various universities were merged.

Says Ntuli: “We could have made our universities indeed decolonised, by focusing them on the realities of African people on this continent. But that never happened. When the students call for a decolonised education, they are recognising that we were oppressed, colonised and then decolonised. But after decolonising, there still remained something which we could not conquer: coloniality, which is the template of an oppressed mind.”

He says education is the most powerful tool for building society. That is why when the settlers came, they made sure that they taught people only what was necessary in order to control them.

Black consciousness

He said black consciousness is therefore an important aspect of decolonisation because students have realised that black people are always left outside the margins of society and the economy is run by white people. What young people learn is dominated by the teachings of white people, he says.

Acknowledging that university curricula cannot change overnight, Mkhari says the process must start with black students celebrating black academics. As Wits University leadership they intend to take that task “head on”, by creating awareness of what Africans are doing through podcasts and other avenues.

He says this will go some way towards changing a system where the reward for black academics is nothing more than a qualification, and their documented ideas sit on library shelves and are never turned into practice.

“I was at graduation in December where I heard that a black woman had written a paper on how women can improve their living conditions in the mining sector. Those are papers that we should not only celebrate and embrace; we should also push for their findings to be implemented at a practical level.”

'Protests are inevitable’

Mkhari says student protests at Wits University are inevitable because of the hostility with which the #FeesMustFall movement continues to be met and because of the lack of seriousness with which the government is approaching the situation. Although efforts are being made by the recently launched National Education Crisis Forum to prevent widespread protests, Mkhari says student are already facing massive difficulties with the registration process and this will not be allowed to continue.

“Right now we have brothers and sisters who can't register because of historical debt. We have our brothers and sisters who are sleeping in the streets and libraries… We cannot start any academic programme knowing that many black students are kissing their futures goodbye simply because of an issue that we were tear-gassed and rubber bulleted for. It would seem that nothing is getting better. To tell you the truth, protests are inevitable,” says Mkhari.