The limitations of the decolonisation ‘moment’

For all its political bluster and uncritical support, decolonisation as a movement will have little to no effect on institutional curriculum because it offers the wrong response to a real problem, according to Jonathan Jansen, professor of education at Stellenbosch University.

Leading a discussion on “The problem with decolonisation”, Jansen said there was a failure among academics and students to scrutinise concepts as they emerge in society or on university campuses, abrogating their responsibility to think as academics and to be “suspicious of things that parade as truth”.

The discussion marked the launch of the Africa Centre for Scholarship and the African University Day celebrations held in late November.

“When somebody throws out a concept like decolonisation, your first reaction as a thinking person is to ask, ‘What the hell is this?’” he told his audience at the VV Hall at Stellenbosch University. “The role of the scholar or an aspirant scholar is to question issues,” he said.

Jansen said the term decolonisation had a “rich intellectual ancestry”, with different emphases at different periods in history.

In Africa decolonisation was commonly ascribed to knowledge and identity issues. Sifting through the statements of students quoted during the South Africa protests, he discerned they were not talking about hierarchies of power as much as they were talking about African identity.

Some students, he said, suggested they felt dehumanised by the current curriculum. “I was dehumanised by some professors, but did not feel the curriculum dehumanised me,” said Jansen, referring to his university days.

Others said they studied curricula full of white men while their own scholars were being undermined.

Yet, the issue is more complicated than having to study the work of white men. “In order to have a decolonial project, you need to have a subject that it responds to,” he said.

Apartheid versus colonialism

Jansen called for a clearer distinction to be made between apartheid and colonialism.

“What some in the protest movement would like you to believe is that apartheid equals to colonialism. That is nonsense,” he said, and everything bequeathed by colonialism is not automatically to be rejected, he added.

Calling for people to acknowledge that forces other than colonialism had shaped South Africa, he said: “For 21 years South Africa has had a democracy in which the dominating power influencing knowledge production was neither the colonial master nor the apartheid regime, but the democratic government.”

The National Qualifications Framework had imposed a particular kind of learning, whether through modularisation or specific learning outcomes, he said.

Jansen felt that while it was a reasonable demand by students that people who teach them should look like them, it was not reasonable to exclude people who do not look like them or deny them the right to speak within a university context.

Jansen called for more “precision” in the use of concepts in the social sciences and in curriculum studies in particular.

He said while curricula tended to be dominated by Western thought and ideas, ideally they should be infused with knowledge from Africa, Asia and Latin America. “We do that alongside knowledge from the West … You don’t believe you can really replace Western Knowledge with African Knowledge. You have to find a way of making them talk to each other,” he said.

But how is it to be done, given the state of knowledge production in the South, he asked.

“I cannot think of more than one or two powerful instances of curriculum theory [his own field] in relation to schools that has emerged from the African continent….Show me what I am going to replace it with?”

Systemic breakdown in school system

Jansen said the problem would not go away soon because of a “systemic breakdown” in the South African school system that saw half a million children drop out of school between grades one and 12.

The problem persisted among those few who managed to enter first year university and translated into a small fraction of black South Africans pursuing PhDs.

“I agree we need to get black African PhDs,” he said, but having a PhD did not automatically make a graduate a professor, he said.

Jansen was critical of young South African doctorate holders who would choose to go to a younger university to earn early professorship without rigour.

“I understand the need for status, recognition and a salary, but I don’t believe that in an African university you give up on seriousness of scholarship in the name of race. We did it with whites, why do it again with blacks?”

“We must not under the pressure of history try to make up for the past, damn our university, by the virtue of these cheap professorships,” he said.

“In the absence of substantive intellectual thought emerging from Africa... what do we do, fall back on the language of critique?"

However, the language of critique was not enough to get students through the substance of a discipline, he said.

“All of this brings me to a significant dilemma in our curriculum deliberations in South Africa and that is a disproportionate concern, even an obsession, with knowledge of the past or what I call a 'corrective orientation' to knowledge, at the cost of a concern with knowledge of the future or what I call ‘prospective orientation’ to knowledge,” he said.

“When South Africans fight over the curriculum it’s always about the past. It’s seldom about what the future must look like.”

Jansen said the chances of the “decolonisation moment” in South Africa actually changing curricula in universities were non-existent because the rules that frame what counts as knowledge haven't changed.

“For all its political bluster and uncritical support, decolonisation as a movement will have little to no effect on institutional curriculum because it offers the wrong response to a real problem. It ignores significant transformative changes already made which could have been used as launching pad for meaningful change, and underestimates the power of a settled curriculum.

“You can’t offer decoloniality to a very complex set of legacies…It completely underestimates the power of settled curriculum with the establishment.”