Bringing ‘development’ into the decolonisation debate

A decolonisation campaign started by South African students in 2015 risks fatally undermining the country’s higher education system and its capacity to support national development, a recent meeting in Cape Town was told.

Students were urged to avoid playing into the hands of elites who may seek to exploit their protests for political gain with little care for the longer term public good that universities can bring to the country, according to leading South African higher education expert Professor Nico Cloete who addressed a public dialogue – “Decolonisation or Development? The Role of Higher Education in South Africa” – hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town last month.

Rather than pointing the finger at white lecturers, demanding that they transform university curricula, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protestors and their supporters should examine their own values and received ideas first, said Cloete, who is director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust (CHET) in Cape Town.

Citing Martinican political philosopher Frantz Fanon, who is a popular author among those leading the campaign to change the curricula and composition of academic staff at South African universities, Cloete advised that “the coloniser cannot decolonise the colonised. The colonised must do it themselves”.

Reflecting on the damage that was done to the University of Zimbabwe after the government of then-president, Robert Mugabe, leveraged student protests for political advantage in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cloete emphasised the need to protect the successful aspects of the South African higher education system – in particular, its postgraduate capacity for new knowledge production.

He stressed the importance of safeguarding this capacity in the context of a continent which currently produces only a fraction – 3% – of new global knowledge. African students from other countries flock to South Africa to join its postgraduate programmes.

Lack of development

Noting the importance of original research in the new global knowledge economy, Cloete expressed concern that the decolonisation debate was failing to address broader issues of development.

“We are in a strange cycle where we are having a progressive discourse that is not contributing to our own development,” he told the public meeting.

Looking beyond the student discontent at the country’s universities, Cloete identified contestation among national political elites in Africa as a crucial obstacle to the establishment of developmental states and comprehensive developmental programmes.

Without coherence on underlying socio-economic policies it is impossible to forge national pacts on the role of higher education systems in development; and the universities themselves become sites of political conflict, he noted, drawing on more than 10 years of research conducted by CHET across flagship institutions in eight African countries.

Post-liberation colonised culture

Citing a commentary by Cameroonian political theorist, Achille Mbembe, on Fanon’s classic work The Wretched of the Earth, Cloete reflected on the Martinican philosopher’s fears of a post-liberation colonised culture.

Mbembe noted Fanon’s prognosis that: “In its will to imitation and its inability to be innovative and productive, the (new, post-liberation) ruling class assimilated the most corrupt forms of colonialism and racist thought… Fanon was actually scornful of nationalism too, which he saw not as a genuine mechanism to build a national economy but just as a method of enrichment.”

Fanon’s dystopian vision of the post-colony had, Cloete argued, been realised in South Africa under the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma, which begged the question: Why are the country’s students focusing their discontent on colonialist academics rather than the prime movers of the Fanonian nightmare, the ANC government itself?

In this context, Cloete accused the student protesters of engaging in rent-seeking behaviour, diverting state revenues into their own pockets and securing privileged positions for themselves without producing any broader public good.

Free education

The students’ call for universal free education primarily benefitted the rich and middle class, who constitute the vast majority of the cohort at South African universities. Only 1% of the poor qualify for university, Cloete told the meeting.

“The poor’s problem is, in the first place, that they don’t go to university,” he said.

Acknowledging the importance of decolonising curricula in the humanities (although not the sciences), Cloete urged policy-makers and university leaders to think carefully about how best to handle the pressure for decolonisation and the tensions between the students and the state in order to prevent serious damage to the higher education system. Accordingly, he urged students to take greater intellectual responsibility for decolonising their institutions and themselves.

“A university is not meant to be a home; it is supposed to challenge your mind and confront you. If you are comfortable at university you are already part of the bourgeoisie, living the good life,” Cloete said.

“University must confront you with your values and your ideas – and it is in that process that you decolonise and empower yourself.”

Talking from his own personal experiences as a student and academic at five different universities, he said that South African universities do provide the kind of space, as well as the necessary technology and books, to foster critical thinking.

The country’s students and academics must start talking about decolonisation and development, Cloete said, because decolonisation without development would be an economic tragedy, and development without a new South African discourse will breed resentment and undermine the future of higher education and the state.