Curriculum transformation – ‘A long and tortuous battle’

The transformation of South African universities will not be “handed over on a silver platter” but will have to be fought for in what is likely to be a “long and tortuous” battle, a recent conference focused on ‘decolonisation’ of university humanities curricula heard.

Welcoming delegates of the “Transforming Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers” conference held in Johannesburg last month, the director of the host Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, said transformation was not a “theoretical issue and one must not assume everyone is for it … If we want it to succeed we clearly have to fight for it. It will not simply be handed over on a silver platter. This conference in a sense represents a skirmish in what is likely to be a long, tortuous battle.”

Intended to be a “concrete initiative” to contribute to decolonisation efforts, the two-day interdisciplinary conference and inter-generational dialogue – part of a Carnegie Corporation-funded project – brought together African scholars from Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana, prominent African studies academics from the United States, as well as South African student-activists, humanities academics and higher education leaders – part of IPATC’s efforts to draw on the transformation lessons from post-colonial Africa and post-civil rights African-American studies.

Among its “concrete” outcomes will be a 23-chapter edited volume to be produced next year, and a five-page policy brief. The launch of the volume will be followed by public dialogues at six universities in South Africa “so we can make sure we are not just having a talk shop and a book that sits on shelves, but we are proactive in getting the people we want to engage with this work”, said Adebajo.

A former executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town and one-time Rhodes Scholar, Adebajo said in his 15 years in South Africa he had met students who had never heard of some of the most renowned African scholars in their fields (“literature students who think Buchi Emecheta and Ama Ata Aidoo are traditional medicines … sociology students who had never read Ben Magubane …”) and undergraduates who had never been taught by black professors.


“Clearly, it is not a sustainable situation. Even the syllabi of some the most progressive black professors fail to reflect intellectual diversity and geographical location of South Africa in Africa,” he said.

Adebajo said the framing of decolonisation as a call to “delink from the rest of the world” was a strawman used by detractors who failed to understand the real intention of decolonisation as an attempt to view the world from an African and a global self-perspective. “We must study Shakespeare, but also Soyinka; Jane Austen, but also Toni Morrison,” he said.

Sketching the backdrop to the conference, Adebajo said after nearly two and a half decades of a black-led government in South Africa, the country’s education system “still mirrored colonial education paradigms and the hegemony of Western thought, with African knowledge systems and the voices of Africa’s indigenous populations largely marginalised”.

Despite the rhetoric of ‘transformation’, post-apartheid South Africa tended to seek its models from the West.

“The country’s outcomes-based education system was borrowed from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, while its post-1994 cabinet office was borrowed from Britain.”

He said due to the failure of economic policies and political autocracy in countries like Zambia and Tanzania in which many South African leaders were exiled during apartheid, “the tendency … was not to look to Africa, but rather the West for models for South Africa’s post-apartheid governance. This context helps to explain the persistence of Eurocentric curricula in South African universities in the post-apartheid era.”

Another source of concern was the fact that historically white universities in South Africa “continue to lack a sense of pan-African intellectual awareness or identification with their African geographical roots” resulting in curricula, culture and faculty which many black students and black teachers felt was “alienating and reflected a Eurocentric heritage”, he said.

Referring to comments made by Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani in the wake of his highly-publicised departure from the University of Cape Town in 1999 – that liberal English-speaking institutions in South Africa had intellectual freedom but lacked social accountability – Adebajo said the hidden curriculum in these universities has allowed many of its scholars to remain gate-keepers, preserving the status quo. They were places where excellence was equated with race, and autonomy was used to defend white privilege, he said.

Citing the contents of a paper by University of Pretoria jurisprudence academic Dr Joel Modiri (also a conference speaker), who said one of the more noteworthy revelations of the so-called Fallist student movement was the “exposure of mediocrity and ignorance” of South African academics rather than students, Adebajo said there was “an urgent need for systematic formulation of what a decolonised curriculum looks like”.

Lessons from further afield

Can South Africa indeed learn from other countries when it comes to curriculum development?

Adebajo admitted that while any insights would need to be “carefully applied” to post-apartheid South Africa’s “own specific and idiosyncratic context”, drawing on such lessons fulfilled an important part of the mission of IPATC.

He said decolonisation and Africanisation processes that took place in the late 1950s in countries such as Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal – involving the replacement of foreign staff and Eurocentric curricula – had produced centres of excellence of African knowledge production which included the Ibadan School (represented at the conference by Professor Toyin Falola, now at Texas), the Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy (represented by Professor Severine Rugumamu) and the Dakar School of Culture (represented by Professor Boubacar Barry).

“And this is what this conference will investigate: the potential of perhaps creating a Johannesburg School of Pan Africanism going forward,” said Adebajo.

Lessons from Kenya and Ghana were presented by Professor Chris Wanjala from the University of Nairobi and Professor David Owusu-Ansah from James Madison University respectively.

And while there were differences between the US and South Africa – the most obvious being the fact that in the US, African Americans make up 12% of the national population, while in South Africa black people make up 95% and also “mostly work for government” – Adebajo said there were instructive parallels between their struggles in universities.

Mirroring the pattern in South Africa post-1994, for example, the entry by African Americans into predominantly white universities after the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s led to demands for black studies by students who found themselves alienated by white institutions with Eurocentric curricula in which they did not recognise their own histories or cultures.

There were also potential lessons to be gleaned by examining two African American schools of thought – the Atlantic School of Sociology led by scholars such as Richard Wright and WEB du Bois which sought from the 1890s to use rigorous social science and field-based research to dispute racist claims of white social scientists, and the Howard School of International Affairs where academics such as Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche and Eric Williams from the 1920s challenged conventional Western ideas about empire and race in international relations.

There were possible lessons from the experiences of the US historical black colleges such as Morehouse College, Lincoln, Clark Atlanta and Howard and African-American studies in general, represented at the conference by renowned academics in the form of Professor Zine Magubane from Boston College, Professor Aldon Morris from Northwestern University and Professor Krista Johnson from Howard University.

“The stellar scholars at this conference are a clear sign of the possibilities of a transformed curriculum,” he said.

“We have so little time and so much to do. We must commit ourselves to start the journey to avoid the wrath of ancestors in invoking a curse on us for our failure to take into account African epistemologies, scholars and wisdom and engaging the rest of the world in intellectual battle.”