Decolonial scholarship: Do academics in Africa have clay feet?

Many high-ranking scholars in Africa are not merely fascinated by the historical colonial domination agenda but are the intellectual and active guardians of ideas and objectives of neocolonialism and coloniality that suppress academic freedom, creativity and innovation in African universities and other tertiary institutions in the continent.

That appears to be the central thesis developed by social anthropologists Artwell Nhemachena, an associate professor at the University of Namibia, and Munyaradzi Mawere, a professor of research at the Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, in a study critiquing the lack of decolonial scholarship, originality, innovativeness and critical thinking in universities in Africa.

Contributing to the recent issue of Springer’s Journal of African American Studies, the two academics argued that, although universities in Africa have high-ranking academics, most of them pose as big men and women whereas they lack intellectual independence as they propagate in their institutions uncritical academic theories, ideas and models that are from outside the continent.

Their study, ‘Academics with Clay Feet? Anthropological perspectives on academic freedom in twenty-first century African universities’, metaphorically compared such scholars to giants and other huge entities with unstable feet of clay.

The analogy of clay feet is a biblical expression of the weakness of character in people of unrestrained political power and high stature in society.

“Standing on clay feet is what we academics often become when we engage in captivating academic pageantries each year but fail to come up with original ideas, models and theories relevant to the African continent,” said Nhemachena and Mawere.

“Criticising the late Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for neck-breaking rates of inflation while ironically failing to notice qualification inflation, status inflation and rank inflation in our universities, we academics often fail self-criticism tests,” stated the two researchers.

In that context, rank inflation means there is growing lack of the clear distribution of authority in the universities, while qualification inflation means universities suffer credential inflation as higher qualifications are increasingly required for jobs that would be performed by persons with lower academic qualifications. Subsequently, this has led to status inflation, whereby senior appointments are often insensitive to scholarly criteria and given to persons who are not necessarily deserving.

According to the study, African academics have failed in the self-criticism tests in that they are blind to ways in which our own university administrations and fellow academics suppress and repress academic freedom on a regular basis.

“We, academics have become colossuses standing on clay feet,” stated Nhemachena and Mawere.

Coloniality as school of thought

The study draws on the concept of coloniality, a protest school of thought that advances the theory that vestiges of colonialism still remain as a power structure and makes it hard for former colonised peoples of Africa and elsewhere to create their own futures.

The concept of coloniality as a global powerful dominating force has been attributed to Dr Anibal Quijano, the late influential Peruvian scholar who, before his death in 2018, was a professor of sociology at Binghamton University in New York.

In a study, ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’, Quijano defined coloniality as the new form of domination in the world once colonialism as a political order was destroyed.

Relying heavily on that proposition, Nhemachena and Mawere questioned the existence and flourishing of suppression of academic freedom in most universities across Africa, even when colonialism and apartheid had been eradicated.

Responding to the origins of ‘clay feet’ scholars within the African universities, the two academics noted that, whereas colonialism and apartheid regimes are no longer in place politically, their values continue to be passed to students by lecturers and professors.

They noted that academics with vested interests in the past keep the fire of colonialism burning by reinventing disciplines within universities, while others apply self-censorship in order to be politically correct, as well as being in line with the academic disciplinaries status quo.

The ‘cargo cult’ mentality

Using anthropological research to understand the underlying factors that promote coloniality in the African higher education systems, Nhemachena and Mawere noted that many African academics have also become victims of a ‘cargo cult’ mentality, a vicious craving and high appetite for foreign goods in terms of ideas, theories, models of learning and, above all, research funding.

According to the study, the cargo cult mentality, a primitive belief system, emerged during World War II in Melanesia, the subregion of Oceania in the south-western Pacific, whereby cult members believed a more technologically advanced society would deliver them goods.

This had to do with the American planes and ships landing in the Pacific, and Melanesians had grown used to receiving cargo composed of used military outfits and almost expired food rations, but people were disappointed when the war ended as they could no longer get free commodities.

The story goes that some Melanesians later on led by their shamans, or cult priests, resorted to making their own makeshift planes using poles and grass and even makeshift airfields in the hope that, by so doing, they would miraculously induce the arrival of the American cargo.

“Some of the cargo cults in the region even imitated the sounds of aeroplanes in the hope that the US Air Force would resume landing,” stated Nhemachena and Mawere in the study.

Drawing the similarity, the researchers noted that, whereas Melanesian cargo cults waited by their makeshift airfields and by the seaside hoping that cargo would arrive from overseas, some academics in Africa wait in their universities for ideas, theories and models to arrive from abroad.

Nhemachena and his co-author explained that, in the same way Melanesian cargo cults believed that members would receive the cargo for which they waited, some academics in African universities believe that loyalty is required and sycophantic behaviour is crucial for the arrival of the cargo from overseas in the form of funding for research and other academic projects.

Unfortunately, the researchers pointed out, just as the cargo cults did not know how the goods they received were made, most African academics do not know how educational ideas, theories and models that they received were derived or how they would affect learning locally.

By advancing examples of cargo cults and clay feet, Nhemachena and Mawere are raising a red flag that some universities in Africa are now populated by uncritical academics who mimic whatever ideas they get from elsewhere, provided funds are made available.

According to the study, many African academics have reduced themselves to ‘fill and finish’ handymen who wait for academic theories and models to be produced from Europe and America and then their duties would be to add African data to validate the theories which are then uncritically applied to African societies.

Philosophy, anthropology and sociology

But that is in sharp contrast to the universities in the Global North that encourage and promote critical thinking, while some universities in Africa have developed phobias for disruptive thinking.

The study attributed the problem to the production of many descriptive postgraduate theses that do not push the boundaries of various academic disciplines within African universities.

In their analysis, the two social scientists questioned as to what would become of African scholarship if many professors in the African universities were to be too afraid of academic freedom, sovereignty and the dignity of universities to exercise their own independence.

Highlighting the ideas of Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o as contained in one of his books, Decolonising the Mind: The politics of language in African literature’, the researchers said that, when there is no academic freedom, academics eventually lose steam for scholarship. Ngugi is a Kenyan academic and one of the early decolonial scholars and an ardent critic of neocolonialism.

In their quest to campaign for academic freedom against the presence of ‘cargo cults’ and ‘clay feet’ academics in African universities, Nhemachena and Mawere have called for the strengthening of critical disciplines like sociology, anthropology and philosophy that are currently in decline in terms of student enrolment and faculty in most institutions on the continent.

But, with the current poor funding of the African universities, it appears that many academics will continue becoming shaman copycats, always casting eyes elsewhere, hoping for the arrival of cargoes, as well as being the eyes and ears of the coloniality power structure.