Decolonisation of Higher Education: Dismantling Epistemic Violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa

By Savo Heleta

A decolonised curriculum will not neglect other knowledge systems. Universities still have to develop graduates knowledgeable about the world and all its complexity. However, the education must be free from Western epistemological domination, Eurocentrism, epistemic violence and worldviews that were designed to degrade, exploit and subjugate Africans and other formerly colonised peoples.

South African students and a small number of progressive academics began a campaign in early 2015 to decolonise the curriculum at universities ‘by ending the domination of Western epistemological traditions, histories and figures.’ In particular, the students have called for the end of domination by ‘white, male, Western, capitalist, heterosexual, European worldviews’ in higher education and incorporation of other South African, African and global ‘perspectives, experiences [and] epistemologies’ as the central tenets of the curriculum, teaching, learning and research in the country.

The student activists also speak about disrupting ‘whiteness’ in society, the economy and at universities. The whiteness they are trying to disrupt has been imposed since colonial times as a ‘symbol of purity’ and has defined ‘what it means to be civilised, modern and human.’ This whiteness is still engaged in daily open and/or subtle racism and marginalisation of Black people.

South African universities have done very little since 1994 to open up ‘to different bodies and traditions of knowledge and knowledge-making in new and exploratory ways.’ While all universities have had new policies and frameworks that speak about equality, equity, transformation and change, institutional cultures and epistemological traditions have not considerably changed. Policies might be there but the willingness to implement them is lacking. Thus, the higher education system ‘remains a colonial outpost’ up to this day, reproducing ‘hegemonic identities instead of eliminating hegemony.’ Mbembe argues that ‘there is something profoundly wrong when… syllabuses designed to meet the needs of colonialism and apartheid should continue well into the liberation era.’

Colonial and apartheid roots

In South Africa, the colonial universities were set up by ‘settler elites who saw them as both symbols and disseminators of European civilisation in the colonies.’ The role of universities – which were part and parcel of the colonial project – was to promote white supremacy and develop the white youth to maintain and further expand the colonial society. After the apartheid system was established in 1948, the racism at universities was taken to another level. During apartheid, higher education was ‘designed to [further] entrench the power and privilege of the ruling white minority.’ Gibbon and Kabaki indicate that the entire higher education system ‘served to construct and maintain the social, political and economic features of the apartheid order.’ One of the ways it did this was by contributing ‘to the systematic under-qualification of the majority black population’.

While the Afrikaans-medium universities worked closely with the government on this, the English-medium universities also played a role in maintaining the segregation and oppression. Sehoole adds that during apartheid, most of the English- and Afrikaans-speaking academia ‘shared whiteness – a belief in white hegemony in South Africa.’

Historically Black universities were established and/or maintained to train Black people to serve first the colony and then the apartheid state. They did not educate for critical thinking and intellectual leadership. Their focus was on administrative and technical skills necessary for the maintenance of the apartheid system. This way theblack universities ‘played a role in the maintenance of the overall apartheid socio-political agenda.’

Eurocentrism and epistemic violence in ‘new’ South Africa

After 1994, epistemological transformation was supposed to entail a ‘reorientation away from the [colonial and] apartheid knowledge system, in which curriculum was used as a tool of exclusion, to a democratic curriculum that is inclusive of all human thought.’ However, universities have failed to do much, if anything, to decolonise the curriculum since the demise of apartheid. More than two decades later, the curriculum at South African universities is still largely Eurocentric, rooted in the colonial and apartheid dispossession, looting and humiliation of Africa and its people. The Eurocentric curriculum focuses on ‘the idea of Europe, as a metaphor, and turns all others into bit players or loiterers without intent on the stage of world history, either too lazy to do anything ourselves or always late, and running behind to catch up with Western modernity.’

What we have in most fields of study (and particularly in the humanities and social sciences) is Eurocentric indoctrination, which marginalises Africa and is often full of patronising views and stereotypes about the continent. ‘European and white values are [still] perceived as the standards on which the country’s education system is based and rooted.’ This kind of education ensures that the students end up ‘ignorant of most of the world [and particularly Africa] and arrogant about our ignorance.’ This is nothing but ‘epistemic violence’ imposed on the students by the South African academia.

Gayatri Spivak defines epistemic violence as the Eurocentric and Western domination and subjugation of the [former] colonial subjects and misconception of their understanding and perception of the world. This is a result of ‘violence of imperialistic epistemic, social and disciplinary inscription.’ Epistemic violence erases the history of the subaltern and also convinces them that they do not have anything to offer to the ‘modern’ world; their only option is to blindly follow the ‘enlightened’ colonisers, learn from them, adopt their worldviews and fit into the periphery of their world as second-class citizens.

Epistemic violence persists in post-apartheid South Africa, where the higher education system, rooted in colonial and apartheid exploitation and racism, has obliterated nearly all the linkages that black students may have with the prescribed texts, propagated narratives, debates and learning on the one side and their history, lived experiences and dreams on the other side. In the old colonial fashion, they are the ‘other’ in their country of birth, not recognised and valued unless they conform. Through education, they are expected to learn to ‘speak well’ and gain skills and Eurocentric knowledge that will allow them to enter the marketplace but not allow them to fundamentally change the status quo in society and the economy.

Africa in the current curriculum

The colonial and apartheid curriculum in South Africa has promoted white supremacy and dominance, as well as stereotyping of Africa. The current higher education curriculum still largely reflects the colonial and apartheid worldviews and is disconnected from African realities, including the lived experiences of the majority of Black South Africans. Most universities still follow the hegemonic ‘Eurocentric epistemic canon’ that ‘attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production.’

Jonathan Jansen writes that the failure to increase the number of Black academics and decolonise the curriculum have ‘left unchallenged the Achilles heel of [previously] white institutions: the kind of knowledge (and therefore authority) which is passed on to African students as unquestionable truth and inscrutable value.’ The curriculum continues to ‘reinforce the prejudice’ that there is not much we can learn from Africa, developing countries and the ‘third world’ and that ‘universal’ knowledge rests in the Western world. When Africa appears in the curriculum, it is not more than a ‘version of Bantu education… students are being taught a curriculum which presumes that Africa begins at the Limpopo, and that this Africa has no intelligentsia worth reading.’

Accordingly, most South African academics who teach about Africa rely primarily on Western interpretations of the continent. Knowledge about Africa produced by African academics is largely ignored. The writings by Western academics and researchers, who often claim that Africa is nothing but misery, corruption, ‘darkness’ and irrationality and cannot survive without a ‘kind, white foreigner,’ are frequently used as reference points to teach about Africa at South African universities. When this kind of knowledge is used to teach about the continent, we cannot expect anything but distance, alienation and misunderstanding of the causes of the past and current problems and lack of vision for the future.

Fundamental change

Writing about decolonisation of higher education in Kenya at the end of 1960s, Harry Garuba stresses that a ‘fundamental question of place, perspective and orientation needed to be addressed in any reconceptualisation of the curriculum’ and that Kenya, East Africa and Africa needed to be placed at the centre of teaching, learning and research at Kenyan universities. Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes that the transformation required looking at the curriculum in terms of the ‘relevance to our situation… [and the] contribution towards understanding ourselves’. Ultimately, the goal was to establish the ‘centrality of Africa’ in the curriculum.

When we talk about and engage in reconceptualisation and decolonisation of the curriculum in South Africa, we need to consider the two approaches discussed by Garuba. The first approach is to ‘add new items to an existing curriculum.’ The second approach is to ‘rethink how the object of study itself is constituted’ and then reconstruct it and bring about fundamental change. The first approach is promoted at South African universities by those who want to maintain the status quo. This group wants to keep Eurocentric worldviews in the curriculum but add to it ‘bits and pieces of Africa’ and ‘the other’ previously colonised places and peoples. This approach allows for ticking of the boxes and saying ‘we are busy reforming and transforming.’ Suren Pillay writes that this approach would lead to settling ‘for a supplemental concept of history, where we now add African Studies onto the existing curriculum with the danger of once more ghettoizing it from the other mainstream disciplines.’ The end result would be the continued dominance of Eurocentric worldviews.

The fundamental change can happen only if universities embark on the second approach described by Garuba above. For Césaire, ‘decolonisation is about the consciousness and rejection of values, norms, customs and worldviews imposed by the [former] colonisers.’ Ngugi argues that decolonisation of the curriculum is about Africans seeing themselves ‘clearly in relationship with ourselves and other selves in the universe.’ He calls this ‘a quest for relevance.’

The South African higher education system needs what Zeleza calls the ‘deconstructionist’ movement to ‘dismantle the Eurocentric epistemic hegemonies that have dominated the study of Africa’. The curriculum must be transformed ‘in the context of post-apartheid South Africa and its location in Africa and the world.’ Thechange at universities must entail ‘decolonising, deracialising, demasculanising and degendering’ the institutions as well as ‘engaging with ontological and epistemological issues in all their complexity, including their implications for research, methodology, scholarship, learning and teaching, curriculum and pedagogy.’

Universities must completely rethink, reframe and reconstruct the curriculum and bring South Africa, Southern Africa and Africa to the centre of teaching, learning and research. This in no way means that decolonisation will lead to localisation, isolation or only Africanisation of the curriculum. Africa will not be the only ‘focus of the curriculum in the ethnocentric-particularist manner of [the current] Eurocentric approaches.’ Decolonised curriculum will not neglect other knowledge systems and global context. Universities still have to develop graduates knowledgeable about the world and all its complexity. However, the education must be free from Western epistemological domination, Eurocentrism, epistemic violence and worldviews that were designed to degrade, exploit and subjugate people in Africa and other parts of the formerly colonised world.

If universities and academics want to genuinely contribute to socio-economic transformation in the country and on the African continent, they have to profoundly change what they teach and how they do it. The current Eurocentric curriculum – coupled with epistemic violence – does not contribute to a much-needed reimagining of the past and shaping of the present and future on the African continent. This can only be achieved through acurriculum that ‘reconstructs’ Africa from the historical, civilisational, political economy and political standpoint perspectives. However, this will not happen until the Eurocentric institutional cultures and staff demographics at universities fundamentally change.

‘Radical departures from the status quo are never easy. They are always simultaneously symbolic and visceral. But they open up new possibilities for questioning what was once unquestioned and unquestionable.’ This is exactly what the South African higher education system needs today – a radical departure from the status quo and questioning the colonial and apartheid knowledge systems that until now have not been questioned sufficiently, if at all. The movement to transform and decolonise higher education – a coalition of students, progressive academics, university staff and concerned public – must find ways to hold the institutions accountable and maintain the non-violent, intellectual, evidence-based, emotional and popular struggle until Eurocentrism and epistemic violence at universities are dismantled.

* Dr Savo Heleta works at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He writes this in his personal capacity. This article is based on a longer peer-reviewed paper that can be downloaded here>>

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