There are many issues currently under debate in the South African Higher Educations sector; free education, the reinstatement of students expelled for their actions during prior protests, the security presence on campus, the questionable decisions made by university management and decolonisation. All of these issues are relevant and must be critically discussed and debated. While I certainly do not have all the answers, I would like to add something to the discussion of decolonisation.
Decolonisation is defined as the process of undoing colonial power, where a nation establishes and maintains its domination over dependent territories. This term has been appropriated by the South African student movement, in reference to tertiary education. Here it is being used to refer to the dismantling of the dominant European discourses that are still pervasive in our curriculum and many institutional structures. Afrocentrisim is another, perhaps more appropriate, term being used to refer to the change desired of our system.
Since the notion of decolonised education really came to the fore, almost two years ago, it has been a regular topic for discussion among many educators, and yet little has been done to move towards this goal. Due to curriculum content, some disciplines have made greater visible progress than others, but in particular the sciences have shifted very little if at all. I can’t speak for others, but for myself it has taken me some time to understand what decolonisation means and, beyond that, how it is to be achieved. This fundamental issue of achievement has been for many, I believe, the bottle neck in the process of transformation.
Currently, we are in a student initiated university shut-down until the student’s minimum demands are met. These demands appear to be something of a moving target and different messages are being received from different student groups. Today I attended a silent protest in support of reopening the university. For the protest we were asked to bring along an academic paper to read as a symbol of our desire to continue the work of the university. During the protest a group from the student movement arrived and made some statements which made it clear that unless free decolonised education is guaranteed, they will not allow the university to reopen.
As I listened to the student movement and simultaneously tried to read my paper I was struck by the application of what I was reading to the pressing issue of decolonisation. The paper, by Jewitt et al., (2001), was discussing the co-creation of knowledge, as a learning process, within the classroom. Jewitt et al., (2001) describe how we should be moving away from the unidirectional transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. Rather, students take what they are given by their teachers and then reshape the meaning using the resources available to them. Those resources critically include the students lived experiences, interests and primary Discourses. Jewitt et al., (2001) argue that the onus then lies with educators to examine what students produce as meaningful and representative of the choices they have made with the resources relevant to them. This pedagogy is not new, but perhaps its application to the process of decolonisation is.
I think this approach to decolonisation – the co-creation of knowledge for the transformation of knowledge – is fundamental to its success. What I, as a white, female academic can achieve in terms of decolonising what I teach, is limited. Not because I don’t desire transformation, but because I can accept that my lived experiences, my experience of the Africa I grew up in, cannot be representative of all of my students. As such, what are evident to me as the artefacts of colonialism will not be exhaustive and I alone cannot speak for all. However, it would also be erroneous to simply assume that if I were black I could speak for my students. No two lived experiences are the same, no one person, regardless of colour, can or should speak for all. The decolonisation process must be a partnership.
I therefore appeal to students, we as educators cannot provide you with decolonised education, without your engagement. Engagement, not at yet another forum or meeting or protest but, on a day-to-day level in the classroom. Decolonised education cannot, as an entity, be demanded. It is not a fixed or finite ‘thing’ which we, as educators, can ‘give’ you. What we can give you, is a commitment to open dialogue within our classrooms, to a serious acknowledgement of your contributions to knowledge, both verbal and written, in classrooms and through assessment. On a departmental, faculty and even institutional level we should also commit to the regular re-examination of the transformed knowledge we are co-creating in our classrooms, so that transformed knowledge can be shared. I believe that these engagements should be formalised and enforced – decolonisation is the work of all. But again I say, decolonial education is not something that can be delivered against a set of demands on a particular date. You, as students, must take decolonisation into your own hands, through respectful discussion, challenge and open debate with your educators and peers.
I will close with an acknowledgement that mistakes have been made by both educators and students, perhaps best described by an analogy. Imagine that we are in a kitchen and you are shouting at me, telling me that you are hungry and demanding that I make you a sandwich. I very much want to meet your needs, but I have no idea what kind of sandwich you want and so I have been wringing my hands and talking about the sandwich for too long now while you become more and more hungry. Therefore, the turning point must be when we both realise that I can only make the kind of sandwich you want if I ask you to help me and if you are willing to help me and if I listen to you and act accordingly. Shouting longer and louder or keeping us out of the kitchen will not get the sandwich made. Just so, decolonialism cannot be achieved unless we work together, which we cannot do if the university is closed. Should this process have begun many years ago? Certainly. Should we continue to quibble over the fact that it didn’t? No. Let us act together now #OpenUCT.