The 4th panel discussion in the series on the Decolonizing the curriculum, Teaching and Learning at UJ was entitled WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THE DECOLONIZATION OF KNOWLEDGE? The panel was as diverse as it was thought provoking. The panel was made up of a trendy, forward thinking lady advocate and Section 27 activist; a post graduate law student from the UJ SRC ; an ex politician who ran for cover from politics into academia and a sage, deeply reflective professor. Each brought his/her personal conviction and signature style to the discussion.
Tobia Serongoane was the youngest and he got to start. He questioned the following: In what way does the current education system honour indigenous perspectives? What are we decolonizing to and where are we coming from in this debate? What insights has he gained from the Eurocentric education that he has on these matters?
He said that he refused to accept that decolonization was only about race or colour. But at the same time felt indoctrinated as he knows all about Nietzsche but nothing about his own people, their law systems and histories. In his law studies, even though they are in Africa, mainly American cases were used. Where are the African scholars? What are the African ways that will work for African issues?
“What makes us unique as African when our curriculum reflects and copies western university?” He asked. He finds it puzzling that all scholarship reflects the authority of western authority and knowledge. Universities like UJ and Wits and UCT focus Research on Medicine, law and Science. But what about Agriculture which is Africa’s cornerstone. Tobia left us with the following consideration. Why has his entire education been framed like there are no women who played a role in the construction of knowledge and education?
Advocate Adila Hassim based her presentation on the right to education from a legal perspective. She stated that although the right to basic education was universally accepted in South Africa, access was still a contested arena. Pupils were denied access due to factors like nutrition, accommodation, infrastructure and lack of delivery of resources amongst others. She said that transformation must be driven by public participation and was a process and not a once off and that South Africans should not depend on the law to bring about transformation. South African law was a centuries-old system based on Roman Dutch law and couched in English tradition. However, the constitution was our own and unique in the world, as it protects the rights of all and also calls for substantive Equality and it is there that Social Justice is espoused in the law of South Africa. The nub of her presentation was based on the textbook case that the NGO Section 27 brought against the Limpopo Education Department for the non- delivery of textbooks. This landmark case showed that the constitution can work in the favour of pupils, teachers and parents. In 2012, the curriculum changed in schools to the CAPS system. All Grade 1,2,3 and 8 pupils were involved in the new curriculum, but no textbooks were delivered. 1.7 million Learners were affected in communities that were mostly poor rural areas with very limited infrastructure. Section 27 represented 39 schools and the applications were made on behalf of the learners, teachers and parents of these schools. Adila stressed that the rulings of the case were landmark rulings for South Africa and a victory for education as they clearly represented decolonization and social justice. Both judges agreed that we cannot be fully functional citizens without education. The judge in his opening statement of the ruling quoted the words of Fredrick Douglass an afro-America anti-slavery activist who said, “once you learn to read you are forever free”.
Professor Sakhela Buhlungu started by saying that no one owns the decolonization debate. Students think it is theirs and don’t want academics to “pronounce and pontificate” about it. He accepts that in 2015 students forced it away from the fringe onto the national agenda by refusing symbolic change and calling for real change away from patriarchy and gender. Academics are quick to move into this new territory to get published, but how many really want social justice to take centre stage. South Africa has had centuries of slavery and colonization but today we see no traces of either. Yet coloniality permeates every aspect of our lives and is reinforced through power and inequality and privilege. He expressed an uneasiness about what would happen once the student campaigns dissipate.” What then…?” he asked, “Will the project ever go into the deeper recesses of academia?” For example will it affect the way courses are planned, or which textbooks are prescribed and journals are subscribed to or whose knowledge/voice is relevant. The professor is deeply concerned by the fact that any move to decolonize the African university is seen as a move to dumb down the quality or standard of our university sector. He fears that decolonization will become a bandwagon to be jumped on or an intellectual fashion that is used by some to restore their tarnished credibility. I liked his contention that decolonization and social justice are two sides of the same coin. It is about dismantling coloniality and epistemologies of privilege and in so doing creating social justice. He concluded by referring to the ‘motive force’ behind decolonization and asking who has the power to run with it. Will it be the students, the academics or leadership of the institutions? He wryly observed that, “if no one has a vested interest in it, it will disappear”.
Mary Metcalf began by listing the barriers to social justice, as she perceives them. These are social exclusion; exclusion by poverty, exclusion by patriarchy, heteronormativity and barriers to language. She went on to raise the issue of what counts as knowledge; what promotes it; what denigrates it and what languages are valued. She quoted extensively from Ngugi on the impact of imperialism and colonialism to create a ‘wasteland’ of one’s own culture and struggle. Ngugi’s ‘cultural bomb’ makes people want to disassociate themselves with themselves, and to associate themselves with other groups who are seen as good, moral and just. Ngugi referred to this as a ‘spiritual death’. Mary felt very strongly that those who “dichotomise the struggle” must be avoided. She drew on three dichotomies as examples. That firstly, decolonization is about excellence and those who try to relate decolonization to a ‘drop in standards’ should never be listened to. Secondly that the complexities of the debate on decolonization have to be updated. She used globalisation as an example of how the facts can be muddied if the arguments and contexts are not updated. Finally, she advised that the larger political issues have to be personalised and that names, languages, heritage are all key factors. She concluded by reminding us that, “no one owned the debate on decolonization and everyone has a role to play.”
The closing remarks of the panellists left us with much room for reflection. The professor agreed with the point made by the member of the audience that the debate was an old one started by Mafeje, Mamdani, Ngugi , Fanon, Biko and others. But he said that what was different now in South Africa was that the youth presented a challenge to the Mandela style of social contract for the reconciliation project. He also debunked the whole myth of “rankings”. As far as he was concerned, rankings entrenched ideas of privilege and excellence. Part of coloniality in South Africa was the way South African Universities want to hold on to notions of ranking.
The advocate responded to the question of language by firstly pointing out that ‘Post-colonial’ is not equal to ‘de-colonial’. Schools still don’t teach about African leaders and Afrikaans is still the most common second language taught in spite of it being a site of struggle and resistance. In the discussion on why our schools still don’t teach African languages she cleverly pointed out that Afrikaans was rolled out to every school and every child in the whole of South Africa in a very short time under the nationalist regime during apartheid. She went on to add that we cannot trust our leaders and institutions to take decolonization forward.
All in all it was an afternoon spent in the presence of great thinkers who shared some profound insights.