Wednesday 17 February 2016

Seminar with Black Thought - Posting by Bongani Mashaba

Black Thought members each shared their understanding
The emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement at the University of Cape Town in 2015, seems to have raised an ancient, convoluted and contentious issue of decolonizing the public spaces, university systems and the goods- knowledge that the academy disseminates. Since the students-led protests, ‘decolonizing’ as a concept has once again become popular in the country as it was in the 1960’s and 1970s. “Various commentators (students, staff as well as academics from other institutions) have since used a number of platforms to grapple with questions such as what decolonisation means for a university in Africa, and where the process must begin” (Monday Monthly, UCT newspaper, 2015). With the debates now becoming even more heated, SOTL@UJ hosted the movement, Black Thought UJ on the 11th February 2016 under the theme ‘An encounter with black thought’ to have both academic staff and students share their thoughts on the matter.
Black Thought UJ describes itself “as movement geared towards championing the needs of blacks through the process of decolonizing the academic institution in its many facets”- ‘to disrupt the space’ as charged by Mr. Tsepo Moloi, the founding member of the group. The movement is inspired by the activities and the movements of the late 1960’s to1970’s who initially called for the overall decolonizing of the education system and public spaces.   

In this presentation different members of Black Thought UJ shared their own views and understanding of decolonization in the context of higher education South Africa and specifically for UJ. For Black Thought UJ decolonization entails a full recognition of black people from the language they speak, the cultures they practice, consideration of African content in the curriculum and being seen or regarded as equals to other races.

The group conceives the above as the epitome of their advocacy on the basis that UJ as institution is yet to transform. Rather, they believe UJ continues to perpetuate violence based on the appearance of materialism and privileges advanced through for example language usage. The group argues that African language departments are under-resourced when compared to other departments. As one member of Black Thought commented ‘Other departments even have modern couches, TV’s while African languages departments are more of museums with old ancient broken furniture’. This alone speaks to how such departments are under-valued and place people studying in such departments as inferior. The introduction of the online application and registering system is also seen as a deliberate attempt by the university to exclude black people as the university is well aware of the fact that many people on the outskirts do not have the necessary resources to access the online system. Thus, going on with the system shows which side the university leans on the most. The university is further accused of double standards in its language policy. It recognizes four languages; English, IsiZulu, Sepedi and Afrikaans yet when it comes to teaching and learning, English and Afrikaans are preferred medium of instruction. This practice is therefore an extension of privileges which are solely reserved for few individuals while the rest have to switch from mother tongue to English as medium of instruction despite their languages being officially recognized by the institution. This is considered grossly unfair based on the fact that students in Afrikaans classes are few and get to be taught, read academic texts in their language and express themselves in their mother tongue.
While the institution was under  heavy scrutiny, black academics were also not spared. There is a feeling from the group that having to deal with the institution and its unfavorable policies the other challenge they facing are black academics who seem to have forgotten about the struggle of a black child. A black student not from Black Thought that some white academics are more sympathetic towards black students while the same cannot be said about ‘those who supposed to understand them better’.
Given these institutionalized inequalities and refusal or failure from the university to lead the agenda of decolonizing the academy, Black Though UJ sought to concientize black students to understand themselves as the ‘black subjects’ by critically engaging with self and celebrate Africanism from language, culture to black thinkers while also advocating for a non-racial UJ.

While the views posited by the group were largely welcomed by the students present, few academic staff felt that the tone was too harsh and dismissive especially to white people as the impression given was that decolonizing was a fight against white people, to replace existing western cannons with African cannons without being critical. Some academics cautioned about the over generalization in the group’s view and argued that as much as their argument is sound but there is a need to theorise arguments than speaking from thin air.  

Brenda from SOTL @ UJ and Tshepo from Black Thought -who led the session
On closing, while decolonizing is a very sensitive issue and others consider Black Thought’s views as controversial, one notes that the seminar was a necessary platform for sharing ideas which need to be repeated with sufficient time allocated in a big open venue. Issues pertaining to decolonizing curriculum, public spaces and race are extremely uncomfortable as they are rooted in the particularities of certain histories, cultures and national habits and aspirations (See Reid, 1998). Thus, any discussion whether constructive or not will always ruffle feathers. As for UJ, Black Thought has fired the first shot, the space has been disrupted. If the academy is still a place “where a sense of identity, place, and worth is informed and contested through practices, which organize knowledge and meaning” then Black Thought UJ has set the wheels in motion to confront these topics of discomforts (Giroux, 1992:90). Whether we agree with them or not, the current atmosphere in higher education South Africa is so volatile in such a way that the revolution can no longer be put on hold for any longer.    

Monday 1 February 2016

(K)nowledge or (k)nowledges in African universities?

Amasa Ndofirepi, University of Johannesburg
The discourse of a fitting curriculum knowledge base for university education in Africa has taken centre –stage in academic and socio-political circles although sceptics and gatekeepers would always want to shut out the entry of such debates in scholarly forums. Picking up from last Thursday’s SOTL @ UJ discussion forum of the YouTube recording of Boaventura de Sousa Santos' works and my reading of his Another Knowledge is possible : beyond Northern epistemologies (2008), I acknowledge how African universities have not been spared from the remnants of irrelevance left behind by colonialism.  African universities, as institutions of higher learning and nerve centres of knowledge production and distribution, have also been dragged into the challenges of the politics of knowledge, including contestations around development, empowerment, transformation and democracy. Regrettably, governments in Africa have set up universities that have abandoned the project of dispensing new directions for the genuine emancipation and liberation of the African continent. Knowing what and knowing how in African universities have come about through studying texts might be relevant in the US or Europe but are often divorced from African experiences and priorities. What I want to make a case for is the idea of how knowing what ( as propositional knowledge ) and knowing how in current university curriculum are dictates of the prescriptions of texts that contain materials that have western origins. In other words, to know is to appreciate the contents of materials that are confirmed in western- centric texts and the reverse can also be said to be true. Put simply, African experiences currently have little contribution to make in the formulation of what true knowledge is in the African universities. A puzzle of an epistemological nature is: how should the knowledge acquisition process enlighten worthwhile dispositions and qualities that products of African universities should exhibit? Conversely, is Africanisation of knowledge in the university the most appropriate panacea to the socio-economic development challenges afflicting Africa in this era of the much celebrated neo-liberal and globalisation discourse?

 In pursuit of the foregoing, is this what recent student protests in South African universities meant when, in their Fees must fall campaign, they referred to “a lack of African content in the curriculum?” Could it be one way of speaking out against exclusionary, elite-dominated university curriculum policy makers bent to eliminate the majority from the theatre of recognition of other knowledge producers? Although some may argue that students are following blindly the politics of knowledge, dos Santos, (2004) would defend their actions as "resistance against hegemonic globalisation” which place western scientistic knowledge forms and sources on pole positions in the hierarchical knowledge pyramid. This view endorses the presence of what dos Santos refers to as the  “monocultures of knowledge" (ibid).    But are there some (K)nowledges that reign supreme above other (k)nowledges? Yet another pedestrian question could be: do university students know what they are supposed to learn and know ahead of their lecturers as the former attempt to separate the different forms and sources of knowledge? All these epistemological questions, I argue, revolve around the politics of knowledge and the puzzle of whose knowledge matters in the African university in the 21st century. I find the readings of dos Santos’ works  appropriate  to the debates revolving around the decolonisation of knowledges in the African university as long as proponents are constantly reminding themselves that Africa, as a continent and the institutions therein, are circumscribed by the global knowledge economy which is difficult to resist and shake off in the 21st century.