In South Africa, what are we supposed to do away with when we decolonise the curriculum?

This is not a project that one racial group can claim sole custodianship over. It is a concerted effort to bring into dialogue, and even contestation, locally-theorised knowledge from Africa with knowledge from across continents.

Emmanuel Mgqwashu
1 March 2017


Flickr/lentina_x. All rights reserved.

Flickr/lentina_x. All rights reserved.

There is general agreement within the academy that we cannot, any longer, dissociate the work we do, within our disciplines, from a critical reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work. In the process of knowledge generation and dissemination, there is a growing commitment to the idea of ridding our norms, practices, and beliefs of a sense of superiority of Europe, and inferiority of anything other than European or white.

We seem to agree, in other words, that the discourse of decolonising the university curriculum needs to make its way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes.

What is crucial, however, is developing shared understandings and conceptualisations of the meanings of curriculum and decolonisation. What we mean by decolonising such a curriculum in the context of South Africa still remains a grey area. Whose responsibility is it to decolonise the curriculum, and for what purpose?

Many of us often use the terms syllabus and curriculum synonymously. While syllabus refers to the topics and content to be covered in a course, curriculum refers to something much broader. Pinar defines curriculum theory as the interdisciplinary study of educational experience. Educational experience implies more than just the topics covered in a course. It encompasses attitudes, the values, dispositions, worldviews, that get learned, un-learned, re-learned, re-formed, de-constructed, and re-constructed, as a result of the tuition our students are exposed to through their degrees. This is clearly beyond getting ‘good’ grades, dean’s commendation certificates, or even summa cum laude passes. Pinar cautions that:

“By linking the curriculum to student performance on standardized examinations, politicians have, in effect, taken control of what is to be taught: the curriculum. Examination driven curricula demote teachers from scholars and intellectuals to technicians in service to the state. The cultivation of self-reflexive, interdisciplinary erudition and intellectuality disappears.”

In order to go beyond just grades, we need to think critically about what kind of human being our content choices, pedagogic approaches, and assessment strategies, ultimately produce. What kind of dispositions are we conferring degrees upon?

We also need to clarify which approach to curriculum we are subscribing to – this is particularly crucial in a post-conflict society like South Africa. Four ways of approaching curriculum theory and practice include:

–       Curriculum as Product: certain skills to master and facts to know

–       Curriculum as Process: the interaction of teachers, students, and knowledge

–       Curriculum as Context: contextually shaped

–       Curriculum as Praxis: practice should not focus exclusively on individuals or groups alone, but how both create understandings and practices

Curriculum as Context and Curriculum as Praxis approaches seem to align well with the project of decolonising the curriculum. While Curriculum as Context gives credence to a critique of the ways in which the curriculum, and therefore education, reproduces the unequal social relations after graduation, Curriculum as Praxis creates conditions to democratise the learning space: both individual and group identities within the educational context create understandings and practices within the process of knowledge generation and dissemination.

As is the case with syllabus and curriculum, many of us use transformation and decolonisation interchangeably. Put simply, transformation means changing form. An example would be pouring water into a square-shaped container, and then into a circular-shaped one. Its shape changes (square or circular), but its properties and quality remain the same. Within the curriculum debates after 1994 in South Africa, transformation manifests itself through the introduction of texts written by scholars and writers who are neither white and/or European.

The consequence of this has led to a situation where, on the one hand, decolonisation has been made to seem like a project for the previously colonised. The descendants (whites) of those who colonised appear to be constructed as ‘the enemy’. And on the other hand, it has created a false need in the descendants of colonisers to defend themselves. This is not to say that proponents for the decolonisation project come from black people only, nor that all black South Africans have supported decolonising the curriculum. Broadly speaking though, the emotions that get evoked and the responses arising from these overwhelmingly create an impression that decolonisation is an attack on white people by black people.

This perception, in my view, requires unsettling.

The reason we even identify the need to decolonise the curriculum is that, living in South Africa, we are in agreement that the two evils, colonialism and apartheid, excluded not just individuals from a particular race group, but their knowledge, skills, ideas, talents, gifts, wisdom, creativity, and originality. The high rate of school drop-outs, unemployment levels, poverty, crime, and so on, are fundamentally the fruits of social exclusion, racism, discrimination, and oppression. This is the reason decolonisation shares the same pre-fix as detox: ‘de’ – meaning doing away with.

So what are we, as a people, supposed to do away with when we decolonise the curriculum?  We are ridding our norms, practices, and beliefs, of a sense of superiority of Europe and inferiority of anything other than European or white. We are also undertaking a massive introduction of scholarship across fields with theories emerging from, and underpinned by, the African, local experience. Fundamentally, this process is characterised by a concerted effort to bring into dialogue, and even contestation, locally theorised and generated knowledge from Africa with knowledge from across continents.    

This is not a project that one racial group can claim sole custodianship over. However, the groups that have benefitted directly from the ills of colonialism and apartheid in our country, whose ancestors maimed, dehumanised, oppressed, and stripped generation after generation of the majority of this country, I argue, should be the first to be genuinely repentant, and openly acknowledge the lie that anything other than European or white is inferior. This will involve, among other things, conscious, deliberate, and genuine interest in indigenous knowledge systems, cultures, peoples and languages, and the generation of theories that are informed by life as it is lived, experienced and understood by local inhabitants.

On the characteristics of an American university, for instance, a former Harvard president once said:

“A university must grow from seed. It cannot be transplanted from England or Germany in full leaf and bearing. When the American university appears, it will not be a copy of foreign institutions, but the slow and natural growth of American social and political habits.”

This is the vision of a university that I suggest will initiate genuine, sincere and progressive decolonisation of the curriculum in higher education.

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy. Read more here.

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