Decolonising education: Can curricula fall?

7 November 2016

“If I was personally committed to enforcing decolonisation, science as a whole is a product of western modernity and the whole thing should be scratched off.

“If you want practical solutions to decolonise science, we would have to restart science from an African perspective; from our perspective of how we’ve experienced science.”

These are quotes from a student attending a University of Cape Town (UCT) Science Faculty meeting with members of the ‘Fallist’ movement on 12 October. #ScienceMustFall began trending on 14 October, after a YouTube video from the meeting went viral and was ridiculed on social media.

The member of the ‘Fallist’ movement continues by describing how rural people in KwaZulu-Natal believe that black magic can be used to “send a lightning” to strike someone. She asked the audience to explain that scientifically, but this was met by laughter.

Decolonised education is a phrase that has been bandied about recently by students, but what does this actually mean? What does a decolonised university look like?

What is decolonised education?

Tabisa Raziya (22), a Bachelor of Social Science student at UCT and former #FeesMustFall member, believes that decolonising education is taking everything as it stands, the curriculum, culture and institutional values of education, and changing the face of it.

“It’s about restructuring the way it’s taught, what we’re taught and who we’re taught by.

“Decolonisation means making education more Pan-Africanist. So, the ideals of afro-centrism are promoted in the curricula and academics of colour become heads of departments and vice-chancellors.”

Raziya explains that decolonising education means reflecting a post-colonial intellectual space instead of one that reflects western and colonial values. She believes it should reflect the current demographic in South Africa.

A statement, released by the Fees Must Fall movement on 26 October, said that #FeesMustFall is a demand for “a free decolonised, Afro-centric education”. “This call is rooted in the liberation of black people and the total dismantling of the anti-black system that maintains black oppression.

“Fees Must Fall is an intersectional movement within the black community that aims to bring about a decolonised education. This means that the Fees Must Fall movement is located as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate the western imperialist, colonial, capitalist patriarchal culture.”

According to Athabile Nonxuba, a UCT student who spoke to News24, decolonisation includes the development of African interests, rather than Eurocentric ones, and an African education. “Eurocentrism does not serve our interests culturally, socially, economically. It does not resolve the issues of Africa.”

Nonxuba explains that decolonised education can only be introduced if the current system is overthrown and the people it is supposed to serve define it for themselves. “We want to review the system and curriculum, and that can’t happen without a decolonised institution.”

PHOTOS: Students gathered outside of Parliament on 7 October 2016 to hand out pamphlets to passers-by. They hoped to further and deepen the debate on the possible next steps for the free education movement by engaging with passers-by. All photos by Saarah Survé.

What does colonised education look like?

Raziya recalls sitting in a politics class at UCT in her first year. “I’d never read any of the articles in my course reader before. They were written in Old English and jargon. It did not reflect the politics of the time and I felt that the opinions were based on western ideas of politics.

“Politics is such a pivotal subject in terms of contributing knowledge. That was the first time I felt that even though I went to a Model C school, English was my downfall, because I couldn’t agree with the arguments when I knew that they were anti my belief system.”

Nonxuba explains that students are not introduced to new ideas by Africans, but instead the work of Europeans is offered as a standard in the classroom.

Nonxuba believes that black students are dehumanised by the current curriculum. “We study all these dead white men who presided over our oppression, and we are made to use their thinking as a standard and as a point of departure.”

Suellen Shay, dean and associate professor at UCT, agrees that this is one of the fears of the decolonising movement. “Curriculum content is dominated by – to name some – white, male, western, capitalist, heterosexual, European worldviews.

“This means the content under-represents and undervalues the perspectives, experiences, epistemologies of those who do not fit into these mainstream categories.”

Raziya agrees that the space wasn’t provided to talk about topics such as politics, race, rape, gender and sexuality outside of the media studies department’s hetero-normative and western frameworks.

“If we spoke up, the lecturers and tutors would pull us aside and tell us we were making noise. The one narrative that was given was not open for discussion.

“I felt that they were silencing black and queer voices and anything counter-argument to this idea that everything is fine and that we should all just be grateful that we are at UCT.

“UCT is suffocating, because I feel I have to leave a part of me at home just to be taken seriously. I have to speak more English than Xhosa in order to survive.”

Shay says that despite all of the talk about decolonising the curriculum, there has been little change, but that this is understandable. “Statues fall, fees fall, but curricula don’t ‘fall’,” she explains.

According to Shay, the risk of not having a clear strategy on how to decolonise education is that “the curriculum will look no different in 2020 than it does in 2016”.

VIDEO: On 7 November 2016 students hosted a #FeesMustFall Poetry Evening in Cape Town. It was a space to share poems, music and thoughts. See a video of the event below.

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