Decolonisation Involves More Than Simply Turning Back the Clock
Decolonisation Involves More Than Simply Turning Back the Clock
A traditional rainmaker in Kenya. How can indigenous knowledge become part of university curricula? Department For International Development/International Development Research Centre/Thomas Omondi/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
By Lesley Le Grange /

South Africans have been appalled during 2016 by images of graduates “begging” for jobs at traffic lights. Their pleas are a stark depiction of the country’s grave youth unemployment crisis. This, and the broader economic crunch, has probably at least partly driven the student proteststhat began in early 2015.

During their protests students have raised critical questions about the structural causes of growing inequalities. They want to know why black South Africans are still suffering the debilitating effects of material immiseration when their parents and grandparents’ generations struggled – and sometimes died – for a better future.

Many student leaders have pointed out that the protests aren’t about a single issue. Katlego Dismelo, a PhD candidate at the University of Witwatersrand, argues that their work is about:

eradicating the painful exclusions and daily micro aggressions which go hand-in-hand with institutional racism within these spaces … And it is also about laying bare the failures of the heterosexual, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist values which have become so characteristic of the country’s universities.

One of the ways they’re seeking this “eradication” is through a call to decolonise universities’ curricula. This has been echoed by the country’s higher education minister, who has said that:

universities, all of them, must shed the problematic features of apartheid and colonialism.

But what do students mean when they talk about decolonising the curriculum? And why is it such an important process?

Colonial models

All of South Africa’s universities have, since their inception, adopted Western models of academic organisation. These largely excluded and decimated the knowledges of colonised people. The colonial model of academic organisation is based on Western disciplinary knowledge. It was entrenched during apartheid and has not been redressed during the post-apartheid era in any serious way.

The theories and theorists you’ll find today in university disciplines from the humanities through to the social and natural sciences are largely derived from Europe or the global North. This is 22 years after apartheid ended and in spite of growing bodies of literature about theories and theorists from the global South.

The transformation of higher education after 1994 has focused on issues like governance, mergers and incorporations, and quality assurance regimes. Matters of the curriculum have been neglected. Some universities have “preserved” colonial curricula under the guise of institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

Although student demographics have changed significantly at most historically advantaged universities, academic staff demographics haven’t. So the curriculum-makers haven’t really changed.

All of this explains why it’s so crucial that decolonisation should happen. The more complex element, though, is how the process ought to unfold.

Destruction or refocus?

Listening to students via the media and through my own direct interactions with some, I have come to understand their view as follows: they believe that decolonisation involves destroying the existing Western-based curriculum and replacing it with something new. This ought to be something indigenous or African.

Recovering and reclaiming ways of knowing that have been denigrated during the colonial and apartheid periods are important to the process of decolonisation. So too is legitimating the commitments, worldviews, beliefs and values held in common by the world’s colonised people. This forms part of an emerging and evolving Indigenous Paradigm. I use Indigenous with a capital “I” here to depict not simply what is homegrown but also what all colonised people across the world share in common.

However, we can’t simply turn back the clock. Decolonisation can’t mean reversing technological advancement and going back to old formulas that were pertinent when the planet was less densely populated and when social relations were much stronger than they are today.

Moreover, indigenous knowledge doesn’t reside in “pristine fashion” outside of the influences of other knowledges. All bodies of knowledge have been influenced to lesser or greater degrees by others. Of course this doesn’t mean that imperial ideologies and colonial relations of production that continually characterise and shape academic practices should be left unchallenged. It might suggest instead that decolonisation doesn’t have to mean the destruction of Western knowledge – but its decentring. It would then become one way of knowing rather than theway of knowing.

Different approaches to consider

This decentring by implication means the legitimation of indigenous knowledge. It makes possible the creation of new knowledge spaces – third or interstitial spaces. Australian scholar David Turnbull provides an example of such a third space.

He points out that Aboriginal Australians in that country’s Northern Territory have for many years used their own performative modes to map their country. They do this by identifying every tree and every significant feature of their territory. Today some are doing the same thing using the latest in satellites, remote sensing and geographical information systems. By representing their local knowledge on digital maps they can make their ways of knowing visible in advanced technological terms. That’s created a new knowledge space which has transformative effects for all Australians.

Another way to achieve decolonisation could be through the process of deterritorialisation. Put simply, this is the idea that anything has the potential to become something other than what it is. For example, botany has been deterritorialised into ethnobotany. This field involves botanists working closely with indigenous communities when collecting and documenting plants for medicinal remedies.

Yet another approach is that used by the Intercultural University of the Indigenous Nations and Peoples, Amawtay Wasi, in Ecuador. Its curriculum pathway comprises three cycles:

  1. The learning of indigenous knowledge;

  2. The learning of Western sciences; and

  3. The learning of interculturality.

In this approach students first learn about knowledge that is local or Indigenous. Then students learn about Western sciences, which includes unlearning the mistruths these tell about colonised peoples. It also highlights the blindspots produced by Western sciences. Finally, what is useful of Indigenous and Western sciences are melded together and learnt. This becomes the basis for action that transforms education and society.

An important matter

As I’ve said, we can’t turn back the clock and wish for a world that draws on pre-colonial formulas. But universities also can’t let the imperial ideologies and colonial practices that still characterise many practices go unchallenged.

To the thorny issue of decolonising the curriculum there is not a single approach. The academy might have to think widely and carefully and not just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Destruction and replacement of the Western sciences may not be the only way of decolonising the curriculum.

 - Distinguished Professor of Curriculum Studies, Stellenbosch University

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Decolonisation Involves More Than Simply Turning Back the Clock