African University Day: whither the South African universities?

Posted on November 12, 2013

The global knowledge economy has led to an explosion in the volume of knowledge and information while higher education is now increasingly thought of in terms of economic values in as far as it provides opportunities for national economies and universities to increase their revenues.

Nobel as economic development role is, higher education should also be thought of in terms of its role with respect to social development, advancement and of human rights, and of social justice. Key to the achievement of this goal is the development and equitable distribution of knowledge. Universities have the responsibility of creating the capacity for sustainable development and the democratization of knowledge which is key to the advancement of democracy. African scholar based at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Prof Damtew Teferra points to the precarious situation African higher education finds itself in, in this knowledge game. While it is the most internationalised in form, dimension and scope, African higher education is however, the most marginalised. This is demonstrated in that most of the knowledge created and developed worldwide originates in the North, and Africa consumes it almost entirely. The languages of instruction, curricula and research also emanate largely from the North as no African country has yet successfully managed to change this situation. Virtually the majority of the books, journals and monographs used in African institutions are still published in the North. This leads to a situation of inequalities in the generation and distribution of knowledge. In this regard, a Spanish scholar and economist Xabier Gorostiga is correct in noting that the distribution of knowledge is more distorted than the distribution of income, wealth and power. As a result, the main determinant of poverty today is neither the lack of natural resources nor geographical marginality, but rather the lack of appropriate human capital to produce the relevant knowledge necessary for human development and advancement knowledge and skills.

African universities are crucial to the resolution of this conundrum and responding to the development challenges that face the African continent. While the ability to access and apply knowledge and technologies will remain a central feature of Africa’s renewal and rejuvenation, the African renaissance which has been championed by South Africa’s former president, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, will not be possible without higher education producing sensitive and committed writers, dramatists, musicians and critics.

There is a need for South African schools and universities to decolonise their curricula and embrace the African agenda in content and orientation. Globalisation does not happen in spite of the nation states and their institutions of development, but requires their participation and collusion for it to thrive. In participating we need to approach it believing that as a people, country and region we have something to contribute as well as something to gain.

My education in South Africa never exposed me to the history of higher education in Africa. I learned about higher education in African during my post-doctoral fellowship in the United States of America. You may think that this happened because I studied at the so-called bush universities which were regarded as apartheid universities and therefore inferior in quality. Yes, I owe my grounding in academia to a bush university, the legendary University of the North, in Mankweng. Even though the quality of teaching and learning was not great, partly because of poor content we were taught as well as the fact that we lost most of our teaching and learning time due to boycott of academic activities, the quality of life on campus was rich and developmental. The anti-apartheid extra-curricular activities on campus such as student mass meetings, attending rallies of the United Democratic Front’s Northern Transvaal Region enhanced my understanding of the social context and political economy of apartheid society in which I found myself made I learned more from what was happening outside the classroom than inside the classroom

It helped to redress the propaganda one was exposed to in growing up and schooling in the then Bantustan of Bophuthatswana. In that context, the hidden curriculum in schools was promoting and brain-washing the pupils to believe that they are independent and therefore free from apartheid. I graduated after four years feeling more equipped to make a contribution to society.

Fast track three years forward, I graduated with an honours and masters from the University of the Witwatersrand. There I was served a menu of radical Marxist theory and equipped with tools of political economy to understand the society I was living in. This was great, however, none of that exposed me to higher education in Africa. Instead, I was served with a diet of “Education in 18th century England” as one of my masters in education modules. Would it not have been great to be taught something like: “The history or evolution of higher education in Africa?” This omission of African perspectives by South African education system in general, and universities in particular, has contributed to the current Afro-pessimism that is prevalent in South Africa. I am worried that even though born after 1994, my 13 year old son prefers holiday destinations outside the African continent than on the continent. Where did he acquire these preferences or tastes? I know that images of Hollywood, NouCamp, Old Trafford and Canberry that are flashed on our television screens are shaping those perceptions and are feeding those appetites. But what is happening in our schools that perpetuates such stereotypes? What role am I playing as a parent to shape my son’s outlook of the world? It is time for curriculum planners and developers, parents and communities to ensure that our kids are educated in such a way that they are proud of their African heritage and identity, and never be ashamed to “think like Africans”.

It is time for South African schooling and university to educate the whole child and embrace knowledge systems that include the appreciation and advancement of our African heritage in this increasingly globalised world. Long live Africa University day!!!

Professor Chika Sehoole is Head of Department of Education Management and Policy Studies in the Faculty of Education, University of Pretoria. He is also the Chairperson of the Board of African Network for Internationalization of Education (ANIE).

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