‘No race has a monopoly over insight’

Posted on July 25, 2019

Knowledge production by universities requires the participation of all and no race has a monopoly over insight. This was said by Professor Francis Nyamnjoh of the University of Cape Town in a keynote presentation, titled “Decolonising the University in Africa: Inspiration from without the ivory tower”, during a panel discussion at a conference held recently the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Future Africa Campus.

The conference, titled “Unsettling Paradigms – The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa”, was hosted by UP’s Faculty of Humanities. Held in conjunction with the universities of the Witwatersrand, KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town, Western Cape, Free State, as well as Rhodes and Stellenbosch universities, the conference emanated from a five-year collaborative project, titled “Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn and Curriculum Transformation in South Africa.”

Due to the country’s colonial history, the curriculum at South African universities has been largely Eurocentric and based on Western epistemologies. Following the #FeesMustFall protests of 2015 and 2016, the student movement indicated that students felt alienated from the universities they attended as these institutions were not aligned with their lived realities. They intensified their call for the decolonisation of the curriculum. The result is a call for rethinking and reconstituting knowledge.

In his presentation, Prof Nyamnjoh asserted that “We need to conduct conversations with parallel universes and parallel traditions of knowledge production and bring them into the academy.” Universities need to be intellectually “nimble-footed” and sensitive to a world that needs products from them and feeds into and from the institutions.

Humanity a constant process

He cited the work of Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola who recognised humans and nature as being incomplete and celebrated this as normal and not negative. 

“We should celebrate incompleteness by opening up and taking ourselves out by taking the outside in.” Knowledge production should have an emphasis on conversations and listening.

He said humanity was a process and the process of being and becoming was constant.

Prof Tawana Kupe, Prof Adam Habib, Dr Saleem Badat, Prof Loretta Feris (Deputy Vice-Chancellor, UCT) and Prof Ahmed Bawa were part of the panel discussion. 

“Nobody has the justification of playing God in the lives of others due to difference in race, class, gender and generation.”

He said academic disciplines contribute to knowledge production, which is incomplete as there are no final answers. “An ubuntu knowledge endeavour would make us relevant, less elitist and less binary.”

Incompleteness was a normal state of being and should be a template for the organisation of a university, he said. “We are who we are through relationships with others and through interdependence.”

Some of the panellists conceded that pockets of decolonisation had been created through projects at universities but this was an ongoing process that would be, as can be expected, “messy” as it ruffles feathers and challenges the status quo. Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa, said while South African universities were part of a “global knowledge enterprise, we should assume responsibility to produce knowledge about our local context”.

He said South Africa needed a social compact on the role of higher education in society.

‘We need to rethink and reimagine society’

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Prof Tawana Kupe said “A university is not a thing in itself. There are levels of privilege in society. We need to realign the curricula and research agenda to create the kind of society and individuals we want. We need to use trans-disciplinary research to solve problems in Africa.”

He asserted that part of unsettling paradigms was to question authority and to create something new. “This will open up a multiplicity of voices. We need to rethink and reimagine society, while there is a diversity of sources of knowledge. We need to recover a sense of creativity. We need open-endedness to the notion of knowledge, as this will allow for a multiplicity of voices.”

Wits University Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib said knowledge production was a continuous project. “Plurality is required in terms of deriving knowledge from ordinary people and looking at how they live their lives and make sense of it.”

He asserted: “We are in unsettled times. We need to engage in discourses that are unsettling. We must not romanticise unsettling if it means silencing people.  Overall, very little is happening at the deeper paradigm.  There is not enough agency. In part it is because we feel comfortable at the level of the abstract because that is politically easy.”

He warned against keeping the decolonisation of the curriculum at the level of abstract rhetoric.

“We need specifics. We need to subvert the configuration of power, or we will be in trouble,” he said.

The moral obligation of universities

Moderator Dr Saleem Badat, of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, said in the decolonisation project it was imperative to enhance greater access, equity and success. There is also a need to enhance teaching and learning and the kinds of knowledge production that will serve South Africa and Africa or, again, “we are in trouble”.

Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Conference Chair, said while the decolonisation project was a work in progress, there was a need to go about it deliberatively.

“If to unsettle means to alter from a settled state; to cause to be no longer firmly fixed or established; then we are undoubtedly living in times where our paradigms (our assumptions, concepts, values, and practices) have been called into question. Our received notions have been shaken, weakened and perhaps disturbed (in part by the student movement – but also because the university is fundamentally an institution built on and defined by a larger project of change),” said Prof Reddy. 

He said universities had a moral obligation to instigate and create change.

“It benefits not just the institution but also the country and our location in the world.

“A key take-home message arising out of this conference also has much to do with the idea and meaning of a university in an evolving context. Decoloniality challenges the dominating force of monoculturalism, Eurocentricism and Western epistemologies by foregrounding the knowledge domain in the production of pluriversality and epistemic justice,” he said.

- Author Prim Gower

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