Ideas of superiority and an imaginary hierarchy still plague South Africa today.
This is the sentiment of world-renowned professor and researcher Professor Mogobe Ramose, who recently delivered a public lecture on curriculum transformation at the University of Pretoria (UP), and who has committed decades of work to the subject of the decolonisation of law and philosophy. Prof Ramose is a Lecturer and Researcher in African Philosophy at the University of Limpopo, UNISA and the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.
“The idea of curriculum transformation should extend beyond the classroom,” he said, adding that transformation should be a “lifelong learning process”. Rather than focusing on the curriculum content of specific subjects, Prof Ramose took guests on an epistemological tour of former prime minister of the Union of South Africa Jan Smuts, and related this to post-apartheid South Africa, highlighting the need for continued insistence on the role of justice and ethics in contemporary South Africa.
Smuts had complete confidence in the superiority of the white man – his son JC Smuts recalls in his biography of his father than Smuts considered superiority to be “the white man’s greatest asset” that would see him safely through all trouble. On this point, Prof Ramose reminded guests that indigenous people were dehumanised and considered sub-human, making them eligible and available for slavery.
In both his presentation and much of his work, Prof Ramose critiques South Africa’s Constitution, which is widely upheld as a document worth emulating. Just as Smuts avoided an ethical approach to his native farmworkers, Prof Ramose says the 1996 Constitution of South Africa fails to confront the issue of superiority and condescends all that is native, condemning indigenous people to inferiority.
“This injustice of epistemic and social inequality is anchored in the ontological need complemented by the biological fallacy that blacks are not equal to whites,” he said. Prof Ramose added that this “imaginary ontological hierarchy” remains today – which makes the new South Africa a victim of Smuts’ thinking.
For Prof Ramose, the country remains mired in the founding injustice of colonial conquest, and South Africa’s path of democratisation is still soiled with a social fabric of colonisation and apartheid. As a result, the legitimisation of the racial subordination of the black majority persists.
The Constitution refers to the Christian God and Christian values, but Prof Ramose reminded attendees that not all South Africans are Christians and that the Constitution fails in the fundamental principle of ubuntu.
The audience was reminded of a key argument underlying all of Prof Ramose’s work: that historical justice for South Africa requires critical confrontation of the cultural, political and epistemic biases that still prevail in the present Constitution.
The extent of transformation is questioned by looking at the South African justice system, which is based almost exclusively on a Western legal paradigm with, for example, the British influence on SA’s Mercantile Law. “Our law” and “our Constitution” should therefore not just be assumed, as they have been primarily influenced by European values.
“The judicial education system in South Africa must reflect on the kind of legal system it wishes to construct,” Prof Ramose said.
In response to the lecture, Dr Joel Modiri, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Law, said Prof Ramose remains concerned that South Africa has not yet overcome or redressed the founding injustices of colonial conquest, and therefore has not transformed. “The forms of change we have adopted post-1994 have been evolutionary and not revolutionary,” Dr Modiri said, adding that Prof Ramose’s work challenges the myths that sustain South Africa as a polity.
True decolonisation of knowledge requires the epistemic perspective of South African scholars like Prof Ramose, whose work displays a commitment to questions of justice, politics, ethics and truth. Through his research, Prof Ramose is contributing to an understanding of the possibility of true transformation and a newly realised ‘re-humanised’ and decolonised post-conquest world.