‘Decolonisation of the humanities curriculum is multi-layered and has no easy answers’

Posted on September 30, 2020

“The decolonisation of the humanities curriculum in South Africa is a process, not an event,” said Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria (UP), speaking at a recent webinar titled Unsettling Paradigms in the Fault Line of Change: Reimagining a Curriculum.

Hosted by the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group of Universities South Africa (USAf), the webinar was moderated by Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University. It presented insights from four out of 30 pilot projects drawn from a multi-university project led by UP. The project, Unsettling Paradigms, is funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

Due to its history, the humanities curricula at South African universities has tended to overemphasise Northern scholarship, while African voices were excluded. Over the past few decades, it has transformed but has been propelled by mounting dissatisfaction with current syllabi and teaching models/methodologies from the #RhodesMustFall movement and the 2015 #FeesMustFall social movement. This has meant a re-examination of the meaning of the curriculum and what is also described as the “decolonial turn”, according to Prof Reddy. He said strengthening the humanities and the sciences’ capacity to engage these challenges and contribute to equitable development requires research that can inspire practical interventions to reform the South African curriculum.

This has been addressed by the Unsettling Paradigms project, which Prof Reddy heads and is now in its fifth year. The project draws on collaboration among eight research-intensive South African universities (UP, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of the Free State, Rhodes University, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal). The decolonisation of the curriculum “is missing in higher education policy”, said Prof Reddy. He Added that the very definition of the word “curriculum” is deeply contested, while the concept of decolonisation is “multi-layered and nuanced”.

“It is a slippery concept. The decolonial turn is the organisational framework for university curricula to transform and is based on the principles of recovery, reassessment and re-positioning.”

According to Prof Reddy, recovery seeks to “retrieve and reclaim silenced voices”. Reassessment centres on the retrospection and interrogation of prominent figures and themes within the current syllabi to create and foster decolonial epistemic perspectives that encapsulate a diversity of knowledge. Repositioning considers the interconnectedness and entanglements between relationships, collaborations, recovery, and praxis, and how these create a broader and more holistic knowledge base.

He stressed that “decolonisation is not about erasing knowledge but creating a new ecology of knowledge”. Curriculum change over time entails improvement, retrieval and reclaiming what is to be reclaimed and the recognition of absences and gaps.

Professor Michael Chapman, a researcher-in-residence at the Durban University of Technology, pointed out that “there is no panacea in matters of decolonised teaching, research, and curriculum design, and neither should there be”.

Decolonisation can be addressed by, among others, “a choice of study material together with explication as to what motivated the choice (explication that is usually absent from curriculum description); and interpretation that eschews any temptation to ‘essentialise’ categories, but, in critical debate, explores interchanges of the categories, the West and Africa,” he said.

“Decoloniality observes that in a post-apartheid South Africa, curricula remain shaped not by Africa, but by the West, and that…the task is to reverse the binary, so as to centre Africa. As I did in the 1970s, I retain sympathy for such a reversal. In 2020, however, the challenge for the academy, if not for the hustings, is to move beyond the second stage of a dialectic: not the West or Africa, or Africa or the West, but Africa in the West and the West in Africa,” Prof Chapman asserted.

He said rather than either/or, both/and should be the key consideration in the construction of a decolonised curriculum.

During the webinar, panellists made presentations on their pilot projects. Professor Relebohile Moletsane of the University of KwaZulu-Natal referred to the “hidden curriculum” and the implicit messages rural students encounter while they struggle to fit in. Professor Ruksana Osman of Wits University addressed how curriculum change is engaging social just knowledge production. Dr Boudina McConnachie of Rhodes University spoke about the inclusion of indigenous music in the curriculum. Dr Uhuru Phalafala from Stellenbosch University reflected on her work in resurrecting cultural texts reflecting exile and how this is incorporated into curriculum change.

On the question of whether knowledge should be removed or replaced, Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni of the University of Bayreuth, Germany, said “we need to think about this creatively”, wondering whether the curriculum should be about opening up rather than closing up. Prof Ndlovu-Gatsheni also raised the issue of who will educate the educators in light of there being pressure on academics to rework the curriculum. According to him, the tools currently available for re-writing the curriculum are not enabling enough for academics. Siseko Kumalo, a UP doctoral student in political theory, focused on the importance of looking at the roots of decoloniality as reflected in writings by writers and thinkers in African languages that can be traced to the nineteenth century.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said, “South Africa’s higher education system is a bridge between South Africa and the rest of world that allows for the flow of ideas, information, knowledge, students and scholars. In this sense, the decolonisation debate is fundamental to the long-term well-being and sustainability of South Africa’s higher education system.

He said the decolonisation debate presents the theoretical and practical framework for “our higher education system to be a part of the global higher education system, but on its own terms”.

“It is one way of ensuring that we understand what it means for the 26 public universities in South Africa to be South African universities,” Said Prof Bawa.

- Author Primarashni Gower and Austin Pinkerton

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