“I am interested in how I use the university as a social instrument that drives change and effective engagement with the realities of the majority,” says Siseko Kumalo, PhD candidate in Political Science

Posted on June 25, 2021

“As the next generation, we must ensure that we create opportunities for the majority in our country,” says Siseko Kumalo, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, researcher, lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria (UP), who chats about his work and reflects on Youth Month.

Tell us about yourself and your educational qualifications.

I am a PhD candidate working in the area of Political Philosophy, with a focus on the question of national identity in South Africa. I hold a Master of Arts (cum laude) in Political Philosophy from UP. My research and teaching interests centre on the themes of education decolonisation in the South African academe.

A particular highlight for me last year was being featured on the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans list in the Education category. Other highlights include speaking at Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies in the US and lecturing on the subject of decolonising global health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

I was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Decolonising Disciplines; edited the book Decolonisation as Democratisation: Global Insights into the South African Experience; and co-edited Decolonising Curricula and Pedagogy in Higher Education: Bringing Decolonial Theory into Contact with Teaching Practice as well as University on the Border: Crisis of Authority and Precarity. I also serve on the editorial collective of the journal Stilet, the Tydskrif vir Letterkunde Association as well as on the Literary Association of South Africa’s executive committee.

How has Youth Month had an impact on your life?

Youth Month has made me conscious of the contributions that young people can make in global systems, not only in South Africa, but across the globe. I owe this perspective to my engagement with the music and thought of artists such as Letta Mbulu, who in 1993 released the song Amakhamandela (Not Yet Uhuru). In this song, she observed that liberation was still elusive for most people in South Africa, and that while we achieved universal franchise in 1994, substantive freedom and equal participation in the democratic systems of South Africa remained a dream for most. As the next generation, we must ensure that we create opportunities for the majority in our country and contexts similar to ours. 

How you are helping your community?

I am interested in how we use the university as a social instrument that drives change and effective engagement with the realities of the majority. This is evidenced in a paper I wrote that appeared last year in Higher Education Quarterly, in which I theorise on how we can broaden the concept of public accountability as it pertains to institutions of higher learning. My theory development uses the White Paper 3 of 1997 as its starting point. In the foreword to the White Paper, Minister Sibusiso Bengu [who was Education Minister at the time] indicates that higher education needs to serve the democratic dispensation and not insulated communities.

Put differently, the research agenda of the scientific system in South Africa needs to take as its starting point the phenomenological pains that afflict the lives of South Africans. This move, while slow, is beginning to take shape in the kinds of research projects that are being driven by universities across the country. For example, the School of Conversational Philosophy [The Conversational School of Philosophy?], which is hosted jointly by UP and the University of Fort Hare’s Departments of Philosophy, demonstrates a concern with responsive theory that answers questions and challenges as they concern the realities of Africans in Africa. Such a move challenges the historical theoretical dependency that many have decried on the continent.  

What advice would you give to young men and women about helping their communities?

Pursue your dreams, irrespective of the challenges and adversity that you might face; remain truthful and faithful to your ambitions, hopes and desires. We are the people who will inherit the world, so we must act as agents of change rather than wait on the state, government or anyone else to actualise our vision and hopes for our societies. 

To this end, perseverance and an unwavering commitment to our dreams are non-negotiable. We have to realise that we have the power to change the script, and ought not to continue with practices that inflict self-harm. We have to be the generation that walks a tightrope of realising our dreams while also being able to afford ourselves a generosity that was not available to previous generations.

While liberation continues to be an elusive reality for most, the generations that came before us managed to create opportunities for access, which is why we have young leading figures in academia – such as Professor Joel Modiri, Associate Professor of Jurisprudence at UP and other trailblazing youth – who are making their mark within the sector and through higher education. The historical mission of a scientific system that serves a democratic South Africa is being realised in the kinds of theory we are producing. Moreover, these theories do not depend on mimicry: our universities are becoming their own brands rather than mini Oxfords or Harvards. This is the vision we ought to keep alive as we assume the roles of leadership in our institutions. 


- Author Primarashni Gower

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