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Towards the regeneration of the university and public policy in Africa (Part Two)

Towards the regeneration of the university and public policy in Africa (Part Two)
Illustrative image | Sources: Gallo Images / Ziyaad Douglas | EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma | EPA-EFE / Andy Rain | Flickr

Can African universities unmake and make themselves differently? Devastated by historical underinvestment, structural adjustment, and austerity and increasing student numbers, African universities are sealing Faustian pacts with donors and grantmakers; have installed a pervasive audit culture, and obsess about global rankings. Part Two of a two-part series.

Firoz Khan is Associate Professor in the School of Public Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch.

Part 1 in this series can be read here.

Social thought and science

African writers are “sources for the analysis of social thought and for constructing social theory in the continent”, wrote Wale Adebanwi (2014). 

As “social thinkers”, African writers:

“… offer the kinds of abstractions, comparisons, frameworks and critical reflections on the African lifeworld — and the place of the African in the global context… without which it will be impossible to fully account for the nature of being, existence and reality and the nature and scope of knowledge in the African context.”

The task before us then is to “bring the social sciences back into conversation with literature (and vice versa)” via exploring and mining the “philosophical dimensions of literature and the social sciences”.

Telling and writing stories that reclaim our history — that humanise, empower, restore dignity, spark and fire agency, will confront an incestuous Northern regime of knowledge production and academic scholarship — with privilege, guilt and multiple personality disorders to boot. This confrontation is both political and theoretical.

The content, curriculum and complexion of present knowledge is predominantly white male, heteronormative, capitalist and Western. Little is said of the evolution and human devastation visited on the brown and black people in the invention, pursuit and accumulation of universally applicable “scientific” knowledge. This “science” masterminded eugenics, rationalised white supremacy, christened and legislated racism, institutionalised slavery and savagely mutilated the black body, time and again, for science.

Marion Sims, the “father” of modern gynaecology, gained infamy by conducting “experimental” surgeries on slave women, sometimes several times. Sims experimented without anaesthetic, “not painful enough to justify the trouble”, he said in 1857. In 1876, Sims was appointed president of the American Medical Association for his “pioneering tools and surgical techniques in women’s reproductive health”.

In 1923, the US’s Public Health Service, with the Tuskegee Institute, tracked the natural progression of untreated syphilis. Six hundred poor, illiterate male sharecroppers were recruited, almost 400 previously infected, who were not told of the life-threatening disease coursing through their veins. Instead, subjects were told they were receiving free healthcare, meals, and burial insurance in exchange for participating in the “experiment”. Penicillin — an effective cure for syphilis in 1947 — was not administered and the study continued until 1972.

Victims of the Tuskegee Experiment included wives who contracted the disease, and children born with congenital syphilis. President Bill Clinton in 1997, 25 years later, formally apologised to those who died excruciatingly painful deaths in the service of the worst biomedical science experiment in US history.

At the end of April 2021, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University issued apologies for using bones of an African-American child, killed by Philadelphia police in 1985, in “forensic anthropology” classes. 

Earlier in the month, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology apologised for holding more than 1,000 “stolen skulls” of enslaved people in their Morton Collection. The anatomy professor, Samuel Morton, was a 19th-century white supremacist who directed his workers to desecrate the unmarked graves of slaves, pulling and pillaging the bones from them. A black slave in life and servitude in the afterlife, now beamed live on big-screen televisions across the world, in the comfort of your homes, by Ivy League universities? We could do well to remind ourselves that “graveyards do talk back” (apologies to Arundhati Roy 2020).

The domination of Western science and the Western cultural archive in trans-euphoria or the transdisciplinary condition (L le Grange 2017) is not unrelated to nourishing egos, feeding exclusionary networks, and sustaining empires of the centuries-old historical disorder of whiteness. But then again, the university, especially university corporate, is a trailblazer in repeatedly pawning and warping missions and visions in blind obedience to foreign Western masters, their agendas, books and research. A word on business schools follows shortly.

Predating the word “racism” in English by 80 years, “white superiority” justified slavery and the slave trade; the near-total annihilation of indigenous people (Native Americans) in North America; the Belgian atrocities and genocide in the Congo; the colonisation of Africa and south-east Asia; the deployment of the Final Solution in Nazi Germany; the apartheid state in South Africa; and increasing neo-fascism across the world. Whiteness is implicated in the mass shootings in Norway, New Zealand and the US; the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings; and the 6 January Trump-inspired insurrection at the US capitol (Robert Baird 2021).

And it is at this point that I arrive at the political.

The revolt against white is right and the West as always best

“Development” and, more specifically, “development research”, about the other, in its “crudest form” has “… traditionally been about dissecting … [and] measuring the political, socioeconomic and cultural processes of black, brown and other subjects of colour against a standard of Northern whiteness and finds them incomplete, wanting, inferior or regressive. In essence, white is always right, and West is always best” (Robtel Pailey 2020).

Scholarship in journalism, art, music and literature has, however, over the last decade “spurred the most serious reconsideration” of the hegemonic whiteness of the “last 150 years” (Robert Baird 2021), not without fightback — from those defending slavery and Empire — charging present (global) “anti-racist revisionism” of seeking to “erase the past” and corroding both “national identity” and “heritage” (Zoe Williams 2021).

In the US, Senate minority leader, the Republican Party’s Mitch McConnell penned a letter at the end of March this year to Secretary of Education Dr Miguel Cardona, opposing the Biden administration plans to align teaching with the 1619 project. This New York Times project launched in 2019 aims at reframing the nation’s history by locating the “consequences of slavery” and the “contributions of black Americans” at the “center of [the] national narrative” (2019). In his letter in the New York Post, the soulless McConnell decries the “drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”, accusing it of reducing American pride to the “lowest level in 20 years”. 

McConnell describes reframing and centring as “divisive, radical, and historically dubious buzzwords and propaganda… not focus[ing] on critical thinking or accurate history, but on spoon-feeding students a slanted story”. Americans, he writes, “do not need and want their taxes diverted” from the promotion of principles unifying the nation — supposedly “shared civic values” — toward “divisive nonsense” fixated “solely on past flaws”. Americans did not vote nor pay for “their children to be taught that our country is inherently evil”. 

McConnell ended his letter requesting the secretary to “refocus on civic education and American history programs [to] empower future generations of citizens to continue making our nation the greatest force for good in human history”. When “empire” is invoked across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, it is also “heroic” — “a force for good in the world” (Bobby Banerjee, Jenny K Rodriguez & Sadhvi Dar in The Conversation 2020). In the US, the good force has come to battle “satanic-controlled” world leaders and “radical Islam” intent on eliminating “Judaism, Christianity and pacifism” (Mastriano 1991 and the New Apostolic Reformation in Eliza Griswold 2021).

But it is perhaps too late for conservatives to stem the global assertion of black personhood, especially of black and brown people, in the streets, universities, courts and city halls of both North and South. The tearing down of the officially immortalised and sanctified marble busts and towering statues of the slave traders, murderers and butchers of the indigenous “non-white” people; student revolt against colonial iconography and white male supremacy in curricula and academic disciplines (at Oxford University, too); and the rewriting and reframing of the parameters of academic discourse in bold and unyielding manifestos is testimony to the urgent imperative of philosophical and theoretical regeneration.

Regeneration shaped and informed by the Black Lives Matter-led global uprising cannot, however, be confined to recognition of histories and the contribution of non-Europeans to world civilisation (Benjamin Kies 1953). Neither can it be restricted to the freedom of black people to tell and write their many stories without fear, incarceration and lynching. Regeneration must be grounded in the rich contemporary oppositional discourses and radical impulses of this global revolt against systemic racism, structural violence, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and religious nationalism.  

Despite the international revolt against “white is right, and West is always best” or where white knowledge and white history define and govern thought, prescription and action, teaching and learning in Africa is willfully ignorant of our realities and development priorities. Academics and teachers of public policy in African and Southern schools continue prescribing texts and articles denying and dismissing the histories, dreams and concrete realities of their own governments and societies. Most mainstream public policy texts “take for granted” the legal and regulatory system, the public schools, healthcare and social security for the elderly, roads, security and defence (Angus Deaton 2015).

Most of the world’s population in Africa and Asia do not live under effective governments, i.e. states “lack the capacity to tax and deliver services”. The social contract between governed and the government is “often altogether absent” in much of Africa and Asia, Children die “not of incurable disease but childhood illnesses that we have known how to treat for almost a century”, writes Angus Deaton, the Nobel Laureate for his work on poverty, welfare and consumption. And rich countries are exacerbating matters via the arms trade, trade and agriculture subsidy policies, the pursuit and production of drugs “not for diseases killing the poor”, and the technical advice tethered to aid. In many African countries, foreign aid constitutes more than half the national budget and governments are accountable to donors first, and citizens second, writes Deaton.

Politically dislodging the epistemic privilege of the West as the norm and standard is not only about critically engaging and interrogating the dominant Northern public policy, teaching, learning and research. Dislodging, at base, pivots on prioritising the human and epistemic rights of the subjugated, excluded and devalued (apologies to Frederico Demaria & Ashish Kothari 2017). 

In other words, the public pedagogy of #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall, #BlackLivesMatter, and the daily struggles of the people from Chile to Hong Kong must find voice and expression in the lecture, conference and banquet halls. Post-, pluri- and anti-disciplinary orientations vs trans-euphoria (the Western science and subject/discipline straddled transdisciplinary condition (Le Grange 2017, Jessop & Meldin 2003 (personal copy) will not only help regenerate dull and lifeless policy courses, curricula, and programmes for students, but also repurpose and retool knowledge for government officials and administrators who must envision and manipulate abstract information, and design executable models and modelling, in the heat of competing ideologies, incompatible lived realities, sub-cultural predilections, and the professional’s own prejudices.

The university serving life

Can African universities unmake and make themselves differently? The worldwide assertion of black personhood; the South’s disillusionment with prescribed Western elixirs (World Bank, included) designed to mentally stunt and starve children to death; and the rejection of “borrowed language[s]” (Kwesi Prah 2017), “borrowed clothes” (Breytenbach 2007 cited in Erik Doxtader et al 2015), and only story (“white is right, and West is always best”) are resources to radically rethink the purpose and mission of the African university.

And herein lies the rub. Devastated by historical underinvestment, structural adjustment, and austerity and increasing student numbers, African universities are sealing Faustian pacts with donors and grantmakers; have installed a pervasive audit culture, and obsess about global rankings.

The result: the perversion and corruption of the mission and purpose of higher education and university. A case in point is business schools that still remain “unsure about the merits of decolonising” (Dara Kelly & Jordyn Hrenyk 2020). Historically though, business and public policy schools the world over remain oblivious to the “oppressive hierarchies of power running deep” in their teaching and learning (Bobby Banerjee, Jenny K Rodriguez & Sadhvi Dar, 2020).

Indeed, the “core principles of management” regulating modern worker productivity derived from American and British slavery. Plantation owners assembled sophisticated organisational structures and innovated early forms of scientific management, later laying the foundation for modern quantitative techniques for workforce organisation (Caitlin Rosenthal 2018). Business schools, like public policy schools, are accused of denying and ignoring their colonial foundations. The schools are silent of the misery visited on indigenous people by the white man’s “manifest destiny” of “Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity”. Little is said in their courses and curriculums of the overt and structural violence of extractive economies, the auto-petroleum bloc, the military-industrial complex, financial speculation and the precarious livelihood of growing numbers banished to the gig economy.

The “over-representation of white academics” in business schools, the dominance of English, and worship of the Northern star (the “most powerful business schools are in America and Europe”) reinforces denial and ignorance (Banerjee, Rodriguez & Dar 2020).

As “tool for, and a product of, shareholder-centric, profit-maximising and extractionist economics” (Banerjee, Rodriguez & Dar 2020), the curriculum of business schools feeds on “deliberate exclusion, ontological denial and the erasure of local forms and ways of knowing” (apologies to MG Mugo 2018 cited in Gilbert Motsaathebe 2020).

Worded differently, when the “quest-to-be-the-best-in-the-always-right-white-West” and third-stream income (the “consulting gem”) is added to the lethal cocktail of exclusion, denial and erasure, business schools often degenerate into institutional aberrations of questionable higher education, and national and continental developmental relevance.  A case in point is the “leading business school” at the University of Stellenbosch. USB is ranked in the “Top 100 Business Schools in the World; Top 3 Schools in Africa; and No 1 in South Africa”. USB claims to strive to “develop responsible leaders, create new knowledge, contribute to better business and better societies all over the world”, and assist students “to lead responsibly so they can go into the world as stewards of society”. 

Incidentally, in his acceptance speech of the generous donation of wealthy patrons for the relocations of USB to the Stellenbosch winelands, the rector and vice-chancellor of the university, Wim de Villiers, beamed about USB as the “only business school on the continent” with “triple accreditation” of the internationally prestigious kind. Ironically, a year earlier, he surprisingly questioned the integrity of USB’s MBA saying “it was not relevant to use case studies only from North America or Europe” (2018). “We need to incorporate this notion of decolonising the curriculum” (emphasis added), he reportedly said.

The historical dependence of business and public policy schools in Africa on “first-world” case studies or standards, most notably the “Harvard School”; the shameless ambition and unbridled aspiration to be “an Oxford or a Harvard of the South” or a “little piece of Europe in Africa” (apologies to De Villiers 2017); and the hyper-aggressive entrepreneurialism of business schools pedalling star-studded, accredited, off-the-shelf Tupperware courses to students and state officials alike is arguably unlikely to deliver “responsible leaders” and “stewards of society” dedicated to improving the lot of Africa’s poor and hungry. Tragically, deviation from this curriculum and path is unlikely especially given the insatiable addiction of university governors and administrators to the money, spoils and prestige of business school innovation and entrepreneurialism.

The American philosopher, political activist, social critic, and public intellectual, Cornel West, issues a dire warning to those walking the elitist path: “Harvard’s commodified state [is] tied to big money, tied to image, and, in the end, just being of service to the empire and being of service to the ruling classes” (March 2021).

Regenerating the university and public policy in Africa

This need not be the outcome! Tomorrow can be more than just another name for today only if we choose to make our continent, communities and universities differently. Elitist institutions producing elitist stooges (Bryan Williams 2015) are of no good to Africa’s dispossessed, displaced and disempowered. The “mass production of low-quality graduates” (Raphael Ogom 2007 in Thabo Mbeki 2015) is also of little value to the hungry, unemployed and homeless of Africa.

Serving life demands that our governors, administrators, chancellors, rectors and deans of African universities reimagine and rethink the role, status, mission and duties of the African university. Pixley ka Seme’s 1953 provocation — Regeneration of Africa speech — remains current:

“Whither is fled the visionary gleam,
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

And when the governors, academy and academics of various conditions and afflictions gather to dream and engineer Africa’s “liberation from autocracy, hunger, poverty, ignorance, disease and dehumanisation” (Mbeki 2015 in Erik Doxtader et al, 2015), be warned that society and students are rioting and marching together in the streets demanding a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable tomorrow.

It is true that renaissances cannot be conjured up like a spell (Eddy Maloka). It is true that renaissances release enormous creative energies and uncontainable forces that destroy (Moeletsi Mbeki 2000). Our governors, chancellors and academy must however be reminded of the immortal words of Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD): “Semper aliquid novi Africa affert” (Africa always brings forth/contributes something new). 

 The African continent, society, universities, academy and learners demand, deserve and are entitled to “something new”, free from the yoke of internal colonialism, neo-colonialism, the World Bank, Western theoretical evangelism and the paternalism of the bored and overfed. DM


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