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Decolonising the curriculum: The silent war for tomorrow

Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based writer and electrical engineering Masters student at the University of Cape Town. He describes himself as committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a budding Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle. Follow his writing online at

The war to define the role of the public university, however small or large in the grander landscape of society, remains a hotly contested battlefield in South Africa and beyond. For better or worse this is a war and insofar as it is organic and has material implications, either indirectly or directly, to the broader society, it is incumbent upon us to critically assess, at every level, if we are to plan seriously for a future that appears ever more uncertain.

When looking at the present role of the university, bearing in mind the physical locations, layouts and dispositions of our existing institutions, especially the historically white ones, we see benchmarking and a leadership cohort that remains unapologetically and uncritically aspirant to emulate the likes of Harvard and Oxford both through form and function. In particular, through the focus of this piece I will centre the role and necessity of “curriculum change” in the decolonising project of the university as but one example of society-wide systemic change that exists as the subtext of such a process.

The debates highlighted in the recent wave of student, worker and academic protests raise questions as old as the formation of universities themselves, such what is knowledge? How is knowledge produced? Who is “allowed” to produce knowledge?

These questions themselves interleave with an institution that has historically not simply bothered itself with existential questions but has played – and continues to play – an active role in the social engineering of society, development of its political and administrative systems and contributed to the natural resistance to all those listed prior. The “hard sciences” and applied fields such as the various branches of engineering have also found themselves housed in these institutions, contributing in particular to the technological requirements of “modern” society accelerated undoubtedly by the industrial revolution and warfare, notwithstanding the demands of infrastructure, health care and energy, to list a few.

In the South African context the established of the university, as we presently understand it, arrived through colonialisation and naturally developed in response to, and consequently contributed to, the propping up of the social, political and economic imperialism that characterised colonialisation while also providing a space for its very resistance and subversion. The curriculum through the ages, as but one dimension, should therefore not be seen as “innocent” nor taken for granted but the site of contestation in precisely the same way as the society that gives it meaning. The call then for “decolonisation” of the university, and broader society, immediately shines a light onto the foundations of the bricks, the labour and the abstract designs that make these institutions more than the sum of their parts while actively attempting to reshape its posture towards anti-colonialism and by consequence the pursuit of self-determination and social justice.

Without entering into too much detail, if we take the present context of post-apartheid South Africa to be distinctly different than the colonial administrations of former colonies in the previous era, then I contend, as many have, that the shortcomings of the liberation process were evidently its buckling to “neo-colonialism” through which the multilayered domination of the colonial system had been transformed to sham independence and the illusion of self-reliance.

The term neocolonialism was coined by Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, to describe the socio-economic and political control that can be exercised economically, linguistically, and culturally, where by promotion of the culture of the neocolonist country facilitates the cultural assimilation of the colonised people and thus opens the national economy to the multinational corporations of the neocolonial country.

What does decolonisation have to do with curriculum? Our first task of course is to understand what we mean by curriculum and map the constellation of forces tugging its body into its present shape. Curriculum, I would contend, pertains to the content to be taught, including the methodology of teaching and assessment which in turn relate to relationship between the student and teacher. The hierarchical relations of authority encouraged through the political systems of colonialism are seen in its institutions – the university was no exception. The role of the teacher or professor as the holder of knowledge and the students as empty receptacles on a path towards “enlightenment” form part of a broader ideological project which finds its roots in western philosophy and by consequence finds itself as the dominant means of holding educational spaces by virtue of western domination more broadly.

The decolonisation liberation movements of the previous generation across the Third World in many instances made use of alternative arrangements of the student-teacher relationship that inbuilt in its methodology a contestation of hierarchy and an appreciation for the context through which that particular conversation is being had. These means while not without their problems or constraints, they find meaning and historical significance in relation to decolonisation and what it aims to achieve. In the “modern” institutions we see an acceleration of the cementing of the ways of teaching and learning through concrete layouts of hierarchical lecture theatres, libraries and information technology.

In relation to content one may go little further than the question of the disciplines as they presently exist and how they came into being. These questions relate to the context in which those intellectual questions were asked, what they were responding to and what the limits and constraints of their decision-making entailed.

By way of an example we shall discuss the coming into being of Electrical Engineering departments in South Africa. The discipline of Electrical Engineering itself comes into being through a professionalisation of branches of applied physics and mathematics as means to further develop technology harnessing the phenomena of energy, electricity and electromagnetic waves.

In the early South African context the major economic drivers in the early stages of these departments would have been the generation and distribution of electrical energy, mining technology and military applications. All of these elements that shaped this emerging discipline are evidently not apolitical and formed as a response, to some extent, to the social, political and economic projects of the time. The pursuit then of a decolonised curriculum in this context must respond the constraints of the existing economy and state pressures and answer fundamental questions around the “role of the engineer” in the existing and future society in relation to the project of self-reliance in the pursuit of self-determination.

For example, if the future society were to decide to weigh up whether to nationalise access and production of its resources, would engineering schools be prepared to foster graduates who could fulfil this task, or are our existing curriculums and educational systems built on the assumption that reliance on external expertise will be provided, thus rendering, to some extent, self-determination a perpetually risky decision.

In light of this example, the relationship of the “hard sciences” and the likes of engineering have often been described as “exempt” from the bounds of the discussions on decolonisation and curriculum; however, if we are to take seriously the intellectual problems raised by decolonisation as a process it is immediately evident that this is not the case. The racial domination and male domination of these disciplines in particular cannot be seen out of context of the historical ideological projects that produce them and their impact on the curriculum, and ways of seeing and understanding the scope of these disciplines cannot be understated.

If anything, the depoliticisation of science and technology in the role of society is a serious concern for anyone interested in systemic change. For disciplines touted consistently as “objective” and of “higher status” than that of the Arts, there is surprisingly little critical reflection that surfaces the fallacious basis of these assumptions and by consequence passes this on to students and society, essentially operating like a factory for technocratic units of labour in the neutralised neocolonial exploitative economy.

The case for decolonisation of the curriculum in the humanities by contrast is more intuitively understood as the tools to unpack how this process effects the curriculum and beyond are likely to be best accommodated in this faculty and the bodies of work it charges, by my assessment. The role of funding from the Global North, in particular from sources in the US and UK, will play a central role in how the decolonisation project in the humanities unfolds, especially given that by way of observation they appear the most receptive to responding to the possibility of this paradigm of change. The power dynamics between historically black, white and other international institutions (particularly those in empire), and their relationship to funding frame the race to “set the agenda” of tomorrow through curriculum change, pose serious obstacles to the hope of producing genuinely decolonised outcomes by reifying existing hierarchies but disguised in new rhetoric.

Lost in the noise of curriculum change for existing disciplines is often the voices of the most marginalised within the university communities – that of the workers. We must ask ourselves what it means to have exploited workers cleaning departments such as law faculties that purportedly house some of the sharpest labour law scholars in the country. These kinds of contradictions are made possible through alienation. The existence of worker exploitation and work itself that does not allow for one to self-actualise is surely antithetical to a decolonised society.

We must take stock of the hard-fought institutions and experimentations around what worker education could look like spanning from lessons from the worker colleagues at UWC through to programmes such as Wits PLUS which provide spaces for academics, students and workers alike to begin to make serious inroads into the democratisation of knowledge and its production. Creative possibilities, beyond what detractors for worker education in the university setting will argue exists at other kinds of tertiary institutions, can be made possible once we make the seemingly unthinkable leap to humanise the exploited workers who keep the institution running on a daily basis.

The role of decolonisation in the curriculum in relation to how it effects basic education is potentially very profound particularly given the very immediate links between universities and the basic education system at various levels including but not limited to advocacy, support work, training and policy development. Interrogating modes of teaching, the preferred paradigms of development and the politics surrounding what “model” environments universities are elevating as examples, such as Finnish and Norwegian educational systems, provide scope through which different lenses could be used to produce different analyses, diagnosis and suggestions for the devastating crisis our schools find themselves in.

The very notion that education at any level is apolitical and ideologically neutral should be swiftly dispelled and engaged with comparatively from Cuba to Finland to Cape Town.

The fact that the South African higher education system is differentiated into various kinds of institutions should not be taken for granted in relation to the project of decolonisation of the curriculum. It is important to question the extent to which the hierarchy of the knowledge produced at university in relation to other kinds of institutions like FET (Further Education and Training) colleges is reinforced in the way these institutions operate both through their institutional culture and their strategic objectives.

A simple example would be to question the ways in which class divisions between technicians and engineers are reified by the enlightenment project-influenced academy that places certain kinds of thinking in a hierarchy of what is regarded as “practical” knowledge or even the act of doing in and of itself. This also finds easy expression in the hierarchies reinforced in the doctor-nurse relationship which often results in a misallocation of resource and attention on a high level of healthcare where the vast majority of our society’s requirements exist at a primary level. A decolonised curriculum should surely facilitate and an environment through which different aspects and elements of society can contribute to resolving societal problems in the pursuit of self-reliance and self-determination and not towards the ultimate end of solely individual enlightenment or accumulation of capital.

The principle of academic freedom is often under heightened scrutiny during periods of institutional curriculum change, and for good reason. My assessment though is that this is often misunderstood to infer that “anything goes in my classroom/department/faculty”, a weapon to be utilised to undermine the role of debate itself by “Big Men” holding us to ransom, wielding their accumulated institutional power to override the outcome of any dialogue on a whim. I would go as far as to contend that the inability of a curriculum to change or its structural inability to be responsive to society and deal with the outcomes of the debate around its fundamental assumptions is evidence of de facto-fascistic behaviour of the academy more broadly. In fact, if the curriculum itself is rigid to the outcomes of debate, it is failing basic democratic questions and is symptomatic of an environment where academic freedom has yet been realised – for example Philosophy departments that continuously suppress thought beyond Western Thinkers fall squarely in this category.

The debate of the role of the university in relation to society is probably the central overarching issue in relation to the question of decolonising the university as we rightfully ask of our public institutions what their responsibility is to society and we readily exercise our right to contest space to be one that is more responsive and less reactive and exploitative to the society in which it finds itself.

In developing a socially responsive African university, there must be renewed efforts to open our doors and encourage scholarship, engagement and asylum to fellow Africans and diaspora across the globe. This task of building self-reliant democratised institutions and communities on the continent in particular cannot be taken lightly or naively. There will come a point when the balance of forces will dictate that the urgency of an African-centred curriculum overpowers the arrogant need for patient explanation from neocolonial administrators. When that moment is upon us, further success will surely be dependent on the realisation that South Africa is no island and that there is many a soul ready to commit to a project is far too often denied even articulation.

The fight for the curriculum is, for the moment, a less explosive topic in the context of a nation in turmoil; however, one can be certain that in these times of change the silent war for tomorrow is on. In closing I think it’s important to assert that the university is not central or necessarily necessary for progress in the decolonisation of society; however, it exists and so long as that remains true the opportunity for it to play a role in the self-reliant and self-determined Africa still exists. DM


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