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In the Fall: Decolonisation and the rejuvenation of the academic project in South Africa

Joel Modiri teaches jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal (and ideological) capacity.

One line of critique against the discourse and movement known as “Fallism” that is gaining increasing currency in South African public and academic discourse is, put simply, the contention that the student activists are insufficiently literate in the radical social theories they purport to represent, and that furthermore, their undemocratic sensibilities, their thoughtless militancy, and their proclivity for violence and now, fire, is an outcome of this illiteracy.

A number of commentators, including Achille Mbembe (who has been the most visceral in his chastisement of the student movement), Richard Pithouse, Christi van der Westhuizen and Nomboniso Gasa, have issued public criticisms along these lines, suggesting that the students patently misread particular thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and concepts such as intersectionality; that they misconstrue salient features of the liberation struggle in South African history, and that they rely excessively and inappropriately on African-American feminisms and anti-racisms.

A recent video of a UCT student arguing quite confidently that the way to decolonise the sciences is to abolish them altogether since, as a product of “Western modernity”, they are wholly colonial and hence irredeemable, will come in handy in the next coming weeks to the conservative detractors of Fallism as evidence and vindication of their misgiving about decolonisation as hollow, extremist, lacking in nuance, unscholarly, essentialist and academically unsound.

Needless to say, the student is probably aware by now that her statement was in error; that a larger – and precisely decolonised – history of the sciences would highlight the prominent contribution of non-Western traditions of science to what is today called “modern science” as well as the complicity of the sciences in some of the most devastating acts of terror known to (wo)man.

But, quite ironically, her error proves her point: the presentation of knowledge by South African universities as predominantly the product of the West, and the failure to recognise that some of the major scientific disciplines (medicine, physics, astronomy, mathematics, among others) have deep heritages in Africa, China and India, for example, is precisely what generates such serious gaps in students’ knowledge base.

For Eurocentrism involves not only centring European culture and affirming the West as the apex site of civilisation; it also involves appropriating other cultures and erasing their contributions to world history.

Rather than being shocked by her utterances, my first question was: what on earth are they teaching at UCT? Indeed, one of the more noteworthy revelations of the Fallist student movement has been its exposure of the mediocrity and ignorance – not of the students but of South African academics.

Cynical queries by mostly white academics, demanding that students explain to them what decolonisation even means, suggests their own illiteracy about the history and intellectual debates in their disciplines. It is jarring to hear scholars in the sciences claim that unlike the humanities, their disciplines are ideologically neutral and hence not susceptible to decolonisation – despite the wealth of literature to the absolute contrary.

I have even heard scholars of Law and Economics – disciplines that were historically embedded in the colonial project and are now central to the workings of Euro-American imperialism – ask the same questions.

Rather than question the students, question the teachers: where did they study? How can people at the rank of Associate Professor and Full Professor in African universities confidently confess to not knowing what the word “epistemology” means? The enduring lesson of the famous “Mamdani Affair” I think was not so much the racism and Machiavellianism of white academics in historically white universities; it was that universities that claim to be arbiters of excellence and merit actually harbour a confident and vicious cabal of mediocre and clueless white professors.

Asking students to justify the necessity of decolonising academic disciplines and overturning the Eurocentric and northbound character of teaching and research in universities, as David Benatar has, is a scandalous abdication of responsibility. But it is also a tacit admission that the majority of academics, being products of a curriculum in which only the ideas of white Europeans and Americans count as knowledge and in which the historical and present influence of colonialism and racism are elided, are simply not sufficiently trained or literate in non-Eurocentric paradigms of thought emanating from the Global South.

They mostly possess a partial and limited knowledge, which they parade as universal and complete. Instead, what we see is an embarrassing desperation to be “internationally recognised” – which essentially means having connections in a European or American university.

The threat that many academics – in hysterical fear that our universities have gone to the dogs – are looking for jobs overseas will simply not materialise: most South African academics are simply too incompetent to be employed in universities abroad.

Their practices of “academic incest” – publishing repeatedly in the same journals and examining each other’s graduate students – and their ascendance to high academic ranks in the context of exclusion and inequality shows that most academics are simply not competent – and certainly not internationally – outside of their self-made enclaves.

As an ardent follower of Paulo Freire, I could not stress the importance of critical literacy, reading and reflection enough. No serious form of social change and radical transformation of our universities will be possible if we are not sufficiently literate in the discourses and powers that organise and shape our social reality; if we are not well-read in the historical processes and events by which we arrived at our contemporary situation, and without a basic map of the intellectual and cultural productions of our time.

Having a grasp of how the world works, in all its complexity and detail, is crucial. And here one might take issue with features of the Fallist movement that do appear to glorify unschooled opinions and banal speech. I have been dismayed at what I also sense as an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in the student movement, a laziness to read, and a penchant to displace rigorous intellectual debate with moralistic and self-righteous reproaches.

Indeed, many of the blind spots in the Fallist movement could symptomatise a failure in political education. I often do get the sense that many of the key texts, theories and thinkers in the Fallist universe – Fanon, Biko, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Latin American decoloniality, bell hooks, black political history in South Africa, Afro-pessimism (US Black Studies), Aimé Cesaire and others – have not been adequately studied in the movement. And I do worry that the intoxicating gaze of the camera and increasing media attention may shift student protests more in the direction of public spectacles and choreographed theatrics rather than slow contemplation and reflection.

Most crucially, I regard the burning of books and libraries and the equivalent denunciation of bodies of theory as colonial and Western without subjecting them to a “negative-critical” analysis or “deconstruction” as egregious. Most acts of decolonisation – at least in the intellectual and conceptual domain – begin with a serious undoing and ruthless critique of the colonial and racist assumptions embedded in Western canons of knowledge, which of course requires actually reading the racist Kant, the Occidental missionary diaries, the Eurocentric Marx, the colourblind Rawls.

But none of this justifies the vitriolic and cold manner in which some intellectuals – especially those who claim to be progressive – have responded to the student movement. Something must be seriously wrong with one’s psychological and intellectual comportment when university professors go to embarrassing lengths to prove that they are smarter than 20-year-old students. It is unfair to expect students to perfectly grapple with a deep historical and social conundrum (how to repair the irreparable) and also to master the voluminous literatures, discourses and theories that have been produced in that effort.

And it is disingenuous not to see how we as academics are responsible for producing such a heightened sense of alienation, powerlessness, rage and disorientation in students. None more than the Fallist movement have brought to our attention the utter falsity of the “Rainbow nation” and the anomaly that Blacks continue to live in South Africa as an economic and cultural minority in the land of their birth.

When I see the student movement, I do not see a Boko Haram-like violent mob as Mbembe does or a terrorist militia as Imraan Coovadia does.

I see a brave generation attempting to valiantly overcome a plethora of historical injuries: economic exclusion, cultural decimation, racial dehumanisation, trauma, sexual violence, social pathologisation, poverty.

I see a creative experimentation with theory, politics, and activism.

I see the return of a richly agonistic democracy, a disruption of common sense and an uncompromising attack on the status-quo.

I see and hear a resounding call for epistemic justice; a demand to decolonise and liberate South Africa from the bondage of white supremacy, heterosexism and coloniality.

I see a refusal to be assimilated into an unjust and unethical social arrangement.

In their call for decolonisation, the students have issued a searing challenge to academics to seriously reflect on what we teach and its relevance to our specific location and social context. What civilisational delusions and historical misrepresentations, what epistemic illusions and entrenched biases do we maintain when we fail to reflect on the knowledge we convey in the classroom?

What sense is there in centring European and American knowledges and world views while treating African knowledges as an optional extra? The call for epistemological and pedagogical decolonisation of universities is a call for thinking and rethinking and for contesting hegemonic knowledges. In this sense, the Fallist call for decolonisation – however inchoate it may appear – promises to cultivate a truly rigorous and lively academic space and open up a much wider intellectual archive. DM


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