Opinionista Babatunde Fagbayibo 29 April 2018

Esther Mahlangu’s belated recognition, and the struggle to decolonise knowledge systems

Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu has finally been recognised for her work, with the University of Johannesburg awarding her an honorary doctorate. But the question remains – what happens from here? How does the institution intend to channel her genius, and that of many others like her, into shaping and decolonising knowledge systems?

The recent conferment of an honorary doctorate on the iconic Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu, has once again pushed to the fore the debate on coming up with substantial strategies for centring indigenous thoughts and knowledge systems in the academe.

The University of Johannesburg aptly noted that she was recognised for “her legacy as a cultural entrepreneur and educator, skilfully negotiating local and global worlds”. Esther Mahlangu’s Ndebele artistry has attracted significant global recognition, with BMW incorporating her artwork into the design of its new 7 Series. Her works continue to adorn museums across the globe.

That it took the university system in South Africa this long to recognise her genius speaks to the glib attention that is often paid to decolonising the education system. This is not unique to South Africa, as many other African countries continue to show no serious plan to incorporate the works of cultural figures in their pedagogical approaches.

While it is true that some of these cultural icons have been conferred with honorary doctorate degrees, the sad reality is that nothing really happens beyond the fanfare and beautiful rhetoric at the graduation hall. African musicians, painters, griots and sculptors are repositories of indigenous knowledge systems and could be the key to unlocking what the Nigerian historian, Toyin Falola, refers to as “ritual archives”.

According to Falola, “ritual archives” are “the conglomeration of words as well as texts, ideas, symbols, shrines, images, performances, and indeed objects that document as well as speak to those religious experiences and practises that allow us to understand the African world through various bodies of philosophies, literatures, languages, histories and much more”. In exploring such archives, we could find answers to some of the problems facing governance; teaching methodologies that enhance the understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM); entrepreneurship; regional integration; and strategies for addressing Africa’s marginal position in global political economy. The opportunities are immense, but will require proactive action from policymakers and African universities.

The reason the likes of Esther Mahlangu are not given serious consideration in the academic space can be located within a number of Eurocentric modes. One is the rigid understanding of academia, one that places more emphasis on “formal” education and the ability to speak and write English, French and Portuguese fluently. As such, Mahlangu and her ilk are regarded as too unsophisticated and misplaced to transmit knowledge to students or even appear alongside “knowledgeable” professors.

Another is the lack of interest in designing a template or curricula that would provide a space for including the works of cultural activists or their physical engagement with students. Such restriction is usually informed by questions such as, ‘What exactly are they going to be speaking about?’ ‘Does their methodological approach have a form?’ ‘Do they even have the knowledge to examine students?’ or ‘Can their works be grounded in normative theories?’ Lastly, there is the tendency to reduce the works of people like Mahlangu to mere aesthetics, with no useful pedagogical value. The implication of this is that students are denied the opportunity to gain from the immense inspiration and meanings behind such detailed works, especially coming from the ‘horse’s mouth’.

Africa’s loss has become Euro-America’s gain, as the likes of Mahlangu continue to enjoy patronage and attention from museums, global corporations and universities in the global North. The rights to their works and ideas often remain with such Euro-American structures, then used as the basis for sharpening Eurocentric knowledge platforms. What emerges from this situation is the irony of African researchers having to access important indigenous knowledge materials from institutions in the global North.

While it is commendable that the University of Johannesburg honoured Esther Mahlangu, the question remains: what happens from here? How does the institution intend to channel her genius and that of many others like her into shaping and decolonising knowledge systems? This question is also relevant for many other universities across the continent. The need to reconsider the status quo by bringing the hidden voices of ‘ritual archive’ specialists into classrooms is imperative. They are not only brain trusts; they hold the key to broadening the worldview of students and faculty members, and in turn equipping them with the tool to address many of Africa’s developmental challenges. As such, our students can only benefit from their presence.

Congratulations, Dr Esther Mahlangu, yours is a long overdue recognition. DM

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