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Source: FMM West Africa

The author argues that for on-going debates about “decolonising the university” in South Africa to have any meaning, what has to be decolonised first is the mental border that remains inscribed in South African notions of decolonisation.


Calls for decolonisation are on the rise. In this context, there are those individuals that ask the common question: how do you enact the decolonial shift? These bodies predominantly fail to imagine decolonisation because their everyday reality does not prompt them to dwell in this kind of radical, transformative thinking. Blinded by their privileges, they are unable to grasp it. And then there are those who would eagerly like to enact the decolonial shift. However, caught up in their zeal, they approach it with such a narrow perspective.

Here, I offer two interpretations of what it means to “decolonise migration research”. Firstly, I argue that, decolonising migration research cannot take place without a reinvention of “academic citizenship”. This requires a more introspect examination of “coloniality” and how current implied understandings of the term lead to the exclusion of foreign academics who are imagined as falling “outside” of South Africa’s mental and physical borders. Secondly, I argue that decolonising migration research entails addressing “colonial” categories of migration governance, language and epistemologies through the dismantling of the very “systems of knowing” that sustain them. I then invite the reader to also consider the potential dangers of a decolonisation agenda. Ultimately, I use these reflections to imagine the possibilities of a genuine decolonisation agenda of migration research. 

Reinventing “academic citizenship”

Decolonisation has indeed assumed central importance in the constitution of academic citizenship in South Africa in attempts to level the academic playing field. Historically, academia as an institution has favoured white male scholars and there is a disproportionate representation of black and female academics in the country. There is a negation of black African migrants in these debates, characterised by the reinforcement of mental and physical colonial borders. In short, black foreign academics are symbolically excluded from the decolonisation debate, which is seen as “window-dressing” meant only for black South Africans

In this regard, decolonisation and processes of affirmative action in South Africa portray double standards pertaining to which bodies can lay claims on how the university ought to be decolonised. This “status quo” is no different when it comes to the experiences of female and LGBTIQ academics who are oppressed by heteronormativity. The autochthony and nativism flaunted by these “essentialist de-colonialist” renders many black, African migrant bodies absent and unrepentantly excluded.

The marginalisation of black African foreign academics is not perceived as similar to that of black South Africans. I am in no way suggesting that the experiences of these two groups are the same, only that they too have been displaced in some way by the chronic effects of colonialism [[i]]. Refugees who are academics in the country, for example, have suffered as a result of conflicts in their own countries that are either inherently colonial or the results of direct neo-colonial interference by Western imperial powers. Sadly, often, they are also seen as part of the problem. This framework of decolonisation erases the colonial experiences of black African migrants. By insisting on a world view that revolves around national and ethnic categories, this kind of decolonisation reinforces colonial constructions of difference and the colonial symbolism that African physical and mental borders carry.

Observing similar trends, renowned scholar Achille Mbembe has argued that “one cannot be in favour of decolonisation and at the same time indulge in xenophobia or see no connection whatsoever between his or her plight and that of black students coming from the rest of the continent” [[ii]]. This contradiction suggests that the focus of decolonisation in South Africa needs to be broadened to consider migration as a social process and displacement as a product of neo-colonialism. There also needs to be a re-engagement with “critical border thinking” [[iii]] in which mental borders emanating from colonial physical borders are dislodged.

Such a reorientation ought to incorporate notions of time-space that are missing in the overly-spatialised decolonisation mantra. We should develop a reading of coloniality as a kind of temporality: a “chronotope”, that is, a discourse that operates with different configurations of time and space that give it its particular oppressive character. Then we can also begin to interpret decolonisation as an act that should tackle not only the spatial but temporal aspects of colonialism. This way, we may begin to effectively decolonise our colonially constructed language and discourse about who belongs and who doesn’t.

Through critical border thinking, we can demystify physical and mental borders. We cease to make our decolonisation complicit in state agendas that are bent on securitising the borders from African migrants. If we insist on borders, we provincialise our decolonisation. We would be misguided and then miss the political, subjective and epistemic aspects of what decolonisation entails.

That which ought to be decolonised is the mental border that remains inscribed in South African notions of decolonisation. How can we be guided by Africa’s borders when they are a physical manifestation of colonial discourse: a body of knowledge propagated through the ideas and theories of specific Western philosophers, statesmen and legal scholars that “invented” Africa solely as a geographic space to be exploited? Why must we then recalibrate these borders into our university walls? Decolonising migration research hence cannot take place without a reinvention of “academic citizenship”. This requires a more introspect examination of “coloniality” and how current implied understandings of the term lead to the exclusion of foreign academics who are imagined as falling outside of South Africa’s mental and physical borders.

Decolonising migration research methodologies

Decolonising migration research also entails addressing “colonial” categories of governance, language and epistemologies through the dismantling of the very “systems of knowing” that sustain them. Black racialised bodies have already suffered the inferiority that imperial classification assigned to everybody that does not comply with the criteria of knowledge established by white, European, Christian and secular men. Yet, native/ethnic and foreign researchers continue to use inherently colonial language to research and translate migrant experiences into data. It is sinister that most of our African languages have been disqualified as languages without any epistemic significance. This, of course, impinges on our subject formation and our continued subjugation. How can we be trusted in our thinking if we are doubted in our rationality and wounded in our dignity? How can we sing a foreign/alien song in our own land?

It is equally sinister that as “native” speakers, we are compelled to write and think in English. We are expected to research our own “native” communities and somehow manage to effectively interpret and write their experiences. Are “their” experiences not intricately woven into their language? It is my view that we cannot free ourselves from colonial categories and ways of knowing until we can allow our work to speak for itself linguistically and epistemologically.

Migration analytical categories and assumptions are increasingly being challenged by calls for designing and conducting migration research beyond the categories of popular discourses, without interrogating why these categories prevail. There are calls for decolonisation of migration research to engage with the continuities of sedentarist logics of coloniality operating through a new chronotope of “containment development” [[iv]]. Indeed, as Loren Landau has argued, Europe has invested heavily in new sociologies of knowledge designed to identify real and potential defectors from containment development. In part, this enables the savage sorting of “deserving” refugees and the highly skilled from ordinary, superfluous migrants who can then be legitimately detained and excised. Collaboration among political leaders across the Mediterranean has generated this chronotope in a bid to alienate Africans from global time.

Inherently, this impetus is linked to the logic and chronotope of coloniality, as it reinforces colonial subjectivities that are the consequences of racialised bodies constituted through imperial classification. Our research methods do not appear to have adapted to this sad state of affairs. This not only presents challenges for those with an inclination to engage in these discourses in order to challenge their underlying assumptions. I argue that acknowledging this is not enough. We need to address the roots of this problem. This exercise should begin from dismantling the presumption that migration data speaks for the migrants themselves. It does not!

*Kudakwashe P. Vanyoro is a research communications officer and doctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa.


[i] Walter D. Mignolo and Madina V. Tlostanova, “Theorizing from the Borders: Shifting to Geo- and Body-Politics of Knowledge,” European Journal of Social Theory 9, no. 2 (May 1, 2006): 205–21,

[ii] chille Mbembe, “‘If We Don’t Rehabilitate Reason, We Will Not Be Able to Fix Our Broken World,’” The M&G Online, 2019,

[iii] Mignolo and Tlostanova, “Theorizing from the Borders.”

[iv] Landau, “A Chronotope of Containment Development.”