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Decolonisation of the university

The author argues that Africanisation or decolonisation has little to do with institutions of higher education, but more about the death-prone position that the Black body continues to occupy in a world violently constructed by whiteness.

Introductory remarks

Notwithstanding the tragic reality that we, as Africans continue to measure time and the movement of history through the civilisational lens of our colonisers, let me start by stating the obvious: this convention takes place within the month of July. A month that signifies a number of important moments in African history and more particularly, the history of anti-colonial resistance.

As we know, the 18th of this month of July marked the 101st anniversary of the birth of the prime mover for the establishment of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), Umkhonto WeSizwe, uMkhulu, uRolihlahla Mandela, around whom this convention is themed. The 2nd of July marked the 94th anniversary of the birth of one of Africa’s finest sons, Patrice Emery Lumumba, in 1925, who as you know, was brutally assassinated by a combination of Belgian, French and United States intelligence agencies.

The 3rd of July marked the 29th anniversary of the mysterious death of the Black consciousness giant, uBab’uMuntu Myeza, in 1990.  The 5th of July marked the 3rd anniversary of the brutal killing of Brother Alton Sterling in 2016 in the US. Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot several times at close range while held down on the ground by two police officers.

The 7th of July marked the 42nd anniversary of the murder in detention of uBab’uPhakamile Mabija in 1977, in Ga-Kgosi Galeshewe, (Kimberley). After being brutally tortured, Mabija was flung from the 7th floor of the notorious Transvaal road police station.

The 13th of July marked the 4th anniversary of the murder in detention of Sister Sandra Bland, in 2015 in the US. Bland was a 28-year-old Black woman and activist, who died under mysterious circumstances in police custody. 

The 16th of July marked the 23rd anniversary of the transitioning of one of the grand master teachers of our time, a warrior scholar and unwavering pan-Africanist, John Henrik Clarke, in 1998. The 16th of July also marked the 72nd anniversary of the birth of the Black Panther Warrior, Mama Assata Olugbala Shakur. Who carries the title of the most wanted woman on the hit list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a political exile in Cuba since 1985.

The 20th of July marked the 94th anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential Black theoreticians of our time, a psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary, Frantz Omar Fanon, in 1925. The 23th of July marked the 30th anniversary of the assassination of the Umkhonto WeSizwe operatives, Brothers Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwich. 

And the 30th July marked the 72nd anniversary of the mysterious death of that intellectual colossus, one of the leading African nationalist theoreticians of the 20th century and founding president of the ANC youth league, uMkhulu uMuziwakhe Lembede, in 1947.

Why are these names important? They are important because they help us the colonised to gain a sense of the position we occupy in human history. Two, they help us to gain a sense of location and clarity of direction as we move through history. And three, these names are important because they help us to realise that, properly understood, the project of Africanisation or decolonisation has little to do with institutions of higher education, education or even curriculum restructuring. This project is actually about the death- prone position that the Black body continues to occupy in a world violently constructed by whiteness.

In dealing with this topic, we will look at the following:

  • What is Africanisation/ decolonisation?
  • What impediments has the project of Africanisation /decolonisation encountered and what successes has it achieved?
  • Who should be the principal agents of Africanisation/decolonisation today and what should their agenda be? 
  • What should the agenda of today’s Black youth activists be, as part of the Black revolutionary intelligentsia?

What is Africanisation/ decolonisation? 

In The Coloniser and The Colonised (1974), Albert Memmi responds to the question “Does the colonial exist?” by saying “If he preferred to be blind and deaf to the operation of the whole machinery, it would suffice for him to reap the benefits; he is then the beneficiary of the entire enterprise. It is impossible for him not to be aware of the constant illegitimacy of his status. 

It is, moreover, in a way, a double illegitimacy. A foreigner, having come to a land by the accidents of history, he has succeeded not merely in creating a place for himself but also in taking away that of the inhabitant, granting himself astounding privileges, to the detriment of those rightfully entitled to them. And this not by virtue of local laws, which in a certain way legitimise this inequality by tradition, but by upsetting the established rules and substituting his own. He thus appears doubly unjust. He is a privileged being and an illegitimately privileged one; that is, a usurper.”

In The Wretched of The Earth (1963), Frantz Fanon had this to say about decolonisation “Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonisation, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonisation is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification, which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together—that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler—was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons.”

In Discourse on Colonialism (1972), Fanon’s teacher, Aimé Césaire, had this to say about the condition of the Negro, “Yes, the Negro question. At that time, I criticised the Communists for forgetting our Negro characteristics. They acted like Communists, which was all right, but they acted like abstract Communists. I maintained that the political question could not do away with our condition as Negroes. We are Negroes, with a great number of historical peculiarities.”

Then in Decolonising The Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), Ngugi Wa Thiong’o had this to say about colonial education in Africa “…the entire literature debate was not really about the admissibility of this or that text, this or that author, though it often expressed itself as such. It was really about the direction, the teaching of literature, as well as of history, politics and all the other arts and social sciences, ought to take in Africa today. 

The debate in other words, was about the inherited colonial education system and the consciousness it necessarily inculcated in the African mind. What direction should an education system take in an Africa wishing to break with neo colonialism?  What should be the philosophy guiding it? How does it want the ‘New Africans’ to view themselves? From what base: Afrocentric or Eurocentric?

What then are the materials they should be exposed to: and in what order and perspective? Who should be interpreting the material to them: an African or non-African? If African, what kind of African? One who has internalised the colonial outlook or one attempting to break free from the inherited slave consciousness?”

From the reflections of Memmi, Fanon, Césaire and Wa Thiong’o on the nature of colonisation and anti-colonial resistance, there are a number of useful deductions we can make. One, colonisation is the violent take over or invasion of a specific territory belonging to a particular group, by a foreign or alien group. And as part of this take over, the colonising or invading group then proceeds to forcefully and fundamentally change the way of life of the indigenous people by imposing their own way of life on them, through the facility of violence. 

This means that, the identity symbols of the indigenous such as their languages, value system, customs, rituals, modes of learning, healing and production and even their social institutions get destroyed and are replaced with those of the colonising or invading group. In essence, their entire memory of self is wiped out. 

Two, colonisation is not a victimless project. It has clearly defined perpetrators, beneficiaries and clearly defined victims. Three, colonisation is rarely a race-neutral phenomenon. This means that, in a number of cases, the coloniser has a particular colour and so does the colonised. Four, colonisation is a fight between natives and foreigners. In his critique of colonialism in Africa, Fanon makes a related point when he says, “The governing race is first and foremost those who come from elsewhere.”

Five, colonisation is an inherently criminal project that involves and gives birth to all manner of a criminality. And six, the task of defining colonisation is as difficult as the task of fighting against it. It is a complex, illusive and often confusing exercise. 

If the project of Africanisation or decolonisation is to be a logical response to the phenomenon of colonisation, then those who lead it must be prepared to respond to colonisation in the manner that it articulates itself. What do I mean? If colonisation articulates itself in the form of the violence of the gun, racism, anti-blackness, capitalism, neoliberalism, misogyny, then the colonised must respond to it in the exact manner it articulates itself.

In my view therefore, the project of Africanisation or decolonisation implies the complete obliteration of the colony, its instruments, agents, vestiges or appendages. Understood in this sense and as implied in our introductory remarks, the essence of Africanisation or decolonisation cannot be defined by what only happens within institutions of higher learning. Fundamentally, it must concern itself with the totality of the nature of the existence of the colonised. 

In the case of Black people, it means not just to concern itself with the condition of Black people on the African continent, but also to concern itself with the Black condition, globally. This is important to understand because European colonialism as it articulates itself in institutions of higher learning or on the African continent, is a situationalised problem that is part of a historically evolved and globalised problem.

What impediments has the project of Africanisation/ decolonisation encountered and what successes has it achieved?

The continued collaboration of various African leaders and movements, with foreign imperialist forces, much of which has given birth to the phenomenon of proxy imperialist armed conflict, the mass theft of Africa’s wealth and the installation of neo-colonialist- puppet regimes, has created major setbacks for the project of Africanisation/ decolonisation. At the moment, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Sudan are classic cases of this.

The assassinations of various important African symbols of Africanisation/ decolonisation/ such as Amilcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane, Patrice Emery Lumumba, Thomas Isidore Sankara and more recently, John Garang de Mabior and the dominance of money and greed in the affairs of Africa, also under the rise of Africans. 

Cumulatively, this has resulted in the culture of rapacious looting and the tragedy of Africans killing each other, as part of the nefarious schemes that are driven by the ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’ mind-set, but also as agents of foreign anti-African forces.

Then there is the tendency to provide state services and opportunities on the basis of party-political factional interests, political or ethnic affiliation. Students and youth political formations have also inherited this self-serving parochialism. Another factor is the infiltration of African liberation movements by the tendencies of other racial groups and how this has distorted the agenda of African liberation.

There is also the failure to build a global body or institution that can come to the defence of Black people, at a moment’s notice, anywhere in the world. For instance, in South Africa, white people have bodies like Afriforum and globally, they have bodies like North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. What do Black people have?

What are some of the success of the project of Africanisation/ decolonisation?

This project has resulted in the development of a rich history of resistance and resistance symbols, many of who inspire today’s resistance efforts. This project has produced useful anti-colonial theoretical frameworks and a glut of literature on anti-colonial resistance.

It has also produced the longest resistance tradition of any group on earth, whose influence is palpable in the contemporary resistance efforts and projects, and has directly inspired the emergence of a new generation of activists, many of them young Black women, who are today challenging old patriarchal- party- political and gender-stereotyped traditions of activism.      

Who should be the principal agents of Africanisation/ decolonisation today and what should their agenda be?  

Post the Berlin conference of 1884-85, what we have seen in Africa is the omnipresence of a phenomenon called neo-colonialism. What this means is that, even though a great number of what is referred to as ‘African states’ have formally declared independence from their colonisers, in practice, many of these ‘independent states’, are simply glorified colonies.

For instance, even after declaring independence, countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, are forced by France, through an imperialist policy called France Afrique to store their national reserves in the French central bank. These countries are essentially paying France for colonising them.

Africa now also faces the new threat of Chinese colonisation. The foreign project to colonise Africa has not ended, it has simply mutated and in some cases, it has assumed a black face. Therefore, as stated before, it is Africans who are the colonised and logically, it is them who should be the principal agents of the project of Africanisation or decolonisation.

What should the agenda of these ‘new Africans’ be?

  • They must re-appropriate the discourse on African liberation from non-Africans and collaborationist Africans;
  • They must revive the project of the principled unity and cooperation of all Africans, regardless of political or ethnic affiliation or geographic location; 
  • They must spearhead the project to build local, regional and global political, economic, cultural, educational and military bodies and networks that are authentically African and free from foreign capture. This is particularly important in the context of the many military bases that have been set up by an assortment of foreign powers in Africa;  
  • They must mobilise African students and academics in institutions of higher learning to become part of the day-to-day struggles of African communities and stop thinking their problems are of a special nature and not connected to those of the African communities that exist outside institutions of higher learning; 
  • They must give specific attention to the fight against revived Arab anti-blackness in such places as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and extend this fight to the so-called Arab world and Israel. Arab anti-blackness is something that many of the people referred to as ‘African leaders’, are reluctant to openly talk about; and 
  • They must openly interrogate the value and effectiveness of bodies such as the African Union and ask whether it is not about time that Africans establish a new and authentically pan-Africanist African continental body?

What is the role of the young black activists of today, as part of the black revolutionary intelligentsia?   

This broad critique of the project of Africanisation/ decolonisation on the continent helps us to perform a more historically and philosophically grounded assessment of the progress and challenges of the project of Africanisation/ decolonisation, as it relates to South Africa’s system of higher education system, since 1994. 

Perhaps our point of departure should be to establish whether the state-driven policy interventions that were made in the early 1990s onwards, were philosophically predicated on the notions Africanisation, decolonisation or Afrocentricity, as understood by Césaire, Memmi, Fanon, Wa Thiong’o or Asante or whether these interventions were simply geared towards achieving ‘transformation’. We will explicate this question later. 

Secondly, as some of you know, from the early 1990s onwards, various policy advisory bodies were set up like the National Commission on Higher Education and later the National Working on Higher Education. These resulted in among others, the White Papers on Higher Education Transformation, the Size and Shape document, the Higher Education Act and later, the mergers and incorporations and resultant creation of universities of technology. 

All of this unleashed a wave of rebranding of the names of institutions and other institutional symbols and the appointment of Black and female vice chancellors. Were all of these policy and institutional interventions aimed at achieving Africanisation/ decolonisation, as explained early, or were they meant to achieve ‘transformation’?

My own view is that these interventions were more about ‘transformation’ rather than Africanisation, decolonisation or even Afrocentricity. And for some of us who were part of the student leadership during this period, the notion of ‘transformation’, as articulated by state bureaucrats, was deeply problematic. To us, the notion of ‘transformation’, concerned itself more with the managerial aspects of South Africa’s higher education system and not so much with its philosophical or political motives and character. 

In this sense, the notion of transformation’, was neo-liberalistic, reformist and therefore antithetical to the notions of Africanisation, decolonisation or Afrocentricity, understood in their anti-colonial sense. In recent memory, one of the moments that forced us to ask deep questions about the effectiveness and the value of the project of higher education ‘transformation’, to us the colonised, was definitely the #RhodesMustFall moment and the subsequent protest wave it unleashed.

Through this moment and like the Black young people of June 1976, Black students disrupted our political sleep and dragged us all into a difficult but necessary national conversation, not just about the nature and character of higher education in South Africa, but also about the nature and character of the society within which these institutions of higher education operate. 

They asked all sorts of questions, including those that some of us would prefer to avoid. In my view, one of the biggest contributions of the #RhodesMustFall moment was in how it coherently articulated the legitimate anger and aspirations of the colonised, but also in how it was able to achieve something that even the older Black political movements had failed to do after 1994.

This movement of young Black people was able to help us reimagine the Africanisation/ decolonisation project from the perspective of the colonised. This was beautifully expressed in their mission statement, which stated that, “We want to be clear that this movement is not just concerned with the removal of a statue. The statue has great symbolic power; it glorifies a mass-murderer who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people. Its presence erases black history and is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff – by ‘black’ we refer to all people of colour. The statue was therefore the natural starting point of this movement.

Its removal will not mark the end but the beginning of the long overdue process of decolonising this university. In our belief, the experiences seeking to be addressed by this movement are not unique to an elite institution such as UCT [University of Cape Town], but rather reflect broader dynamics of a racist and patriarchal society that has remained unchanged since the end of formal apartheid.”

It should perhaps not surprise us that it was the Black students at UCT who sort of lit the spark for the countrywide #RhodesMustFall Black student rebellion. The history of the UCT and all universities that were built for white people only, is deeply interwoven with the bloody project of European colonisation in South Africa.

UCT was built on land ‘donated’ by a mass murderer, Cecil John Rhodes. In fact, according to Rhodes’s architect, Herbert Baker, in reference to the building of UCT, Rhodes “proposed to build the university mainly from the profits—about £ 10 000 a year—of the Kaffir Compound System of De Beers Mines and joked that “He meant to build the university out of the Kaffir’s stomach”.

Then you have Rhodes University, which came into existence through a ‘donation’ from the Rhodes Trust. Many of South Africa’s ‘leading’ white universities have their genesis in the 1896 South African School of Mines in Kimberley, which under the direction of colonialists like Rhodes and Barney Barnato, and others presided over Black genocide in South Africa’s diamond and gold-rich areas. 

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, South African universities and in particular the whites only ones, are products of the massive crime of European colonisation. These universities were constructed in accordance with the Eurocentric worldview. A worldview wherein to be white is to be the universal standard bearer for all forms of human progress. That is to say, the progress of all non-white persons cannot be valid unless it is deemed so by the persons who are classified as white.

South African universities, (this one included), were conceived and constructed according to this logic. Their reason for existence was to serve as the revered instruments by which the repugnant project of European colonialism in Africa was to be bolstered. They therefore had to produce students who were perfect products of the system.

In this connection, for the European coloniser, the construction of these colonial universities in Africa, was not just a matter of maintaining what professor Lwazi Lushaba refers to as the “cognitive domination” of the natives. It was also about maintaining their position of being what Memmi describes as “a privileged being and an illegitimately privileged one”, and maintaining this position by any means possible.

It would be interesting to test Lushaba’s musings about “cognitive dominance” by asking: are today’s Black students able to talk with the same level of confidence about the contributions of Black people in the areas of spirituality, art, mathematics, astronomy, physics or philosophy, as they do about the contributions of Europeans in these fields? 

Do the Black students of today know anything about their great ancestors such as Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Khety, Khunanup, Duauf, Amenemhat, who didn’t just inspire some of the breath-taking Black civilisations of antiquity, but actually tutored the Greek philosophers who today are regarded as the founding fathers of the western epistemologies?

Do the Black students of today know anything about the work of more recent African scholars such as Ahmed Baba, Carter G. Woodson, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Ivan Van Sertima, John Henrik Clarke, Antenor Firmin, Abdias do Nascimento, George G. M. James, Marimba Ani, Frances Cress Welsing, Molefi Kete Asante, Archie Mafeje or Es’kia Mphahlele?

Whatever our responses to these and related questions, we must eventually confront the truth that, the project of Africanisation/ decolonisation is actually about the complete obliteration of the colony, its instruments, agents, vestiges or appendages. And for this reason, this sacred ancestral mission cannot be reduced to curriculum restructuring, the appointment of Black or female vice chancellors or the renaming of buildings. It is too sacred a project and must therefore be predicated on something much more fundamental.

*A transcript of a public lecture given by Veli Mbele at the Nelson Mandela University, South Africa on 31 July 2019. 

Selected readings

1. Asante, M.  “Afro Centric Principle in Education”, presentation at UNISA, 29 August 2016

2. Césaire, A (1972), Discourse on Colonialism: Monthly Review Press: New York and London. 

3. Cress Welsing, F. (1991), The Isis (Yssis) Papers: The Keys To The Colors: Third World Press, Chicago.

4. Diop, C, (1974), African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality. Lawrence and Hill. New York.

5. Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth. Grove Press: New York. 

6. Fanon. F. (1967), Black Skin White Masks. Grove Press: New York.

7. Fanon, F. (1967), Towards The African Revolution. Grove Press: New York 

8. Ngũgĩ, N. (1986). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: J. Currey.

9. Mmemi, A (1974), The Coloniser and the Colonised. Souvenir Press: UK 

10.Van Sertima, I (1976), They Came Before Columbus. Random House: New York

11. Williams, C, (1974), The Destruction of Black Civilisation: The Great Issues of Race 4500 BC to 2000. Third World Press: Chicago.