Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Oppressive Paradigm of the Colonial Academy

Mandisi Majavu, SACSIS

Almost two decades into post-apartheid South Africa many black academics still feel that the “white networks that have de facto run academic decision making” are derailing the transformation agenda. This is according to the Charter for Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS), a report commissioned by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, that was published in June this year.

In many respects, the CHSS echoes the 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, which noted that the high education sector has inherited the country’s apartheid and colonial legacy. Consequently, racism continues to manifest itself in the core activities of teaching, learning and research.

According to the CHSS, one of the key challenges facing South African universities is how to transform the curriculum in a way that it reflects “the knowledge production that has been going on in Africa”. As has been pointed out by African thinkers such as Mahmood Mamdani, the enduring apartheid intellectual legacy at South Africa universities is the ‘paradigm of the colonial academy’.

Thus many universities across post-apartheid South Africa continue to study white experience as a universal, human experience; while the experience of people of colour is seen as an ethnic experience, according to Mamdani. Additionally, in many cases students are taught a curriculum that is premised on the notion that Africa has no intelligentsia worth reading. This pedagogical approach is more pronounced at former white universities. And, needless to say, the foregrounding of white experience and Western thought at these universities serve to reinforce the hegemony of whiteness.

After all, as many educators argue, the role of educational training institutions is not only to teach students history or whatever other subject, but also to inculcate students with values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. Thus the type of students recruited in large numbers into former white universities are the kind of students who are more than willing to adjust to the institution’s power structure.

In other words, the kinds of students that the former white universities are likely to attract in large numbers are students who graduated from the former white Model C schools and private schools. Interestingly, this is one of the observations made by the CHSS. According to the CHSS there exists a “common-sense culture based on a pop sociology which is rather racialised: Model C plus black = potential and success, Non-Model C plus black = failure.”

Hence institutions like the University of Cape Town, for example, tend to attract in large numbers students from schools such as Westerford High School, Rustenburg Girls High School, Rondebosch Boys High School, Herschel Girls High School, and Reddam House. This is partly because the mental outlook of the students from these schools needs less adjustment to meet the system’s demands [1].  Additionally, students who graduate from these schools have the ‘right’ attitude towards authority, and they fit perfectly in social hierarchies at these institutions.

An argument that is often made for recruiting students from these high schools is that universities have to maintain their ‘educational standards’. This is one ideological instrument among many that is utilised to filter out the ‘undesirables’ from the South African white academy. Writing about the U.S., American academics---Herman and Chomsky explain that the operation of an ideological filter in choosing the ‘right-thinking’ people to be accepted in institutions that serve the elite occurs so naturally that selection panels, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose the right candidates all the time on the basis of merit.

The ‘undesirables’ that manage to pass through by means of affirmative action programmes and other means are dealt with by means of clever devices such as being punished or failed for carrying out research projects that challenge a particular discipline for instance. Dissenting black voices that refuse to bow down to the oppressive paradigm of the colonial academy are caricatured as ‘polemicists’, or lacking ‘theory’ in their scholarship.

Obviously, this is a universal problem. For instance, in 2002, Cornel West, one of the most important black scholars today, was pushed out of Harvard because his work was seen as being not sophisticated enough to be classified as philosophy. According to West, he was instructed by Lawrence Summers, the Harvard President at the time, to ‘write a major book on a philosophical tradition to establish’ himself, and to further desist from writing works that were being reviewed in popular publications.

The logic that shapes the oppressive paradigm of the colonial academy is that a ‘good student’ carries out research projects that improve the identity, aims and interests of this tradition. There are exceptions, so one might find one or two departments at former white universities that are open to an alternative way of approaching certain subjects.

The point I am making here is that the hegemony of whiteness has to be exposed if we are serious about transformation and about encouraging emancipatory scholarship in post-apartheid South Africa. Affirmative action is a necessary strategy to counter the hegemony of whiteness, however on its own, affirmative action “will be superficial and cosmetic”, according to Mamdani. In other words, the creation of a black intelligentsia is necessary, but that on its own will not automatically give us an intellectual product that is based on Africa’s own experience.

It is worth noting that there are academic projects that strive to develop an Africa-focused intelligentsia.  Rhodes University’s ‘Thinking Africa’ programme is one such project, and the Makerere Institute of Social Research interdisciplinary Ph.D programme is another project that aims to develop Africa-focused intelligentsia. These programmes have the potential for producing graduates who research and write about issues in South Africa and Africa as a whole in a way that resonates with the experiences of people on this continent.