[How Do We Know The World Series] To Reform or not to – The crescendo of decoloniality within Higher Learning Institutions in Africa

by Gift Mwonzora

There has emerged a growing chorus for a need to decolonize the African higher education system. This chorus for reform has been widely pronounced within the Global South, especially in African countries. Countries that have witnessed the crescendo of such demands include South Africa, but others are also beginning to reconsider such within this growing wave of decoloniality. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been many strides in the higher education literature and in African studies scholarship to tackle issues of decoloniality, through calls for reforms for the curricula and syllabus, it remains poorly understood why academe should be decolonized. Hence, intense debates and polarity on the discourse of decoloniality have emerged, revealing silences that underpin how we ‘know’ the world.

The discourse of decoloniality[2] has been a thorny one, especially in contexts that I label as having experienced major historic events, such as wars of liberation and apartheid. These countries do suffer from what has come to be termed ‘period effects’, hence they face challenges when opening up conversations around decoloniality. In the words of Ndlovu-Gatsheni:

decoloniality is defined as an ‘epistemological and political movement; one which speaks to the deepening and widening of decolonization movements in those spaces that experienced the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism, apartheid, neo-colonialism, and underdevelopment’ (2015:485[3]).

Contextualizing the debate, it is notable that amidst the veneer of a ‘rainbow nation’ entrenched polarity, racial segregation, inequalities, and continued marginalization still run deep within the South African academe. Taken together these factors engender the polemic debate and discourses on the need to decolonize educational institutions in South Africa.

Is the curriculum too white: Are the institutions too white?

As part of the broader transformative discourse within South African universities, there emerged the ‘Rhodes Must Fall movement’. This movement sparked a conversation around reforming not only the curricula but re-naming institutions and removing statues and monuments dedicated to the architects of colonialism. But with the passage of time, the conversations around decoloniality, not only at Rhodes University but within all formerly white-dominated universities including University of Cape Town (UCT) among others have morphed into conversations around reforming the curricula. Thus, the talk of decolonization has extended into lecture halls and in classrooms.

As part of the ongoing conversations around decoloniality, several unsettling, yet poignant questions abound: Who teaches at these institutions? Who designs the curricula? Who is in the top management of these institutions? These questions do not have easy answers nor solutions, insofar as they seek to challenge and question established educational norms. As part of the continued call for decoloniality, there have also emerged questions around whose knowledge is included, excluded, foregrounded or backgrounded within the curriculum in South African Universities. Simply put, there are contestations regarding whose knowledge is (de)valued. Is it that of black or white scholars?

To this end, others have called for learning and teaching in local languages such as isiXhosa and Zulu. It is argued such languages should also be given the same prominence given to mainstream languages used within the South African institutions of higher learning, that is English and Afrikaans. Whilst such moves seem to be facing resistance from some quarters, it does seem they are gaining currency within the growing wave of higher education transformation and decolonization of the knowledge creation, production, and circulation within the post-colonial university. But as one commentator puts it,

Many students felt that they could not locate themselves in the courses they are being taught and as a result felt the need to call for the decolonization of curriculum within institutions of higher learning. The academic space has been one of the many platforms that remind us of the legacy of apartheid and colonialism[4].”

Politics of Institutional re-naming

As alluded earlier and as part of the decolonization of the academy, students at Rhodes University went further to call for the re-naming of the University with local names being suggested. This in a way shows how power, history, representation, and colonialism intersect in the search for the decolonization of spaces and places of higher learning. Equally important to note, is that in post-apartheid South Africa, the politics of naming institutions, race, class, and ethnicity elicit strong, deep, protracted and on-going debates in relation to how these can be negotiated in seeking to decolonize the post-apartheid academy.

Tyranny of Place

Owing to the protracted and unpleasant history of South Africa, it appears that most formerly white-dominated universities always try to shy away from discussing emotive issues like race and land. In doing so, through teaching and designing curricula there is a tendency to rely on citing other contexts such as the case of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme. Perhaps, such institutional cultures are precisely why there is a growing chorus to challenge what is (un)sayable, silenced and marginalized, especially within South African universities.

Having noted the above, one is drawn to the conversation about the ‘Tyranny of Place’ by Rita Barnard[5].  Taking a cue from such literature, we can see how historical and geographical place (physical sites) influence the academy and the way in which we think, position and reflect off the decolonization agenda in the academy.[6]

One irrefutable fact is that at times the issue of decoloniality has entrenched binaries (white – black), deepening race antagonisms, positionality, pride and in the process challenging the aspects of the globalization of knowledge production and co/creation of knowledge especially within both academic institutions and academic disciplines in this 21st century globalized world.

[1] Gift Mwonzora is a post-doctoral research Fellow in the Unit of Zimbabwean studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. His research interests include: social movements, political parties, transitional justice, social media, democracy and democratization, peace and conflict studies. He can be contacted on Twitter @giftmwonzora.

[2] Ndlovu‐Gatsheni, S. J. (2015). Decoloniality as the Future of Africa. History Compass13(10), 485-496.


[4] Stephen Coan, Reclaiming the past to create a decolonized future, 26 January 2018, University World News.

[5] Barnard, R. (2012). Apartheid and beyond: South African writers and the politics of place. Oxford University Press.

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