On Coloniality/Decoloniality in Knowledge Production and Societies

by Henning Melber

Social organisations tend to be based on asymmetric power relations – almost always, almost everywhere. Inequality characterises interaction both inside and in between societies. Class-based hierarchies, peppered by gender imbalances, sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and many other forms of discrimination are the order of the day, both nationally as well as internationally. Colonial power structures and mindsets – understood as a hierarchical system imposing normative values which exclude and discriminate – remain almost always an integral part of any form of social reproduction, even when we believe that colonialism as a system in which foreign powers occupy and execute rule over other territories and people, is a matter of the past. Following such broad understanding, social reproduction tends to inherently maintain colonial structures, and individuals remain colonised subjects.

Educational systems as the institutionalised form of transmitting knowledge are substantial elements of social reproduction. They execute colonial functions in the sense of domestication by affirmatively entrenching dominant value systems and norms for internalisation. While being a student at the German private school in Windhoek during Apartheid days in the late 1960s, Namibia was a South African occupied colony. Our rulers which were a gift from a local branch of an international bank carried the slogan “knowledge is power”. I only realised much later its true meaning: that only certain knowledge is power, and that the power of definition is the decisive element. In other words: Not all that is based on knowledge counts, and not all that counts is based on knowledge. In our case, the transmitted knowledge cultivated the firm justification of inequalities as naturally given order. Colonial racist knowledge in perpetuation of white supremacy – barbarism taken for granted as a form of civilisation.

Colonialism’s invisible hand

Subsequent decolonisation was mainly understood as a formal process of political change, taking over institutions without questioning their invisible hand. While curricula were adapted to new political realities, the transmission of knowledge and the function of education did not change. It remained a process to instil loyalty to official discourses and, implicitly, to the system established as the new social order and those in power and control. This is why Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni advocates a “pedagogy of unlearning” as part of epistemological decolonisation which results in the removal of that colonial/Eurocentric hard disc of coloniality together with its software.

But given the complexities of existing power structures, more often than we realise, our own affirmative involvement is determined by the mere position we occupy and the role we execute. Being part of formal socialisation processes in a given society bears the risk of being instrumental in a process of domestication. Coloniality, as Walter Mignolo and others insist, is a project transcending but not eradicating Western universal rule. As Mignolo explained in an interview in 2017, it “requires actors and institutions, and actors and institutions conserve, expand, change the structure of knowledge but within the same matrix: the colonial matrix of power.” And Ndlovu-Gatsheni points out when critically challenging “gladiator scholarship: “The reality is that colonialism was never an event. It has always been a power structure with far-reaching consequences.”

Post-colonial societies continue to reproduce colonial elements.  In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Paulo Freire already considered the entrenchment of a deposit and “banking knowledge” as the main effect of formal educational processes. Following such an approach, the change from foreign colonial rule to a local government does not automatically signal post-coloniality. As Wahbie Long at the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town observed: “decolonisation seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of coloniser and colonised, white and black become impossible to displace”. For him, “decolonisation activists, by and large, do not seem to take issue with the instrumentalization of their education. (…) Instead of a materialist reading of the asymmetries of academic life, they support a decolonisation agenda that centres on the notion of epistemic violence” (his emphasis). Such discourse, however, “forms the ideological superstructure of an identity project”. The focus on epistemic violence risks to reduce – if not ignore – the underlying dimensions of material facts and realities.

Decolonisation remains work in progress and requires more than a focus on curricula. Addressing institutional racism understood as racism in certain institutions is a necessary but not sufficient step. Fundamental transformation of societies must embrace all forms of discrimination and “othering”, but also material aspects of transformation. The removal of the Rhodes statue from the campus of the University of Cape Town was (like many similar interventions elsewhere) a legitimate initiative, despite some controversial militancy of related protests. But do the students who pass on their way to the upper campus the site now achieve better learning results and exams than before Cecil Rhodes was removed? Or does the beggar on a street which had its Apartheid name replaced by one of an African freedom fighter now enjoy a better life? This is not meant to be polemic but more so serves as a cautious reminder: if we lose sight of the fundamentals shaping societies beyond symbols (while symbols do of course matter), we might take the means to an end for the end – and fail in our efforts towards true decolonisation. Decoloniality requires not only to challenge epistemic imprisonment and mental slavery. It also has to conduct social struggles to create relations, which can nurse a decolonisation in material aspects.

This piece first appeared on the Debating Development Research Blog and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Henning Melber is Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Senior Research Associate with the Nordic Africa Institute, both in Uppsala. He is also Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/University of London. Since 2017 he is also President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).