by Jonathan Jansen

Decolonising the curriculum

Where to now?


World renowned Professor Jonathan Jansen has established himself as a premier academic, willing to tackle South Africa’s complex colonial history and the effect of our unbalanced education system

Jansen spent time in the United States at the acclaimed Stanford Graduate School in the 1980s, and was one of three graduates chosen for its inaugural Alumni Excellence in Education Award. They were singled out for the honour in a peer-nomination process with selection and review by the Graduate School of Education’s Dean.

In 2009, Jansen applied and became the first black president of the historically conservative University of the Free State (UFS), which has three campuses and more than 31,000 students from 40 countries. It was a big step from his previous post as dean of education at the University of Pretoria, where he had played a leading role in integrating the campus.

He arrived at UFS to find that reconciliation between white Afrikaner and black students was in turmoil, even though Nelson Mandela had declared the school a model of post-racial transformation. According to reports, Jansen ordered that every dormitory would be 50/50 black/white to break the segregation practices that had developed in them.

Jansen stepped down in 2016, fueled in no small part by the protests and later violence between white and black students at a varsity rugby game, and the subsequent death threats.

The 61 year-old returned to university life last year, after accepting a senior position at the University of Stellenbosch. Leadership was lucky enough to get a front row seat for a recent lecture on Decolonising the Curriculum by the sought-after Professor, at Parkwood Primary School in Cape Town, hosted by the Education Fishtank.

Being controversial

The straight-talking Jansen started off his speech by correcting the MC, who referred to him as controversial.

He retorted, “This notion of being controversial is something that really upsets me because I don’t think if you’re a social scientist, a critical person, that controversial should describe you. It’s your role to be controversial, it’s your role to ask difficult questions, and in fact it’s the absence of difficult questions on decolonisation that is causing a whole lot of trouble. And so, for me, calling somebody controversial is a little—I know it’s not intended—but it’s a bit of a slap-down because our entire society is, in fact in our country is, a place in which this kind of thinking should happen.”

Decolonisation is a reality

The notion of decolonisation and some of the related rhetoric has been gaining momentum for some time, but for Jansen it is important to define exactly what needs to be decolonised.

“Decolonisation is a reality, we were colonised for much of our history and that is still with us. Not only in terms of everything from language distribution to the architecture of the Cape, but in the curriculum itself and its principle expression in the English language. There is largely an uncritical reception of this demand for decolonisation – particularly the decolonisation of knowledge among social scientists – and this has reduced this important construct to little more than another political slogan.

South Africans are world champions in the context of the slogans, so when we don’t know what to do with complexity we reduce it to a slur, and I can give you a few examples, ‘white monopoly capital’. Okay, there’s an element of truth in that, that’s not deniable, everybody, once the slogan gets out there, runs with it as if it has no history, as if it has no politics, as if it has no interest associated with it. ‘Land redistribution without compensation’, it’s a nice idea, but think about it, do you really think that these politicians care about land redistribution to the poor? This is just jostling for political proposition ahead of the 2019 election and so part of the role of the social scientist is to say why now?”


Jansen goes on to try and outline the origins of the term. “Decolonisation as a political slogan was never part of South Africa’s education struggle, I don’t remember that. You had your apartheid education, racist education, liberation education later, even RDP [Reconstruction and Development Programme] education, but I don’t believe the streets were flowing with notions of decolonisation. Suddenly somebody pops the term into the public discourse and we all run with it, without somebody saying wait, wait, wait, who is saying this, why now, what does it mean, what does it mean here as opposed to Latin America, for example. These are important question that social scientists should be grappling with, as opposed to simply repeating a chorus.”

He continues, “It took some investigative journalist, not a university academic to say, ‘but wait a minute, this particular script was conjured up by a public relations firm like Bell Pottinger in order to distract attention from State capture’, that’s really where it came from. It doesn’t mean the slogan in itself doesn’t have political value, so I’m not using the word slogan in a dismissive sense, but I am saying when you reduce a complex reality to a few words then you really run the danger of not knowing the intellectual ancestry of that word first of all, and it’s colloquial consequences for activism you just throw it out there.”

Emotive symbolism

The universities of South Africa have been grappling with these very issues, as students try to make sense of a colonial past that still represents itself. Take Rhodes University for example, there can be no bigger colonialist than Cecil John Rhodes. But then you have other examples where arts and culture are removed without proper thought going into their origins.

Jansen explains, “Not being attentive to what a word means, especially when it is sloganised, is a problem. Some of the students at the University of Johannesburg, for example, couldn’t of course argue about what I was saying because they weren’t listening, but then they heard the headlines and I could see that this had become a complete polemical term regardless. Anything that moved in a university had to be decolonised, everything, even if it was Willie Bester’s sculpture, and if you don’t know, he’s a black guy who does very challenging progressive sculptures; but not thinking then, of course, it’s up for grabs. We can do better as an intellectual community, and I don’t mean intellectual here in the society, I’m talking about teachers as intellectuals, I’m talking about every one of us as thinking people, we can do better than just swaddle everything that suddenly appears in social or public discords.”

Pre-colonial influence

Jansen goes on to pose the question of what the effects of pre-colonial influences on curriculum are?

“The single most important error in the student protest movement was to reduce the totality of curriculum problems to one of colonisation, which is as a colonial legacy problem. The difficulty with that is there were a whole lot of different kinds of what I call ‘knowledge regimes’. For example, why does nobody talk about the pre-colonial influences on the contemporary curriculum? It’s as if the world did stop in 1652, so we fall into the very trap that conservatives set up, which is to mark the world as if it started when white people came here.

“The truth is, there is a long history of pre-colonial talk, and pre-colonial might have been informal or non-formal, but it certainly had curricular effects, one of which—and this is shown very clearly by a scholar at the University of Botswana, the only curriculum scholar—that the authoritarian relationship in the classroom has its roots way back. That gives instructions as to how you should behave and so on and so forth, but it didn’t suddenly start with colonial rule.

“And then of course apartheid is not colonialism, it might have features of colonialism but to reduce apartheid to colonialism is to fall into all sorts of traps, one of which is to then define white South Africans who have been here for generations as non-citizens. Secondly, as we know, under Afrikaner Nationalist rule, even pre-1948, in their minds they were being anti-colonial, those were the wars of 1899 to 1902, but also in the context of how they thought of themselves in—and their culture, Afrikaans, being a very good example of that. Therefore it is very, very slipshod thinking to say what apartheid is simply another version of colonial rule, and it’s not.”

Surprising legacies of the colonial past

Jansen continues, “The most important legacies of the colonial past are not necessarily the things we wish to discard or to decentre —now, I am going to lose some of you here—we should get rid of soccer if you are serious about decolonisation.

“I’ll give you another example, if you really wanted to decolonise you get rid of English as a medium of instruction in all our universities and schools, you do that tomorrow and seriously invest, you invest in local languages. But I’ve worked all my life in education, I worked in schools in all nine provinces, I have yet to come to a province in which poor black people tell me—mothers or fathers—that they want their children to get their education in the native tongue. Even the members of the Pan African Language Board have their kids in Grove, in SACS and Bishops.

“If you’re serious about all of this, change the language of instruction. UKZN [Univeristy of KwaZulu-Natal] tried to do it, but it did not last because there are very powerful ways in which knowledge, particularly disciplinary knowledge, is legitimated in institutions and therefore this notion that we must be colonised to get rid of this and the other, you’ve got to think twice about that, because the most obvious things are not the things that we would change.”

Cumbersome change at universities

The reality of many tertiary institutions is that they are largely segmented from each other, with each department having its own staff, mission statement and ways of conducting researching. It would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to co-ordinate meaningful and sustainable change. Jansen also points to there being very little evidence to prove that political thought can really change a university’s methodology.

He continues, “Political demand for decolonisation, I promise you, will make very little dent on universities, because of the under-estimation of what I call the ‘institutional curriculum’. Think of physics, think of sociology, think of anthropology, think of music, think of public law. Each of those disciplines are legitimate, the sociologists got this right with institutional theory, those things are legitimate by a whole number of outside factors, one of those outside factors are the professionals. You are not going to get an accounting degree without SAICA’s [South African Institute of Charted Accountants] approval, you’re not going to get a degree in engineering without ACSA’s [Airports Company South Africa] approval, you’re not going to get a degree in health sciences without the approval of the Health Professions Council of Africa. In other words, there are very powerful accrediting agencies that legitimate the kind of knowledge that is acceptable.”

Real world problems

So what are some of the other real world problem that learners face? In the modern, global world of interconnectedness that the internet and travel brings, most students want to be taught in a manner that makes it easier to connect and do business with people who come from different backgrounds and regions.

“Learners are not resistant to the curriculum, because of their lack of cultural capital, I have no evidence for that. I will tell you why learners are resistant to curriculum, they resist the curriculum because in township schools children have one third of exposure in terms of its instructional time than kids at Westerford, for example, it’s a fact. The teachers just don’t show up, if you don’t show up, that’s not cultural capital, that’s a teacher that didn’t show up.

Many township schools struggle to attract the top teachers, who prefer to work at more affluent schools who can offer better remuneration and stable working conditions. Reports indicate that many township teachers lack the skill, training and ambition to make a meaningful difference in learner’s lives. That is not a blanket statement though, as there are some dedicated teachers in the townships, but just not enough for the sheer demand in key areas.

“But the notion of teachers being present not just physically but emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually in the classroom means I show up and be engaged, that’s what I teach you, not cultural capital, they fail because we don’t take them seriously. I’ve got a story of the student that got 100% in history at the worst school in the country, any idea how he did it? His teacher was Zimbabwean.

“You go to Soweto, and you pull up the data of all the schools there for maths and science and you’ll see the maths and science are up in many of those schools but every other subject was down, it’s counterintuitive. All these teachers are Zimbabwean. They show up and don’t have this baggage of the Teachers Union, they make a difference, they’re committed to those kids,” concludes the outspoken Jansen.

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