There is a need to develop knowledge frames and approaches that can inform curriculum knowledge selection in cumulative and principled ways. It is only then that we will say we have truly decolonised education and its curriculum, writes Paul Maluleka.

Countries located in the Global South, specifically South Africa, have been engaged in a protracted struggle to decolonise themselves and their education systems. Therefore, the calls by some of us, students in public universities in 2015-2016, for the decolonisation of the academy and its curriculum were not unique, even though many scholars have characterised that moment as a “historic moment” in the country’s ‘democratic’ dispensation. 

So, in this article, I seek to do three things. Firstly, trace the genealogies of decolonisation in the Global South, specifically (South) Africa. Secondly, engage decolonial scholarship to make sense of how it is defined in the literature at the global and local trends. Lastly, advance a position for the decolonisation of education and curriculum, and why this is very imperative.

Genealogies of calls for decolonisation

So, when did calls to decolonise countries and their education systems in the Global South, specifically in Africa, start? In other words, where can decolonial calls be traced?

According to Professor Fataar of the University of Stellenbosch: “Calls for decolonising education first emerged on the African continent in the context of decolonising struggles against colonial rule during the 1950s and 1960s. It is based on a negation of modern colonial education whose organising principle centred on shaping the colonised into colonial subjects, in the process, stripping them of their humanity and full potential. The knowledges of colonised groups, non-Europeans, and indigenous folk were suppressed or, as the decolonial scholar, Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2014) explained, ‘their knowledges suffered a form of epistemicide which signifies their evisceration from the knowledge canon’. The knowledge of the (colonial) university or school paid little to no attention to indigenous knowledge, the knowledge of the working poor, or the literacies of urban black female dwellers, for example. It favoured the Western canon, founded on a separation of the modern Western knowledge from its non-Western knowers, suggesting that modern knowledge would help instantiate modern subjects. Becoming a modern subject was the fulcrum of colonial education.”

Although I agree with Fataar’s assertion about what calls to decolonise education are based on and the kind of genocide that knowledges of the colonised or oppressed came to endure at the hands of colonial education, I disagree with him on his tracing of these calls to the 1950s and 1960s. For me, calls to decolonise African societies and their education system can be traced to the first encounter that Africans had with the colonisers. In the South African context, this can be traced to 1652 when racist Johan Anthoniszoon ‘Jan’ van Riebeeck, a Dutch navigator and colonial administrator of the Dutch East India Company, and his colleagues arrived at the southern tip of Africa—”the Cape of Good Hope”—and began to dispossess the indigenous people of their land, and subsequently undermine their indigenous ways of being, living, and knowing. Because of these colonial acts, many indigenous people resisted and encouraged others in their region to do the same. That for me can be characterised as a decolonial moment and/or calls to decolonise.

Making sense of decolonial scholarship

Although some tend to use decolonisation and decoloniality interchangeably, they are not the same thing, even though they are both used to confront, question, challenge, and ultimately dismantle the same thing or phenomena. In this section, I attempt to unpack these concepts and explain how they are related.

Firstly, decolonisation and decoloniality as concepts, like other concepts used in the Humanities and Social Sciences, have no fixed meanings attached to them. In other words, there are divergent views on what these concepts mean. Thus, they are continuously being reinterpreted and thus redefined. This for me is particularly a good thing because it shows how some of us are invested in decolonial scholarship to grow and deepen it. What then is decolonisation and how is it different from decoloniality?

Decolonisation is a moment, as well as a process. As a process, decolonisation seeks to undo colonising practices that have resulted in the marginalising, sidelining, undermining, and killing of indigenous knowledge, traditions, languages, and cultures. So, decolonisation within education means the process of confronting, challenging, and dismantling the colonising practices that have influenced education in the past, and which are still present today in the form of coloniality.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, drawing from Fanon, views decoloniality as a perspective that “is aimed at setting afoot a new humanity free from racial hierarchisation and asymmetrical power relations in place since conquest”. Maldonado-Torres defines decoloniality in the following terms: ‘By decoloniality, it is meant here the dismantling of relations of power and conceptions of knowledge that foment the reproduction of racial, gender, and geo-political hierarchies that came into being or found new and more powerful forms of expression in the modern/colonial world.’

Decoloniality is premised on three concepts/units of analysis. The first is the coloniality of power. According to Maluleka: ‘Coloniality of power seeks to explain “the structures of power, control, and hegemony that have emerged during the modernist era, the era of colonialism, which stretches from the conquest of the Americas to the present”.’ It tells a story of how the Global North articulates its power to characterise, label, classify, totalise, and organise the world according to its narrow perceptions of the world through the SHC and other avenues. It is imposed through control of the economy; control of authority; control of gender and sexuality; and control of knowledge and subjectivity. Hence, Taylorasserts that “coloniality of power thus entails not only physical oppression, political authoritarianism, and economic exploitation but most fundamentally epistemological domination”.

The second concept is that of coloniality of knowledge, which “explains the continued monopolization of knowledge production. This results in the systematic and institutional exclusion of other forms of knowledge in the curriculum and its knowledge-building and structuring processes (Boughey & McKenna, 2021).”

The third concept is that of coloniality of being. This concept “explains the Manichean allegoric mode of binaries that continue to be used to categorize people and their culture as either Christian/barbarian, good/evil, primitive/civilized, inferior/superior, rational/irrational, white/black, knowledge/myths, and developed/undeveloped (Maldonado-Torres, 2016).”

What is to be done? Recentring Decolonial Scholarship in Education in South Africa

My colleagues and I, in our new book entitled, Decolonising Knowledge and Knowers: Struggles for University Transformation in South Africa, are of the view that there are two concerns persisting in current decolonisation debates.

The first is a concern about the fractious and emotive tone that characterises decolonisation debates. Some students and scholars have posited these debates as an either/or dichotomy, calling us to think beyond the discourses of ‘dead white men’ in our educational practices. The second concern is the need to foreground how decolonial debates tend to collapse ontological and epistemological considerations when proposing various ways of achieving decolonial aims.

We then proceed to say that “focusing on these two aims will allow for a more rigorous engagement to integrate decolonization into education and curriculum policy and practice”. So, how then do we integrate decolonisation into education and curriculum policy and practice? Firstly, there is a need to build conceptual tools to inform and shape the take-up of the decoloniality imperative within education, specifically its curriculum. This, we argue, will allow us to move away from “a lacuna in the recent writings on decolonizing education” that we have observed that focuses ” almost exclusively on definitions and meanings”.

Secondly, there is a need to locate decolonisation and decoloniality into the curriculum knowledge domain. We believe that such an emphasis is a requirement for concretely advancing the decolonisation of education. Without addressing the curriculum question, decolonisation (and decoloniality) will remain located at the symbolic level. In this case, it will struggle to impact the institutional curriculum of universities (and schools). Garuba called for such a development when he suggests that the decolonisation content to be studied must proceed based on critical modifications of the curriculum. In this light, Hapazari and Mkhize argue persuasively that “Most African universities have not substantially transformed; hence, they continue to be grounded in colonial and Western epistemological traditions. By so doing, the colonialists have effectively instilled an inferiority complex in the Africans, and this complex is currently ingrained in their minds”.

Given this, there is a need to develop knowledge frames and approaches that can inform curriculum knowledge selection in cumulative and principled ways. It is only then that we will say we have truly decolonised education and its curriculum. σ

Paul Maluleka is an associate lecturer of History (of) Education at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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