Decolonisation ‘needs more scholarship and less politics’

Wits v-c says that decolonised knowledge must not be sanitised knowledge

September 1, 2020
Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand

The debate on decolonising scholarship is “overly romanticised” and has too many political actors and too few academics grappling with it, according to a vice-chancellor.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and incoming director of SOAS University of London, said he worried that “too much of the public discourse on decolonisation is ideologically and politically sanitised”, as activists sought to replace colonial knowledge with “knowledge they are comfortable with, knowledge that dovetails with their ideological dispositions”.

“Yes, we must bring to the fore multiple forms of knowledge, but we mustn’t forget the importance of criticism…the very purpose of the university is to engage with that knowledge in a critical way,” he said. “We do not simply take that knowledge and regurgitate it; we have to interrogate it.”

Decolonisation could get caught up in local politics, Professor Habib explained. For example, if debate was framed by the politics of the UK, “you are not being imaginative enough. If you want to disrupt, it has to go beyond national politics.

“We need to start thinking about how the university and decolonisation can address the challenges of the 21st century: how do we do bring the global and the local together?” he said.

Professor Habib added that one big question for the UK, the US and Australian university systems was how their business model counteracted global efforts towards decolonisation.

“How decolonised are we really as a university system, if you factor into account that our entire business model has been structured through cross-subsidising domestic students by charging international students three times the fees…When we engage in a debate on decolonisation, we have to start reimagining the business model of the university system,” he said.

Professor Habib added that the “narrative of colonialism cannot be simply responded to by the narrative of decolonisation; de-colonialism cannot use colonialism as the framework for reimagining the alternative”.

This was echoed by Shaun Ewen, pro vice-chancellor (Indigenous) at the University of Melbourne, who questioned the language of decolonisation. “Feminists don’t place patriarchy at the centre of the argument; it’s ‘feminism’ not ‘de-patriarchy’,” he explained. A more useful way to look at it would be the “indigenisation” of Australian universities, as it was not about just getting Indigenous students into university and then getting them to assimilate but allowing them to flourish and personally add to academia’s body of knowledge.

Wangui wa Goro, professor of practice in translation at SOAS, added that “the personal desires of colonised people are very important. We need to understand how they perceive their freedom, their learning and their relationship with others.”

Those who want decolonisation are not “asking us to throw away all old-fashioned ways of knowledge, but to look at the value of knowledge to society”, she said. “We cannot be the barriers for [the young people who want change], we must listen to them and adapt to what they are saying with what we already know…We can’t continue to say that the white, upper-class, male institution is what we aspire for. We have to look for a new model.”

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Reader's comments (2)

What a complete waste of time and energy with our most prominent (South African) politically involved academics immersing themselves in this trite matter. Rather get involved in finding real solutions to real human suffering than pontificate about the factious issue of decolonization. Perhaps in the UK we should start with the Roman colonization of Britain or the Viking Danelaw!
'Decolonisation' should be seen as a way of enriching the curriculum by adding more diverse voices, not as an chucking-out of everything that went before... Take as an example the issue of medical diagnosis. Traditionally this has included the assessment of skin colour, but looks at the effect of various conditions on white skins... the information can be misleading, useless or downright dangerous if the patient in front of you happens to come from the darker end of the cline of skin pigmentation. Encouraging medical schools to broaden teaching to cover the diagnosic uses of skin colour changes in people of all hues actually improves teaching for all medical students. In a diverse world, both doctors and patients come from a diversity of heritages, after all.