Academics must critically engage with their own assumptions if the drive to decolonise scholarship in African universities is to be successful, according to a former vice-chancellor.
Ihron Rensburg, who led the University of Johannesburg between 2006 and 2017, in a Times Higher Education interview called for a “bottom-up, academic-based movement, which sees individual academics really seize the moment, really step up and get their agency back”.
He was speaking during a visit to London to deliver the annual Higher Education Policy Institute lecture, in which he discussed how African universities could end the Western dominance of their curricula and instead adopt a teaching and research agenda characterised by “global African perspectives and approaches”.
This goal – which was put into sharp focus in the wake of the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town’s campus in 2015 – would not be reached simply by adding a wider range of authors to reading lists or offering local case studies, said Professor Rensburg.
Instead, the veteran of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement – who spent much of the late 1980s detained without trial for his work with the United Democratic Front and spent spells of up to nine months in solitary confinement – said that it demanded “self-decolonisation”.
“Just because I’m an academic or an intellectual, I can’t just wake up one morning and say ‘I’m decolonised’,” Professor Rensburg said. “The first step is self-decolonisation. We carry the myths and misrepresentations propagated by colonialism within us, whether you are African or English, and we have carried them for generations.”
In his Hepi lecture, Professor Rensburg called on academics to “excavate and re-engage critically” with “dismissed, suppressed, and denigrated global African philosophies, sciences and historicities”.
While the West has for centuries asserted the undisputed superiority of its philosophy and thought, this is a myth and a legacy of empire, said Professor Rensburg, who highlighted that Africa’s oldest educational institutions far pre-date Europe’s first universities.
By also critically re-engaging with Western scholarship and separating out “that which is myth from that which is substance”, African academics could create syntheses that would allow them to, for example, “demonstrate a global African approach to engineering and mathematics”, Professor Rensburg said.
However, Professor Rensburg told THE that colonial myth-making and its destruction of the cultures, traditions, sciences and arts of the colonised would take a long time to unpick.
“We have to put those misrepresentations and myths in front of us and engage critically with them…we also have to excavate that which they have buried,” he explained.
Professor Rensburg said that the process was not about spending breaks simply reading. “It is a far more detailed and substantive process and hopefully at the end of that – though there is no end of the decolonisation process – one is far more confident and courageous about the difficult questions and issues,” he said.
The voice of students would remain important, while dialogue would take place between “colleagues who will champion the cause”, Professor Rensburg argued.
However, decolonisation could not be led through “edicts from above”, according to Professor Rensburg, who said that vice-chancellors and politicians might be able to achieve short-term change but would be unable to effect long-term transformation.
“We don’t want new regulations, we don’t want a new accountability mechanism and we don’t want the minister to say ‘I want an annual report’ – although that is the default,” he said. “The longer and further away politicians stay from the academic project, the better.”
Professor Rensburg added that, although his advice was mainly directed at South African academics, it could and should be applied around the world, including in the West.
“The colony and the metropole are linked; we can’t speak decolonisation in the colony without speaking decolonisation in the metropole…it’s equally relevant in the former colonial metropoles,” he said.
Regardless, Professor Rensburg argued that, in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, there could be no going back and African academics must focus their attention on decolonisation.
“It would be absolute folly to go to sleep again, to simply revert to the status quo…we must seize the moment and the opportunity,” he said.