The decolonisation of education has been a relevant topic in the past decade and has sparked protests, academic discourse, and significant changes at UP. The institution is amidst what has been coined “the decolonial turn” as UP is possibly at the forefront of producing a decolonised syllabus. A few steps that were taken include the removal of Afrikaans as a language of instruction, developing transformation programs for the syllabi, and establishing a strong academic movement focused on studies of decolonisation. Understanding colonisation is therefore key to this discussion.
Colonisation refers to the historic process by which European powers physically subjected non-European subjects to various forms of exploitation. Economic exploitation was especially prominent through forcefully controlling land, material resources, and labour. It also extended far beyond that, as Professor Vasudhevan Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, explains, “the colonising project therefore also include[s] shaping the discourse, disciplinary knowledge, and the use of language. Central therefore to colonisation is the use and abuse of power of the coloniser over the colonised. In other words, colonisation functions at a systemic level to shape individuals, their psyches, and body politics. The coloniser exercises power, privilege, and hierarchy over the colonised.”
“…UP is possibly at the forefront of producing a decolonised syllabus.“
African knowledge systems have frequently been considered as inferior and have been undervalued for many years. However, during the second half of the 20th century, discourses around the idea of decolonisation started developing and gained significant momentum over the last few decades. Decolonisation involves challenging European intellectual dominance, and emphasises the value of other suppressed systems of knowledge. Prof Reddy explains that “it is about challenging knowledge systems that are privileged, valued, and prioritised over others that are not recognised, made invisible, ignored, and excluded”. Although, that does not mean rejecting Western systems of knowledge instead it means incorporating other systems of knowledge as well, as Prof Reddy suggests that “it is about actively fostering a worldly consciousness about our connections with differences in experience, context, and lived realities in our global interdependence”.
UP has undertaken the challenging task of decolonising its undergraduate and postgraduate syllabi, as well as the research of academics. This is occurring throughout all the faculties, but the Faculty of Humanities especially is facilitating the transformation through “becoming more inclusive of the texts we choose; the authors who write; the methods we devise. Everything in our interventions [are] geared towards reflecting a plurality of insights that are not merely focused on Northern and Western scholars and approaches, but insights that are shaped by the South and East as well”, according to Prof Reddy.
“African knowledge systems have frequently been considered as inferior and have been undervalued for many years.“
UP is also part of a national project by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation with seven other universities on decolonising the Humanities curriculum. The program aims to review the syllabi, decide what parts need to be restructured, and slowly implement change over time. This program is designed to produce a decolonised perspective and provide students with a better understanding of the world.
In 2019, The Journal of Decolonising Disciplines was launched, which is a journal dedicated to publishing research about decolonising knowledge and the challenges that need resolution. Prof Reddy emphasises that the journal is “…a creative space that takes seriously the intellectual debates which constitute the decolonising movement (and importantly the ‘decolonial turn’) in the academy and in other spaces, through being the only journal in the country to publish in three languages, English, Zulu and Sesotho”.
The recent history of universities is filled with several conflicts about language and a colonised syllabus. These issues culminated in the #AfrikaansMustFall movement during which a new generation of students demanded that Afrikaans be removed as a medium of instruction. They argued that Afrikaans as a language has historically excluded black students from accessing tertiary education. Some students associated Afrikaans with colonialism, and others associated decolonisation with being anti-Afrikaans.
“The recent history of universities is filled with several conflicts about language and a colonised syllabus. “
Prof. Reddy disagrees with this idea and argues that Afrikaans itself is a concrete example of decolonisation, as it has evolved from its early origins and “to an extent, the language and literature has made a complete break with its colonial heritage”. Afrikaans, according to Prof. Reddy is therefore “completely indigenous and a model of an example of how the language and literature has characterised its fully-fledged African context and is flourishing in literature, arts, music, film, and even in digital technologies”.
Decolonisation of education and research is a complex process that is often misunderstood and politically charged. Decolonising education is about valuing all knowledge systems and embracing their diversity. As Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said during his opening speech on 10 February 2019, UP aims to “achieve diversity and co-create [an] inclusive institutional culture which is conducive to sustaining quality, excellence and innovation in teaching, learning, research and social engagement”. By developing an inclusive and diverse syllabus, all individuals and their inputs can be potentially valued and recognized, cultivating a space where everybody can be heard.