The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Christine Qunta at the inaugural memorial lecture on Mangaliso Sobukwe at the Nelson Mandela University. The full speech is attached below.
Sobukwe made it clear that the purpose of education for Africans should be to assist in rebuilding the shattered African nation. While he was referring to Fort Hare, it is clear that in his view an institution and by implication other institutions of higher learning should be conduits for the transmission of African thought and knowledge systems. Education should therefore not divide Africans but institutions and the students they produce should be an organic part of the community.
The question is whether 40 years after his death, 69 years after his Fort Hare speech and 23 years after 1994, his vision of education has been realised. As we all know 1994 was not a victory for the anti-colonial forces. It was also not an insignificant step forward or as intellectually lazy people say “nothing has changed”. It was a compromise that gave us the form but not the substance of democracy. So we could vote and because we are the majority we voted in an African government. We have a wonderful Constitution which is really only fully enjoyed by a small minority who were the beneficiaries of apartheid and continue to reap the rewards of that system. The crude vestiges of apartheid have been removed and Africans can live where they want or can afford, go to which ever schools and universities they want and can no longer be excluded from getting skilled jobs in the private sector although that is in itself a major terrain of struggle.
What has not changed is the institutional power wielded by whites. This institutional power which I call the infrastructure of colonialism remains intact. Because of its overwhelming power, it constrains the political power of the government. Its most visible manifestation is in the economy. Whites control the economy absolutely. In 2017 the NEF confirmed that only 3% of the share capital in the top 100 companies is owned by Black people. The stark truth is that not a single commercial bank in this country is owned by Black people. Africans do not control any aspect of the food chain from the farm, the distribution and retail. No supermarket chain is owned by Africans. Africans and other Black people constitute 90.6% of the population but are locked out of the economy.
This power is present also in institutions of higher education. There have been significant changes in the area of access to education at all levels including higher education for Black people (Africans Coloured, Indians). Enrolments at institutions of higher learning (universities, universities of technology and teacher training colleges) almost doubled. In 1994 there were 495, 356 students and by 2012 there were 953 373. By 2012, women constituted the biggest percentage (58%) of students enrolled at higher-education institutions. The most significant increase was among Black students, who comprised 81% in 2012. Despite this positive development, African students at university constitute only 16% of the African population and coloured students 14% of university-age people. White students, on the other hand, make up 55% of the white population and Indians 47%.
But the increase in access has not had an impact in the institutional culture of institutions of higher learning despite several previously white universities now being run by African principals and university councils being more representative racially. In some instances it is not for lack of trying. But the overwhelming ideological resilience of white supremacy require not only individuals but a systemic dismantling of existing conceptions of what a university in an African country emerging from a brutal past should be and the methodology for compiling and transmitting knowledge. My view is that the word transformation is insufficient to describe what needs to be done and what Sobukwe envisaged when he called for universities to be repositories for African thought.
The fundamental problems with higher education in South Africa are lack of access for the majority due to lack of funding which hopefully will be less of a problem due to the introduction of free education; lack of quality high school education and institutional culture with racism being one of the more obvious manifestations of this.
We’ve witnessed over the years, crude instances of racism such as that at the University of the University Free State when white students urinated in the food they then gave to African workers or the female students at the University of Pretoria who used the K word. While these crude incidents of racism are infuriating and can be deadly sometimes such as the young African student at the University of North West who drowned allegedly at the hands of white students although the university has denied this. But these are the symptoms of a much deeper malaise.
A number of reports and investigations have been done to look at the state of higher education in South Africa. The Department of Higher Education commissioned one that was published in 2008 in the Report of the Ministerial Committee of Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Higher Education in Public Higher Education Institutions. The South African Human Rights Commission more recently in 2016 issued the Report on Transformation at Public Universities in South Africa. A report was also issued after the 2nd National Higher Education Summit titled Transforming Higher Education for a Transformed South Africa in the 21st century.
While these reports grapple with the very real consequences of white supremacy as manifested in the higher education sector such as problems of institutional culture and exclusion as well as the absence of multi-linguism, none call for dealing with the root of the problem. The problem is that there is not a single African university in South Africa! What we have are universities that are all but in name European universities located in an African country. Students are taught through the medium of a European language which is not the home language of 80 % of the people in this country. These universities access knowledge only from European sources, thus the curriculi are virtually the same as in any European or American universities. The same methods of transmission of knowledge that has been used for hundreds of years in Europe remain in use today. The content whether in the natural sciences or social sciences reference only European knowledge systems and accord these a universality that it does not deserve. The knowledge systems of African peoples and those of other peoples of the South in Asia and the Arab world are erased completely or ghettoized in anthropology or African Studies departments. None of these reports raise these fundamental problems or provide a comprehensive solution.
There are numerous scientific studies that show the linkage between mother tongue education and performance. Yet year after year when matric results come out there is a collective gnashing of teeth at the results. The basis for this is often ascribed for the poor performance due to lack of resources or poor teacher training and physical infrastructure of schools but no attention is given to the cultural violation of African students’ rights at high schools and universities who are compelled to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue. It is in fact remarkable and a testament to their intellectual abilities that they not only pass but do well.
As the events surrounding Malekgapuru Makgoba at the University of Witwatersrand in 1996 and that of Mahmoud Mamdani at the University of Cape Town ( UCT) showed, those who benefit from the marginalisation of Africans, fight very hard to maintain the structures that make such exclusion possible.
Its worthwhile to briefly look at Professor Mamdani’s experience at UCT in 1997 to demonstrate just how destructive this problem is. Also it goes to the heart of the issue of curriculum manipulation to reinforce a white supremacist view of the world. Mamdani, was recruited from outside the country and appointed AC Jordan Professor of African Studies and then Director of the Centre for African studies. A world renowned academic from Uganda, he assumed the African Studies Centre would be the beginning of an eventual full faculty but found no students and instead for a whole year organized conferences. Then he was approached by the Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities to design a syllabus for a Foundation Semester course that would be compulsory for all social sciences students. The core of the course was on Africa.
After he had completed an outline and presented this to a Working Committee, the fightback from white academics began. Mandani’s mistake was to include in the course not only Africa from the beginning of colonialism but pre-colonial Africa and its achievements including the research of outstanding African scholars such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Samir Amin.
To his surprise, without informing him the Working Group had taken the eight sections in his outline and conducted a “poll” where faculties would indicate whether they regard the section as “very important” “of some importance” and “ of less important”. According to this poll, The first four sections were “of less importance” and the last four sections “very important”. He was asked to revise the outline which he did, but the day before he handed it back, he was suspended from the course and they designed a substitute course which ignored the African scholars and relied on a single source edited by two academics which Mamdani called an “easy, lazy and irresponsible act”. The first four sections included pre -colonial Africa and the work of various African scholars. These were the sections found to be “of less importance”. Recounting his meeting with the Working Group he noted the following:
“Was it not illuminating, I asked, that the respondents seem to think it “ of less importance” to teach the history of Africa before colonialism?”
Mamdani protested and the dispute spilled out in the public domain and a seminar was held on the dispute which I had the pleasure to attend.
It was remarkable incident demonstrating the lengths to which academics would go to maintain their Eurocentric version of education. I would recommend that those who,ve not read it yet to read Mamdani’s document called “Is African Studies at UCT a New Home for Bantu Education?. It contains some pertinent critiques of the post -apartheid academy. Mandani vanquished his opponents intellectually but they maintained their institutional power. This is why the Rhodes Must Fall student movement arose in 2015. Im not sure if any significant movements on curriculum changes have been made.
The problems that Sobukwe highlighted in 1949, Makgoba and Mamdani in 1996 and the Rhodes Must Fall Movement in 2015 cannot be dealt with on an institution by institution basis. There is a need for a radical policy intervention by government in the same way it has intervened in the private sector through Employment Equity and Black Economic Empowerment. In this context the question of institutional autonomy should be interrogated to establish whether it is used as a barrier to restructuring education and if so, how to balance that with this important task.
The fact is that if we continue to subject African students to the violation of their rights to an equal education by the erasure of African knowledge systems and diminish their culture, we would be complicit in entrenching white supremacy. By culture I mean in its broadest agreed sense, a people’s belief systems, its collective endeavours and accomplishments, its mode of interactions with the rest of the world, its artistic expressions, language, religion, and ways of harnessing technology for its needs – essentially a people’s way of life.
It should shock any normal person therefore that African students can get a degree in medicine without ever hearing of Imhotep, an African and the world’s first known medical practitioner from ancient Egypt who lived in 2989 BCE and was an architect and royal physician 2500 years before Hippocrates who lived in 460 BC . Equally shocking is that students can complete a course in social science and never come across the work of Diop. Can we really say that our young people are getting an education that equip them for contributing to the upliftment of their society as Sobukwe stated or are they passive receivers of knowledge that alienates them from themselves and their community.
Surely if you go through 4 or 5 years of higher education and only learnt of the contributions of Europe to human advancement, you are bound to believe as most whites do, that Africa has made no contribution to human civilization despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Sadly all I learnt about the real history of this continent, I learnt from research sources outside my course of study. This is not normal. To continue this is normalize something acutely abnormal. Sobukwe’s question remains pertinent and warrants repeating namely does the independence of an institution mean an institution that is run and administered by Africans but “guided by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff?. This unfortunately remains the case at formerly white institutions and even though at historically Black universities, the majority of staff is African, the curriculum is European. In this context erasure constitutes oppression.
Colonialism was a 350 year long criminal enterprise. The physical dispossession of land is one part of the colonial project. It not only occupied and deprived Africans of their land but as Frantz Fanon said it also “disrupts in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people”.
One of the most important mechanisms for this was to marginalize African languages which are important transmitters of knowledge and culture. I tend to think of it as cultural disembowelment. This in turn creates an unbearable psychological disequilibrium as an alien culture is forced upon indigenous people while they try to preserve some of those aspects that can survive the onslaught. The missionaries understood clearly that western education would achieve the aim of assimilation far easier than violence. Indeed universities today remain the most important mechanisms for maintaining the cultural domination of Africans that was such an indispensable part of the weaponry of colonialism.
Banishing a whole nation’s indigenous languages and their way of life to the edges of society, denying them the freedom of knowing their own history, is truly an audacious act of oppression. That it continues in post 1994 South Africa is far more astonishing and unforgivable. In South Africa the de facto official language is English followed by Afrikaans notwithstanding the Constitutional recognition of indigenous languages.
There are efforts being made to change this. The University of Kwa- Zulu Natal has changed its language policy to include isiZulu first as an additional language for students and at same time developing resources around it in order for it to eventually become an academic language that can be used alongside English. At the University of Johannesburg students designed a module called Afrikan Thought. The course material focusses on African intellectuals and links it to African philosophy, history and sociology. They were supported by some academics. The Module was launched at a colloquium in August 2017 which I was invited to address.
The way of the future
One of the most important policy interventions the new government should have made in 1994 is to declare education a national emergency because that was what was warranted coming out of apartheid. The poor physical state of the infrastructure, lack of access for Africans, the lack of proper training for teaching staff and exclusion of others especially at former white universities all contributed to the crisis. All these problems were acknowledged and government allocated the biggest percentage of national budget to education and continues to do so. But it failed to acknowledge adequately a problem that dwarfs the others, being the colonial character of the 13
education and its deliberate and systemic enforcement of the annihilation of African knowledge systems. In doing so, it entrenched false unscientific notions of European superiority.
How can this be reversed so that the next generation of African children is saved from this terrible fate? We cannot continue to have African children and young people be forced to surrender their selves to become “educated”.
The programme of dismantling colonial education and reconstructing education such that it truly serves this country cannot be achieved by tinkering with a few reforms or including some texts by African scholars. A radical paradigm shift is required, not only in the content of what is transmitted but also how knowledge is sourced, compiled and transmitted in a manner that serves the needs of the country and its people. For example, I doubt testing students’ ability to memorise and regurgitate can truly constitute suitable education for the 21st century. In the 1970s already Paulo Freire critiqued this “banking concept of education” in his classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
While some universities, two of which I have mentioned, are taking small steps in the right direction, such a comprehensive overhaul of education cannot be done per individual institution. It requires a radical policy intervention by national government to provide the necessary framework. Government after all is responsible for public education and do pay subsidies to universities.
Since South Africa is an African country and 80% of its people are Africans, the first essential step is to mainstream African culture and move it from the periphery to the centre. The culture of the minority cannot continue to be the majority culture as during colonialism. To achieve this, the following practical steps need to be taken. Teaching should be through the medium of African languages so that African children too can enjoy the constitutional rights that have been denied them since 1994 from primary school through to institutions of higher learning. The neglect of indigenous languages has resulted in insufficient resources material such as text books and dictionaries being available. It would therefore be essential to construct a 10 to 20 year plan to build a truly African education system. All institutions of higher education should comply with this and autonomy should not be used as a shield. Government and African educators should be unapologetic about such steps.
A panel of African academics from all over the continent and linguists in the various African languages should compile a curriculum that centers African science, medicine both ancient and modern and social science disciplines such as philosophy and sociology.
African precolonial history which details the continent’s contribution to human civilization should be part of the curriculum and a compulsory subject at high school and institutions of higher learning regardless of what course students are studying. The purpose of it would be for them to find their place in the world and restore the sense of self which is being destroyed by the erasure of this history through colonial education. In this way African centered history is redemptive.
Sobukwe believed that freedom is a pre-condition for development. No country can be truly free with an education system that was instrumental in keeping its people in bondage. The dismantling of the infrastructure of colonialism can begin in earnest only when the current system of education is dismantled and fundamentally restructured.
Once more, thank you for granting me this honour to commemorate this giant of our struggle. May his ideas take centre stage in the African university of the future.