Decolonisation of Higher Education in South Africa: Case of Rhodes University

Published on 6 December 2017

Mina Chiang

Alumni and external consultant

IDS Student Mina Chiang, reflects on the Sussex Development Lecture by Robert Van Niekerk, Decolonisation and Transformation of Higher Education in South Africa: The Case of Rhodes University.

What is the historical narrative of colonisation in South Africa? What was the turning point that shed light on the overthrow of apartheid and then on decolonisation? With the increasing transformation of the student body to include more black students, many from impoverished social conditions and dependent on state bursaries, how can decolonisation be promoted since the 2015 outbreak of student protest? Professor Robert Van Niekerk, from Rhodes University, provided a systematic review and poignant observation on the topic at a Sussex Development Lecture held at IDS.

Background of Rhodes University

The establishment of Rhodes College in 1904 was viewed as unequivocally linked with sustaining and reproducing an ethos of British imperialism in the colonies through all facets of its symbolism, pedagogical approach and institutional culture. Evidence suggests that Rhodes was by far the most conservative of the ostensibly ‘open and liberal’ universities, colluding with apartheid authorities since 1948. Although there was a small progressive minority of white academics upholding anti-apartheid commitment in 1994, the overwhelming majority held a docile position to the apartheid status quo. The symbol of Rhodes University maintained continuity with its original colonial imperative: a statue of Cecil John Rhodes displayed permanently in the university.

Historical narrative of the alienation of black students

In a seminal recently published history of Rhodes University, Prof Paul Maylam recounts the observations in the late 1970’s of one of the few black students, Zubeida Jaffer, now a progressive journalist and writer, of her experience in an official university residence with a white student: “…We were five black girls in the house with her and she said she had not expected this. She had been told that we have a low IQ and so could not understand how it was possible that we were sharing her residence with her.”

What a disturbing and frankly scary quote. The lesson therefrom is that oppression is not only performed by people consciously, but also unconsciously through learnings from their upbringings that create their realities. Although the quote seems ridiculous in today’s view, the dangerous misunderstandings in the above conversation of black/white can be replaced by men/women and far-right politics/foreigners and still seem familiar.

From overthrow of apartheid to decolonisation 

The 1994 democratisation saw an explosion of anti-apartheid activities at Rhodes University led by black students and progressive white academic staff, focusing on overthrowing apartheid manifestations in the educational system. Less focus per se was given to ‘decolonisation’ although there was rich engagement with alternative pedagogies, particularly featuring Brazilian radical educationist Paulo Freire and the African writer Ngugu wa Thiongo the latter of whom wrote a well-read text called ‘De-colonising the Mind’.

In 2006, the first black vice-chancellor Saleem Badat set in place a programme of scholarly engagement on the institutional culture and its colonial and alienating experience for black students and staff. The process culminated in a public apology by the University for its shameful complicity with the system of apartheid and a special apology for excluding anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko from the whites-only residence is 1968.

The public apology reminds me of the ‘Warschauer Kniefall’ by the kneeling German chancellor Willy Brandt towards the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970. How could these spirals of revenge, anger, and shame over past injustices be broken? A public apology is not a panacea but it is definitely a needed step to recognise the truth and mistakes. As most countries have been through different struggles and pain – for example, the dictatorship in Taiwan – what can we learn from the lesson of public apology, or more broadly, the approach of transitional justice in both South Africa and Germany?

Decolonisation at the forefront: heritage, identity and race

The catalyst was the flinging of the excrement at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in 2015. This act of symbolic contempt for a relic of colonialism led to the establishment of the #Rhodesmustfall movement and led to a wider movement to decolonise education across South Africa.

In Rhodes University, one of the tactics that the students used was occupation of the Senate room: demanding the university change the name, transform the curriculum to include black intellectuals, and transform the Eurocentric institutional culture. The movement centered on an ideological affiliation with the Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon and iconic Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Notably, the black student movement had a rotating leadership, female students played a prominent role, and affirmation of LBGTI+ identities was raised as a central concern.

Contrasting the challenge of decolonisation, past and present

Prof Robert Van Niekerk praised the students for raising social questions of inestimable importance for the creation of an egalitarian, equitable society, a still unfulfilled promise of post-apartheid South Africa. He also saw these questions posed by the students as potentially developing a new language and politics of emancipation. He however also raised concerns on several interesting points.   When students occupied the Council Chamber, they replaced the mural with photocopies of black political and cultural figures, ranging from Burkina Faso revolutionary Thomas Sankara to the billionaire singer Beyoncé. How is Sankara who had a clear articulated class-based, Marxist approach to social change reconcilable with the gifted ‘bling bling’ capitalist singer of black pride? The answer may partly lie in the uneven privileging of identity politics over class politics in the decolonisation movement.

This decolonisation agenda was linked to the protests around free education and access for black students. Interestingly, the #Feesmustfall protests was led initially by a joint working-class and middle-class (and non-racial to some extent) leadership structure allied around a social concern for realising free education. This universalist student alliance around working class concerns was later diminished into a residual agenda of ‘free fees only for the poor’ – which involved complicated determinations of fee paying ability and the revival of the stigmatizing means-testing that impoverished – protesting students had originally rejected as having to ‘perform their poverty’. It seemed a retreat from the new emancipatory politics the students had placed on the agenda. While the alliance of the Fees Must Fall movement and decolonisation as transcendent of class relationship should not be overstated, it did point to the possibilities of struggles lead by working class and impoverished students over the universalization of public goods such as education with a substantive re-distributive imperative.

The reminder: comparison of decolonisation in Tanzania and South Africa

Tanzanian radical Marxist Prof Issa Shivji has reflected the differences between the student movements in Dar es Salaam and South Africa. In the case of Dar es Salaam, the decolonisation imperative was explicitly linked to analytic frameworks based on class: anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism. The objective of decolonisation was therefore linked to a wider agenda of social emancipation. Shivji’s concern in South Africa was, however, that these analytic frameworks were not embedded meaningfully – and he was afraid that the decolonisation project could therefore be transformed into a project of narrow nationalism. It is a fear that Prof Robert van Niekerk shared with Prof Issa Shivji that one regime could be replaced by a new regime, who – while culturally more identifiable and therefore politically more legitimate – retains the underlying structures of class exploitation and inequality which were inseparable from the maintenance of national oppression. These concerns would need to be addressed by the student movement if the emancipatory potential of their just struggle for de-commodified education was to be realised.

Whose voice is being heard? Whose reality counts?

Having studied at IDS, one of the most important lessons that we learned is to always ask whose voice and whose reality counts. From colonisation to decolonisation, in my view, it is indeed a process of ‘calibrating’ and ‘re-calibrating’ our reality. How do we define Cecil John Rhodes? A hero of Empire or a racist and an imperialist? How should we present history in the textbooks and curriculum? In an Anglo view or in a black conscious view? I find the teaching of participation inherently relevant and helpful when reflecting decolonisation.

Fascinatingly, if the above-mentioned realities had all existed in the certain period of history, how will future generations examine our current deed? When Aristotle argued democracy, women were automatically excluded as in his reality men and women are ‘undoubtedly not equal’. During the colonial period and apartheid, black and white were treated differently as in the whites’ reality ‘human beings are not equal’. If some realities in the past seem horrible and ridiculously wrong, are there realities in today’s view problematic for the future generation? If we can identify them now, we can strive towards a higher ethical standard and a clearer thought on gender, environment, development, and some fiercely debated topics, helping us to stand aligned unwaveringly with humanity.



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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