It’s only fair to start this opinion piece with a warning. I am about to say something you might find controversial: Decolonising South African higher education must not focus exclusively on Africanising the curriculum. If that statement has not turned you away, give me a chance to make my argument.

Let me begin by discussing one of the reasons why students are calling for a decolonised education. Many students feel alienated by the Eurocentric curricula of South African institutions, including our universities, colleges and even high schools. Students cannot identify with the ideas they are required to unpack, because major parts of the curricula, feel foreign, imported, irrelevant and even offensive in racist, sexist and homophobic terms. So, is the remedy to create a curriculum that focuses on Africa, especially Southern Africa? Is the remedy to create a curriculum that allows everyone who identifies as African to feel comfortable in class? Should you judge a curriculum by whether you can associate with its content? Well… yes and no. Let me start with the yes part.

Yes, there is something seriously flawed with a curriculum that does not urge students to unpack thinkers from Africa’s past and present, and to aspire to become future thinkers. A curriculum without African thinkers repeats an old racist deception. It repeats the falsehood that Africa is devoid of minds that can collaborate with others around the world to generate the sophisticated knowledge we need to deal with global problems. If we do not counter this deception, we will face at least three consequences.

First, we will fail to shatter the myth that Africa needs outsiders, especially from Europe and North America, to do its thinking, and to save Africa from its presumed backwardness. Second, we will fail to acknowledge the value that thinkers from Africa can contribute to the rest of the world. Third, we actually need to move away from thinking along strictly European, African, Asian or American lines. Let me explain this last point.

Should European universities focus on European knowledge alone, while African universities focus on African knowledge alone? I think not. We need to stop trying to capture the essence, or the spirit, of any single place. There is no such thing as a true, unchanging European essence, just as there is no such thing as a truly North American or South American essence (take a look at the debates on immigration and cultural identity in Europe and North America). Similarly, there is no such thing as an unchanging, timeless, eternal Africanness. Of course, there are patterns. But patterns are not cast in stone. Patterns can change in the face of contact and real, equal collaboration. In the long story of world history, nothing is fixed forever – no matter how often people have used this misconception to justify exploitation (and sometimes even liberation to an extent).

So, if you believe that Africa has valuable knowledge to give to the rest of the world – great! But be careful. If you think about Africa as a place that is eternally different from the rest of the world in clear, obvious and discreet ways, then you might still be working with a slightly colonial picture of the world. Colonialism divided the world into those who know vs. those who don’t know. This assumption is still present in some parts of the so-called West, and it needs to be challenged. But if we challenge it by insisting on an essentialised Western/European knowledge vs. an essentialised African knowledge – then we have not moved far enough along the road of unmaking colonialism. We need to re-imagine how we think about the world. Otherwise, we run the risk of only trying to disprove racist, colonial images of Africa, and although that is definitely important, we can do even more. Let me be clear, the suggestion here is not that we should cultivate the kind of colour-blindness that conceals racism instead of doing the real work of anti-racism. Instead, the suggestion is that if we only focus on knowledge that feels relevant because of where it has been generated, and because it feels familiar, we are missing a chance to learn from less familiar, but thought-provoking knowledge.

This last point brings me straight to the reasons why (in my opinion) a decolonised curriculum should never focus exclusively on Africa, African thinkers, African ways of knowing and African critiques of colonialism and the destructive shadow of colonialism in the present. Other parts of the world also suffered colonialism and continue to feel its legacy. Knowledge from other parts of the world – such as South America, Asia and the experiences of Native North Americans – can be tapped and pulled into a broader community of minds who can, collectively, create ideas for a better world with a more inclusive vision of humanity (and the non-human). In other words, sometimes students can learn something valuable and relevant even if it takes a long time to find points of common interest. You do not always have to associate with, or be familiar with a place, time, people, culture or ideas before you can discover something that might equip you to navigate the world you inhabit.

Let me try to make these abstract proposals a little more concrete. I teach English at a university and for the last few years, I have been using a novel called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, written by the American author Sherman Alexie. Some students start the semester by asking why we don’t kick off with a novel by a black South African author (we do actually get to some of those later). That is a valid question. Students have a right to question the curriculum. However, after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, students begin to see shocking similarities between the experiences of poor Native Americans and poor black students at South African universities. The novel takes students on a journey with a character who faces poverty, racism, abuse and the powerful social structures that keep these forms of oppression in place. Students, as they travel with this character, realise that their own struggles matter even more than they might have thought. They realise that the anti-racism and decolonisation they have been calling for, and working for, can be viewed as one part of a global project. The novel also provides students with ideas for coping with oppression – such as the use of art and humour. Some of these coping mechanisms are actually quite similar to what many students are already using. In short, the novel gives students a chance to see themselves as part of a global community of activists for social justice.

These are some of my thoughts on the matter, but all ideas are incomplete and partial. For one, decolonisation is far more complex than the skeletal outline I have provided here. Apart from that, my opinions are primarily premised on curricula in the Humanities, including English Literature, Linguistics, Sociology and Anthropology. I am not sure how these ideas might relate to other areas such as Legal Studies. So let me end by issuing a challenge. I call upon members of ACTIVATE! Change Drivers to write response pieces to this one. You are also welcome to leave comments. Share your ideas. Let’s keep the conversation going.