Fiction, through using our capacity for empathy and critical thinking, opens us up to the possibilities of new worlds and new ways of being and an understanding of the unspoken nuances of various lived identities and experiences. There is no greater exercise than reading fiction for transformative thinking because it grants our imagination free reign in order to plot new and innovative ways to conspire against systemic injustice.
I recently read Kopano Matlwa’s Spilt Milk and within the first few pages I was immediately struck by the relevance of the novel to my experiences with the decolonisation project unfolding at my university. Furthermore, I felt that Matlwa’s portrayal may lend a blueprint to aid understanding of decolonisation within the education system as a whole.
A short while ago I received a report from the university teaching and learning committee meeting where a section of the meeting included presenting feedback on decolonisation work that has been done within the respective faculties since 2016. The health sciences faculty delivered a short report that began in the following manner: “There isn’t anything in the medical field within the curriculum that needs to be ‘decolonised’.”
Though I had always suspected that not much decolonisation work was occurring within the science-related faculties at my institution, mainly due to what I perceive as arrogance on their part, I was still utterly stunned to be confronted with the glaring reality that not only is the cry for decolonisation considered fickle and nonsensical by entire faculties that have unadulterated access to the moulding and mentoring of their students; but furthermore, that these faculties are so bold as to say that they are prepared to operate in complete isolation of the decolonisation direction that the current rector and vice-chancellor are attempting to drive through a model for progression that the university council has adopted as the Integrated Transformation Plan (ITP).
When the vice-chancellor announced that the statue of MT Steyn would be removed from campus due to the demands of students seeking a tangible commitment to decolonising the physical space of campus, the announcement of the statue’s removal was accompanied by a plea from the vice-chancellor to respect the feelings of members of the white Afrikaans community by allowing the university to apply a “caring” approach to the statue’s removal. The vice-chancellor failed to highlight just how important the statue’s removal was for expediting the process of decolonisation or even explaining the importance of steering the university into a decolonised direction. Instead, students championing the decolonisation mission were encouraged to prioritise white feelings, at the cost of sacrificing much needed conversations about redress and nation building around the concept of decolonisation.
I believe it should have been stressed by the vice-chancellor that any sentiments that are contrary to decolonisation efforts can no longer be tolerated as these are impeding the speed of progress; but instead those who were pained at the removal of the MT Steyn statue were encouraged to remain steeped in ignorance because a ‘caring’ approach was deemed more important than a conscientising one.
Walking towards campus these last two months has been somewhat frightening, because one inevitably is confronted with a campaign poster belonging to a certain political organisation, with the words “Slaan Terug” (Fight Back) emblazoned across the entire page. I say frightening because what other connotations can one, as a person of colour, derive from this poster other than that it is a call to the white community to forcibly resist redress efforts. Aside from this, what is most concerning is that this is surely the sentiment that students carry with them into campus after encountering these posters. One can rest assured that if you are being encouraged to “Fight Back” you are far more likely to view the decolonisation process as a personal threat to your heritage. I firmly believe that this perspective is only enhanced by the VC’s lukewarm ‘caring’ approach to the statue’s removal as well as faculties like the Health Sciences Department’s point blank refusal to acknowledge the great need for decolonisation.
An area of university institutions that has been overlooked with respect to any form of transformation, let alone decolonisation, is the Finance Department. I believe it is unethical for a university to say it is committed to the process of decolonisation, yet at the same time, it very deliberately exempts the Finance Department from being subject to this process — knowing full well that it has rendered international students, especially African international students, as the cash cows of the university’s coffers. At the moment, some universities use a fees model for international students that does not only require them to pay exorbitant prepayments for both SADC and non-SADC, but enforces this while being fully aware that students from the rest of Africa are often trying to escape countries that are in complete ruin. Furthermore, university councils do not consider the inflation rate of the country of origin of the international student, neither can the institutions provide solid reasons that inform their fees models for international students other than referring to reports and decisions that were made by council’s over 10 years ago. International students, through current fees arrangements and lack of representation for their constituency at council level are simply being subject to systemic xenophobic practices, and a university truly committed to decolonisation will not allow its finance department to continue in this vein.
The only hope left for bringing institutions into an understanding of decolonisation lies in the mastery of Matlwa’s Spilt Milk. Mohumagadi is the feared, powerful, ambitious and visionary principle of a school founded solely for the development and empowerment of the black child. Mohumagadi’s school seeks to redress past oppression and although Matlwa does not explicitly refer to decolonisation, the following description of the model off of which Mohumagadi’s school is premised encapsulates perfectly the desired outcomes of the decolonisation project.
Matlwa, through the character of Mohumagadi, refers to the teaching and learning pedagogies of her school in the following ways; of Mathematics , the subject would not be used only to “compute debts” but instead would be used to “create change and multiply results”. History would not be a subject embroiled solely in the bitterness of the oppression of the past, but instead “would stand as a witness to all things overcome by centuries gone by. A reminder of where we have been and where we no longer want to be,”. Geography would be used to facilitate the understanding of Africa in relation to the rest of the globe in order to allow the continent to carve out meaning for itself and to support and develop its nation states, and Art would be used to promote a sense of identity and to allow for a process of “centreing”.
In short, what Matlwa has so beautifully and vibrantly described is crafted by the paintbrush of decolonisation. She has managed to capture the essence of what decolonisation means, which is; removing the systemic oppressive elements still contained within inherited colonial institutions by placing Africa and the reality of the African context at the centre of all functions of the space; and in this case, the university space.
Essentially this means, creating a university space that is accessible and that prioritizes the narratives of all South Africans. Despite this, a certain demographic of students and staff continue to invest in the belief that decolonisation is a racial strategy employed to attack their community and at the moment, the university is not facilitating comprehensive education for staff and students to curb this perspective. We are falling short in this respect and more concentrated effort needs to occur in terms of conscientization.
Matlwa is sharing with us a dream for a future that as far as I can tell, will only lead to collective benefit for all South Africans. Let us take her narrative as the blueprint for our conceptual framing of decolonisation and let us thus use fiction, imagination and innovation to move beyond fear and uncertainty into the brilliance of an African university for the African peoples – all African peoples.