Jonathan Jansen is Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University and President of the Academy of Science of South Africa. He is a curriculum theorist, and his research is concerned with the politics of knowledge. His 2019/2020 books (co-authored, co-edited) include South African Schooling: The enigma of inequality, Fault lines: a primer on race, science and society, Who gets in and why: the politics of admission in South Africa’s elite schools, Learning under lockdown: voices of South Africa’s children, and Learning Lessons. His current research includes a national study on the impact of the pandemic on the academic work of women scholars. He holds a PhD (Stanford) and five honorary degrees in education.
I always felt slightly uncomfortable when decolonization made its unexpected appearance on South African university campuses in early 2015. Not the concept itself; who could argue with the observation of the lingering effects of colonial knowledge, ideas, and practices within higher education institutions today? No, my unease was not with decolonization as one of many critical perspectives on knowledge; it was with the uncritical consumption of the idea by South African activists, students and academics alike.
From the start it was obvious that decolonization was being used as a political slogan to advance a struggle that had as much to do with campuses as with the state of South Africa as a whole. On former white campuses in particular, black students were struggling with alienating institutional cultures, white dominance in the professoriate, and of course a Euro- or more correctly Western-centered curriculum. In the country, students witnessed the dysfunction of a corrupt government that had failed to significantly improve the lives of the poor as evidenced by growing inequalities and felt poverty. Those conditions, on and off-campus, gave much political impetus to the intense struggles for the decolonization of universities alongside a parallel demand for free higher education. Rolled into one, the slogan that bannered student protests was a call for a “free, decolonized education.”
Struggles against the exclusionary costs of higher education have always defined student politics especially on the historically black campuses, so that did not surprise me. What did strike me as intellectual and politically intriguing was the full-throated struggle for decolonization. Why?
South Africa’s long history of political struggles had never been organized around decolonization. It was, after all, not a typical colony where the colonial authority was implanted on African soil and then ejected since the late 1950s. In South Africa the white settlers had long become natives and in the public consciousness were long regarded as citizens. So where did decolonization as a language of struggle so suddenly come from?
Our five-year research project on the uptake of decolonization in the curriculum of universities yielded some interesting findings. One of those insights was that the student activists came up with the term decolonization as a more radical signifier than the official language for democratic change, transformation. Transformation, in other words, was the language of the government. But because transformation had not deeply changed the conditions of the black majority more than two decades since the end of apartheid, decolonization offered a radical, alternative language for the campus struggles of 2015 onwards.
But words matter and concepts have consequences. When I pointed this out during book tours on different campuses, the reaction was fierce and even threatening in some places. The reason was that decolonization was invested with such political freight that any challenge in the heat of battle was regarded as hostile and had to be put down. Many academics who knew better were cowered into silence, others joined the protests out of a sense of solidarity, and more than a few simply refused to engage the conceptual clumsiness of an otherwise politically handy term. Not only was such reaction anti-intellectual, it was also conservative for reasons I will now explain.
By deploying decolonization primarily as a political slogan, its potential significance in the struggle was always going to be short-lived. Suddenly, everything had to be decolonized from the oceans (seriously) to the cafeteria menu and ways of teaching. The problem is that if decolonization is everything then it is nothing for all the dilemmas of post-apartheid society cannot be reduced to colonialism and its aftermath. That takes away agency from the colonized by suggesting that nothing has changed as a result of the struggles of generations of activists. Of course, such a claim is nonsensical. It also suggests that the knowledge exchanged in the classroom is simply a consequence of the global north dog wagging the global south tail. That is old-fashioned dependency theory thinking from the 1960s that was even over-deterministic at that time especially in relation to the knowledge project.
For purposes of this blog, knowledge, as codified in disciplinary curriculum, is a fascinating product of intellectual legacies from the colonial past, struggle knowledge from resistance histories, knowledge exchanges from collaborations with international research partners, and the research of (in this case, African) scholars. To target the South African curriculum as “colonial” or “Western” is to ignore the many ways in which knowledge is produced, challenged and changed over the course of time; but the undiluted view of a colonial present in the democratic curriculum makes for good politics.
This simplistic view of decolonization makes another critical error—and that is to assume that Western knowledge is one thing, unchangeable since the days of Empire, and uncontested on its own terrain. That too is simply wrong. In fact, much of the critical work on the politics of knowledge itself emerges from critics within Western universities over many decades. Think of the challenges to the Western canon in American universities or anti-imperial scholarship in Europe etc. Very often it is powerful constructs from critical scholars in the West—think of intersectionality theory and white fragility—that form the basis for collaborations across staid accounts of North/South divisions of knowledge production.
All such nuance and complexity are lost when decolonization is primarily mobilized as a political slogan without consideration of what it means for radical change inside institutions of higher education. This is what our forthcoming book, The settled curriculum: radical ideas and the politics of knowledge, lays out in some detail, building on the contributions in our recent edited volume on Decolonisation in Universities.
In brief, institutions do not change course merely because of political pressure, or even violent resistance, demanding change. We found that universities as institutions are remarkably adept at institutional posturing; that is, pretending to be responsive to change without changing at all. Institutions are agile in the face of radical change; they absorb, modify, marginalize and appropriate radical ideas like decolonization. That is why five years later, the decolonization of universities in general and curricula in particular has hardly shifted at all.
One of the reasons for the status quo is that the decolonization activists did not have a theory of change for bringing radical ideas into the institutional curriculum. In fact, the change agents had no theory at all. That is because the power of the slogan was assumed to be enough even in the face of century-old institutions such as the University of Cape Town where the bronze statue of the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes came down in a public triumph of the ultimate political spectacle.
In the end, the struggle for decolonization in South Africa did not fail because it was radical. It failed because it was not radical enough.