The Oppressive Paradigm of the Colonial Academy

By Mandisi Majavu · 18 Nov 2011

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Almost two decades into post-apartheid South Africa many black academics still feel that the “white networks that have de facto run academic decision making” are derailing the transformation agenda. This is according to the Charter for Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS), a report commissioned by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, that was published in June this year.

In many respects, the CHSS echoes the 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, which noted that the high education sector has inherited the country’s apartheid and colonial legacy. Consequently, racism continues to manifest itself in the core activities of teaching, learning and research. 

According to the CHSS, one of the key challenges facing South African universities is how to transform the curriculum in a way that it reflects “the knowledge production that has been going on in Africa”. As has been pointed out by African thinkers such as Mahmood Mamdani, the enduring apartheid intellectual legacy at South Africa universities is the ‘paradigm of the colonial academy’. 

Thus many universities across post-apartheid South Africa continue to study white experience as a universal, human experience; while the experience of people of colour is seen as an ethnic experience, according to Mamdani. Additionally, in many cases students are taught a curriculum that is premised on the notion that Africa has no intelligentsia worth reading. This pedagogical approach is more pronounced at former white universities. And, needless to say, the foregrounding of white experience and Western thought at these universities serve to reinforce the hegemony of whiteness. 

After all, as many educators argue, the role of educational training institutions is not only to teach students history or whatever other subject, but also to inculcate students with values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. Thus the type of students recruited in large numbers into former white universities are the kind of students who are more than willing to adjust to the institution’s power structure. 

In other words, the kinds of students that the former white universities are likely to attract in large numbers are students who graduated from the former white Model C schools and private schools. Interestingly, this is one of the observations made by the CHSS. According to the CHSS there exists a “common-sense culture based on a pop sociology which is rather racialised: Model C plus black = potential and success, Non-Model C plus black = failure.” 

Hence institutions like the University of Cape Town, for example, tend to attract in large numbers students from schools such as Westerford High School, Rustenburg Girls High School, Rondebosch Boys High School, Herschel Girls High School, and Reddam House. This is partly because the mental outlook of the students from these schools needs less adjustment to meet the system’s demands [1].  Additionally, students who graduate from these schools have the ‘right’ attitude towards authority, and they fit perfectly in social hierarchies at these institutions.

An argument that is often made for recruiting students from these high schools is that universities have to maintain their ‘educational standards’. This is one ideological instrument among many that is utilised to filter out the ‘undesirables’ from the South African white academy. Writing about the U.S., American academics---Herman and Chomsky explain that the operation of an ideological filter in choosing the ‘right-thinking’ people to be accepted in institutions that serve the elite occurs so naturally that selection panels, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose the right candidates all the time on the basis of merit.

The ‘undesirables’ that manage to pass through by means of affirmative action programmes and other means are dealt with by means of clever devices such as being punished or failed for carrying out research projects that challenge a particular discipline for instance. Dissenting black voices that refuse to bow down to the oppressive paradigm of the colonial academy are caricatured as ‘polemicists’, or lacking ‘theory’ in their scholarship. 

Obviously, this is a universal problem. For instance, in 2002, Cornel West, one of the most important black scholars today, was pushed out of Harvard because his work was seen as being not sophisticated enough to be classified as philosophy. According to West, he was instructed by Lawrence Summers, the Harvard President at the time, to ‘write a major book on a philosophical tradition to establish’ himself, and to further desist from writing works that were being reviewed in popular publications. 

The logic that shapes the oppressive paradigm of the colonial academy is that a ‘good student’ carries out research projects that improve the identity, aims and interests of this tradition. There are exceptions, so one might find one or two departments at former white universities that are open to an alternative way of approaching certain subjects.   

The point I am making here is that the hegemony of whiteness has to be exposed if we are serious about transformation and about encouraging emancipatory scholarship in post-apartheid South Africa. Affirmative action is a necessary strategy to counter the hegemony of whiteness, however on its own, affirmative action “will be superficial and cosmetic”, according to Mamdani. In other words, the creation of a black intelligentsia is necessary, but that on its own will not automatically give us an intellectual product that is based on Africa’s own experience. 

It is worth noting that there are academic projects that strive to develop an Africa-focused intelligentsia.  Rhodes University’s ‘Thinking Africa’ programme is one such project, and the Makerere Institute of Social Research interdisciplinary Ph.D programme is another project that aims to develop Africa-focused intelligentsia. These programmes have the potential for producing graduates who research and write about issues in South Africa and Africa as a whole in a way that resonates with the experiences of people on this continent.  

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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Mike Thurgood Verified user
17 Nov

The "colonial zacademy" syndrome

For a university which has acclaim across the world, why should the University of Cape Town, for example, be categorised as a "colonial academy"? As far as I am aware, it now has many black students. To refer to "colonial academies" is fatuous rubbish.

At what university did the writer study? One might also ask at what university did the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, study?

The questions are relevant because there seems to be a concept in the minds of blacks that whites don't believe that they have the same intellectual potential as, well, why whites? What about Arabs, or Chinese, North American Indians or indigenous Australians?

It all sounds far too much reminiscent of that dead political system, communism, a system which deliberately suppressed the lower echelons of the various populations, in favour of a tiny minority of the "elite".

It is unfortunate that a style of presentation is used which reflects that dead political system.

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17 Nov

Belated African Renaissance and NDR are Racist

You said: "And, needless to say, the foregrounding of white experience and Western thought at these universities serve to reinforce the hegemony of whiteness."

The press code states inter alia:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes:

a) Freedom of the press and other media; b) Freedom to receive and impart information or ideas; c) Freedom of artistic creativity; and d) Academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

"The right in subsection (1) does not extend to

a) Propaganda for war; b) Incitement of imminent violence; or c) Advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm."

Not only do you in my opinion propose to prescribe to others what "academic freedom and freedom of scientific research" should be but in your words you also want "to transform the curriculum in a way that it reflects 'the knowledge production that has been going on in Africa' " and lastly and totally unacceptable, you also advocate hatred that is based on race and ethnicity.

Students that share your narrow view should rather avoid the former predominantly white universities in the country at all costs.

They should learn to practice and research linguistics, jurisprudence, modal logic and philosophy, economics and business administration, public administration, medicine and nursing, zoology and vetenary science, chemistry, pedagogy, geography, accounting and auditing, architecture and civil construction, chemical and mechanical engineering, physics, psychology, botany and agriculture, theology, criminology and penology etc. at those institutions of learning that do not in any way whatsoever "study white experience as a universal, human experience."

All these fields are in your opinion well enough developed in the closed African academic world, culture and literature to merit the total exclusion of what you misguidedly regard as exclusively

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Thomas Blaser
18 Nov


Surely whiteness is a problem but then the issues are also much larger. SA academia is a closed shop and the pressure on any newcomer is to replicate the system. I have encountered black scholars who do exactly that and basically do the same but now from a different racial perspective. It may help some people to advance, but it will still remain a closed shop that will not favour open and excellent thinking.

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18 Nov

Afro-centric Centres of Learning

I'm white, I attended Wits. I rolled my eyes in the '90s...

Now I look at the world and see white western systems crashing down - who would want to learn to uphold a system that is clearly failing if it wasn't your cultural mandate to do so. There are great things to be salvaged from the wreck of western culture, much of which can be learned in current South African universities.

But I also see an alternative system, born and made in Africa, founded on African experience and African social order, that may well have the components of the country's salvation in it from a micro-economic perspective. The continued success of long-established African social order is the very reason why democracy has fallen short here.

I would love to see universities in SA where South Africans can study African systems, where African Royalty can study skills of leadership that genuinely enhance their abilities to govern their people with wisdom, where African traditional healers can hone their academic skills, where the African system of ethics can be taught. And so on...

I'd attend.

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Sarah Henkeman
27 Nov


Thanks for rendering the invisible, denied and deniable colonial grip on academia visible. I have shared your article on facebook and it has been shared, liked and commented on by many people.

I agree with Thomas Blaser (above) when he suggests that some black (inclusive) academics practice the same colonial mentality. This happens to the extent that they deny their own culture and upbringing to join the 'civilising' march.

Instead of acknowledging their insider/outsider status to academia head on, many simply conflate 'being educated' with 'being a pseudo-white' in everything except pigmentation.

We can learn a lot from black feminists locally and abroad (McFadden, Abrahams, Muthien, Hill Collins, bel hooks (not capitalised) - about the 'epistemic advantage' of being insider/outsiders to academia. By the stance they take and from their writings we can learn that our standpoints are valid. It is neither superior nor inferior to the dominant colonial paradigm. It is also not based on a hatred of whites or whiteness, but on a balanced love for self and an ethic of caring for everyone. It is a tough and lonely path to take because you face your supervisors, lecturers, examiners as an individual. You court failure with every attempt at self determination, but in the end, you have your 'self' and our dignity as a human being - instead of handing over your mind and soul as opposed to your body in slavery.

It is a great pity that those who have internalised the dominant paradigm, look down on others who don't think it inferior to think, write and speak in local dialects, slang and even horror of horrors, use the odd local swear word!

The civilising mission is so ingrained in some black academics, that they use silencing and exclusion of 'raw' blacks who might embarrass them. They perpetrate this violence while other simply stand by passively - too afraid to be tainted as 'ignorant', to timid to assert their right to be exactly as they are. Too fascinated to know that they too have the power to define and to challenge ivory tower and ivy league rules.

From the pespective of this 'raw' black - it takes hard work to learn how our minds can be colonised while our bodies appear free! Thank you, thank you. for putting this article in the public domain. Big ups to SACSIS and eternally grateful to you Mandisi.

From: 'Raw is beautiful. Colonised is colonised.'

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