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Pine Slopes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Decolonising Wits

DECOLONISING WITS from African Noise Foundation on Vimeo.

To be perfectly frank, I have to add that our task is rendered all the more complex because there is hardly any agreement as to the meaning, and even less so the future, of what goes by the name “the university” in our world today.

The harder I tried to make sense of the idea of “decolonization” that has become the rallying cry for those trying to undo the racist legacies of the past, the more I kept asking myself to what extent we might be fighting a complexly mutating entity with concepts inherited from an entirely different age and epoch. Is today’s university the same as yesterday’s or are we confronting an entirely different apparatus, an entirely different rationality – both of which require us to produce radically new concepts?

We all agree that there is something anachronistic, something fundamentally wrong with a number of institutions of higher learning in South Africa.

There is something fundamentally cynical when institutions whose character is profoundly ethno-provincial keep masquerading as replicas of Oxford and Cambridge without demonstrating the same productivity as the original places they are mimicking.
There is something profoundly wrong when, for instance, syllabi designed to meet the needs of colonialism and Apartheid continue well into the post-Apartheid era.

We also agree that part of what is wrong with our institutions of higher learning is that they are “Westernized”.
But what does it mean “they are westernized”?

They are indeed “Westernized” if all that they aspire to is to become local instantiations of a dominant academic model based on a Eurocentric epistemic canon.

But what is a Eurocentric canon?

A Eurocentric canon is a canon that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production.

It is a canon that disregards other epistemic traditions.

It is a canon that tries to portray colonialism as a normal form of social relations between human beings rather than a system of exploitation and oppression.

Furthermore, Western epistemic traditions are traditions that claim detachment of the known from the knower. They rest on a division between mind and world, or between reason and nature as an ontological a priori.

They are traditions in which the knowing subject is enclosed in itself and peeks out at a world of objects and produces supposedly objective knowledge of those objects. The knowing subject is thus able, we are told, to know the world without being part of that world and he or she is by all accounts able to produce knowledge that is supposed to be universal and independent of context.

The problem – because there is a problem indeed – with this tradition is that it has become hegemonic.

This hegemonic notion of knowledge production has generated discursive scientific practices and has set up interpretive frames that make it difficult to think outside of these frames. But this is not all.

This hegemonic tradition has not only become hegemonic. It also actively represses anything that actually is articulated, thought and envisioned from outside of these frames.

For these reasons, the emerging consensus is that our institutions must undergo a process of decolonization both of knowledge and of the university as an institution.

– Achille Mbembe, Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive


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