Decolonizing the University

This text is a transcription of a talk given at Azania House, Bremner Building, University of Cape Town, April 2015.

I want to thank you all for this wonderful invitation to be a part of the conversations you have been having here at UCT, and at Azania House. We, those outside your university, and at other universities, down the road and across the country, are watching with great enthusiasm and inspired by the courage and thoughtfulness with which you are conducting this moment of subversion. I have to say that I am in particular very encouraged by the connections you have made between subjections of different kinds, particularly two very neglected forms of subjection — in the sphere of knowledge production, and in the sphere of gender and sexuality. These are remarkable connections and the kind of leadership that is visible to those of us on the outside, shows a genuine effort to unsettle imperial hubris, but also patriarchal power relations.

I have been asked to speak on “Decolonizing the University”, and I am going to say a few things that I think don’t need saying here, because the discussions you have had are already ahead of many of us in thinking about this question. But the first thing I suppose I would say is that we — those of us in pockets all around the country – UWC, Unisa, Rhodes, Fort Hare — many pockets — are all dealing with this question of what to do with the Universities we have inherited within the larger question of justice and the transformations of the wrongs of apartheid. I would like to think of these wrongs of apartheid as violences.

I want to make a distinction between three kinds of violences we confront in South Africa, and that we inherited.

The first is political violence, the second economic violence, and the third epistemic violence. Each of these violences — political, economic, and epistemic — carries with them demands for justice. I will say that  justice in relation to the first two that we have probably spent most of our time focusing on, and it is  the first two that animate most of our political discourse and oppositional discourse.

Let me elaborate. The history of state formation in South Africa is the history of settler colonialism. And at the heart of settler colonialism is the removal, decimation, alienation and dispossession of the population that was there by an external grouping. The magical trick that settler colonialism performs is to denaturalize the right to belong of the local population — to make them foreigners, while naturalizing the foreigner as the person who has the right to belong. Foreigners become natives and natives become foreigners. You know that old anecdote — “they came with the bible and we had the land, they told us to close our eyes. We opened our eyes, and we had the bible, but they had the land”. This magical trick of settler colonialism was  a political decision, legitimated through law and enacted and administered by a bureaucracy. Millions of people moved and removed and separated and thousands violently repressed for resisting. The violence of migrant labour, of forced removals and dislocated families, this is the political violence we inherited.

By political justice I mean the justice through which this particular wrong was righted. The justice we answered this injustice with could have followed two options. The first could have been, following much of the experience of other African countries who inherited such a problem, was to turn the tables — if the foreigner was made native and the native made foreigner through colonial injustice, postcolonial justice could now make the foreigner once more foreigner, and the native once more native. That was one option. It was exercised as a form of citizenship in many African countries after independence when the question of who belonged where was decided. The other option was to try to decolonize the question of citizenship — by changing the terms that colonialism gave us — foreigner, settler, native — and work towards a form of citizenship which was not about where you are from, but where you are at. This was in many ways remarkable and not the norm for most of the continent. I know there is growing controversy over this, but I will leave it there for now. My point is that political violence was answered through a particular form of political justice.

Economic violence many of us are familiar with and deeply troubled by — it is the reason we have the highest inequality in the world, and racialized poverty and universities that are mostly black and mostly white and mostly rich and mostly poor. If political justice solved the citizenship question, we know it didn’t solve the question of economic justice. I think we are all familiar with the new political movements that have emerged as a result of that problem. And we also might agree that it was, and is, this economic violence that drives  most of the discussion on the transformation of the education system, which focuses on access for those previously excluded. Economic violence and the demand for economic justice is the dominant slogan of our time now.

The third violence, epistemic violence, is perhaps the most difficult one to confront. That’s perhaps because it is so invisible, so naturalized, so part of the ordinary and every day life that it’s hard to talk about. And yet it is perhaps the most important of the three violences. Why would I say that? Well, you have to think a person an animal first in order to treat them like an animal. You have to have a concept of what a human looks like first, in order to misrecognize another human as property or a slave. Epistemic violence is about thought.  And the political and economic effects of that thought. Colonialism’s  political violence and capitalisms’s economic violence had to be thought first. The abstract history of the march of human freedom, let’s not forget, is also the concrete history of conquest, colonialism, patriarchy, and the struggle for equality.

Epistemic violence is then in the very marrow of everything we think is good about our modernity, its concepts and its achievements. If the struggle for political and economic transformation asks where are our black students and where are our black professors, the struggle against epistemic violence adds: and what are we teaching and researching and how are we doing that and why are we doing that?

Because the university is a place of authoritative knowledge, certified knowledge, it is at the heart of epistemic violence. It is where authorized and legitimate knowledge is cultivated, preserved and protected but also changed. More so, when we think of the modern university in Africa. I am not talking about the university in general, since there were famous ancient seats of learning in Africa before colonialism, the Alexandra Museum and Library in Cairo in 3rd Century BC. In Ethiopia as Paul Zeleza reminds us, under the “Zagwe dynasty in the twelfth century” monastic education “included higher education”, and there was “the Qine Bet (School of Hymns), followed by the Zema Bet (School of Poetry, and at the pinnacle was an institution called Metsahift Bet (School of the Holy Books) that provided a broader and more specialized education in religious studies, philosophy, history, and the computation of time and calendar, among various subjects.” There was also of course the “Ez-Zitouna university in Tunis founded in 732. Next came al-Qarawiyyin mosque university established in Fez in 859 by a young migrant female princess from Qairawan (Tunisia), Fatima Al-Fihri. The university attracted students and scholars from Andalusian Spain to West Africa.”

And then there was also course the learning at Timbactou, and so on.

What we are talking about here is the modern European University in the form that is globalized today. That form of the university mostly arrives in the rest of the continent as a postcolonial invention, after independence. South Africa with its settler colonial history has a longer encounter with the university. Being at the heart of epistemic violence, the university  is however not simply, as this moment attests, a conveyor belt of automatons, or robots or ideological zombies of the dominant interests and order. The modern university is also that site of constant invention, contestation, negotiation, subversion and potentially, reinvention.

The concept of decolonizing the university is then also about justice that addresses the epistemic violence of colonial knowledge and colonial thought. In many respects we in South Africa are mafikizolo’s. We are the Johnny come-lately’s to a problem that many before us have grappled with, whether it be early debates at Lovedale college now Fort Hare, the postcolonial reform of education in South Asia and the Middle East, the famous debates on the hill at Dar Es Salaam, the Ibadan and Dakar schools of history, or in its more scary versions the crass Africanization of just about everything in Mobutu’s Zaire. There is much to study and much to learn from. There are many examples to be inspired by, and perhaps too many examples of pitfalls and mistakes. So in our conversations so far, I think the first thing we did was to realize that decolonizing — or having a postcolonial critique of —  in our case humanities and social sciences, was actually an obligation to learning. It was a moment of coming to terms with the realization that our education had equipped us very well to know many things. But it had also equipped us excellently to be ignorant of most of the world and arrogant about our ignorance. This reinforced the heritage of settler colonialism directly or indirectly. We do after all think that we live in the West in South Africa. The assumption in this arrogance of ignorance can be traced to the old mantra of the colonial administrator of India, Thomas Babington MacCauley, who famously quipped: a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He didn’t even of course bother to say anything about Africa, since he like Hegel concurred that there was no evidence of civilization to be found on this dark continent in the first place. Now this is what we of course call epistemic violence. It authorizes thinking about Others in ways that enables political and economic violence to be enacted on the bodies of subject men and especially women. It also authorizes ignorance since it reinforces the prejudice that there is nothing much to learn from these parts of the world that could make us better, or help us create a better world. That is what we are talking about when we say we have a Eurocentric worldview in our education. It centers the idea of Europe, as a metaphor, and turns all others into bit players or loiterers without intent on the stage of world history, either too lazy to do anything ourselves or always late, and running behind to catch up with Western modernity.

Eurocentrism then is not the same thing as whiteness since we all know that the forms of our modernity which are so celebrated reinforce the idea of who has created the best kind of society that we all should emulate. The equation of Eurocentrism with whiteness (and White Supremacy) misses the fundamental insight of Fanon — that both whiteness and blackness are products of a colonial encounter; as much as the native and the settler are products of that same colonial encounter. Testimony to that is that after independence we have seen that Eurocentric modernizers come in all shades, genders, shapes and sizes, bearing all kinds of passports.

Now, the question might be, well yes, we recognize that we have left out a lot of people from history, and left out Africa from our curriculum. We can resolve this epistemic violence through the justice of now including Africa in the university, naming things and building new statues, and adding a new course to the degree, and adding a book to the syllabus. This is all good, and necessary and important struggles we all wage at the institutions we are in. And we must celebrate the victories when they come.

But we have to ask ourselves always, what more can we do to work towards undoing the epistemic violence of colonial knowledge? Should we settle for a supplemental concept of history, where we now add African Studies onto the existing curriculum with the danger of once more ghettoizing it from the other mainstream disciplines? Or, do we have to reconfigure the entire curriculum in ways that allows us to think the world, now equipped with the intellectual heritages that we have been taught to ignore from across the previously colonized world? Who then will teach the teachers if our existing faculty are limited in interests and expertise? How do we recruit new knowledge into our universities that breaks with geographical and linguistic apartheid so that the antiquated idea of a Department of English can be a department for the  comparative study of Literature? And how do we bridge the continental fault lines between Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone, and Arabic knowledge? And should a decolonized knowledge project ask questions about the work that the disciplinary forms of knowledge do to reinforce unequal power relations or inhibit our thinking about certain objects of knowledge in particular ways?

Let me give you an example from the research problem I am interested in, which has to do with contemporary political violence and citizenship in Africa, to be more precise: in Northern Congo, in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, in South Sudan and Sudan, in Rwanda, and in Northern Mali and Libya. Mostly this kind of violence is studied by political scientists. And when you read most of the political science literature on Africa, I will wager most of it we teach comes from certain parts of the world. Most of it has certain concepts and assumptions that they work with. Most of it is premised on the idea that there is an ideal form of the modern state, and some people live in it, and the rest of us live in various degrees of perversions, departures from,   and failures of it. Ours are pathological versions of the modern state. The most empiricist version of this is of the kind of political science that measures our lack of things, through Afro barometers and the like. The most poetic and theoretical you might find, for example, in the writings of the French political scientist on Africa, Jean Francois Bayart, and echoed perhaps unwittingly by my Cameroonian friend who wrote a widely celebrated book ‘on the Postcolony.’ They all tell us that we are pathological deviations of the script of political modernity in one way or another.

To the despair of scholars, many political elites and modernizing nationalists alike, contemporary political violence across the colonized world remains predominantly articulated in terms of identity, all the particular attachments that colonial secular modernity promised to emancipate us from. The promise and hope of liberal political modernity in particular, was that it would offer a political form — the nation-state, a political value — that of universal equality, and that it would cultivate freedom as individualized, with minimal external impediments. Now, what for me might be interesting is if we try to think of contemporary political violence outside of the assumptions of failure. Not to swing the bat in the other way, to celebrate failure as achievement. But rather to not measure or theorize ourselves on the basis of what we are not, in the negative.

If we were to move towards emancipative, less violent and more egalitarian societies in Africa we would have to re-imagine political community as grounded in the particular histories that colonial rule had bequeathed us. If we are fighting over identity questions, as Mahmood Mamdani shows in his work, we might need to better understand how colonial power solidified the distinctions between native and non-native, indigenous and foreigner, race and tribe, in a way that transformed cultural difference into a form of difference that matters politically today.

The teleological assumption of colonial modernity was that freedom, equality, modernity and the market would result in the dissolution and loosening of the hold of particular attachments, whether these be religious or ethnic or racial on the individual, other than the national. Attachments were  consigned to the sphere of ‘culture’ while freedom was designated as that which flourished in the sphere of individualized civic life. If the former was static, fixed, regressive, conservative and traditional, the latter was dynamic, changing, emancipative, modern and progressive. The grounds of a modern political community, coupled to a capitalist market economy, offered then the promise of a peaceful future best suited to the flourishing of human freedom. The corporate versions of Africa Rising and Afropolitanism lives on this hope in many respects. In Africa in particular, the trouble in realizing this image of the good society has been defined as the cultural problem of the persistence of tribalism. We might add now more prominently after Northern Mali and Northern Nigeria, religion, and after the battle over the legacies of settler colonialism in Southern Africa, race, to that persistence of particulars. When, we want to know, can we move beyond race and tribe and religion? These are said to work against  the aspiration towards abstract equality and citizenship. Most liberals concurred that these attachment of culture would evaporate over time, many on the Left shared this modernist assumption as well, even though critical of the usefulness of political instability for the interests of  global capital. To make sense of the persistence of particulars many of us on the Marxist Left theorized identity as the strategic invention and deployment of pre-modern categories now mobilized to secure economic interests, particularly the control of the natural resources that made neo-colonies useful only for their primary commodities. The insights of political economy where remarkable, but by the 1990’s in the wake of the Cold War, they were also increasingly found to be wanting.

If we are to think our way out of these postcolonial predicaments, we would have to take the question of how we think the problem very seriously. We are currently witnessing  even more acute expressions of political violence articulated along religious and identitarian lines. The centrality of historicizing citizenship, difference, majority and minority distinctions remains even more germane to making sense of contemporary violence. We are reminded that promises of liberal freedom and the ‘powers of the secular modern’ remain hegemonic but also intensely chimerical and inadequate both to think with and to construct political community out of.

Our current predicaments demand then fundamental inquiries about the inheritances of citizenship defined by imperial and colonial rule, and the challenges these continue to pose for the promises of emancipation and equality for political subjects who might be said to always be defined by attachments. Think of the Imazighen, Touregs and Berbers that cannot be incorporated into Libya, Mali, Tunis and Algeria. Think of the Banyarwanda who live in Kivu in Congo for generations now and tried to change their identity to Congolese, or the Banyamulenge, or Tutsis in South Kivu who changed from Banyarwanda to the people from Mulenge, Banyamulenge, but colonial inheritances of citizenship keep them separated from Congo as foreigners not natives. And the Hutu among the Banyarwanda that cannot return to Rwanda tainted as perpetrators of the genocide. Northern Nigeria struggles with conflict fought on religious identity terms and the South along ethnic lines, where colonial rule politicized religion in the north and tribalism in the South. Boko Haram or al-Shabaab have not emerged out of a divine nowhere; they are not simply iterations of a global Islamist threat, but have intensely historical, regional and national dynamics that propel them. In the case of Boko Haram, it  has to do with the fate of the North in the colonial and postcolonial period; and the War on Terror post 9/11, which licensed treating these movements as the new terrorists, the new enemy.

Might it be then that we need to decolonize the concept of difference rather than aspire to dream of the liberal individual who exercises rational choice as most Political Scientists tell us? It may mean we need to theorize a concept of culture that depoliticizes cultural attachments if colonialism politicized them. The problem then is not cultural attachments per se, or identity per se, but politicized culture. When we move away from liberal modernity’s assumptions — and away from the despair and discourse of failure — we can begin to theorize our political modernity in the positive rather than the negative, with all its messiness. My point is not to get you to address these questions, but to give you an example of what it might mean to rethink a problem in light of the critiques of knowledge production and to try to think it differently so that different possibilities emerge, different horizons of political imagination might open up, less clear because they don’t have a clear ideal type in mind.

When you ask, what does it mean to think the world from where we are at, from our location, and ask what that means for how we organize knowledge, how we teach, who we teach, or we compare ourselves to, who we learn from, you are going to the gut of a liberal colonial sensibility that lives on in the present — the one that goes all the way back to MacCauley’s dismissive remark about who produces anything worthy of being called civilization.

The question might then be asked of you and us, do you want to return us to the particular against the universal, do you want us to step out of the global and the cosmopolitan and only think about the local, is relevance as a criteria for knowledge not the straight jacket of parochialism and narrow thinking? These are important and difficult questions to grapple with. But this binary between the local and the global, the universal and the particular, might be a mischievous distraction. Why should we pit the local against the global or the universal against the particular? We can also change the menu rather than be pressured to only accept those options. It may actually mean that we think more carefully about the argument of the  Senegalese philosopher Souleyemane Bachir Diagne, who suggests  that the way to think about decolonization and the universal is not to concede the universal to an imperial imagination, but to work towards a truly universal universalism. We need not give up then on the uni in the university, but we can try to redefine the very idea of the university itself.

Suren Pillay

Suren Pillay teaches at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town South Africa.

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