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Colonialism, apartheid and education: An interview with Professor Crain Soudien

Professor Soudien discusses the legacy of education under colonialism and apartheid and the prospects for decolonising education.
Education in the colonial period is fundamentally about, if you like, the evisceration of what we perceive to be backward cultures. The central idea is to bring civilisation to these colonial people. The idea is premised on an analysis that the indigenous cultures of these people, everywhere, in all of these places, belong to a whole anthropology of, if you like, mysticism, witchcraft, barbarism. And so there’s a deliberate process in all of these places. And what happened in India of course is the leader in some of this. A deliberate process in all of these places to root out indigenous knowledges, to root out indigenous understandings of the cosmos, beliefs, practises, and so on.
So in the colonial period in South Africa it takes the form, particularly of erasing African language. African languages have no currency as media of, if you like, education. The dynamics in these countries is very different. In many Anglo countries indigenous languages disappear often. That doesn’t happen here in South Africa. But they aren’t affirmed. They aren’t validated.
And so the early colonial experience here in South Africa is marked by assimilation into dominant culture. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. A switch happens when the apartheid government comes into power in 1948, 49. It produces a kind of reversal, and it’s a very complicated thing, because while the disrespect for the indigenous experience, indigenous culture persists, there’s a deliberate attempt to resuscitate indigeneity here in South Africa along the hierarchical terms of inferiority. Know your culture is how education is approached, know your culture, but accept that your culture is inferior. And the passage towards all of that is made possible in South Africa by a man called Eiselen, W.W.
Eiselen was an anthropologist who was trained in Germany and the Netherlands, and this is the interesting thing about that whole experience is that those people in that particular time go through, if you like, during the two World Wars, this whole resurgence around phenomenology and existentialism. So you’re in the height of the Heideggerian, if you like, shift towards this focus on being, but the ontus of the being of these non-European peoples is that of inferiority. And so in the apartheid period, the whole ethos is about respecting that ontus, that ontological history and acknowledging it, and this is the complexity of it, it acknowledges it, but at the same time it declares it inferior.
In the Eiselen commission they say explicitly there’s no difference between the intelligence of Black people and white people. They say it. And it’s really interesting. No difference. But black people in staying true to who they are– it’s this ontic kind of acknowledgment of who people are, they say you must develop at your own pace. You’ll take 1,000 years to arrive at the status of where we are. That’s what your historical destiny is. And that’s what apartheid comes to institute, this thing about being separate and apart, but unambiguous inferiority. So it’s a very important shift that happens between colonialism and apartheid.
It’s the victory of race, it’s the complete victory of race. And so it’s not even discursive, it’s completely normativized. And so the complete normativization of that is now so immovable, almost, that talking outside of racial identity is extremely difficult for everybody, and our current government goes along with all of that. There’s almost no difference in the kind of linguistic appropriations that people make in terms of description, self-description, descriptions of others, and so on. It’s a project which has succeeded.
It’s episodic. So in moments you will have a sustained run at what the problem is. And we’ve had sustained runs, and they are often inspirational, but often not actually. So the de-colonial project here has in many ways this obligation of trying to understand its connection with earlier struggles, and it struggles with that. So it struggles with connecting with older struggles around how dominance works, and its focus is racism in the present, and current forms of racism, and the current experiences of people in these very racialized kinds of environments. So it’s a really difficult project. And I think one has to be aware of this globally, so it’s really important to de-centre the eurocentric idea.
And this is what this de-coloniality is helping with, de-centering of all of that. So Africanisms, Africanacity, is a really critical, if you like, response to it. But it has to be managed. And so here’s my comment about that. It has to be managed in terms of understanding what that totalization of the hegemonic past– and I haven’t mentioned this– the last 500 years have been. So you’ve got to understand the last 500 years, and what’s happened within these last 500 years. You’ve got to deal with how our knowledge, how our disciplines, virtually all of the social sciences and the hard sciences have been so, if you like, scripted on the basis of white superiority.
And if you don’t understand how that eurocentric idea comes to be institutionalised as normative and constitutive, I think you’re in some difficulty in terms of thinking about what the next steps should be.
So just talking politically now, I think that, and just in South Africa, globally, we’re in some difficulty. Because a project for an alternative hasn’t clearly arisen in conceptual terms anywhere. So you have these forms of resistance everywhere, and they are there. People are unhappy, deeply unhappy about the current state of affairs. But unlike– and I’m being simplistic now, I know, unlike about 30 years ago when we had socialism, if you like, as an alternative lodestone, we have no alternative right now. There isn’t an articulation of what another order or state of being could be in response to these hegemonic things in which we find ourselves. And I think tactically we need to recognise that.
So for me right now it’s really critical to hold onto small successes and to take examples where they arise of ways in which people have succeeded in doing things differently, and to be holding onto the hope that those cases might represent. So let me, first of all, make a controversial point. We don’t have anywhere in the world at the moment, an institution, either a school or a university, which gives us a model of an alternative. Nowhere. Right? Absolutely nowhere. You have progressive institutions, and they are absolutely crucial. A particular example, took shape here in South Africa around about 2011 in the work of a woman called Catherine Odoro Hoppers, you know Catherine.
Catherine started a project at the University of South Africa UNISA called ‘development education’, not ‘education and development’, called ‘development education’. And she deliberately uses the term enlargement, and she began an academic project across disciplines deliberately seeking to bring in transgressive knowledges into the university, deliberately transgressive knowledges, knowledges that weren’t codified and here’s the de-colonial project, because colonialism depends, and colonial knowledge depends on codification, and that whole, if you like, scientific method, the thing of being able to demonstrate something and prove it. A lot of the alternative knowledges don’t operate on those logics. They aren’t codified in those particular kinds of ways.
So she deliberately tried to bring– and I was very fortunate to be able to be present in all that– she deliberately tried to bring us in the academy with my formal sociology into the presence of knowledge bearers from other kinds of traditions, and to begin a conversation between us. I’ve tried to write about this a little bit, I’ve described it. I’m not uncritical of it. But it’s a really important single illustration of trying to do something differently, to acknowledge difference in radical kinds of ways, radical ways, to understand that there is nothing in your ontology which is inherently inferior. There’s nothing about your background which is inherently inferior, and to validate the experience of what is regarded as other.
And so she does this for about 10 years. And when she comes to the end of the 10 year period, the university doesn’t renew her contract and the whole thing is scrubbed. It’s simply terminated and lost. So this amazing encounter of bringing the world’s top physicists together in a conversation with Gogos from Sekhukhuneland, talking about how to read the complexities of climate and climate change, all lost. Lost. And that was an example of de-colonialised knowledge in practise, which as I say is a very precious thing. And I’d like to say in response to you that tough and as dispiriting as what this hegemon looks like, we have to hold on to things like that.
The University of South Africa, which once would have had over 200,000 people, and this is in the apartheid period, so you can sense the paradoxes and contradictions about 200,000 people learning indigenous languages, now are down to under 10,000. And so you can talk about these de-colonial moments, but when you can’t keep the language going and the value of a language, I mean, you’re in trouble. So it’s really hard. It’s hard, hard, hard right now.

We now move to a consideration of decolonising education studies. In this video we hear from Professor Crain Soudien, Chief Executive Officer of the South African Human Sciences Research Council and Professor of Education at the University of Cape Town. Crain discusses the legacy of education under first colonialism and then apartheid and the prospects for decolonising education in South Africa and other parts of the postcolonial world.

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Decolonising Education: From Theory to Practice

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