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Decentering decolonisation discourse

The article discusses the challenges of decolonisation on the African continent
Child holding globe with Africa at the centre
© University of Bristol

So far we have been focused on decolonial discourses in the UK context. However, it is important to recognise and learn from the long history of anticolonial activism and political struggle in the ‘Global South’ in order to decentre decolonial discourse itself.

In Africa, for example, after the end of physical occupation and at the start of flag independence, there were conversations on the continent that raised the question of what types of structures would be required to end coloniality in the continent. One example of this discourse is the scholarship of Ghana’s president at independence, Kwame Nkrumah, most notably in his book, Neo-colonialism: The last stage of imperialism. This desire to completely cast off the chains of coloniality reverberated across the continent. For example, the independence prime minister of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, wrote about Ujamaa, a concept which means African familyhood. He hoped that the operationalisation of this concept in education, economics and politics across the continent would enable African unity and a reclamation of African futures from the injustices that had been wrought by enslavement and colonisation. Writers from Frantz Fanon to Leopold Sédar Senghor to Steven Biko have drawn attention to the need to challenge the legacies of racism and white supremacy at a psychological and political level.

In practice though, African nations have found themselves trapped between attempts to reclaim African identity and the intractable shackles of coloniality. These vestiges are evidenced in various ways on the continent:

Knowledge hierarchies. The colonial relationship functioned through acculturation mechanisms such as ‘assimilation’ and ‘association’, predicated on presumed African inferiority.  The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe states that colonisation was an enterprise of appropriation, familiarisation and utilisation. The overall result was to effectively silence African history, knowledge and autonomy. V. Y Mudimbe talks about the ‘colonial library’, a virtual collection of knowledge of and in Africa. Because knowledge empowers and disempowers, if knowledge of the African is so deep-seated and cannot be contested, knowledge itself renders the African powerless. Today, knowledge hierarchies are maintained through the dominance of Northern universities and academics in processes of knowledge production. Scholars based in the Global North are more likely to attract research funding and to define research agendas with African based scholars often assuming the role of collectors of data. Northern based scholars are also at an advantage in publishing in leading journals, which are also often in English or another European language.

Economic dependency. African countries often lie at the periphery of the global economy. Since colonial times, Africa has been perceived principally as a source of raw materials, whether these be in the form of primary commodities or people, as was the case with the transatlantic slave trade. Since the Cold War, superpowers have fought for political influence in Africa, as a means to access the continents resources. Structural adjustment lending during the 1980s made aid conditional on implementing market-led reforms with devastating effects on the poor. Investment in higher education suffered, which has had implications for Africa’s ability to undertake African-led research relevant for tackling Africa’s problems. Dependency has been exacerbated by the brain drain from the continent.

In political structures and processes. Contemporary African politics is marked by the divide-and-conquer approach of colonialism. Africa’s borders, which are artificial, illogical, arbitrary, and haphazard, enable this. They are a result of people drawing lines on paper with absolute disregard for the people on the representative ground. Furthermore, political scientists often suggest that weak African states can be strengthened by adherence to democracy. The problem with democracy in a colonial system of international relations is that it evidently does not work. In practice, the political elite has purposively appropriated democracy in Africa to empower politicians and not populations. This is because democracy, as it is currently designed, does not reflect the needs, aspirations and characteristics of the people of Africa. It does not speak to African worldviews such as Ubuntu or Ujamaa.

Cultural reclamation. An integral part of the colonial project was the introduction of non-lyrical European languages and the written text. In African schools, learners simultaneously struggle with language and text; this doubles the mental effort required to learn, disrupting the learning process. Furthermore, this use of language has contributed to the disappearance of African languages and customs, languages that sustain a peoples’ worldview. This approach is also replicated in societal attitudes to Black hair and skin. Black hair falls at the bottom of the hierarchy of acceptable hair. Black skin is often lightened for the same reasons. The idea or invention of Africa cannot be divorced from the ideology that drove colonisation – the distinction between the supposedly civilised and the supposedly uncivilised. That ideology pervades Africa’s current relation with the rest of the world – power structures, politics, language and knowledge. And this false dichotomy is produced and reproduced in all forms of media.

These questions have remained at the forefront of social movements across the continent including the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall movements led by students at the University of Cape Town which demanded that higher education be decolonised. While the language of decolonisation is not always used, the movements have always been anticolonial and often connect knowledge democracies with the everyday existence and survival of African people.

The African Leadership University has the following commitments. As you read these, consider their implications for universities in the Global North:

  1. By 2019, everything we assign our students will be open source: The commodification of knowledge operates to continue the colonial ordering of the world

  2. Language beyond English: An overreliance on English [and other European languages disadvantages the Global South and also contributes to language disappearance. In step 4.6 we will return to the question of language.]

  3. A 1:1 Student exchange ratio: The imbalance in knowledge exchange is also reproduced in North-South student exchange schemes.

  4. Text is not enough: As many African forms of knowledge exchange are not text-based, an overreliance on text-based knowledge inherently privileges Global North knowledges.

  5. We cannot work alone: Encouraging co-creation of knowledge with students is a vital part of building knowledge democracies.

  6. Producers, not only consumers: Students take responsibility for the knowledge that they partake in.

  7. Ethics above all: The harmful colonial practices in knowledge production are not reproduced.

© University of Bristol
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