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Assimilation not the answer

On 16 July 2020, the Unisa Black Forum held its first webinar this year, entitled "Institutional culture as the weapon of anti-transformation: The last frontier of decolonisation and transformation in SA universities".

The invited panellists indulged the audience on the various ways in which transformation efforts are thwarted at universities.

Dr Somadoda Fikeni cautioned about the difficulties of identifying and naming this institutional culture because it presents itself as universal and "acceptable" ways of doing things. He spoke on the complexities of transforming universities. The difficulty in transformation, he argues, lies in the fact that the dominant culture is embedded in the system and mostly presents itself as "counter-culture" to transformation. This demands of progressive academics to adopt the words of Amilcar Cabral: "Tell no lies, claim no easy victories."

He expressed the predicament of black leaders who get assimilated into the dominant culture and thus postulating that the mere replacement of white managers and professors with blacks is not enough. The cultures of the institutions always make it impossible for black managers to succeed in those roles. According to Fikeni, we need to be mindful of the dominant Pan European culture, which causes us to repeat the errors of the very same institutional culture we want to eradicate.

Prof Siphamandla Zondi described this dominant institutional culture as a spiritual warfare on the black person in terms of which black people are bathed in the rituals of the imposed western culture or ways of doing things. These ways, according to Zondi, are founded on the civilization of death. Borrowing from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, he framed it as civilisation that dismembers. He thoroughly connected the physical dismemberment of the colonial wars with the epistemic dismemberment of the classroom, where black people are separated from their spirits. He urged the audience to unlearn, re-learn and re-become. This, he argued, calls on us to rely on the Fanonian prayer that appeals to our questioning, critical minds.

Prof Nokuthula Hlabangane reminded the audience that the university was not designed with the black person in mind, thus black people cannot thrive in such spaces. She used the metaphor of playing dead each time you enter a space that is not meant to serve you. She also reminded the audience of the need for black people to draw from their own wisdom and values such as uBuntu. She also emphasised the need to properly draw from our communities in ways that bring African epistemologies into the classroom.

The panel discussion was wrapped up by Prof Zodwa Motsa, who left the audience with homework of properly examining the true intentions of the university in line with the intentions of the Berlin Conference of the 1800s. If we do not connect the economic disenfranchisement which was the consequence of the Berlin Conference to the epistemic violence, we would have missed the point. She sees the concept of a university as a foreign beast that we have uncritically embraced. It is in this light that the university is "someone else’s legacy", which is meant to pursue the benefactor’s agenda, Motsa concluded.

* By Zethu Cakata, Professor and Executive Committee Member, Unisa Black Forum

Publish date: 2020-07-23 00:00:00.0