News & Media

Changing the academy into a site of ecologies of knowledges and multilingualism

Prof Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Executive Director of the Change Management Unit, introduces Unisans to his latest book, Epistemic freedom in Africa: Deprovincialisation and decolonisation.

This ground-breaking book, published by Routledge in July 2018, is framed by four concepts. The first is epistemic freedom. The second is provincialising Europe. The third is deprovincialising Africa. The fourth is epistemological decolonisation.

These four concepts are at the heart of African people’s struggles for liberation and freedom. The book problematises the sequential trajectories of decolonisation which posited seeking the political kingdom as the enabler of other freedoms. It underscores epistemic freedom as the essential prerequisite for political, economic, social, cultural and all other freedoms because it enables critical consciousness that is necessary for substantive and quality liberation.

Epistemic freedom

The recognition that all human beings were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems is the beginning of assertion of epistemic freedom. Today’s struggles for epistemic freedom across the world are ranged against existing and resilient cognitive injustices cascading from colonialism and maintained by uneven global intellectual division of labour. Cognitive injustice speaks to the failures in the domain of knowledge to recognise the different ways of knowing by which diverse people across the human globe make sense of the world and provide meaning to their existence. Cognitive injustice cascades from denial of humanity of other people and by extension refusal to recognise their epistemic virtue. Epistemic freedom speaks to the right of African people to think, theorise, interpret the world and produced knowledge from where they are located, unencumbered by Eurocentrism.

The main culprit in the domain of knowledge is metaphysical empire. It unfolded in terms of invasion of the mental universe of the colonised people. This invasion of the mental universe amounted to the removal of the hard disk of previous African knowledge and memory and downloading into African minds software of European knowledge and memory to borrow Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’ s explanation. The key consequences of all these processes has been epistemicides (killing of existing endogenous knowledges), linguicides (killing of existing indigenous languages and the imposition of colonial languages), culturecides (killing of indigenous cultures and setting afoot cultural imperialism) as well as alienation (exiling of indigenous people from their languages, histories, cultures and even from themselves).

The struggles for epistemic freedom become even more important today because of existence of a resilient uneven intellectual division of labour, which engenders what Paulin Hountondji termed epistemic dependence. Europe and North America remains the centre from where what is considered valid and scientific knowledge cascades and circulates from to the rest of the world. In this uneven division of labour, Africa in particular and the Global South in general, exist as sites for hunting and gathering of raw data. Europe and North America remain the key sites of professional processing of data for the purposes of formulation of social theories. These theories are voraciously consumed in Africa. What are considered to be prestigious and international peer-reviewed journals that easily earn African scholars recognition and promotion are based in Europe and North America. All these are clear hallmarks of intellectual/academic dependence that provoke the resurgence of struggles for epistemic freedom in the 21st century.

Today African struggles for epistemic freedom are ranged against current neoliberal illusions of a magnanimous liberal empire that has delivered a global economy of knowledge of which every human enjoys. At the centre of the so-called global economy of knowledge is resilient Eurocentrism. In a fundamental sense, struggles for epistemic freedom were and are a direct response to denial of humanity itself (coloniality of being) which automatically resulted in denial of knowledge and epistemic virtue to those who became victims of colonialism. The success of colonialism and coloniality in the domain of knowledge was and is always dependent on winning some of the colonised people to its side to the extent that they then speak and write as though they were located on the racially privileged side of the colonial matrices of power. This confused mentality is nourished by the seductive aspects of coloniality particularly its masquerading as a civilising enterprise while in reality it was a death project.

This is necessary because European thought, which is often rendered as ‘Eurocentrism’ is overrepresented in modern disciplinary knowledge, modern education, modern global normativity, modern conceptions of human subjectivity, global cartography and architecture of power, and social theory. At the same time, six modern European languages—Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and German—continue to be dominant in mediation of modern knowledge across the globe. Even the very idea and philosophy of human history continue to reflect European Renaissance thought, Enlightenment reason and Cartesianism. With all this evidence, overrepresentation of Europe is in no doubt. This has provoked various calls for ‘provincialisation’ of Europe as a solution to this overrepresentation—some of the calls are postcolonial, anti-colonial nationalist, and others are decolonial.

Provincialising Europe

Provincialising Europe as a concept was popularised by the Asian historian and postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty in his celebrated book entitled Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Building on this work, Epistemic Freedom in Africa deploys the concept in a decolonial rather than postcolonial sense. It is extended to the core decolonial business of de-Europeanising the world and deimperialisation. The book makes it clear that Europe is a province of the world. It not the centre of the world. But through imperialism and colonialism, it spread across the world imposing its knowledge as the only valid knowledge, its languages as the only usable ones for teaching, learning and research, and its values and cultures as the only civilised and progressive. Thus to provincialise Europe entails acknowledgement of the existence of such other provinces of the world as Asia, Africa, Caribbean, Latin America and many others as abodes of valid and legitimate knowledges that are usable to enrich human experience and life. Europe cannot continue to be overrepresented in knowledge, education and social theory. We have to deal with how one province of the world globalised and universalised its indigenous knowledge at the expense of other provinces of the world’s knowledges.

In other words, provincialising Europe is inevitably a confrontation with global coloniality. It is a necessary decolonial process of ‘de-Europeanisation’ of the world. De-Europeanisation is part of deimperialisation. Deimperialisation is necessary for decolonisation to succeed. Kuan-Hsing Chen articulated deimperialisation as involving the former empires engaging in re-examination of ‘their own imperialist histories’ and accepting ‘the harmful effects those histories have had on the world.’ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o articulated it in terms of ‘moving the centre in two senses at least’—geographically and culturally from Europe and North America ‘to a multiplicity of spheres in all the cultures of the world’ and class-wise, socially and within all modern nations from ‘the dominant social stratum, a male bourgeois minority.’

Deprovincialising Africa

Deprovincialising Africa is a decolonial restorative action. It directly addresses the problem of dismemberment, marginalisation, and peripherisation of Africa in the knowledge domain. In a practical decolonial sense, the concepts of ‘provincialising’ and ‘deprovincialising’ takes us directly to what Lewis R. Gordon described as the ‘shifting of the geography of reason’ (from Europe and North America to Africa and the Global South) as well as the ‘biography of reason’ (from dead white men to African thinkers and thinkers from the Global South who were and are not necessarily white and male). This is an important move in the process of decolonising the knowledge because it restores the denied epistemic virtue that was thrown away together with the denial of being of the colonised. All this is done in order to attain epistemic freedom, which is also known as epistemological decolonisation (intellectual sovereignty).

Decolonisation of the academic project

Finally, this book provides practical initiatives that have to be taken to advance the decolonisation of the academic project in general and curriculum and pedagogy in particular. This has to begin with a deep understanding the changing idea of the university itself and clear comprehension of the triple crisis facing the university today (crisis of hegemony, legitimacy crisis and institutional crisis). The next step is to engage with the constitution of modern knowledge and its bifurcation into modern disciplines so as to establish their fitness for purpose and relevance. The third move is to boldly confront the normative foundations of dominant theory while opening the space for epistemologies from the South. The fourth move is to shift paradigmatically and pedagogically in the way Africans position themselves in relation to dominant knowledge and adopt a decolonial systemic critique that enables unmasking of eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, patriarchy and sexism. The final move is to embrace the decolonial idea of learning to unlearn not only so as to relearn but also to delink from the notion of knowledge and adopt the liberatory idea of knowledges. This will enable the changing of the academy into a site of ecologies of knowledges and multilingualism.

Publish date: 2018-08-07 00:00:00.0