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Why the decoloniality struggle surprised South Africans

Decoloniality studies expert Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres from Rutgers University raised this point when he was speaking on the opening day of Unisa’s fourth Decoloniality Summer School hosted by the College of Human Sciences. Academics and scholars the world over have gathered at Unisa for the two week long summer school which addresses the topical issue of decoloniality with a focus on power, knowledge and identity.  

Speaking on his experiences and interactions with students, scholars and community members from his time spent in South Africa early last year, Professor Maldonado-Torres said the country’s youth were bound to take on the struggle to decolonise various institutions across South Africa because they have experienced democracy to be a myth.

This he said did come as surprise to many South Africans because since 1994 the dominant rhetoric of democratisation, where the nation lives as equals, was the message delivered to the country’s citizens. However, this structure, which implied a change from segregation and inequality, did not yield such outcomes over the last 22 years, resulting in the call for decolonisation.

“The demand for decolonisation is massive interruption of democratisation, meaning that people believe democratisation is a myth … The youth have played a critical role in revealing this myth. They grew up with the rhetoric of democracy but when they became adults, the realised the reality is different. The youth are the spear of decolonial time and space … That is why the youth created an earthquake in South Africa.”

Resentful whites

Professor Maldonado-Torres also spoke on dominant forms of power and questioned how whites, who are a minority in this country, remain the dominant power. He said this is achieved by owning land and ownership of mean of production. “In this way, your interests will always be served; you may be a few, but you will always be boss,” adding that because there are black leaders within the political system, it does not mean that they are serving black bodies.  

He said this white dominant power also impacted the working class whites who can become resentful against black people who they believe are benefitting from policies such as black economic empowerment and employment equity when they should be resentful against the powerful whites who keep the structure in place.

As scholars and members of society, Professor Maldonado-Torres said aside from critiquing decolonisation, we should be trafficking knowledge across national and international borders. We should also be passing this knowledge from generation to generation, while proclaiming Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko as if they were alive right now.

“We can fall in the trap of announcing these things, talking and critiquing it, but not living it. We need to do self-reflection, we shouldn’t just understand it, but in engagement, we should expand it,” he said, as he urged people to question how they are contributing or willing to contribute to efforts of decolonisation in South Africa.

He added that if people find themselves asking “what is wrong with the youth”, you first need to question the structures that produce anti-blackness within you.

Decolonising the social sciences

Also speaking on day one of the summer school was Professor Ramon Grosfoguel from the University of California, Berkley. Speaking on the social sciences, he said disciplines of social sciences were created based on the needs of 19th century European states. Therefore knowledge was fragmented according to these needs, and universities today have inherited this fragmented knowledge. He said part of the challenge of decolonising the social sciences is breaking away this fragmented knowledge system.

“There is a myth of neutral space in the university; we are not in a neutral space. We need to think beyond disciplines in relation to the problem of humanity. We need to transform social sciences from discipline problem centred to humanity problem centred.”

Professor Grosfoguel also said that the unit of analysis as time and space framework is very important. He said it is very easy to fall into traps of eurocentric thinking, “you start mystifying, stereotyping, making simplistic comments”, adding that the canon of thought within social sciences disciplines is that of white western males of five countries, the USA, England, France, Germany and Italy. Therefore, it is important to decentre white male epistemologies as just another.

He too spoke on the importance of not appropriating decoloniality for one’s own academic career, “you have to be engaged and an activist”.

Not just an event, but an ongoing project

In explaining that the College of Human Sciences has been pushing the decoloniality agenda since 2011, newly appointed Executive Dean of the College, Professor Andrew Philips urged participants to critically contribute to the decoloniality conversation. “For us, this summer school is not just an event, it is historical ongoing project,” he said.

He explained that the 2017 Decoloniality Summer School is taking place at a crucial time characterised by an epistemic break in which the dominant Euro-North Americancentric epistemology is experiencing a terminal crisis.

This epistemic crisis is opening the way for the rise of epistemologies from the Global South, bringing in a new interpretation of the human experience. What is emerging poignantly is the shifting of the geography and biography of knowledge resulting in the privileging of the Global South archive and other subjugated knowledges.

The summer school will run until 20 January 2017. The lectures and discussions are being delivered and facilitated by leading international and local decolonial thinkers and theorists such as Professor Ramon Grosfoguel (University of California, Berkeley), Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres  (Rutgers University), Professor  Pumla Gqola  (University of Witwatersrand), Professor CK Raju (Centre for Studies in Civilisations), Professor Tendayi Sithole (Unisa), and Professor Siphamandla Zondi (University of Pretoria).

* By Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester

Publish date: 2017-01-12 00:00:00.0