Over the course of 2015, and going into 2016, the decolonisation of the university has become a major topic of discussion amongst academics and activists alike. I must admit that I didn’t completely understand what ‘decolonising’ meant. Until recently, my understanding was superficial and many of the explanations I came across were from people I found to be self-interested and superficial. In other words, I wasn’t convinced that it’s important.

A shift in my thinking happened few weeks ago, when an old high school colleague posted a meme on social media, that on the surface seemed simply rude, originating from a neo-Nazi website. This was not the first time that this person posted something questionable but it was the first time I gave it any thought and made me question the origin of that type of thinking; even more so because the person in question is currently a university lecturer.

Few events have changed the course of human history as much as colonialism has. European values, knowledge systems and thought occupied and displaced the indigenous across the globe: Africa, North America, Australia… The practice of natural science research is heavily based on Western trains of thought – not as “impartial” as it claims to be. For example, Dorothy Roberts has written extensively on the way race has been used harmfully in determining medical treatments. Yet, our academic institutions remain steeped in colonial thought patterns. In a recent presentation at the University of Johannesburg Professor Siphamandla Zondi, termed such death of other knowledge systems as the “epistimicide”.

This brings us to why the decolonisation debate is so important.

It is not about erasing colonial-based knowledge systems but rather acknowledging that there are other ways of knowing. In the 21st century the world is faced with tremendous challenges that cannot be solved by individual researchers, and funding agencies encourage international collaborations to help solve these problems. But all these researchers remain steeped in western thoughts, in colonial approaches. Are we really making the biggest possible impact if we actively throw out what is left of indigenous knowledge systems instead of building on them? Or ignoring the source of some of the knowledge, as is seen with the ignoring of the input of Mesopotamian and Babylonian thought in the development of Greek science and technology. Greece is often understood as the basis of ‘modern’ western society.

Why are we so afraid, now, to admit that colonial thought patterns alone are not the only way to solve the world’s grand challenges?

It is critical that as academics we challenge and disrupt the current norms. How do we know which aspects of indigenous knowledge are helpful and which harmful, if we hardly acknowledge the existence of such systems? Can the bloody-minded individualism that characterises colonial thought really be applied fruitfully to a continent and its people, who live Ubuntu? If we only try to view our continent’s challenges in a narrow Eurocentric manner, we potentially miss out on solutions that are appropriate for our environment. And people like my former schoolmate keep on posting their narrow-minded ideals as the way things should be.

There is room for different ways of thinking and teaching. Decolonised teaching goes beyond teaching in indigenous languages and inclusion of non-European writers. Laila Boisselle notes that most often, indigenous forms of science are relational rather than ‘objective’. This means that for modern day use, we would need to relook at indigenous knowledge systems, often dismissed as folklore and ethno-philosophy, and find ways to incorporate them into the curriculum.

The pre-colonial empire of Benin, in modern day south west Nigeria, provides a perfect example of how much can be gained from non-Western sources, if it is not ignored. It was one of the most technologically sophisticated cities in existence, that even the first European visitors were astounded  at that advanced level of architectural and mathematical technology in use. Today, much of that knowledge is lost. However, in all societies, both the natural and social sciences, have much gain from indigenous knowledge.

On a practical level, this would mean not only developing and using, for instance isiZulu terminology in teaching, but, also re-engineering our curriculum to include our indigenous knowledge. How exactly this can be done successfully is still a matter to be worked out; however, it is completely necessary. Imagine the wealth of information that can be garnered in the culturally varied Southern Africa alone!

We live in an era where the Internet has radically changed access to contemporary information. But now we cannot afford to lose the patterns of thinking, and wealth of information that existed before Vasco De Gama, Pinto or Van Riebeeck ever crossed the sea.

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