Decolonisation, engagement and a third university option

Published On: 25 October 2021|

On the screen is a photograph of a colonial-style building at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. It is now named Krotoa after the 17th century Khoi leader and interpreter.

So why does this Western-style edifice carry this name and why was it retitled? Was it because of settler guilt, was it named because of emancipatory interests or decolonising desires – or all of those operating within the university?

These were questions posed by Professor Lesley le Grange (left), Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University, at a plenary session titled Engaged Scholarship and Decolonisation, Transforming Higher Education through Community Development at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference. The Engaged University conference that ran from 6 to 8 October, was co-hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

Professor Le Grange spoke on Decolonisation, Engagement and a Third Possibility for Universities, further zeroing in on indigenous communities and indigenous futurity. He posited that the university of the future already exists.

Parallels between CoViD-19 and other 21st century crises

Professor Le Grange named CoViD-19 pandemic a “human made disaster,” saying it has been a portal to ongoing crises including racism, gender-based violence, religious-based violence, inequality, poverty and xenophobia – all of these being manifestations of the 20th and 21st centuries crisis of humanism.

He said similarly to what was witnessed post the financial crisis of 2008/9 when the world witnessed the rise of profit-sharing enterprises like Uber, Air-BnB and others, “we’ve also seen owners of companies like Zoom, in this current crisis, become billionaires while inequalities in the world are actually growing.

“We’ve seen an increase in the use of high technology; hopes rising for vaccines and biomedical solutions; there’s been an increase in cognitive and platform capitalism. Humans are doing (and more rapidly so) the very things that brought the CoViD crisis, and universities are implicated in all of this. The vaccinations that are being championed are band-aid solutions [and I’m not antivaxxer because I’m doubly vaccinated myself],” the professor said.

So what should we be doing during this pandemic?

“I refer to philosopher Rosi Braidotti (2021) who said that first we ought to mourn. We need to mourn the dead humans and not build our scholarship on the dead bodies.” Once again he drew parallels between this and the mourning that South Africa’s first nations [indigenous people] had to undergo, over their losses to colonianism.

“Many of us have been left to mourn having lost family, colleagues and friends; and we can learn much about mourning from indigenous peoples.”

The process of decolonisation

Referencing Poka Laenui, a Hawaiian sovereignty activist who, he says, looked at decolonisation from a radical perspective, Professor Le Grange said an indigenous person, upon rediscovery of their loss, mourns but goes through a process of healing, then dreams, makes new commitments and acts on their situation.

“Tuck and Yang (2012) say that decolonisation is not a metaphor and cannot be grafted on pre-existing discourses or frameworks, even if they are critical, anti racist and focused on social justice. Decolonisation is not a synonym or a term that we can exchange for things that we want to do to improve in our university. There are many good things we might want to do to improve our universities, to transform them, to renew our curricular, and do all kind of things. That is not decolonisation.

“Decolonisation, for Tuck and Yang, brings about the repatriation of indigenous land and life. It is ethico-onto-epistemology — indigenous people will say ‘land is our teacher; knowing and being is implicated with land’. They engage in interaction with land. Land is tied to their very belief systems. It’s about cosmological relationships too. When people are dispossessed of land, it is not just about the physical land but is tied up with the entire being, the ways of knowing, as well as the spiritual affirmation to their lives.”

Notions of colonialism

Then he spoke of three notions of colonialism:

  • External colonialism: also called exogenous of exploitative colonialization, which involves extraction of fragments of indigenous worlds, plants, animals and human beings
  • Internal colonialism: the biopolitical management of people, land, flaura and fauna within the ‘domestic’ borders of the imperial nation; and
  • Settler colonialism: involves total appropriation of indigenous life and land, rather than the selective expropriation of profit-producing fragments, it is built on triad structure of settler-native-slave.

He also touched on how settlers attempted to assume innocence through what he called settler nativism, settler adoption fantasies and colonial equivocation.

Against the background above, Professor le Grange described different university models:

The first-world university
This is the neoliberal university and is a machine of accumulations and expansions as it engages in revenue generating enterprises. Its characteristics include:

  • Charging fees and awarding degrees
  • Celebrating diversity (of not just people but also ideas)
  • Rewards excellence
  • Invests in and embraces advanced technologies
  • Participates in university rankings
  • Engages in for-profit initiatives and partnerships
  • It engages with the high-tech economy, public-profit partnerships, global science networks and corporate and donor funders
  • It also engages with local communities but in colonising ways where community engagement becomes a performance indicator.

The second-world university
This is the emancipatory university which invests in critical theory and critiques the media capitalist systems in the West.

  • It critiques dominant ideologies
  • It is committed to transforming society
  • It focuses on social justice
  • It teaches critical theory and deconstruction in the humanities and elsewhere
  • It is utopian (aspires to decolonise)
  • It engages with other radicals in the university, with the public through the media, with local communities to bring about change and with marginalised groups with the aim of empowering them.

The third-world university
This type of university lives off the scraps of first and second world universities and reassembles them for purposes of decolonising.

Professor Le Grange argued that a third university is possible, and, in fact, already exists. This is the decolonising university that strategises. Drawing on the work of La Paperson, he said this reassembles the first and second universities with a mission of decolonisation. It is vocational in the way of the first world universities. It is anti-utopian in the sense that it does not aspire to be called a decolonised university but more to operating as a decolonising university. It offers a refreshing theoretical framework and interpretation of the issues of university education, decolonisation and activism.

La Paperson proposes that a university is “ an assemblage of machines and not a monolithic institution” that has colonial history and purposes, yet it can also be subverted to produce decolonising subjects. The author explores decolonial “possibilities” in various indigenous and black schools and colleges in the US, Kenya and India and presents the seminal idea of “scyborg” which is a “decolonising agent of technological subversion” operating within the Third University itself in order to break down the ideological machine.

It was at this point that Professor Le Grange displayed a picture of the colonial-style building called Krotoa at Stellenbosch University and posed these questions: So why does this Western-style edifice carry this name and why was it retitled? Was it because of settler guilt, was it named because of emancipatory interests or decolonising desires – or all of those operating within the university?

Then he wrapped up, leaving the audience with this food for thought.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.