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  • The higher education decolonisation project:negotiating cognitive dissonance
  • Suriamurthee Moonsamy Maistry (bio)


The return to vogue in South Africa of the decolonisation agenda and higher education curriculum transformation presents a dissonant scenario especially for colonially schooled university academics tasked with giving effect to 'newly' institutionalised (policy) efforts aimed at these resurgent imperatives. Grosfoguel (2013) reminds us of the western Eurocentric in all of us, instilled by five centuries of western imposed civilisation and modernity's epistemological and ontological hegemony. This hegemony that derives from Descartes often cited declaration 'Cogito, ergo sum' ('I think, therefore I am') inscribed western science and rationality as de facto knowledge framework.

Academics have in the main been 'programmed' with western Eurocentric knowledge frameworks as default, especially given the relative dearth of alternative worldviews in mainstream scholarship. In essence then, the application of 'imported' frameworks to analyse (South) African phenomena has acquired an enduring legitimacy amongst South African academics. In this article, I analyse the contemporary South Africa higher education context with particular attention to how inherent tensions present when theoretical inspiration continues to be sought exclusively from traditional continental philosophy and western Eurocentric knowledge frameworks in pursuit of the decolonisation and transformation agenda. The colonial matrix of power (Quijano 2000) has resonance here as it illuminates how mutually supporting domains of power (race, gender, capitalism) have reified into a (complex) normality, making the relinquishing of the familiar and the embracing of the ('exotic') unknown [End Page 179] particularly unappealing. A discussion of the coloniality of power is presented later in this comment.

The question of what has happened to theory, and by extension, what has happened to theory's ability to explain and address contemporary socio-economic strife in South Africa and the world has salience. It follows then that the question of what kind of theory should we be appropriating and developing to make sense of the current conjuncture in South African higher education also requires considered engagement. The proverbial 'elephant in the (academic) room' in the South African higher education is the extent to which academics actually take up the project of decolonising the curriculum. That academics might have different proclivities for this project is a key issue that has received little deliberation. It is reasonable to assume that South African academics might have varied understandings of what the project might entail and what might count as substantive steps to its realisation. There is also the assumption that academics have high-level awareness of how the academic tribes they inhabit have in the main, ontological and epistemological leanings that are largely shaped by western Eurocentrism and the advent of modernity.

There might also be wide ranging conceptions of decolonisation. Conservative positions might consist of performative demonstrations or overt evidences of what counts as compliance with institutional policy. These might include demonstrable artefacts that might resemble decolonisation initiatives, an approach that Tuck and Yang (2012) caution as simply retaining decolonisation at the level of metaphor. Radical positions might entail authentic engagement with decolonisation as it relates to the immediate return of the land (economic power) to its indigenous owners as necessary first step. Here, higher education curriculum transformation is just one aspect of the broader decolonisation project (Tuck and Yang 2012), one that entails a profound understanding of the coloniality of Being (Maldanado-Torres 2007) – an apprehension of how colonialism has infused every part of our lived experience, psyche – creating and sustaining itself as 'natural' consciousness.

I want to argue that this aspirational profundity might only emerge when there is a substantive comprehension of the curriculum transformation or the decolonisation project as essentially a social justice project. The necessary premise from which to proceed then is in the first instance, to understand or recognise/acknowledge that elements of the extant university curricula might be inherently oppressive. This mere utterance is likely to [End Page 180] cause much consternation, discomfort and even resistance. The question then, is how institutions might begin to engage such discourses and, more importantly where is the theoretical inspiration or basis for this kind of disruptive premise going to come from. In other words, from where might one appropriate theory that discredits or brings into question well-established theoretical canons...


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pp. 179-189
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