Jeremiah Pietersen via

This commentary is a response to: Decolonising the curriculum: it’s in the detail, not just in the definition by Kasturi Behari-Leak (UCT) et al. published in The Conversation

The authors describe “decolonisation” as a nuanced, layered concept” the “meaning [of which] cannot be unlocked using a scientific formula, recipes or definitions”.

This point is debatable. There is a large and growing literature on the concept, even in the senior author’s university News Archive.

There are even examples of decolonization in practice at the senior author’s university.

The authors choose, however, to focus on attendance of university committee meetings to get their point across.  They do this in a nuanced way.

First, they immediately describe attending such meetings as filling “academics with dread” because they may take several hours. Why should spending time participating in events essential to a university’s functioning (e.g. academic appointments, ad hominem promotions, curriculum evolution, etc.) be ‘dreadful’? Attending committee meetings, like marking hundreds of first-year examination papers, is part of a university academic’s job.

Then the authors refer to “colonial classroom practices” as another possible example, but provide no description of them or any alternative practice(s).

Next they refer to alternative ways to meet:

  1. “traditional [used for centuries] lekgotla” – “village assemblies and village leaders’ meetings”;
  2. “the indaba”, “historically important conference held by the principal men”; and
  3. “the imbizo”, a forum for policy discussion [they don’t say who participates in these fora].

The nuance in this argument is that such gatherings are desirable because they are “traditional”, “centuries-old” and “historically important”. But, so is the practice of the ‘dreadful’ meetings. Furthermore, these traditional gatherings are restricted to (dominated by?) “[age-based?] village leaders” and “principal men”.  Why are these alternatives really preferable?

The “de-” in decolonisation, they argue, is an invitation to be “active in making a gesture that breaks with colonial ways of doing things – especially those that continue to alienate, marginalise and silence people and their experience”.

In the literal, strict sense, “de-” means to remove bad things, like getting rid of undesirable worms or lice.

A very positive and constructive suggestion is their proposal that academics should “introduce themselves, share their vision and connect with each other in the group”.

This is a great idea. Indeed, such an introduction should be made widely available and be a key part of one’s freely available curriculum vitae. It should be circulated to committee members in advance of meetings to give them a chance to understand one another beforehand [to shorten their duration].

With regard to support staff, the authors state: “The traditional academic-support staff divide in universities relegates administrative work to those who are lower on the academic hierarchy. Menial tasks are ascribed to secretaries and administrative support.”

I agree that there should not be an absolute divide between duties and responsibilities of academic and support staff. Support staff should be encouraged to be involved with educational and research activities and to develop themselves educationally. This practice, although not common, has a long history at the University of Cape Town. It should be fostered.

With regard to “hierarchy” and “menial tasks”, the former relates to having greater responsibility and accountability. The latter is a matter of opinion. Many take pride in doing their jobs well, regardless of how complicated or challenging they may be.

With regard to “Who’s in charge?”, the authors feel that: “The power and ability to make decisions cannot rest with leadership alone.”

Fine, in principle, but “accountability” comes along with power. Authority surely must be linked with demonstrable competence and past delivery, and not just having “power” (cf. President Zuma).

Why is it necessary to “empower people” on committees before they can “ask more questions, offer more suggestions and contribute more meaningfully to decisions”?  In the hundreds of meetings I (and other meeting participants) participated in at the University of Cape Town as a junior lecture to full professor, I was never prevented from asking questions or participating. Why the focus on “power”?

The authors identify adversaries “who oppose decolonisation”.

This of course depends on knowing what decolonization is. In the absence of a concrete definition, description, characterization, how can anyone oppose anything? Of course they can oppose “throw[ing] out all the current ways of being and behaving” arguing “that not all structures or practices are harmful”. This makes even more sense when the replacement ideas ARE arguably harmful (e.g. equally exclusionary, discriminatory, and irrelevant).

The following comments are just bewildering: “Meetings can be seen as a spiral, not a linear process. People in academia should constantly move backwards and forward in their quest to find a solution.”

I always associate the word “spiral” with crashing airplanes and believe that we should never “move backwards”.

Now some more nuance. “Higher education is to re-centre itself”.

What does “re-centre” mean? If it is linked to what some decolonists refer to as “de-centring” ideas and people on the basis of ‘race’, gender, age, etc., I oppose it.

Next: Yes, “academics and other staff must be invited to engage”. I’ve never seen them being prevented from to doing so. Nor is there a plethora of unchallenged examples/cases/”affairs” of engagement prevention.

Yes, there is potentially a huge “wealth of cultural resources” and other ways of thinking that can be brought to bear. How “powerful [their] knowledge”-base is depends on how well they can withstand critical examination and rational debate. Only those “resources” that withstand “respectful” scrutiny in the face of their “vulnerability and authenticity” have “value”. Otherwise, we live in a word of ‘powerful’ opinion.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.
  • Thomas Edison

    At the stage of barbarism in the battle between emotion and reason, emotion will always win. Only at the higher stages of civilization can reason sometimes win.