Decolonise Africa’s mind

As crowds of students cheered, “Down Rhodes down” the statue was lifted of its plinth and taken away on a flat bed lorry. The crowd of mostly students were cheering and toyi-toying, singing songs about Azania during the University of Cape Town's Rhodes Must Fall Campaign
As crowds of students cheered, “Down Rhodes down” the statue was lifted of its plinth and taken away on a flat bed lorry. The crowd of mostly students were cheering and toyi-toying, singing songs about Azania during the University of Cape Town's Rhodes Must Fall Campaign
In South  Africa’s bad old days, white people spoke English or Afrikaans. These were the languages of command. When needing to engage with those who didn’t speak English, whites could use Fanagalo – a pidgin language based on Zulu and peppered with English and some Afrikaans. Developed on the mines, it was good for giving orders, not conversation.

In universities in South Africa, there is a struggle afoot to change the racial composition of the faculty and students, and to move towards transformation.

It is clear equal attention is not being paid to both the language of instruction and the content of syllabi in South African universities.

English still dominates instruction at the major universities, as does Euro-American knowledge.

There are some small steps towards change. The University of Witwatersrand recently tabled a multilingual policy that incorporates Sesotho and isiZulu as co-languages, along with English as an official part of campus life, in and out the classroom.

What can South Africa learn from India? After all, from the moment of SA’s independence, a debate began about the landscape of language in our university space.

India’s three-language formula – mother tongue, regional language and English – was hammered out in 1956.

Schoolchildren learnt English, Hindi and the language of the region they grew up in. If their mother tongue was different from these three, they could enrol in schools run by the community.

In effect, an Indian child was trilingual, and often knew four languages. In many lower schools Sanskrit was compulsory until high school.

Because of this enshrined multilingualism, universities are not dominated by English.

In state universities one had to learn the language of the region within the period of probation or risk losing one’s job. Even at central universities, where English was the teaching medium, lecturers had to allow for the diversity of their students’ educational backgrounds and linguistic landscapes.

Against this backdrop English emerged as one of many languages of instruction and of sociability.

Despite all of this, none of the regional languages acquired the status that English possesses. While universities set up Hindi language translation bureaus, these were often poorly funded and irregularly staffed.

Social and political movements argued for more access to knowledge in local languages. Because of their efforts, a commentary-in-translation industry arose outside the academic realm.

However, that is the tip of the iceberg. Indian academia remains in thrall to the Euro-American paradigm, as is the case with most developing nations. There has been a robust engagement with the question of languages – but not an equally vigorous struggle with the politics of knowledge.

Our most prominent academics are those who know their Marx, Foucault and Derrida. Or, depending on their concerns – from environmentalism to feminism and the history of science – the relevant icons and literature from Europe and America.

Indian languages and Sanskrit, or Arabic and Persian, were seen as the repository of a literary imagination – but not as repositories of concepts and a social imagination. We engage with the politics and ethics of Islam, but as history. There has been a sustained scholarship on Sanskrit poetics, ritual and political concepts, but within the realm of Indology.

When the intellectual class revolted, it was inevitable that they would turn to another European inheritance – Marxism. And Marxism has become the opium of the decolonised intellectual.

In India, thinking through categories of experience, ethics and politics from indigenous concepts was abandoned before it began.

India’s experience stands as a warning to South Africa, even as we work towards a deeper politics of broadening the landscape of language.

All academic faculties must be supported to become bilingual.

We need translation funds to create social science and scientific literature in local languages.

The desire to be ranked among the top 100 universities in the world compels universities in the global south to jump through Euro-American social theory hoops.

Most radical intellectual initiative to emerge from India in the last generation did not address the question of the politics of knowledge at all. The very act of provincialising Europe was done through engagement with European thought and a studied indifference to Asian or African thinking.

What would it mean for South Africa’s universities to think with African traditions of intellectual inquiry rather than just through a notion of ubuntu that is little more than a Readers Digest version of everyone getting along fine?

A decolonised imagination would be daring enough to draw upon Islam, Confucianism or the different and radical modernities of the Caribbean and Latin America.

In our universities we think with and teach a theoretical tradition forged in Europe in the last 400 years, rather than affirming that questions of self, community, politics and ethics have been the marrow of traditions of intellect in our spaces for a few thousand years.

We need to rattle our bags, not just caddy for those who play.

Dilip Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand.

This article is available for reprint thanks to the Creative Commons Corporation It has been slightly amended to fit the Dispatch style and space available

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