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The University of Johannesburg in South Africa continues to play a leading role in what is increasingly being viewed as a national imperative to decolonise higher education, as one of its institutes last weekend hosted a conference focused on the revival of Pan-Africanism and decolonisation of university curricula. 

The university’s recently-established Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, or IPATC, broke new ground this year when it introduced a mandatory course called 'African Insights', which teaches the political economy, history, and literature of the African continent, and which must be taken by each one of the university's 50,000 students. 

Last weekend the institute held a three-day conference around the revival of Pan-Africanism and the decolonisation of university curricula. 

Prominent African and diaspora scholars based in Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, Canada and Europe presented papers about 35 historical and contemporary icons of the Pan-African school of thought, which will later be edited and produced as an edited book that will be used in undergraduate and graduate courses at various universities throughout South Africa.

African pioneers

The presentations celebrated African figures of multiple disciplines, ranging from history to politics, sociology, economics philosophy, literature and music. 

The list of Pan-African pioneers included Saint Lucian economist William Arthur Lewis, who was one of the early champions of African democracy and is the only black person to win the Nobel Prize in economics. Also featured was WEB Du Bois, the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, who made it his life’s work to challenge the scientifically entrenched notion that black people were intellectually inferior beings. 

Professor Aldon Morris from the Northwestern University in the United States described the disregard that Du Bois had for aspects of American education: 

"When I entered college in 1885, I was supposed to learn that there was a new reason for the degradation of the coloured people – that it was because they had inferior brains to whites. This I immediately challenged. I knew from experience that my own brains and body were not inferior to the average of my fellow students,” said Morris, quoting Du Bois’ writings.

The conference kicked off on 16 June – national Youth Day in South Africa which commemorates the Soweto uprising of 1976, when at least 176 students were brutally killed during a protest against apartheid education.

Africa at the epistemological centre

“We must ensure that those young students did not die in vain … We need to transform the curriculum to put Africa at the geographical and intellectual centre of epistemologies,” said Professor Adekeye Adebajo, director of the IPATC. 

“After the formal end of apartheid in 1994, the imperative was to transform South Africa's racist institutions so that they could reflect the cultures, identities and aspirations of the country's black majority. Many government-funded universities, however, remain stubbornly untransformed, both racially and intellectually,” he said.

In addition to Du Bois and Lewis, the 35 iconic figures discussed included Edward Blyden, Pixley ka Seme, Marcus Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Dudley Thompson, Robert Sobukwe, Thabo Mbeki, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, CLR James, Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Ruth First, Randall Robinson, Ali Mazrui, Angela Davis, Samir Amin, Adebayo Adedeji, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Leopold Senghor, Buchi Emecheta, Chimamanda Adichie, Mariam Makeba, Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and Harry Belafonte.

Holistic understanding

Tshilidzi Marwala, deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg, said that with the fourth industrial revolution underway, it was important that young people had a holistic understanding of Africa and the challenges it faces so that they are able to find solutions that are specific to the needs of the continent, whether those solutions are technological, political or otherwise.

He said the process of decolonising curricula was not about rejecting existing knowledge domains, but rather about including and promoting knowledge that had thus far been underrepresented in higher education curricula.

Said Marwala: “There is nothing wrong with knowledge that came from Europe. We simply believe that it is not enough. Our graduates must understand who they are and where they come from. We are going to be studying leaders from the continent and the African diaspora because it is important that we all understand who these people were, what they stood for, and we need to be able to contextualise their lives' work in so far as it has impacted modern society.” 

Pan-Africanism as central to decolonisation

Arthur Mutambara, president of the African News Agency and former deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, defined Pan-Africanism as a philosophy that says all people of African descent are the same people, whether or not they reside within the borders of the continent. They must therefore work together to achieve socio-political and economic freedom.

He said Pan-Africanism had best been expressed by former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah who, upon achieving independence in Ghana in 1957, said he was prepared to surrender the country’s sovereignty in pursuit of African unity. 

Mutambara said Pan-Africanism was central to the decolonisation agenda because it was a school of thought that had been central to the liberation of Africa, starting with Ghana in 1957, and right up to 1994 when South Africa became a democracy.

“There would be no independence of Ghana and Zimbabwe, and there would be no freedom in South Africa without the work of those in the tradition of Pan-Africanism. Successes in the arts and academia, along with solidarity and collaboration among Africans, can be traced back to the school of thought that is Pan-Africanism,” said Mutambara.

He also highlighted some of the failures of Pan-Africanism, epitomised by cases of poverty, dictatorship and corruption. Africans, who were once freedom fighters, had become looters that were now oppressing their own black sisters and brothers, he said. 

“The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” he said in reference to the late Black Consciousness Movement founder Steve Biko. “What ended in 1957 in Ghana was physical oppression, but mental slavery continues to this day. The same applies in Zimbabwe and South Africa,” he said.

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Pan-African institute tackles academic decolonisation

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