Decolonisation of Higher Education in South Africa

Updated December 9, 2020

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Decolonisation of Higher Education in South Africa essay

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This assignment seeks to clarify the concept of decolonisation of the curriculum in the higher education, and how decolonisation of this curriculum can be achieved in the higher education. Five people will be interviewed in the higher education to investigate these questions above. To further explain this study, it is important to first understand what is meant by decolonisation and curriculum. (Mgqwashu 2018:125).

Decolonisation of curriculum refers to the dismantling of the European system of education, so to enable Africa to design their own system that will be beneficial to African. It is about the consciousness and rejection of values, norms, customs and worldviews imposed by the colonisers (Ruddock 2018:10).

Curriculum on the other hand refers to multifaceted study of educational experience organised in a school for teaching students a way of thinking and acting. (Ogude, Nel & Oosthuizen 2015:2). It contains the attitudes, values, dispositions and world views that are taught while studying towards a degree (Saurombe 2018:119). Curriculum centres on what students are supposed to take away from teaching and learning as well as what they can or should do with what they take from the curriculum.

Decolonizing the Curriculum

The topic of dismantling the current education curriculum in higher education is not new in South African. After the collapse of the apartheid government in 1994, the new democratic government of South Africa was faced with a difficult task of dismantling the colonial and apartheid education systems that marginalised black South Africans (Mandam 2017:101). Today, students and academics in South African universities are attempting to dismantle any methods, values, norms, practices, thinking, beliefs and choices that demonstrates European and white supremacy in university curriculum (Mgqwashu 2018:125). The protest among South African university students broke out in 2015 with the demands for the decolonisation of the higher education curriculum.

South Africa’s higher education system has its roots in the nations’ colonial and Apartheid past (Saurombe 2018:120). This means South African higher education system is still dominated by the colonial and apartheid curriculum, which promotes white dominance and supremency. This type of educational system undermines any form of indigenous knowledge, and it mostly revolves around the European viewpoint (Ramoupi 2014:271). This type of education system is detached from African realities, including the lived experiences of the majority of black South Africans (Mbembe 2016:32). Consequently, south African students are advocating for the abolishment of such curriculum.

The recent protests in South Africa, demanding the decolonisation of South African higher education curriculum demonstrates the need for decolonisation of the colonial curriculum to a more responsive curriculum (Long 2018:22). African curriculum should be able to respond to local challenges. Failure to which depicts a valid reason behind the call for the decolonisation of the curriculum (Heleta 2016:2).

Curriculum responsiveness refers the ability of curricula taught in schools or universities to address the needs of students as well as societal circumstances (Ruddock 2018:11). This means that the curriculum must maintain African consciousness, rules, values, standards and norms, to better understand Africa. Curriculum responsiveness should also address issues of employability, economic responsiveness, diversity in the classroom and cultural responsiveness (Fomunyam & Teferra 2017:197).

It is critical to know that the intention behind decolonisation is not to cast off white people, both foreign and local, from the curriculum. However, they cannot be seen as the dominant and most important canon upon which the human expertise rests (Seabi, Seedat, Khoza-Shangase & Sulivan 2014:69). Casting white people from our curriculum would mean that we have learnt nothing about the issue of discrimination, and simply replaced one set of exclusionary power relations with another (Fomunyam & Teferra 2017:199). Rather, decolonising higher education should be about expanding our worldviews. Decolonisation of former education challenges the notion that any single worldview can be considered the normal one (Pietsch 2013:461). This one sided education system has profoundly shaped the way people construct both their own identities, and the identities of others, today (Seabi, et al 2014:70).

In South Africa education proficiency is still measured, to a large extent, according to the learner’s ability to master one or more European languages. The books in many fields of study are written by Western writers (Long 2018:22). Much of the literature classified as highest quality, for example, is produced from the West. The academic methods, the curriculum choices, the methods of assessment, of south Africas’ entire educational institutions promote European understandings of the world (Le Grange 2016:3). Thus if a professor from a major Western university suggests a theory, it is likely to be given greater credibility among academics than a similar theory suggested by an African or Latin American professor (Le Grange 2016:3). For example; references from Western universities tend to be given more consideration compared to those that are from Asian or African institutions.

But decolonising the curriculum is more than substituting philosophers and writers. If curriculum integrates a broader educational experience, universities first need to define how they approach the development and dissemination of curriculum. Only then can they move forward with the process of decolonisation (Ogude, et al 2015:3).

How to Decolonise

Today, South Africa faces the challenges of how to dismantle the old curriculum, so to develop and implement higher education curriculum which demonstrates the rainbow nation South Africa claims to be (Brennan 2011:261).

In order to decolonise the higher education system South Africa needs to establish an education system that is free of colonial apartheid (Saurombe 2018:119). This means the minds of Africans must be decolonise first, and refrain from doing things the same manner colonialists did (Saurombe 2018:120). Most importantly, the higher education curriculum must not dismiss African knowledge, culture and experiences which currently seems to be the case. Instead, the higher education curriculum should bring citizens closer to their heritage, identity, experiences and societal needs (Ruddock 2018:15). Decolonising the curriculum will give South Africas’ higher education the opportunity of developing a curriculum, which instils the kind of values and ideals, such as social justice, democracy, tolerance and Ubuntu (Long 2018:23).

First to look at is the issue of language of teaching in schools, and also the language used in the textbooks, which are in English for all Africans, and mother tongue is disregarded in the classroom (Fomunyam, & Teferra 2017:198). The constitution of South Africa of 1996 has approved all 11 languages as equal, but this is not the case in schools curriculum (Fomunyam & Teferra 2017:198). The failure to implement languages on an equal basis in the classroom to enable students to learn effectively, suggests that truly South African education is still colonised (Pietsch 2013:461). And this is where the process of decolonisation should begin. (Shay 2016:125).

The multilingualism, historical narratives and indigenous knowledge systems are important in this process. Regardless of which process is followed to decolonise higher education in South Africa, the education system should be contextualised in the South African society (Ruddock 2018:10). South Africa is a unique society, and in more recent times has been termed the rainbow nation, symbolising the different cultures, races and peoples who coexist peacefully in the new South Africa since democratisation (Ramoupi 2014:173). Although South Africa forms part of the African continent, South Africa has a unique history, which should inform the content of the curriculum decolonisation process, by taking into consideration the different eras that South Africans have experienced, namely:

  • The era before Europeans arrived in south africa;
  • The years following the arrival of the first Europeans in the Cape (1652);
  • The years under the British rule after 1806;
  • The years under apartheid rule (1948–1994); and
  • The post-apartheid era after 1994 (Lotz-Sisitka, Wals, Kronlid & McGarry 2015:77).

For the process of decolonialism to succeed, it should include the history of the country and its influences (Ogude, et al 2015:5). (Mbembe 2016:30). It is crucial to ask where would the information that encompasses South African history, indigenous knowledge systems and practices can be found (Le Grange 2016:5). If decolonisation is a process of rehumanising the curriculum, a process that aims to embrace all cultures, languages and contexts, together with their knowledge and value systems must be employed (Ramoupi 2014:270). The curriculum taught at different institutions of higher learning do not need to be entirely changed, instead the curriculum should be inclusive of both the European and African knowledge. This can be achieved in the field of the arts, humanities, literary studies and education (Saurombe 201:130).

Asserted that for this process to effectively implemented, the issues of incorporating all 11 official languages in the university should begin from the primary schools. So to allow students to have a solid foundation of their mother tongue method of learning. Rather than imposing this system at the university level (). Made reference to an article that was published Sunday times on the 29th march 2019. Where it was asserted that language policy at the UKZN is not working, as the student did not receive solid foundation of their mother tongue.

Curriculum Responsiveness and Decolonisation

Decolonising the curriculum in the South African context might be one way of ensuring that the curriculum is responsive to local economic challenges. There are four features of responsiveness to be considered to better improve the higher education through decolonisation (Higgs 2012:39).

First; Economic responsiveness, Economic responsiveness, is concerned with the ability of the curriculum to train skilled professionals in the different sectors in the economy (Pietsch 2013:465). It is not only concerned with obtaining a degree in a selected discipline but also to making sure are professionals are skilled and prepared for the job market (Higgs 2012:39). Students need to be trained not only for the purpose of taking on the job market but also to be able to respond to the economic challenges of the time through job creation (Mbembe 2016:30). Economic responsiveness in the curriculum therefore goes beyond satisfying the job market at the present, but creating sustainable solutions to future challenges as well as the growth of the economy (Brennan 2011:261). Decolonising the current curriculum in South African would be one way of causing the curriculum to be responsive to local economic challenges and by extension developing measures to address it (Ruddock 2018:11).

Second is the cultural responsiveness. In a country like South Africa, with a history of discrimination, curriculum must respond to the cultural challenges and also promote diversity (Fomunyam 2017:342). Cultural responsiveness is the teachers’ ability to demonstrate knowledge of the cultural characteristics of different groups within the classroom, and how these cultural variations affect the teaching and learning process (Brennan 2011:262). Another way of successfully decolonising the educational system is by identifying the cultural differences in schools, in a curriculum perspective and affording everyone a voice. (Badat 2010:132). Culturally responsive curriculum is the one that has the knowledge of diverse cultural encounters and transformations. The forefront of culture and indigenous experiences is an important tool for decolonisation since it shuns foreign concepts and ideas (Fomunyam & Teferra 2017:198). This will help student deal with the lived real experiences and knowledge in the universities.

Disciplinary responsiveness is the third type of responsiveness, which curriculum in higher education, especially South African higher education, is supposed to engage (Long 2018:24). Disciplinary responsiveness is the ability of a curriculum module to be up to date with the research in the field as well as promote new discoveries within the discipline (Badat 2010.132). A higher education curriculum is associated with a community of scholars or scholarship who produce new knowledge according to what their discipline dictates (Le Grange 2016:9).

However, most academic disciplines or curricula are often highly systematised forms of inquiry which avoid everyday life practices which education is supposed to prepare people for, inform and challenge (Pietsch 2013:465). For the curriculum to be disciplinary responsive within the context of decolonisation in South Africa, it should not only be up to date in relation to research in the field, but should be structured in ways that are applicable to everyday life especially since knowledge is largely for application (Heleta 2016:6). Disciplinary responsiveness will ensure that what is happening locally and internationally as far as the discipline is concerned is covered, as well as encourage students to think globally and act locally to develop the discipline (Fomunyam & Teferra 2017:199.)

Lastly, learning responsiveness is the curriculum’s ability to respond to the needs of the student (Le Grange 2016:7). As far as teaching and learning is concerned students possess different needs and abilities. Without the curriculum responding to the needs of these individual learners, no meaningful learning can take place (Lotz-Sisitka, et al 2015:78). There is no one size fit all approach. Every student that enters the university are faced with challenges, as they are required to adapt to an institution and context that is unfamiliar to them. (Pietsch 2013:445). Making the curriculum responsive to the needs of students promotes decolonisation. Decolonising the mind is the first step to ensuring democratisation and decolonised educational system (Heleta 2016:5).

These four features of responsiveness could ensure an effective improvement of higher education where decolonising is of great priority. However, to what degree these different aspects of responsiveness will apply in higher education is determined by who shapes the discourse or curriculum and what direction they want it to take (Fomunyam 2017:40).


South African Universities should reconsider and reconstruct the curriculum and bring South Africa to the centre of teaching, learning and research. This does not mean decolonisation will result in complete disregard of European curriculum. But it will incorporate both western and African curriculum to better improve teaching to fit the needs of South Africans. Decolonised curriculum will not completely abandon other knowledge systems and global context. Universities still have to develop globally competent graduates capable of functioning in the complex and connected world (Letsekha 2013:16).

However, the South African higher education should not be dominated by Western world views that were designed to degrade, exploit and subjugate people in Africa and other parts of the formerly colonised world. In addition, South African curriculum must be critical of the global knowledge and not only accept global North standards as norm, in the process disregarding South African norms completely (Long 2018:24). Finally, the call for decolonisation of the curriculum is not an advocacy to be anti-West, or discouragement to learn from the West and the rest of the world. Rather, it is a call to make higher education relevant to the material, historical and social realities of the communities in which universities operate’ (Mbembe 2016:35).

Decolonisation of Higher Education in South Africa essay

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