By Shose Kessi
Real and lasting social change does not take place without theory. Theory crafts, guides, sustains and legitimises social systems. In order to dismantle the social systems we live in, which are characterised by racism and other forms of oppression, we need to advance our theories. These theories should and must emerge from the relationship between the knowledge production that is taking place in institutions of higher education and people’s lived experiences, in particular those who are the most marginalised in society. Without knowing about the lives of those who are most ostracised by social systems, how would we know what needs to change in order to achieve an egalitarian society?
The university, the place where alternative theories should emerge, is itself plagued by racism. Representations of black students and black academics as lowering the standards of the university and not being promoted on merit are commonplace – and have become part of our social imagination and everyday discourse. In all of these arguments, what is missing is a historical analysis of how white scholars came to secure a predominant space in historically white universities. The Extension of University Education Act of 1959 and subsequent acts served to exclude black South Africans from access to the university and from certain fields of study. Hence white scholars in our universities did not become established academics based on merit alone, particularly as one of the main criteria was to be white, the legacies of which continue to this day.
What is needed to understand the concept of “merit” is a questioning of the role of the university as a cultural and historical expression of our society. What is taught in universities and for what purpose is key in understanding what theories will emerge in order to advance our society.
A white professor at the University of Cape Town wrote in a media article last month that:
“ … colonialism, whatever its political and cultural sins, did generally improve the economic lot of the poor – better public order, improved food and public health all lead to longer lives and growing populations”.
If this is the type of thinking that is being imparted, then it follows that our students are being taught to believe in values and systems that serve to oppress Africa and Africans. It also means that the economists that we are producing will not find solutions to economic poverty but rather recreate theories that re-inscribe processes of inequality, inferiorisation, and control. What type of meritocracy does this imply? How does one become a professor in an African institution when holding such beliefs?
Racist thinking continues to be used to justify the exploitative practices of powerful people and institutions. We have seen how privileged white South Africans argue against attempts to re-distribute white power and privilege by constructing Africans as immoral and underserving. In a recent exchange on social media, a white woman, a high court judge claimed that:
“99 percent of criminal cases I hear is of black fathers/uncles/brothers raping children as young as five years old. Is this part of your culture? (…) And they do it to their own children, sisters, nieces, etc”.
We have to ask ourselves how such representations of blackness have influenced the decisions of court cases that have impacted in very real ways on the lives of many. In the context of higher education, how do such beliefs influence the direction of research projects and influence curricula and the types of thinking and values that are being promoted?
Hence, black academics in historically white universities, in South Africa, have inherited an elitist and oppressive context that excludes people based on their race, but also their gender, sexuality, and class. Fundamentally, what transpires across these realities is that transformation and decolonisation are framed as a contradiction to academic excellence and academic freedom. As a result, it erases the theoretical and methodological contributions of black academics in higher education that could generate change and that are the most likely to do so.
Academic freedom in our context is about the freedom to challenge racist ideas and oppressive policies and practices through critical debate and dialogue. Ideas are what we produce and ideas need to be challenged to remain relevant. When an institution keeps repeating or recycling old practices without dialogue and consultation, or without evaluating what it does, then colonial thinking will remain. Our ability to participate in and generate ideas and research that can reshape this society depends on our ability to be recognised for our intellectual contributions. What I mean by that is, if we are not recognised and valued for who we are, how we think, and the work that we do; if we are told that we bring standards down, or need help to catch up – then there is little hope that our universities can have any relevance in this society.
Dr Shose Kessi is a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Cape Town and a member of the UCT Black Academic Caucus.