By Nedine Moonsamy
As a young postgraduate student I opted to study in India despite Darwinian warnings about the culture and academic institutions. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and rigour of Indian intellectual pursuits and soon became enamoured by the idiosyncrasies of their postcolonial academic culture. Unlike South Africa, Indian colonialism had a largely insidious base, working by influence rather than militant and financial force, and this left the Indian academy with its own set of postcolonial teething problems. Nevertheless, it also meant that India was able to provide an experience that local institutions in South Africa never did; an opportunity to learn in an environment that is in a more porous relation to its context. Hence, the curriculum was under constant revision and seminars could take on the form of Indian ragas that completely frustrated one’s desire to learn within the limits of clock-time. This experience was profound, embedding a desire to commit to the South African academy. Yet sightings of the Africanisation of the academic institution have remained wholly elusive, that is until my recent entry into Rhodes University.
I have recently joined Rhodes, and in an attempt to remedy my growing embarrassment about being an academic who only speaks English (South Africa is one of few countries where this matters very little), I enrolled for the first year IsiXhosa course. The African languages department at Rhodes University holds a National Research Foundation research chair and has injected these funds into the intellectualisation of the IsiXhosa language. It has since given rise to a series of innovative projects that include broadening the accessibility of computer software and the internet. Hence, it is not caught up in precolonial nostalgia, as is often assumed of African studies (presumably in order to denigrate their relevance in contemporary society), but is decidedly forward-looking in its approach. More endearingly, these intellectual ideals filter through to the very bottom, which is where I encounter them. Once a week the head of the department presents a lecture as a multilingual experiment; there is rapid code-switching and translation between numerous South African languages. I am surprised and greatly moved by the atmosphere of these classes.
There is something distinctly vibrant about students who step into the possibilities of the legitimacy that a mother-tongue education affords — not to mention the esteem that comes with taking local languages and culture as a matter of serious intellectual enquiry. Admittedly, there is still — in this particular instance — the somewhat problematic dynamic of students revelling in the opportunity to (finally) be heard by a white professor, but there is a wider unspoken agreement about the ideological “listening” that the institution can indeed perform, and it quickly rubbishes ideas that there is a lack of infrastructure and intelligentsia to support rapid academic and pedagogical transformation. It also stands as firm evidence against the institutional and administrative infantilism which assumes that students don’t quite know what they want and so, cannot be trusted with their futures. In these classes we also discussed the earlier controversy that mild code-switching caused in another department at Rhodes University as this has already been made commonplace in these lectures without much fuss. Yet, that controversy unwittingly exposed the kind of resistance that multilingual teaching, as a hegemonic strategy, is set to experience and, perhaps more dishearteningly, it also exposed the marginal status of African studies (in Africa).
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the first year non-mother tongue class is mainly occupied by African students attempting to make a more successful crossover into the local community. There are also a number of international students (who come from environments of linguistic specificity and fully subscribe to its cultural tenants). Then, there are significantly fewer South Africans, like myself, who have come to rectify the embarrassment of English hegemony. Given that about 80% of Grahamstown’s population speaks isiXhosa, this says something about the sharp decontextualisation of Rhodes University and also the sheer lack of cultural curiosity of many South Africans.
There is great fear of cultural and contextual porosity at Rhodes, and nothing has made this clearer than the current #RhodesMustFall campaign. Spreading from UCT to Rhodes, the #RhodesMustFall campaign evokes the crusty colonial fear of being contaminated by Africa. Over these past few days I have witnessed obscene amounts of “white” (I refer to an ideological stance rather than a race) resistance to the #RhodesMustFall campaign and the Black Students Movement at Rhodes and I can’t help but imagine these dissenting voices would quickly cease were they to find a seat in a class like the IsiXhosa1 lectures in order to listen in on a future that they cannot, as yet, hear.
For myself, I sit there, stirred by contrasting impulses of inspiration and shame; there is laughter, contention and serious debate in the lecture theatre and most of it flies over my head. Nothing in my decade-long education has prepared me for a class of this kind. I am linguistically alienated and I frequently touch base with the humiliation, frustration and angst that colonialism and apartheid has systematically meted out to generations of South Africans. An experience of this kind has made obvious the need for reform, unless we are to support an absurd proposition that we should continue to alienate the majority of students in local institutions. Once all rational arguments against change are stripped down, who will actually have the foolish courage to claim that the students’ search for home and identification in an African institution is an unfeasible and futile one?
Nedine Moonsamy is an AW Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the English department at Rhodes University.