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On decolonising Africa and studying abroad: A response to Zinhle Manzini

By Kgaugelo Sebidi

As a Rhodes Scholar who will be heading to the University of Oxford in a few months to read for a master of philosophy in development studies, I must admit that the arguments made in Zinhle Manzini’s blog post “If you are serious about decolonising Africa, don’t study abroad” are short sighted and reductionist in nature. In fact, they are inconsistent with the title of the article about “decolonising Africa” when the topic of discussion is about decolonising universities and pursuing PhDs. First of all, Africa is not a university. And while we are trying by all means to decolonise our continent, decolonisation is not just an academic exercise – it is also socio-political and cultural. If we only adopt its academic appeal, it becomes an exercise of the elite, while those who are continually affected by the ramifications of colonialism and apartheid continue to be side-lined.

It must be clear that there is a difference between an “epistemic location” and an “epistemic position”. An epistemic location can be loosely defined as any geographical locality in the world where a person pursues their education. In the case of the article, it’s “studying abroad”. An epistemic position on the other hand defines a person’s affiliated school of thought (decolonial/liberal/feminist etc) and their base of knowledge production. With the aforementioned, an epistemic location does not automatically translate into an epistemic position. A person may be at Oxford but that does not necessarily mean that they are “reproducing the same pedagogy” as she claims. Look at Ntokozo Qwabe, Achille Mbembe and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni – just to name a few. They all got educated in colonial epistemic locations, but their epistemic positions are as decolonial as they come. It is important to note that epistemic locations are secondary, and thus not important. In fact, we have academics in South African universities who have never studied in the US or the UK, and yet their epistemologies and pedagogies are at the heart of the Euro-American-centric canon.

I now want to focus on Manzini’s reasoning behind dissuading Africans from studying abroad. First of all, she made notations of three aspects of the World University Rankings as used by Times Higher Education. Although fairly elucidated, there are a number of shortcomings. First of all, she mentioned that the rankings are composed of teaching, research, citations, industry income and international outlook. But Manzini intentionally focused on the first three and neglected the most important, which are “industry income” and “international outlook”. On teaching, I do agree that we need more PhDs in our African institutes, but I don’t think it matters where people choose to pursue their PhDs, because diversifying academic institutions may lead to richer academic experiences. On the second point, which was research, we have many scholars who are studying abroad but yet base their research dissertations on their home countries. They get generous grants to fly back home and conduct fieldwork etc. I don’t see how that is counterproductive to decolonial discourse. It may actually be contributing rather than harming the discourse.

On citations – we must note that publishing in prestigious journals not only helps a scholar gain recognition, but also makes their work more influential. It does not matter where you publish, but what matters is the content of what is published. When we publish within high ranking universities, we reach larger audiences and assume our positions of influence. Let us not forget that universities in the UK and US are far more financially funded than our own. And also, these international universities and their colonial spaces have more archives about our continent than we do. So what better way to fight coloniality other than from its pot belly?

Knowledge transcends boundaries – Eurocentric knowledge found us in Africa, why can’t we pursue our decolonial agenda in the colonial metropolis of Europe?

What we need are conscientised decolonial agents who are willing to pursue this very agenda. Decolonial movements can’t be restricted to certain geographical areas – we need scholars and activists all over the world for our discourse to be heard and felt. We need not be insular in our affairs like North Korea. Ours is not a secret mission. At the crux of colonisation was “world rule and domination”. Why can’t decolonial discourse aspire to be the same?

In conclusion, I have an urge to remind Manzini that decolonial discourse is not just an academic exercise. It’s also a practical and well-founded discourse that will have a myriad of practical implications even to those who have never been in academia. Therefore, students who are “serious” about decolonising knowledge, power and being should definitely study abroad if the opportunity arises. We must exploit these opportunities because we know that we do not have enough such opportunities in our continent. While our epistemic locations may change from time to time, we must be firm in our epistemic positions.

We must infiltrate colonial spaces to fight the system from within but not to fall under spells of neo-colonial indoctrination. Lastly, let’s judge people on the basis of their works, not their chosen epistemic locations. As a graduate student in philosophy, I am certain Manzini knows the logical fallacy of ad hominem – arguments always need to be directed at arguments, not the persons. For that reason, where a person has studied should not be a factor, but rather their epistemic position needs to be paid more attention to.

Kgaugelo Sebidi is a junior researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. As a Rhodes scholar, he will be pursuing a master of philosophy in development studies at the University of Oxford from September 2016.