Opinion: Transforming Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers

Written by Prof Adekeye Adebajo

The University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) will host a two-day conference on “Transforming Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers: Lessons for South Africa’s Curriculum Transformation in The Humanities from Africa and African-American Studies” at the UJ Auckland Park Kingsway campus’ Arts Centre on the weekend of 17 and 18 August 2018. About 25 scholars have been invited to present papers over the two days on carefully selected topics around four broad themes: the Challenges of Transforming the South African Higher Education Sector; Key Issues in Transforming South Africa’s Higher Education Sector; Lessons from Africa; and Lessons From African-American Studies.

These transformation efforts are not a call to delink from the rest of the world and totally abandon the Western canon, but rather to view the world from an African perspective. The conference seeks to draw lessons from five African countries – Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana – as well as the establishment of Africana and African-American Studies in the United States (US), in an effort to contribute to scholarship and policies on transforming South Africa’s curriculum in the field of humanities. The project is explicitly inter-disciplinary on the premise that transformation debates and processes are simply too important to be left to educationists, and must have buy-in across disciplines in the humanities.

After nearly two and a half decades of a black-led government in South Africa, the country’s education system still mirrors colonial education paradigms and the hegemony of Western thought, with African knowledge systems and the voices of African indigenous populations often marginalized. This conference thus explicitly seeks to draw on transformation lessons from post-colonial Africa and post-civil rights African-American Studies in an effort to contribute to literature on, and policies for, transforming South Africa’s curriculum in the field of humanities.

Scholar-activists will also provide an understanding of the role and impact of the 2015 “Rhodes Must Fall” and similar movements on curriculum transformation at South African universities. This conference will thus involve an inter-generational debate between established and emerging scholars, which will seek to ensure that new voices become part of important discourses and debates that are often dominated by the same voices.

Post-apartheid South Africa has tended to look to the West for its models, thus explaining the persistence of Eurocentric curricula in South African universities in the post-apartheid era. Deeply entrenched patronizing political and cultural attitudes have permeated the country’s historically white universities such as the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Wits, Rhodes, and Pretoria, from which the black majority was largely excluded during the apartheid era. Enrolment and funding have simultaneously declined in historically black universities such as Fort Hare, Limpopo, and Venda.

Most African countries had universities created by their European colonial powers only from around 1948. They embarked on the decolonization and Africanization of these institutions from the 1950s, replacing both foreign staff and Eurocentric curricula. There were efforts to build African nationalist historiographies to support nation-building and to challenge Eurocentric history in Nigeria (Ibadan), Senegal (Dakar), Tanzania (Dar es Salaam), Kenya (Nairobi), Uganda (Makerere), and Ghana (Legon). In the process, these universities created some centres of excellence of African knowledge production such as the Ibadan School of History, the Dakar School of Culture, and the Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy.

The Ibadan School of History emerged in the 1950s, and was one of the earliest efforts to create a “nationalist historiography” that sought to counter European misrepresentations of African history as “primitive”, backward, and lacking in agency. Members of the school included scholars such as Kenneth Dike, J.F. Ade Ajayi, and Obaro Ikime who innovatively used oral sources and sought to write the history of the pre-colonial and colonial periods from an African perspective. They helped to forge, in the process, a Nigerian identity through writing about the achievements of the country’s pre-colonial history. These authors also produced much of the text-books of Nigerian history at all levels of education.

Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy emerged in 1964 from efforts to build a nationalist historiography. The school was led by Marxist scholars like Guyana’s Walter Rodney who, in his famous 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, traced the roots of Africa’s underdevelopment to European colonial rule. Members of the Dar School also wrote on indigenous economic production, class, social formation, and the impact of capitalism on Tanzania and Kenya.

The Dakar School of Culture was led by Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop at the University of Dakar, who was a forerunner of the Afrocentric approach that later became part of African-American and Africology studies in the US, by the 1980s, led by scholars like Molefi Asante and Leonard Jeffries. Diop challenged the cultural bias in Western scientific research, and what he felt was the racist view of Eurocentric scholarship in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. In Kenya in 1968, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o led efforts to Africanize the curriculum, arguing that since Africa was not an extension of the West, a concentric circle of Kenya, East Africa, and Africa needed to be placed at the centre of reconceptualizing a new curriculum. This led to a major transformation of curricula throughout East Africa.

In 1958, Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart in reaction to what he perceived to be the misrepresentation of Africa by Western authors such as Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad. This eventually resulted in the birth of modern African literature under the Heinemann African writers’ series which began in 1962. Heinemann produced 273 books which essentially became Africa’s literary canon with writers such as Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Tayeb Salih, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Ousmane Sembene. This was the first generation of modern African writers who transformed literature curricula across the continent. Exclusive Books has recently created a Pan-African writers’ series section with many of these and other writings in all of its stores, thus highlighting the potential to transform South Africa’s literature curriculum and reading culture.

Finally, the UJ August conference will interrogate what lessons South African universities can learn from efforts to create African-American Studies departments in the US. As in South Africa with the end of apartheid in 1994, it was after the civil rights struggles from the 1950s that black American students entered predominantly white institutions in large numbers. This led to demands for Black Studies courses by the first generation of African-American students alienated by white institutions with Eurocentric curricula that often did not recognise black history and culture. Black feminist scholars like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and bell hooks, also forced the establishment of Black Women’s Studies by the late 1970s.

Lessons from transforming curricula at America’s historically black colleges such as Howard, Morehouse, and Lincoln could further help transform humanities curricula in South Africa’s historically-black universities. Two African-American schools of thought have included the Atlanta School of Sociology (led from the 1890s by scholars such as Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois) which sought to use rigorous research methods to disprove the racist claims of white social scientists of black inferiority, and the Howard School of International Affairs (led from the 1920s by scholars such as Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, and Eric Williams) which challenged conventional Western ideas about empire and race in international relations.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.


*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in Business Day (South Africa), 23 July 2018.

Share this

Latest News

All News