Opinion: Turning ivory towers into ebony towers

Written by Cecilia Lwiindi Nedziwe

Since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994, calls to dismantle and transform the exclusive colonial and apartheid past are increasingly becoming louder in much of the conversations and debates. The buzz word ‘decolonise’ has repeatedly been echoed at various platforms within and outside institutions of higher learning in order to transform South Africa’s present characterised by deep divisions, social marginalisation, and racial differences. The decolonisation project also represents a more tangible effort to begin to translate the multiple expectations and promises of a new democracy into reality for the majority of South Africa’s 57 million people.

In a bid to contribute to transformation debates, the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) will host a two-day conference on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 August 2018 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 Arts Centre, Auckland Park Kingsway (APK) Campus.

This is a follow-up to last year’s IPATC three-day conference on “The Pan-African Pantheon” that convened to begin to make tangible contributions to decolonise South Africa’s academic curriculum. That conference was unique in that it commemorated the Soweto youth uprising of 16 June 1976 against apartheid education – thereby highlighting the central role of students in championing decolonisation and transformation efforts.

Between 2015 and 2016, protests began at the University of Cape Town (UCT) with the #Rhodes Must Fall movement, and in the spirit of solidarity spread to Wits and Universities across South Africa. The key issues around the protests included: curriculum transformation, name change, support for disadvantaged black students, and vacation accommodation, among others. While steps on some aspects such as name change have been noticeable at some universities, as well as a controversial free higher education deal announced by former president Jacob Zumba at Nasrec last December, transformation within institutions of higher learning has generally been slow.

This August UJ conference is further exceptional in that students who were key drivers of the #Rhodes Must Fall movement, as well as other key transformation debates across their universities are among the 25 scholars and scholar-activists from across the world who will present papers over the two days. These students will focus on the lessons from South Africa’s student movement.

These scholars will speak to 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 scholars include: Crain Soudien, the Executive Director, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC); Shireen Motala, Senior Director of the Postgraduate School, University of Johannesburg; Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer, Universities South Africa (USAF); Walter Allen, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), United States (US); Thato Pule, Former Chair, Transformation and Social Responsiveness, Students’ Representative Council, UCT; Hlengiwe Patricia Ndlovu, Doctoral Candidate, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Nthabiseng Motsemme, Academic Director: National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS); Harry Garuba, University of Cape Town; Jimi Adesina, Archie Mafeje Research Institute, University of South Africa (UNISA); Jeffrey Mabelebele, Registrar, University of Limpopo; Boubacar Barry, University of Dakar, Senegal; Toyin Falola, University of Texas, US; Chris Wanjala, University of Nairobi, Kenya; Zine Magubane, Boston College, US; and Aldon Morris, Northwestern University, Illinois, US.

This conference is equally unique not only in providing a platform for students to share lessons, but opening up the conference to other students and the general public in order to enrich the debate and discussion about transformational issues in South Africa’s humanities curricula. What is further distinctive about the UJ conference is that it seeks to draw on transformation lessons from post-colonial Africa and post-civil rights African-American Studies in an effort to contribute to transforming South Africa’s humanities curriculum.

Prominent scholars from across Africa, some of whom directly involved in similar curriculum transformation projects such as Toyin Falola (the Ibadan School of History), and Boubacar Barry (the Dakar School of Culture) will speak at this conference. Providing lessons from African- American Studies include distinguished academics such as Zine Magubane, (Decolonising African and African-American Studies); Aldon Morris (Lessons from the Atlanta School of Sociology), and Krista Johnson (Lessons From the Howard School of International Affairs). The lessons from Africa and African-American studies will be carefully interrogated and applied to post-apartheid South Africa’s own specific and historic context.

The August conference is part of a two-year project on curriculum transformation in the humanities. A policy brief will emerge from this event, and will be widely disseminated to policymakers in South Africa, Africa, and America. Equally, an edited book will emerge in 2019 from the papers presented at the conference on the four broad themes. Thereafter, public dialogues will be convened to popularise and disseminate the key findings at universities across South Africa.

Cecilia Lwiindi Nedziwe is the Research Coordinator at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

*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 The Star (South Africa), 16 August 2018.

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