Somewhere out there, where no one has really ever been.

As university students (and, one suspects, other interested parties) demand “decolonised education“,  I am still trying to understand what this term actually means. In search of an answer, I found myself temporarily befuddled by a website called University World News which provided a somewhat opaque explanation by one Brian Kamanzi, a Cape Town-based “writer, electrical engineer and Pan-Africanist”:

“Historically white campuses often openly and unapologetically declare development paths that … both through form and function, (reinforce) hierarchies that reproduce and reflect global political dynamics instead of resisting them, as the student movements may have wished would be the case.”

I remain bemused, but press on:

“The departments and faculties in charge of the production of these kinds of knowledges and training find themselves housed in public institutions, contributing in particular to the technological requirements of ‘modern’ society accelerated undoubtedly by the industrial revolution and warfare, notwithstanding the demands of infrastructure, health care and energy, to list a few.”

“Industrial revolution and warfare notwithstanding the demands of infrastructure…”? What could this mean? Aware of my own limited knowledge of colonial and postcolonial theory, and willing to acknowledge that I am most likely blinded by white privilege, I pushed on once again in the hope of finding clarity. And to find clarity is important: police are firing rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at protesters. Yesterday a Catholic priest was wounded by police; protesters hurl bricks; vehicles and buildings are set alight; a campus bookshop was trashed in the last round of “fees-must-fall” violence: lecturers and non-participating students are thrown out of lecture halls; they are threatened and attacked by protesters. there has been at least one death. At some universities there is a distinctly racist undertone to the conflict.

Is the call for the decolonisation of education a legitimate call? What does it mean to decolonise education? Is it a legitimate intention, or a useful rallying cry to assert some other agenda? Is it an attack on whiteness and/or eurocentricity? Is it a demand for a meaningful and creative transformation of archaic societal structures? I keep trying at least to get to a definition:

“In raising the proverbial mirror to the work that we do, the call for decolonisation encourages us to be intentional in work that wle do and mindful of what it contributes for better or worse providing direction as to the trajectory of our efforts… One possible example would be to question the ways in which class divisions between technicians and engineers in the academy and in industry are reified by the enlightenment project-influenced academy that places certain kinds of thinking in a hierarchy of what is regarded as ‘practical’ knowledge or even the act of doing in and of itself … The division between ‘body’ and ‘mind’ is reproduced in the values of institutions reinforced through the ritual and doctrine that knowledge is simply of mind and thought and the body for action and movement. (sic). This discontinuity introduces an unnecessary hierarchy that itself serves no purpose beyond the production of an elite class.”

This strikes me as so much gobbledygook. But then, in some quarters at least, irrespective of my views, I would be perceived to be a part of the problem and thus unable to penetrate to the writer’s meaning. Perhaps.

In South Africa, race has always – and continues – to play a pivotal part in our discourse. I pick up my tattered paperback copy of Riaan Malan’s My Traitors heart and find much about the current conflict that is eerily familiar. The contrarian Malan makes reference to South Africa’s early settlers who “spoke of themselves as bearers of the light, but in truth they were dark of heart, and they knew it, and willed it so”. Is this “darkness of heart” a sort of deformity which persists today in our societal structures, our education system, in the universities, in the persistant “geographies” of apartheid town-planning etc – even after twenty years of liberation?

Esewhere, Malan writes that no one is “exempt from the law of genetic complicity.”

Does my own, colonial, “genetic complicity” require that I be pronounced guilty in a darkly stalinist sort of way, in effect – to be silenced? Is the only permissible voice that of popularism? Is there even such a thing as “genetic complicity“? Is the argument for “genetic complicity” not exactly what the Nazis used to justify their pogroms and, finally, their genocide of the Jews? Is “genetic complicity” not at the heart of every genocide from the Balkans to Rwanda?

During the colonial period – and the apartheid years that followed – heinous racial policies were hidden behind nefarious euphemisms. One suspects there may be something euphemistic about the words transformation and decolonisation. Words themselves are easily ‘colonised’ and subverted by other meanings.

I turn in vain to the words of a UCT student, Athabile Nonxuba, who, when asked by News24 reporters, “What exactly is decolonised education?”, replied:

“We study all these dead white men who presided over our oppression, and we are made to use their thinking as a standard and as a point of departure.” Our own thinking as Africans has been undermined. We must have our own education from our own continent; We cannot be decolonised by white people who colonised us..”

“… dead white men who presided over our oppression”? This is sounding suspiciously victim-chic. (see: Victim chic? The rhetoric of victimhood by Michael Ovey at

A more intelligent, less rhetorical and less belligerent explanation of decolonisation is to be found online at “IC MAGAZINE” ( 

Eric Ritskes, one of the editors, writes:

“Decolonization is a goal but it is not an endpoint. I like this open-ended beginning because it speaks to two things: that the struggle for decolonisation is a journey that is never finished and that, on this journey, uncertainty is not to be feared; Mariolga Reyes Cruz … describes it as: “moving towards a different and tangible place, somewhere out there, where no one has really ever been.” I don’t mean that decolonization is elusive and constantly deferred – an unattainable ‘pipe dream’ – but that it is a series of what Jeff Corntassel calls “everyday acts of resurgence” which regenerate Indigenous knowledges, epistemologies, and ways of life. These Indigenous knowledges are always adapting, always creating, always moving forward – there is no stopping them, no finality. Decolonization is a tangible unknown.

As an editor at Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, I see the space we are working to create as one of these everyday acts of decolonization. Decolonization engages with imperialism and colonialism at every level. This entails an on the ground resistance to the corporate and national take overs of land, as well as the slow ‘Colonialism’ of toxic waste, oil spills, carbon markets, and pollution that threaten the land. This means ‘writing back’ against the ongoing colonialism and colonial mentalities that permeates education, media, government policies, and ‘common sense’. For us, it also means challenging how higher education, research and publishing are complicit in and, in fact, vital to the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples around the globe.”

This – though perhaps difficult for me to embrace – makes sense. I get this. I haven’t found an answer, but I am finding questions which take me to interesting places and interesting thinkers. I can see beyond the angry vitriol of impassioned students and move beyond my own myopia. I distrust my certitudes, and welcome the unfamiliar yet fresh air that challenges my own epistemological paradigm.  The Argentinian semiotician Walter D. Mignolo, writes of “Looking for the Meaning of ‘Decolonial Gesture’” And explores “… thoughts on modernity/ coloniality, geopolitics of knowledge, border thinking, pluriversality, and the decolonial option”. I am tempted to poke fun at such academic discourses (with all those big words like “marmalade”!) but am equally challenged to investigate further. It is a good thing to throw open the windows and discover a new landscape beyond.


Further reading:


2)Colonialism and African Political Thought. Journal Issue:
Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 19(2-3) Author: Osaghae, Eghosa E.
Publication Date: 1991


2 thoughts on “Somewhere out there, where no one has really ever been.

  1. I like Athabile Nonxuba’ s poetic turn of phrase, “dead white men who presided over our oppression”. I can imagine A rogues gallery of stern and wraithlike imperialists (Lord Milner, Rhodes et al) standing grimly with stern Calvinists – Paul Kruger, Verwoerd: pitiless, ashen ghosts. South African history is a graveyard of oppression and Athabile simply says so in an idiomatic way. His perhaps idiosyncratic use of language may be quaintly Fanonesque, but I suspect that Athabile is expressing himself in a second language (another result of colonisation incidentally) and you should respect that. There is a vast amount of literature precisely about this subject (see for example Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.): Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. ISBN 0631203400). Whatever we call it – decolonisation or the exorcism of the white ghosts of Africa’s colonial past, there is certainly a need to engage on this issue. And academic institutions will be amply aware of this pressing need.


  2. Go ahead Scott: knock colonialism. Knock it right into the cesspit of history. It deserves to be there. You will only find a few troglodytes (and of course your proverbial white supremacist) still willing to defend it’s excesses. But at least be honest enough to acknowledge (note, I do not say applaud) that the colonial period brought some benefits: modern medicine and antibiotics for instance. Infrastructure and telecommunications. You probably can list a few yourself. In the call for “Decolonised spaces” I don’t see the so-called “victims of colonialism” forsaking their aspirations to a bursary to Oxford, Harvard or the l’Université Paris-Sorbonne. I don’t see a thorough-going Ghandi-like rejection of natty western suits, luxury German cars and the pervasive, insidious materialism which is a direct expression of colonial ideology. In Africa we are colonised by a rapacious capitalism which still views Africa as a place to pillage minerals (once you can get round her currupt leaders – never very difficult if you have their swiss bank account details). Africa remains a dumping ground and willing market for First World exports: trash TV shows, trash music, trash culture, trash values, trash consumerism, trash religious sects, trash ideologies of which communism was a prime example. We demand decolonisation but maintain a densely colonised mindset which whores after the trinkets and nicknacks which represent the very worst of what the West (and the Far East) has to offer. African politicians fawn after and crave the attentions of their former colonial masters, and their former masters’ “stuff”: dashing about in blue-lit cavalcades of luxury German cars and the latest luxury jets. And who bankrolls the AU? Ironically – or is it cynically? – 70% of AU funding comes from Canada, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, China and Turkey, as well as organisations such as the World Bank and European Union. The very countries and organizations African love to lambaste. Hypocrisy? Well, that’s politics, as they say. In my view – which counts for naught of course – Africa is in the position (so to speak) of a much-abused hooker laying charges against her pimp. The police are unlikely to take her very seriously – and perhaps this is the reason one suspects the powerful nations of the world are laughing into their sleeves. The AU can throw its little tantrums, but If she wants out of the imperialist whorehouse, she should stop whining about the customers and find a less degrading profession – without the trinkets and dirty cash which flows endlessly into luxury Addis Ababa hotels.

    So will our aggrieved student leaders be Gandhiji’s or a new crop of comprador capitalists? Watch this space: my guess is those protesters burning buses and intimidating non-protesting students, the SRC leaders with their anachronistic soviet-era shibboleths (comrade this, comrade will swap their fake russian vodka for Johnnie Blue at the first opportunity – just as the Soviet apparatchiks did, just as the communists and stalinists in this country transformed overnight into capitalist sycophants of neo-liberal agendas. What a cesspit history proves to be…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s