“Transformation” and “Decolonization” of South

“Transformation” and “Decolonization” of South African Universities
David Benatar
Those demanding “transformation” and “decolonization” of South African
universities rarely define their terms or they do so imprecisely. The resultant
ambiguity may facilitate the halo effect that surrounds these terms. Academics and
students alike, piously intone them.
But slogans are no substitute for real argument. If one wants to establish some
conclusion, one must use key terms as unambiguously and precisely as the underlying
concepts permit. A “transformation”, for example, is “a thorough or dramatic change”.
Not all such changes are positive. Thus those who seek particular changes need to
demonstrate that they are desirable ones.
One demand is for the transformation of the student and staff profiles to reflect the
racial demographics of the country. However, it is not enough to endorse that goal.
The means to attaining it must also be appropriate. Admitting, on the basis of their
“race”, students who are not at all prepared for university would set them up for
failure and squander limited public resources.
To be clear, the university can, should, and does provide support to those students
who have been educationally disadvantaged, but it can do so only for those students
who are only moderately disadvantaged and could succeed with remedial help.
Universities cannot compensate for twelve years of appalling primary and secondary
education in South Africa’s dysfunctional schools.
The sad truth is that the pool of qualified university applicants is only a small
proportion of school-leavers. Without improved schooling the student demographics
at universities simply cannot resemble the national demographics. It is wishful,
delusional thinking to imagine otherwise.
Similarly, in hiring academics, universities can draw on only a very small subset of
the entire population. The quarry is not all adults or even those with PhDs. The aim is
to appoint the best scholars and teachers from the pool of suitably qualified applicants.
That pool bears very little resemblance to the country’s demographics.
In response to this, many advocates of “transformation” argue that we have to alter
our conception of “excellence” which, they say, is “Eurocentric”. They
might make a more persuasive case if they could explicate the ways in which the
current standards of “excellence” are questionable. Should we, for example, not be
seeking academics who have finely honed analytical skills, a command of their field,
and who can publish articles in excellent international journals, and books with
prestigious academic presses?
Advocates of “transformation” also claim that the curriculum needs to be
“decolonialized” or “Africanized”. It is very difficult to understand what exactly this
is meant to imply.
Sometimes the suggestion is that African ways of thinking should be affirmed and
that “European” ways of thinking should not be privileged. One problem with this
suggestion is that it oversimplifies “African” and “European” ways of thinking. For
example, the ways of thinking that characterized European universities several
hundred years ago have changed. If European universities had insisted, as
conservatives might have wanted, on preserving traditional European thinking, there
would not have been the advances in knowledge that there have been.
Similarly, if advocates of “decolonization” insist on injecting traditional African ways
of thinking, there would be similar stultification. The success of modern universities
is not based on self-consciously pursuing or affirming traditional or ethnic-specific
ways of thinking. Instead, the goal is to pursue knowledge as a common human
endeavour. Thus we should be interested in whatever methodologies and innovations
work, and adopt them irrespective of their origin. Europeans did not reject IndoArabic numerals on the grounds that they were not of European origin. (This is one
illustration that not everything brought to South Africa by Europeans was European in
The process is never complete, which is why change should be welcomed – but only
if change improves what universities do. Change for the sake of fitting an ethnic or
nationalist agenda is unlikely to have that effect. Thus Africa should demonstrate that
it has something valuable to add rather than arguing that it has something African to
contribute. This is not to say that Africa can offer nothing valuable, but rather that the
selling point should be that it is valuable rather than that it is African.
One possibility is to investigate scientifically whether some traditional African
medicines have therapeutic value. However, it would be a mistake to reject the
scientific methodology as a “colonial epistemology” and to teach medical students to
prescribe traditional remedies without scientific evidence that they are safe and
effective. It is only through advances made by the scientific methodology that
European medicine shed itself of such errors as miasmatic theory and humorism. No
doubt there are lingering (and new) errors in modern medicine that still need to be
expunged by advancing knowledge.
Parts of the university curriculum are already Africanized in some sense – African
languages and literature, African customary law, and African religion are taught. That
is entirely appropriate, but not all disciplines lend themselves to Africanization. It is
not clear, for example, what it would mean to “decolonize” physics or mathematics.
There is only mathematics – not European or African mathematics.
What about my own discipline, philosophy? The main source of confusion with
demands to Africanize a philosophy curriculum is the ambiguity in the word
“philosophy”. Many people use the term to refer to any system of thought. However,
that is not the way it is used in the academic context. Academic philosophy is not
even merely the study of thought systems, for that would not differentiate philosophy
from areas of anthropology and religious studies. Philosophy is characterized not only
by particular questions, but also by the methodologies it uses in answering those
questions. These methodologies, like those of mathematics and physics, are imports.
Even if they can be applied to African thought, that would involve a kind of
“colonization” – African thought would be subjected to academic tools that are not
indigenous. But indigenousness is no more a marker of value than nonindigenousness is a marker of disvalue. Ideas, innovations, methodologies should be
evaluated on their merits rather than on their provenance.
One psychological factor that impedes the recognition of this is the misplaced
(“colonizing”) pride of some people and the misplaced (“colonized”) insecurity of
others. Peoples’ intellectual capacity and promise is not a function of what has been
achieved by their forebears.
In any event not all “white” South Africans are descended from either colonialists or
from the great centres of European learning. Some are descended from non-colonial
immigrants. They are first or second generation university graduates. Universities and
their curricula were not part of their own “cultural heritage”, but they embraced
university learning – because it is valuable and despite its “cultural unfamiliarity”.
Most “blacks” in South Africa are not immigrants. Nevertheless, we should all be
heartened by the words of the eminent Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, who
asked whether it was absurd for him, “someone just one generation from the shtetl, a
pisher from … Brooklyn”, even to touch on the work of monumental thinkers. He
replied: “Of course it is. Yet it was ludicrous for them too. We are all just a few years
past something or other, if only childhood. Even the monuments themselves … must
have been children once … – so they too are immigrants to the realm of thought.”
David Benatar is Professor and Head of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town.