In 2015, a call reverberated through South African universities. It started at Wits, moved to UCT and then to most campuses in the country. Thousands of students, at nearly every institution of higher education, demanded the decolonisation of university curricula and the radical transformation of academic spaces. This resulted in a movement towards the rejection of Eurocentric systems of knowledge and the advancement of African approaches and philosophies.

To engage further on the issue of a decolonised education model, the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, hosted a lunch lecture by renowned critical legal scholar Professor Makau Mutua. Prof Mutua teaches law at the SUNY Buffalo Law School, State University of New York, in the United States of America (USA). The lecture on 'Decolonising the university curriculum' provided an opportunity for critical reflection on South Africa’s racial and political past, its impact on tertiary education and the way forward.

Prof Mutua kicked of a very dynamic presentation by tackling a very topical issue – the securitisation of university campuses. He defined universities as being the ‘brain of the body politic’ and lamented that universities are indeed inaccessible to most members of our society. ‘If you close the physical university using gates and barriers, you unwittingly close the door to the mind’, he said. By adopting stricter access control measures and barring non-students from using university facilities, Prof Mutua argued that South African universities are in essence at war with the its own community. A war in which knowledge is rationed, and access to education is regulated by a student card.

Comparing the South African context with his own (in the USA), he identified the absence of African writers as a recurring theme. ‘Our intellectual inspiration is European’, he observed, as he encouraged academics to place greater reliance on local thinkers.

Prof Mutua called for the transformation of the University of Pretoria campus and emphasised that institutions of higher education must be fully representative of the people in the country. ‘The university must look like South Africa, otherwise, it is not a South African university’, he continued. He acknowledged that global interests are important, but that academics and researchers must reflect on the local by looking inwards.

The first step to decolonisation is to dismantle artificial barriers to entry. Prof Mutua defined these barriers as ‘the suspect classifications used for unequal treatment and discrimination’ and encouraged students and staff to reject these, and to engage in a deliberate process of deconstructing apartheid.

This deconstruction process must occur irrespective of opposition as history cannot be resisted and Prof Matua cautioned that ‘it will happen whether you like it or not.’ He called for a decolonisation that took cognisance of South Africa’s past, as opposed to one that rejected it.

Professor Mutua distilled the decolonial project to seven core elements, urging universities to:

  • Be steeped in local literature and knowledge
  • Be truly representative of South Africa and look, feel and talk like South Africa
  • Smash all the barriers to entry to ensure equality and autonomy
  • Objectively confront historical truths (because if one of us is unfree, all of us are unfree)
  • Embrace Africanness and reject knee-jerk Eurocentricism
  • Encourage greater investment in a public university (private universities are not built for the public).
  • Refrain from resisting history (acknowledge the historical context)

In the question-and-answer session, Prof Mutua referred to the ‘lack of courage amongst lawyers’ and stressed that decolonisation can only be truly achieved if lawyers are bold and courageous. He urged legal academics to allow themselves to be questioned and challenged, and by doing so they will be confronted with new answers to age-old questions.

Prof Mutua concluded the lecture by paraphrasing Martin Luther King in relation to the notion that history cannot be resisted and ended by stating ’the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice’.


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