Dr Maria Elena Torre (CUNY) and Prof Puleng Segalo (UNISA) presented on 24 April 2018, at North-West University, the annual SAERA Nelson Mandela Legacy Lecture, entitled “Epistemic Justice in the Academy: Decolonizing Power, Knowledge and Being through Critical and Participatory Research.” The scholars drew upon the writing of Mandela as a way of critiquing education. A short summary of the main points made by them follows:
They argued that the transformative value of education does not lie in transforming the individual, it lies in transforming the community and re-centering the community as a place that contributes knowledge and values. Education needs to aspire to structural change, rather than concentrating on individual performance within the system. They critiqued the current education system as leading to a reinforcement of class, race and gender regimes. Such a system does not and cannot lead to liberation. It leads instead to privilege.
Although Mandela is cited as saying that education is the tool to enable the poorest child to reach their dreams, he was not concerned about the creation of a series of “stars”, but about the creation of the firmament in which many stars can find their place and shine. Colonial education for Mandela began with him having to adopt an English name. It continued in a language that centred its own knowledge as superior. This continues today in both schools and higher education, where the community is presented as being out there and students are presented as outsiders going to rescue the community. We become academics who speak and defend the system and we replicate this with our students. This is epistemic violence. Forcing students to leave their identity behind when they enter the academy is a form of colonization. The demographics of higher education may change, but the curriculum itself has remained the same. Epistemic rebellion is about de-centering Eurocentric knowledge and being disobedient. How do we decolonise and disrupt? As academics we need to learn what dehumanisation means for our students. We need to break with the modern western university by challenging the status quo. Agency, identity and languages are critical in this work. Language, when imposed, is a way of not seeing and not listening to people even although its very purpose is to enable understanding of and between people. Blind importation of knowledge is a form of laziness and that is why the decoloniality project is so very important for universities. Afrikaans was not simply a language, but also a way of being and of seeing people.
Participatory action research provides a methodology that involves collectives that generate and reach towards a just world. Research sites become sites of democratic knowledge zones that return knowledge to the community – and such knowledge should be fed back into the curriculum for our students to learn about community issues. This flips the colonial script and recognises how under siege we are. Uncomfortable intersections become the place where reconciliation becomes possible. Drawing upon elders’ knowledge and wisdom is important for educating the subject that speaks.
We embrace education as a means of overcoming man-made poverty. Poverty is a creation and an injustice. Education is a means to create justice. What kind of education can do this? Not an education that alienates you from self and from community. Teaching should confront the assumptions made about me and about my community; becoming and seeking criticality in the engagement.
However, we must not forget that the marginalised have power. Being othered can be flipped to reveal how knowledge works so that we see the underside of the academy. Language imposition caused people to die and knowledge imposed causes the life world of the university to die; to become a death world (as described also by Mbembe). It is for this reason that students revolt because the feeling of alienation becomes intolerable on many levels, from the perspective of the university as institution, from the perspective of the student.
After the lecture there were questions and comments. Comments about how we valorise Mandela and the ideal of An African Education when the issues around marginal identities and gender are challenged with the patriarchal discourses in communities in South Africa. Which Mandela is being referred to in the context of the academy? There are contradictions in the man who Mandela was, and also in ourselves.
Dr Torre also ran a two-day workshop for academics from UFS, NMU, UJ, UKZN and North-West on critical participatory action research. This was attended by 24 early career and experienced researchers and proved to be very participatory, encouraging and motivating.