Guest Column

On decolonisation: We are black first before we become students

2019-01-24 06:01
Activists are petitioning President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and declare amnesty for student activists who were jailed and found guilty of violence in the student protests ... R800 million worth of damage was enacted during this period. PHOTO: Reuters

Activists are petitioning President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and declare amnesty for student activists who were jailed and found guilty of violence in the student protests ... R800 million worth of damage was enacted during this period. PHOTO: Reuters

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Any attempt to fight for decolonisation of universities without locating it within the broader society will be meaningless and unsustainable, writes Mcebo Dlamini.

Universities will soon open for the 2019 academic year and black students will be packed in lecture halls. A white male lecturer will probably be standing in front of them with a Weber textbook or some other colonial text. 

In three weeks they will receive emails reminding them that they owe fees. This will happen because despite the efforts made by student movements universities still remain a colonial enclave and fees have definitely not fallen. 

Top management of universities is still lily white with sprinkles of black here and there. The curricula in most faculties still do not reflect the geographical location of our universities – that they are universities in Africa. 

And despite the rhetoric by politicians many students still cannot access institutions of higher learning because they are poor. This does not mean that the students' efforts to fight for decolonisation and against the decommodification of education did not bear any fruits. There are important lessons to be learnt from the movements.  

In his writings on the student movement and the Soweto uprising of '76 Archie Mafeje notes that although the student movement was powerful and mobilised a lot of people it failed to integrate other sectors of society such as workers and as a result it eventually lost its momentum. The movement only prioritised the concerns of a certain strata of society, that of students, forgetting that the commonality of their oppression with workers, professionals, was their blackness. 

The student movement of '76 is similar in many ways to the Must Fall Movement. So similar that it did not only emulate the successes of the '76 movement but also inherited its inadequacies. The student movements could not translate their ideas such that they resonate with the broader society. Those who were not students, who are a majority saw the movement as only relevant to those within the borders of institutions of learning.

The demands of students and the language used to articulate them were detached from the masses. It should always be remembered that universities are an ideological expression of society. The violence that black students experience in institutions of higher learning is the same violence that black people experience in the whole country; in villages, townships and even in the suburbs. 

The alienation and racism experienced on campuses are the same as that experienced by pupils in primary schools and by workers in the corporate world. It is therefore important that we begin speaking about the question of decolonisation in a way that will relate to black people across the board. This has not been happening. 

It seems to me that students have somehow convinced themselves that they are an exception and that their struggles are unique and perhaps even more important than that of the rest of society. This is not true and any attempt to fight for decolonisation without locating it within the broader society will be meaningless and unsustainable. 

When the institutions of higher learning re-open student activists need to begin thinking about how their activism speaks to the petrol attendant, to the child attending high school and to the black person in the lofty offices of Sandton. Doing this will make us realise that the work of decolonisation ought to happen everywhere we go and not just periodically when we return to universities. 

We ought to be engaged in decolonial praxis when we are in our homes, fetching water in our villages and when we are having conversations in our taxis and Ubers. We are black first before we become students. As Steve Biko suggests, our race is the prime signifier of our oppression and we should therefore use it to stick to each other with a tenacity that will shock all those who seek to oppress us. 

The students have made important strides in the fight against decolonisation. Certain institutions are reviewing their policies of language and certain faculties are reforming the curriculum. Workers were insourced and we are seeing more black people in senior positions but this is far from being sufficient. 

The students demonstrated the power that they possess and this could go further if they broaden their scope and imagination. It is important to note that the freedom of a certain sector of society is meaningless if the majority of the people is still shackled. 

We, as students, have a duty not only to liberate ourselves but society as a whole.

- Dlamini is a former Wits SRC president and student activist. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    fees must fall  |  higher education  |  colonialism
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