Eurocentric thinking is impeding progress towards the decolonisation of thought, but is hard to detect, writes Muxe Nkondo.
Johannesburg – The Rhodes Must Fall movement approaches African science and technology in a new way that is centred on a knowledge system’s capabilities in a multicultural society in which people differ significantly from one another. The approach is called “polyepistemic” because of its attention to the opportunities and challenges of different knowledge or epistemic systems in a society of differences.Why is there a need for this kind of approach to African science and technology at South Africa’s educational institutions?
Throughout much of their colonial history, the basic questions have been: Are African knowledge systems scientific, or can they be?
African scientists have sought to claim the mantle of science and have modelled their studies on Western thought and practice.
However, this approach no longer grips African knowledge workers. The capabilities approach, more in line with current pragmatic and democratic concerns, is required.
Why has Western science lost its privileged position?
The reasons are complex: they include the treatment of Africa essentially as a means to Western political and economic interests; dismissal of alternative African forms of knowledge; and the reduction of Africa to a mere “career” for Western social scientists.
The demise of Western scholarship as the paradigm of intellectual rigour is tied to the death of imperialism and colonialism.
This approach to Western science is a rejection of many, if not most, of the intellectual certainties on which scholarship and research in the West have been based.
It calls into question the imperial project, associated with Cecil John Rhodes, meaning the liberal humanist ideology that has come to dominate Western civilisation since the 18th century: an ideology that promised the emancipation of humanity from economic want and political oppression.
In this knowledge system, equality before God does not translate into socio-economic justice.
It has come to oppress humankind and to force it into certain ways of thought and action, not always in the best interests of the majority.
It has also come to expose itself as an intellectual and political system that requires and therefore condones systemic violence, as can be seen in its justification of land ownership through conquest.
These insights raise questions about the foundations of African identity, the idea of belonging to a particular locality that evokes the notion of loyalty to a place. Yet belonging is also fundamentally defined through experience.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement may be seen as a way of consolidating shared experiences, instrumental in the construction of collective pan-African memory.
It has far-reaching implications for citizenship.
The land claims, implicit in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, emphasise the political and economic associations with land ownership, but also underline the exceptional spiritual and cultural importance of land in sustaining African communities.
In this sense, the centrality of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual origins precedes and conditions actual national identity, solidarity, social cohesion, and wellbeing.
Of all the factors that can impede decolonisation – failing to create an intergovernmental coalition, inadequate skills and resources, preoccupation with bureaucratic processes, risk aversion, corruption, institutional path dependence – none is harder to identify, let alone control, than Eurocentric and liberal constellations in public and private institutions.
Eurocentric, neoliberal thought leaders – across race and class – fight their battle for hegemony not only by spreading their views in institutions and policy think-tanks, but also by disseminating them across discursive fields.
To trace the potential influence of Eurocentric ideas and intellectual networks in public and private institutions, a dedicated policy research unit should be established and required to provide regular analyses of neoliberal strategies in decision-making and advisory structures, and their implications for policy implementation.
The unit should trace, also, the subtle ways in which Eurocentric ideas are diffused to broader politics.
This would help the government better understand the “invisible” dimensions of the popularisation and dissemination of Eurocentric ideology to communities and mass audiences.
Particular attention should also be given to bridges that Eurocentric think-tanks build between the world of “experts” and corporations to facilitate policy coherence.
To perform an effective deconstruction of the primary terms of Eurocentric discourse is to censure their usage, negate them, and expose their subversive agenda.
Conventional public administration has too often only narrowly understood its task as informing policy implementers rather than the broader public. Moreover, it has limited its activities to generating empirical data.
The task of promoting intimate exchanges and reasoned consensus requires more than the supplying of better data or eliminating audit queries.
It must also include a more sophisticated understanding of the resilience and adaptive capacity of neoliberalism.
As the name implies, the Rhodes Must Fall movement works partly by negation, like all revolutions. It warns that in struggles for freedom lie the seeds of revolutionary violence.
Other dreams of power – such as land invasion and seizure of state apparatuses – can likewise take root.
The potential limit of this criticism, however, is that a focus on decolonisation’s aberrations may seriously underdescribe the diversity of decolonisation’s incarnations.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement does not tell everyone precisely how to overcome colonisation beyond communicating its vision.
The perversions to which decolonisation is prone are, at close range, outgrowths – even epitomisations – of its principles but not departures from them.
The approach to decolonisation as negation can be defended.
Decolonisation is plural, not singular or unique in its animating principles or incarnating institutions.
The critic of its aberrant forms, such as revolutionary violence, does nothing to distinguish between these and non-aberrant forms, and may distract from the urgent task of uprooting Western hegemony.
No one, then, should expect finished or immediately applicable answers from the decolonisation movement, offered as it is as a call to action rather than a conclusive programme.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement is by definition adventurous and unfinished.
The goal of reflection and action is not to achieve some utopian realisation of a decolonised educational system, but to deepen its possibilities in full awareness of its intractable quandaries.