Re-rooting education

Luyanda Mpahlwa, Robben Island Museum Council member and ex-political prisoner, speaks at the seminar on Thursday March 29 at the Castle of Good Hope.

Student representatives from universities around Cape Town were given the opportunity to share their thoughts on what it meant to “decolonise education” at a seminar held at the Castle of Good Hope.

The seminar, hosted by the Robben Island Museum in collaboration with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation, on Thursday March 29, was held in response to the conflict at universities in Cape Town, sparked by the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which gained international attention. It saw the removal or defacing of “colonial symbols” and gave rise to the Fees Must Fall movement and violent protests at universities as students called for free tertiary education.

According to a statement by the Robben Island Museum, these movements raised questions about “decolonising education” and racial transformation at universities.

Students from UWC, UCT, Unisa, CPUT, Stellenbosch University and the Rhodes Must Fall movement were represented on the panel, and among the audience were ex-political leaders who had been imprisoned on Robben Island during apartheid.

CPUT student representative Athi Ndita said identity and education were interconnected. “Before we talk about the issue of the curriculum, we need to solve the issue of identity.”

He said all the statues of Jan van Riebeeck and Jan Smuts around the city and at universities formed part of education as it changed perspective. “This keeps us in the colonial mindset when looking at these statues. We think these are the forefathers of our land.

“We need to understand ourselves and gain back our dignity. Black people were not taught to function on their own.”

He also raised the issue of students who were not taught in their mother tongue. “We come from Eastern Cape where we are taught in Xhosa our whole lives. We come here and we are judged (about our ability to speak English).

“We are being told we can’t do physics in our own language, but it hasn’t even been tried yet.”

Thabo Sithoso of Unisa said the allocation of resources was important to consider. “The same resources used at UCT must be used in other universities. All education must be equal. There is no way a child sitting under a tree with ants in his pants can concentrate the same as a child sitting in a classroom with air conditioning.”

Zano Ndwayi of the Fees Must Fall movement said education under colonialism wasn’t meant to build a nation. “It was meant to make us European, or copies of them. It was meant to strip us of our dignity. Education was a powerful tool in the building of colonialism.

“I am part of the generation that no longer wants to talk about decolonising education. We need to put it into action.”

On April 3, the Fees Must Fall movement had been due to march to the National Prosecuting offices to demand the release of students who had been arrested during the protests, and for workers to be reinstated, he said.

Thembelihle Mabhida, of UWC, added: “Education and land should be the focal points if we want to decolonise our people. Stop teaching us business management. Teach us business ownership.

“South Africa allows for us to be this way. We have Fees Must Fall prisoners bec0ause the law allows it – it allows the arrest of people fighting for what’s

He also described the Castle of Good Hope, where the seminar was held, as “the curse of future generations”, saying that “we must change symbols of colonialism around us.”

Luyanda Mpahlwa, a Robben Island Museum Council member and ex-political prisoner, said he was proud that the Robben Island Museum was engaging this “controversial” topic, as Robben Island had played a critical role in educating the youth, and it shaped the thinking of many who were prisoners there. “I got to Robben Island when I was 22 years old – just like some of you guys here. I was arrested straight from exams.

“On Robben Island, when we were in the cells, we formed study groups and this was the most theory I’ve ever studied. Robben Island was a university for most of the prisoners there.”

He said that in the 1980s, the youth had faced many challenges. “I was at a white university – the University of Natal – and needed a permit to study architecture. I failed first year because the
lecturers were of the view that I was not able to think in three dimensions,
and they said they were unable to teach design.

“We lived in the black section of the university, far away from the campus. We had no connection to the university. There were no Jamie Shuttles. We had to take regular buses and then hike up to the campus. We couldn’t sleep on the campus. If we were caught, we were charged with defying the Group Areas Act. But we found ways to educate ourselves. We believed that the only way to beat the system was through education, so we used that as a weapon. We had the principle of each one teach one.”

He said when he was released from Robben Island he went into exile in Germany where he went on to get his Master’s degree.

“We are talking about decolonising education, what do we decolonise? Do we decolonise education, the institution, the teachers who say we can’t think in three dimensions?

“We need to ask ourselves how are we going to define the education of the future? We’ve seen ourselves in a country where our political parties are marginalising academia. If we want to deconstruct how education came about, we will have to dismantle many years of history so we need to think about the education of the future.

“The youth must remember that you are not only building a future for yourself, but for future generations too.”

Professor Jonathan Jansen, from Stellenbosch University, in his keynote address, said he was as concerned about the decolonisation of education as he was about how the government had failed schools.

He said for change to occur, greater action was needed from the government to solve the problems in education. “We just discovered that almost eight out of 10 children cannot read in Grade 4 – for understanding.

“They see words, but they don’t know what it means, and we can have a long debate about who caused this – maybe it was the colonial rulers – but it’s been 20-odd years into our democracy, and we still have this problem.”

Professor Jansen believes decolonisation in education needs to begin from the ground up, rather than at university level.

If you want to change the education system in a country you don’t go to universities – less than 20% of our young people go to universities – you start with the pre-schools – Additional reporting by the Weekend Argus