In order for us to fully appreciate the subject we are dealing with, a timeline of the events will be very helpful. Issues relating to the Fees Must Fall Movement and decolonization of education began with small pockets of protests over different issues triggering a snow ball effect as it gathered momentum.
In January 2015 student protest hashtags began with #TransformWits protests in Braamfontein as students accused university management of sidelining the poor and marginalized, because of high registration fees.
March 2015—#RhodesMustFall, at UCT with students protesting over the lack of transformation at the university with the symbols of white supremacy such as Cecil John Rhodes’ statue still in prominent places on campus.
April 2015—#OpenStellenbosch was a protest against the continued use of Afrikaans as the primary language of teaching at Stellenbosch University.
August 2015—UNISA students in Durban protest over exam centres, and the fact that white academics mark exam scripts.
September 2015—Vaal University of Technology—protests over security after the death of students on campus.
Two days later in September 2015—UKZN Westville Campus erupted.
The 14th of October 2015 saw the arrival of the giant of them all, #WitsFeesMustFall, with a big bang… from then on as the saying goes, the rest is history!
#WitsFessMustFall morphed and mutated in various forms and became #FeesMustFall and this campaign gave birth to many other campaigns of related issues—and in 2016 this campaign firmly became #FeesMustFall with other related protests on outsourcing and decolonization of education.
I want to focus on the thinking behind decolonization of education and you will be able to see that the Fallists themselves see decolonization of education as synonymous with #FeesMustFall Movement. To better understand decolonization of education, I think its helpful if we look at what I have observed as the three central pillars and demands associated with the decolonization project. These three are not exhaustive but they will give us an idea of what people mean when they talk about decolonization of education.
1. Access to Education
Pumla Gqola, a professor at Wits says, “Every year we lose some of our best students because of inability to afford education. For many years academics have complained of students passing out in class, sleeping in libraries, under stairs and squatting in their friends’ room.” This is where we locate #FeesMustFall as it is directly fighting for accessibility to education with the eradication of fees as the proposed solution.
The history of Bantu Education
This exclusion of black Africans from education is not a recent phenomenon. It is as old as colonialism. See, before the white settlers arrived, Africans had an established way of life. The different kingdoms and tribes had sophisticated social systems of education where they made sure that young men and young women were prepared to contribute to life in the community. But when the white settlers arrived, they came with a new world which our forefathers were ignorant of. This world was imposed forcibly on them and they had to begin to learn to find new ways to live in this new world. Cheikh Kane says “the physical violence of colonialism was swiftly followed by the psychological violence of the classroom,” as our forebears began to grapple with this new world.
You must remember that when the settlers arrived, simplistically, there were two groups—the colonizers or imperialists, and the missionaries. I say simplistically, because colonial settler history is a long and complicated story by itself. While the first group made sure that it imposed this new world forcibly on Africans. It was the second group, the missionaries who, despite all their much talked about faults, came to the rescue by providing education for black Africans. A renowned black scholar in the early 1900s, Z. K. Matthews, says of the missionaries, “It is true that for years they have been the only people who have shown any active and real concern about the education of Africans.” So the missionaries established some of the famous mission schools that helped educate our people. In KwaZulu Natal there was Adams College where prominent people like John Dube, the first president of the ANC, were educated; in the Eastern Cape there was Lovedale College, where prominent people such as Z. K. Matthews, Steve Biko, Enoch Sontonga and Tiyo Soga, among others, were educated. So while the colonialists provided zero education for the African to be able to function in this new world they were imposing on him, the missionaries were setting up renowned institutions for the education of black people.
By the time we get to 1953, the white government (by then, the apartheid government of the National Party), in a bid to further discriminate against black Africans, came up with ways to cut off access to education for black Africans. This came through what became known as the Bantu Education Act. Motivating why this law was needed, Henrik Verwoerd, the Minister of Native Affairs at the time said, “There is no space for him [the “Native”] in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze.”
As far as he was concerned, black Africans were to be taught to be subservient to white people. And because at the time missionary schools and black universities like Fort Hare were giving high quality education to black people, which people like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Seretse Khama, among others, benefitted from, Verwoerd said the missionaries were busy selling black Africans unrealistic dreams by educating them too much. Soon, missionary schools were put firmly in the control of the government. For instance, Adams College was closed and reopened as Amanzimtoti Zulu College and Fort Hare, at the time the only university for Africans, was made into a Xhosa only university.
Verwoerd and the apartheid government went further, cutting access by making sure that funding for black schools was different from white schools. “In 1975 the apartheid government spent R644 on each white child at school, R189 per Indian child, R139 per coloured child and only R42 per black African child,” (IOL news). “Bantu Education denied black Africans access to the same educational opportunities and resources enjoyed by white South Africans,” (Overcoming Apartheid).
Even up to today the situation of the black child has not improved much. “Indeed, Verwoerd’s ghost continues to haunt us—because, if you are a poor, black child, your chances of getting a decent education in a democratic South Africa are still very remote,” (Gavin Davis). The black African is still excluded in different ways from accessing education, for example, through high tuition fees, and inadequate primary and secondary education that denies opportunities for higher learning. Simply put, decolonized education looks like an African child born in South Africa being able to fully enjoy access to education, without being denied access by fees and inadequate lower education among other deterrent factors. Any continued exclusion of the African child from accessing education after the dismantling of the evil apartheid system is perpetuating the ghosts of that very system that we freed ourselves from.
2. High Quality Education
The effects of the evil of Bantu Education are still felt today. Annette Lovemore, speaking on the challenges facing children in South Africa today: “Children born to parents who are able to afford the fees for well-resourced schools are likely to do far better than children born into poverty. Children born in rural areas are likely to be taught by ill-qualified teachers and to attend ill-resourced schools. Their academic outcomes are likely to reflect their learning environment. Children born in provinces with dysfunctional governments, such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, are far less likely to succeed than those born and schooled in provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng.”
This too is a clear legacy of the evil Bantu Education Policy that greatly under-funded the educational facilities of black Africans while at the same time making sure that white students had the best. It made sure that teacher training and allocation for black Africans was poorer than those of white students. Bantu Education’s intention was never to make black Africans global citizens who achieve their full potential, but rather to condemn them to life of serving the interests of the white minority population. That policy made sure that right from the classes, to the teachers, to the books and number of schools for black Africans would all achieve that goal of consigning the black African to a life of servitude. Through whatever means the colonial and apartheid government had, they used it to further the interests of the white population while systematically dehumanizing and condemning black Africans to be 3rd class citizens. And although the apartheid system has since been defeated and South Africa is under a new dispensation with majority rule, the legacies of apartheid and Bantu Education linger on. Hence the cry for decolonization of education, and in this instance a decolonized high quality education would look something like this: “Every child deserves to attend a school that provides committed and capable teachers as role models, that instils a robust work ethic, a need for curiosity, strong values and self-esteem, in addition to providing an education of such academic rigour that that child is ready to become a globally competitive young citizen,” (Annete Lovemore).
Every black child deserves to get an opportunity that puts them on equal footing with their white counterparts so they can compete for opportunities such that a black African is able to compete without the aid of affirmative action (BBBEE) but because they are qualitatively competitive. For as long as the government needs to impose such systems for the benefit of black Africans, then it is evident that the claws of apartheid are still strong.
3. An Afrocentric Tertiary Education
Our current education system is Eurocentric. It was engineered that way since the days of the colonial government, followed by the apartheid one. The shadow of the Bantu Education Act, which lingers on, taught black Africans that anything African was to be reviled and anything Western praised and envied. “Bantu education denigrated black people’s history, culture, and identity. It promoted myths and racial stereotypes in its curricula and textbooks… African people and communities were portrayed as traditional, rural, and unchanging. Bantu Education treated blacks as perpetual children in need of parental supervision by whites, which greatly limited the student’s vision of “her place” in the broader South African society (Hartshorne). You can see it in the way we as Africans exalt the English language as a determining factor that shows the intelligence of a black person today. Ngugi waThiongo, the prominent author from Kenya says, “any achievements in spoken or written English are highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the ticket to higher realms. English becomes the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English becomes the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education,” (Decolonizing the Mind). Ngugi waThiongo sees this as the extent to which colonialism has destroyed black Africans intellectually. He gives a tangible example of what the former President of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda did: “In Malawi, Banda has erected his own monument by way of an institution, The Kamuzu Academy, designed to aid the brightest students of Malawi in their mastery of English. It is a grammar school designed to produce boys and girls who will be sent to universities like Harvard, Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh and be able to compete on equal terms with others elsewhere. The President has instructed that Latin should occupy a central place in the curriculum. All teachers must have had at least some Latin in their academic background. Dr. Banda has often said that no one can fully master English without knowledge of languages such as Latin and French .”
Ngugi waThiongo continues, “For good measure no Malawian is allowed to teach at the academy, none is good enough—and all the teaching staff has been recruited from Britain. A Malawian might lower the standards, or rather, the purity of the English language. Can you get a more telling example of hatred of what is national, and a servile worship of what is foreign even though dead?” And the answer is no—there is no better example to show just how colonial and apartheid education systems have made us yearn for a Eurocentric education as being the best system, even for us.
Therefore, a decolonized education sees us detaching from colonial thinking and mindsets. This is far deeper than just a desire to learn in indigenous languages, like doing engineering in Setswana or IsiZulu, but rather beginning to have a robust education, that is engineered on African soil, for Africans by Africans. A student leader from UCT, gives the following pointers as some of the things that would happen if tertiary education becomes Afrocentric: “The current curriculum dehumanizes black students. We study all these dead white men who presided over our oppression and we are made to use their thinking as a standard and as a point of departure, whereas our own thinking as Africans has been undermined. We must have our own education from our own continent.”
He adds, “We cannot be decolonised by white people who colonised us. Decolonization advances the interests of Africans, instead of advancing Eurocentric interests. So you cannot have white lecturers teach students African music and the base of music studies for them is classical European music. The current curriculum does not accommodate creativity and expression in African languages. For example, drama students feel they are marked lower if they produce work in an African language.”
So you can see from what the UCT student leader says that a decolonized education which is Afrocentric is not just curriculum related, but faculty related too. A decolonized education system in tertiary institutions means seeing more and more Africans being earmarked for lectureships than there is at the moment. A decolonized education system also looks like having symbols associated with the past colonial and apartheid era being moved to relevant museums rather than having them occupy prime space in tertiary institutions. Buildings must be named and statues erected to honour prominent Africans who have served their country with distinction.
So what is a Christian response to all this?
I suspect the temptation for us is to dismiss the students as rowdy elements bent on disturbing the peace, and to think of them as students who are more interested in spending time away from class than in it. But the Bible calls us to examine the issues at hand and determine how to respond. When these three issues are examined closely: issues of access to education, a high quality education and one that’s Afrocentric, we would be hard pressed to come up with any excuse whatsoever not to see the extreme injustice in the status quo. Take access to education—we ourselves know many young people who are numbered among the thousands of South Africa’s youths who are sent home for lack of money for fees or accommodation each year. We know many youths who are squatting in their friend’s room because they cannot afford a place of their own. We know students who are sleeping in labs overnight with no food to eat because they did not get NSFAS or bursaries. Or take the need for high quality education—the fact that a tiny minority in this country are left to enjoy the fruits of an independent nation while the majority wallow in schools where they have no teachers for Accounting all year long or desks and ablution facilities to use, causes us to realize that there is in fact great injustice with the status quo. Lastly, take the cry for an Afrocentric education—as long as our education system is centred on European thought then the violence of the classroom will not cease on our people. God is deeply interested in us as Africans. He does not wish we were born or located on the European continent. Our history of thought, philosophy, and languages are worth studying intensively. In all these three, even if we were blind to the cries, the injustice is very clear.
Therefore, since we have come to locate ourselves as Christians witnessing an injustice perpetrated against the students in our country by the maintenance of the status quo, our silence is not golden at all but it leads to deep questions being asked about God. Take one of the characters in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names who in the midst of injustice finds silence and says, “How come he will not pity us, how come? How come he does not hear us, how come? How come we ask and ask and still are not given even a morsel, how come? And blind with rage we fling God away and say Better no God, better no God than to live like this, praying like this for things that will never come. Better no God.” Or take Nyasha, one of Kopano Matlwa’s characters in Period Pain, who has finally concluded God is not for her because he seems not to care about injustice, “Why does your God make it so hard for us to love him? Why play these games? Create this world, bring us here, only to watch us suffer? Why does he hide? Is he a coward?”
Ours is a responsibility to show the world that indeed as Scripture says, God is on the side of the weak. The Bible is clear on what God requires of us: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6.8). This verse in its brevity sets the pattern for God’s people in a broken world, it is not to be underestimated. In an era of rampant injustice, God’s people are given through the Prophet the very thing God required of them and it was that they would act justly and love mercy. It is interesting that the two words are paired together: justice and mercy. I find that it is so easy to be merciful without fighting the injustice—we can easily take a packet of still water to protesting students without holding a placard and marching ourselves. But the two are paired because by “acting justly” we are actively working against the very system that is perpetrating the injustice. And by being merciful, we are identifying with the victim of the injustice and we help them to cope with the effects of the injustice. Therefore, from this very brief verse in Micah, we have a twofold response that helps us locate the injustice as something that God’s kingdom brought about by Jesus has come to straighten out. We are to actively oppose the injustice and also identify with the sufferings of the victims.
Because of the current events surrounding #FeesMustFall, the Heher Commission Report and the President’s response to that report—calls by the Commander In Chief of the Economic Freedom Front for students to go to campuses and register en mass should not be quickly condemned as irresponsible or perhaps thought of as riotous. In this instance, the hundreds of kids turning up at UJ and Wits are not criminals bent on destroying the country but hungry black kids, South Africa’s children, who so far have been starved of an opportunity to go to school in 2018 because of fees. We must respond appropriately.
Because most of us caught a lucky break, if you are black African and you got a decent education, it is easy for us to love all things white and Western, it is easy for us to forget the plight of those not as fortunate as us, and to even pride ourselves for having achieved more. I want to leave us with an example of one such as us, who received a good education that many of his peers could only dream of. Tiyo Soga, the man famed for the Xhosa hymn: Lizalise Idinga Lakho. Soga was the first black African man to leave South Africa and go to Scotland to study theology at Glasgow University in 1851. If there ever was a man taught to love all things white and hate blackness—it was him, yet it drove him to love his people more. He used his education to benefit his people and not to dehumanize them—he translated Pilgrim’s Progress into IsiXhosa, he translated the English Bible into IsiXhosa, and was a contributor to the most prominent Xhosa newspaper of that day, Indaba. It is said of him, “Soga turned the civilising project of the whites on its back. He interrogated the cultural assumptions that underpinned it. Rather than simply accepting the virtues of whiteness, on the one hand, and acceding to the supposed vices of blackness, on the other, Soga held them both up to the same level of scrutiny.” And even when white people tried flattering him by telling him he was the cleverest among his people, he was known to say, that he “knew of many who would have far excelled him” [had they had access to education]. He wouldn’t let stereotypes pass unchallenged, to a point where his missionary colleagues thought him “overly-sensitive”, something they considered a character flaw. It made them uncomfortable, since they had to be overly-cautious of what they said in his company, lest their prejudice showed,” (Mcebisi Ndletyana).
“When Tiyo Soga cited the words from Psalm 68 [verse 31] that ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch her hands to God?’, he [Soga] sought to affirm that Africans were destined to be as advanced as any other people in the world, and therefore, as he said elsewhere, that God has made no race mentally and morally superior to other races,” (Thabo Mbeki). Such was this Christian black African man’s impact in his time that renowned poet of that time in the late 1800s Krune Mqhayi wrote, “Ngubani ongamaziyo umfo kaSoga ngasezincwadini? Ngubani ongawaziyo amaculo akhe adumileyo—‘Lizalis’idinga lakho’ no ‘Vuthelani ixilongo’ no ‘Sinesipho esikhulu’. Ngubani ongalwaziyo ‘Uhambo Lomhambi’, incwadi eyaziwa kunene yesiXhosa, awayiguqula ngesiXhosa esimnandi?” (Who does not know the son of Soga with his books? Who doesn’t know his famous hymns—Lizalise Idinga lakho and others? Who doesn’t know his translation of Pilgrim’s Progress which he translated in the loveliest of Xhosa?)
At his death Soga’s white colleagues said of him, “He was a friend of God, a lover of His Son, inspired by His Spirit, a disciple of His holy Word. A zealous churchman, an ardent patriot, a large-hearted philanthropist, a dutiful son, an affectionate brother, a tender husband, a loving father, a faithful friend, a learned scholar, an eloquent orator and in manners a gentleman. A model African (Caffrarian) for the imitation and inspiration of his countrymen.” Here was a black African Christian man, educated by a system meant to dehumanize all that he was. But he turned it on its head, served his people well. Wouldn’t be wonderful that you and I turned a system meant to shackle us on its head and we disempowered it for the sake of Jesus the Lord who saves all human beings (black or white) who trust in him. This can be done if we too add our voices and action towards access to high quality Afrocentric education to all of South Africa’s children. Soga is worthy of imitation and inspiration.