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Discussion Of The Decolonisation Of The Curriculum In A South African Context

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Decolonisation is a highly complex and controversial topic to discuss. While many try to avoid this topic, it is a real issue that needs to be faced in South Africa. Colonisation is described by Kennedy in his article Decolonisation, A Very Short Introduction as “the imposition by a foreign power of direct rule over another people”. He later describes decolonisation as the “withdrawal from its former colonies of a colonial power; the acquisition of political or economic independence”. In this essay I will discuss decolonisation of the curriculum in a South African context. I will discuss various forms of decolonisation, some that I agree with and some that I do not, and discuss how I think that we should move forward as a country.

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South Africa was colonised by a number of European countries including the Dutch and the British. They landed in South Africa and took over, taking the land and disenfranchised and enslaved the indigenous peoples. Part of the process of colonisation included missionaries from these colonial powers seeking to share their religious beliefs and Western ways as they sought to ‘enlighten’ the local inhabitants. A system of Apartheid was instituted by the white minority in the mid-20th century, which was built on a system of political and social discrimination based purely on the colour of an individual’s skin colour. This lead to the rise of various movements and political parties, including the African National Congress, which sought to fight against the Apartheid government and the laws that they had put in place which denied basic human rights to all non-white South Africans. In the 1994 elections, the ANC (lead by Nelson Mandela) won the elections and brought freedom for all South Africans, irrespective of skin colour. Although South Africa is no longer ruled by a foreign colonial power or by a racist Apartheid government, many of the policies and practices that were put in place still remain. This includes the education system which is primarily based on a Western way of education.

The knowledge taught is largely based on Western history, literature, etc. Although there have been some attempts for South Africa to decolonise its education, including the Fees Must Fall campaign where students protested for free and decolonised education, the current curriculum is still predominantly centred around Western knowledge. Jansen (2017) discussed six different forms of decolonising the curriculum. I will briefly discuss four of these types of decolonisation and then explain which I do and do not agree with and which I think would be helpful moving forward. One of his forms of decolonisation involves the “decentring of European knowledge”. This is a soft approach to decolonisation where African thinking is prioritized. The knowledge in the curriculum would be focused on African lived experiences, African philosophy, ideas, values and aspirations and the study of African poets, philosophers, thinkers and authors. The knowledge in the curriculum would be more relevant to the African people. This type of decolonisation, although focussing on African knowledge, does not exclude other (Western) knowledge.

A second approach involves the displacement of colonial knowledge which is referred to as the “Africanisation of knowledge”. This is a hard form of decolonisation which argues in favour of indigenous knowledge and is less accommodating of Western knowledge. Its goal is the removal of Western knowledge seeking to replace it completely with African knowledge. In his third approach he suggests an “additive-inclusive” approach, where African knowledge is added to the edges of the curriculum but the main focus is still on Western knowledge and traditions. In this form of decolonising the curriculum, African knowledge is marginalised rather than prioritised. A fourth approach is decolonisation as “encounters with entangled knowledge”. This form of decolonisation recognises that all knowledge has been created from the interwoven knowledge of both the colonisers and the colonised over time. This form of decolonisation acknowledges that we are all entangled by knowledge and experience and looks at how we can move forward in this entanglement.

I strongly disagree with the additive-inclusive approach to decolonisation of the curriculum. I believe that this approach is simply an attempt to do the bare minimum just to make everyone happy and does not value the importance of African knowledge. It marginalises African knowledge and does not benefit South Africans as a whole. I also disagree with the Africanisation of the curriculum. I agree with Mbembe (2016) where he states that this form of decolonisation can be dangerous for South Africa as it could marginalise the universities. Unfortunately, to be taken seriously in academic circles, it is necessary to conduct knowledge and research in a particular (Western) way. If South Africa was to completely withdraw from Westernised standards, would South Africa still be able to compete globally with academics? Will work still be considered and acknowledged as academic articles and formal knowledge? What will happen to South Africa’s educational ranking in the world? These are all questions that need careful consideration before such drastic measures should be implemented.

Mbembe argues that if South Africa was to completely break away from Western knowledge there would be a risk all of universities becoming “bush universities”. I do, however, agree with both the “decentring of European knowledge” and the “encounters with entangled knowledge” approaches to decolonisation. I agree there needs to be a movement towards acknowledging the importance of teaching and learning African knowledge and that it should play a main, centred role in the school curriculum. Having recently completed the CAPS curriculum, I am aware of my own limited experience and understanding of African knowledge and ideas. The growth of technology and the influence it has had on the sharing of ideas globally, including on social media platforms, has led to local knowledge becoming intertwined with the knowledge of the rest of the world. I do not think there is any means by which these knowledges can be separated. I believe that the knowledge that we work with has grown, developed and been influenced by Western knowledge due to this interconnectedness. This has led to Western knowledge becoming embedded in African knowledge and African knowledge becoming embedded in Western knowledge. I do not believe that there is any simple way of separating the two.

I believe that the best way to move forward in decolonising the curriculum would be to incorporate a combination of the above two approaches, the “decentring of European knowledge” and the “encounters with entangled knowledge”. I feel that the “additive-inclusive” and the “Africaisation” approaches are impractical and have potential to do more harm than good. I think that African knowledge should be the central focus of the school curriculum but that we need to recognize that our knowledge is intertwined with the knowledge of the rest of the world, and therefore not cut it out of the curriculum but rather work within the interconnectedness.

18 March 2020

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