By Nadim Nyker
Issues of transformation, decolonisation and identity have been addressed with a sense of urgency by students of Rhodes University this year. On Monday, 14 September, Dr. Vashna Jagarnath sought to show the importance of these issues when it comes to coursework and modes of teaching.
Jagarnath headed the 6th curriculum conversation in which staff and students came together at Eden Grove to engage in discussion for the progression of the university. Jagarnath specifically chose to use the term ‘decolonisation’ in referring to this progression instead of ‘transformation’ as she feels that there is a deep colonial basis on which the university and its curriculum is still run.
Of her own experiences, Jagarnath said, “Through the years, one of the key things I have realised about Rhodes University is that the word transformation is used a lot. And I find that it comes to mean everything and then mean nothing. You know, people who say black lives matter and then they say, no, everyone’s lives matter. But the point is not everyone’s being killed in the United States of America, this happens to be black people. So black lives matter, that’s the message.
“When it comes to decolonisation, the idea for me is that I have a very particular set of goals that I want to achieve. There’s a very particular set of things I want to happen at this institution and that has to do with colonisation. I think if decolonisation is done properly then it will be transformation in the broader issue.”
Jagarnath demonstrated how she has established, through her courses, a platform which provokes thought into the way in which academic theology is created. Together with her many third year courses, she teaches a History honours course, The History of Africana Intellectuals, where she aims to show how Africa is central to the modern world, but also how African intellectuality has been denigrated throughout modern history.
“This is not the case in a variety of other institutions in South Africa, but I did find it certainly at Rhodes,” said Jagarnath.
The course started in 2011, originating out of discussions at the Rhodes University History Department. It questioned why there were so few post-graduate students studying history. This was troubling in contrast to the Politics Department which had more postgraduate students. However, four years later, the demographics have changed and the department has seen a significant increase in black students because of the course.
Jagarnath stated that “our entire epistemology has been shaped and developed to support the imperial project and now we need to shift that, because what it has essentially done is rendered the global south and Africans unreasonable.”
Still, although some sectors of Rhodes University have produced decolonized modes of teaching, the university has not cooperated effectively with its students in regards to transformation.
Master’s Politics student and member of the Black Student Movement, Jonis Ghedi Alasow spoke to Artbeat on the university’s reciprocation, “The university has not only been ineffective, but also resistant to transformation. Any attempts to address the fact that we are stuck in our past are mediated by the university via ‘the Rhodes way of doing things’.”
He went on to say: “Shifts are therefore possible in appearance, but not in substance. The ‘Rhodes way of doing things’ is in my view a fundamental obstacle to meaningful and fundamental change. The ideas that led us to this continuously colonised state are the same ones that are setting the terms of engagement towards decolonisation.”
It was also argued in the seminar that academics at Rhodes University have struggled to transform due to their identity embedded within their work and the notion that academics cannot change easily or speak with authority on such change due to how this identity was brought into question.
However, this notion was quickly problematised by politics lecturer, Dr. Richard Pithouse, “When we are talking about the problematics of colonialism we are talking about a history of violence, of domination,” he said. “We are talking about situations in which certain people gained benefits. We have to face the reality that the institution is not benign [and] that the institution has come out of a history of oppression.
“I’m quite concerned about the way this conversation has gone because there is a student who said to us that when he requests to be in a situation in which his humanity is recognised, the response from the teacher is so bad that one of them has to go. Now that’s abuse. [Transformation] is not a matter of not having the practical expertise, it’s an ethical choice.”
In her last words of the seminar, Jagarnath repeated that this is the reason she chose to use the term ‘decolonisation’. Rhodes University cannot discard the issue of decolonisation as easily as it can with transformation, as transformation can refer to a much broader, democratic, problem, rather than one embedded within the institution itself.