#8 Winter 2017

Does it matter where knowledge comes from?

Current debates around decolonising the curriculum lack nuance and create more questions than answers. In tackling this ‘wicked problem’, universities must not lose sight of their mandate to advance all forms of knowledge, not limited to one country or continent, and educate citizens who can take this continent forward.

Universities should seek to advance all forms of knowledge not limited to one country or continent.

This was the commonly held view among academics during a roundtable discussion on decolonising the management curriculum hosted at the UCT Graduate School of Business by the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership in May.

While the debate on decolonising the curriculum is not new and has cropped up as far back as the early 90s, the fact that it has recently reignited in South Africa shows that the issue has not been adequately addressed. And when it comes to the management curriculum the same issues occur. During the GSB discussion, panellists noted that such conversations were previously left to the humanities, yet they should concern all departments and disciplines including finance, management and accounting as these cannot be divorced from the broader socio-political context.

The theme of decolonisation hit headlines during the first wave of the #RhodesMustFall protests at UCT in 2015 during which students demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. From there, the protests spread to focus on issues like outsourcing and the curriculum with protesters arguing essentially that South Africa’s universities should do away with values, norms and practices that essentially categorise anything non-European and not white as inferior.

But the definition of “decolonising the curriculum” remains a grey area and it’s unclear how it will work on a practical level. Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Professor of English Language Teaching and Literacy Development, at Rhodes University, has previously stated that many people in South Africa use the terms transformation and decolonisation interchangeably. Mgqwashu noted recently that in curriculum debates after apartheid, transformation has come to mean replacing texts by scholars and writers who are white or European with work done by those who are neither.

Opening the roundtable discussion, Dr Shaun Ruggunan a senior lecturer in Human Resources at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, suggested that the current debates perhaps lacked nuance.

“If we change the racial or gender demographics of knowledge producers, does that in itself decolonise the curriculum or the discipline? My answer is no,” said Ruggunan.

He said a demographic shift in knowledge producers does not necessarily mean a “content shift”, but may mean a shift from colonial to a neo-colonial legitimation project.

“[We] cannot equate work authored by South Africans or Africans /global South as immediately post-colonial. This in itself does not mean the work is critical or reflexive or emancipatory,” said Ruggunan.

While conceding that the debate on decolonising the curriculum had unsettled a lot of academics “because we work in our ways and we have our theorists that we know and we are now being asked to do things completely differently”, Dr Shannon Morreira, an anthropologist based in the Humanities Education Development Unit at UCT, said the debate was necessary, especially for a university such as UCT.

Citing various authors who have referred to UCT as a “European greenhouse under African skies in post-apartheid South Africa”, where “many of the dominant institutional academic and cultural practices are still “white”, English, middle class and male (even Oxbridge) in character,’” Morreira said a lot of students at the institution felt alienated.

She said while a review of the curriculum was necessary, “we need to aim to recognise the entangled nature of forms of knowledge in postcolonial Africa such that it is impossible to categorise knowledge as ‘African’ versus ‘European’”.
“It’s important to adopt and examine an epistemic lens that recognises multiple knowledge forms as legitimate…We can take the specificity of the African experience seriously in our work as educators and legitimate contesting forms of knowledge – through using new theorists; or teaching and examining in multiple languages,” said Morreira.

Dr Tim London, a senior lecturer at the GSB focusing on issues of leadership, said the country should be open to engaging with all forms of knowledge irrespective of where they come from. “If the cure for cancer comes from America, I do not care where you live, I want that. You do not want to reject something just because it’s from there”.

Professor Stella Nkomo from the University of Pretoria was of the view that the management curriculum should be multidisciplinary and include: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history and its implications for organisations and management. She said the curriculum should contain alternative theories and examples of different organisational forms, including post-capitalist forms of organisation, and social justice approaches to dealing with racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and ableism. Continental and national imperatives should drive the curriculum, but we should not lose sight of the global viewpoints, said Nkomo.

Management curricula around the world – and not just in South Africa – are unashamedly biased towards America – and this must be recognised and confronted, she stressed.

“Americanisation of management knowledge is a real phenomenon…it was forced down people’s throats in exchange for funding. This is still happening today and it has to change,” said Nkomo, albeit conceding– it is easier to critique the curriculum than to come up with a replacement. “We have a lot of talking to do and we are hoping that the conversation includes all students and stakeholders…it’s a wicked problem this …how do you create something new and different to try to come up with a management curriculum to enable our country to become what it wants to be?”

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