In South Africa, a Push to Change Euro-Centric University Curriculum

The Cecil Rhodes statue being removed at the University of Cape Town in 2015 after nearly a month of protests, sit-ins, and meetings by students. (David Harrison/Mail&Guardia/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years since the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the country continues to make effort to address the inequalities and discriminations of the de facto and formal apartheid regimes of the past. There is a widely held view that the great majority of South Africa’s population has benefitted little while the African National Congress (ANC) has led the country over the past quarter century, and that during this time, it has been primarily the interests of a small black elite and corporate white enterprises that have truly prospered.

It should also be noted that over the last two decades the government has provided 16 million South Africans with social grants (supplementary income) while building two million homes, most of which have water and electricity. There is a larger black middle class now than twenty years ago, despite the great majority of the population remaining disadvantaged. Nonetheless, the current unemployment rate of 27 percent remains a serious concern. Moreover, women in South Africa continue to remain subject to a wide range of indignities—some similar to Western countries—ranging from harassment in the workplace, to pay differentials vis-à-vis their male counterparts, to outright exclusion from various professional opportunities, to fear of violent attacks, particularly in black townships.

Revising the Curricula of South African Universities

In this context, a three-day conference on transforming university humanities curricula and the implications of doing so for policy development was held in August at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). A wide range of South African, African, and African-American scholars were present and shared experiences drawn from their time in South Africa, as well as at other African universities in Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Attention was given to the important role of historically black colleges in the United States in the civil rights movement and their introduction of African-American scholarship as examples of possible ways to move South African universities away from their white, Western dominated curricula to an indigenous African-focused approach.

The goal of the UJ initiative is to promote a better understanding of South Africa’s history from an African perspective thus supporting and accelerating the transformations underway in the country. Yet such curriculum transformation, as the conference made clear, remains difficult to achieve, due primarily to the continued use of traditional Western-oriented curriculum at major South African universities such as Wits, University of Cape Town (UCT), and Rhodes. Students across South Africa have demanded, over many years, for changes to how their universities teach and function.

Demands for Change

Over the past decade protests by students have been mounting at a number of white-majority South African universities at the continuation of their white European-centric curriculum, as well as at the excessive cost of university education that prevents many poorer, mostly black, students from attending. Most dramatically, starting in March 2015 and continuing into 2016, students at UCT demanded the University Senate authorize the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus and undertake major revisions of the curriculum. Similar protests and calls for action took place at other South African universities.

The call “Rhodes Must Fall” became the symbolic heart of the movement. Cecil Rhodes was an imperialist, businessman, and politician who played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th Century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land. He was the perfect symbol of imperialism with his public arguments for the innate superiority of the white race and his role at the lead of the British imperialist domination of today’s Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as South Africa. At UCT students mobilized public attention—one student going so far as to throw human feces—by staging marches around his statue, garnering extensive media attention. Sit-ins followed. A month later, the UCT Senate approved removal of the statue. Other reforms, however, have yet to materialize.

The second strong demand of student protesters has been to make university education less expensive. This has already had some impact. In response to demands, in 2017, former president Jacob Zuma announced that 57 billion rand (approximately $3.76 billion) would be allocated for free higher education that would allow students whose families earned less than 350,000 rand per year (approximately $23,000) to attend university free of charge. Fees for those with incomes of 600,000 rands per year (approximately $39,000) or less remained unchanged in 2018.

For its part, UJ said it will “maintain the status quo” in 2018—specifically, there will be no fee increases for the “missing middle.” According to UJ, the 600,000 rand threshold represents about 86 percent of the students at the university. For the other 14 percent of students that come from families that earn above that threshold, an 8 percent increase will apply.

The third demand has been that white and European-centered curriculum be changed to include more African and indigenous sources. This appears to be the most difficult to implement. To begin with, the faculty of South Africa’s universities are still predominantly white—about 70 percent—and most received their own educations either in Europe or at these same South African universities that employ a traditional Western and European curriculum.

Thirty-six universities and technikons, or polytechnic institutions, were inherited from the apartheid government in 1994, later reduced through mergers and incorporations to twenty one. Most of these universities have changed very little in the intervening quarter century. As South African academic Philip Higgs noted in his concept paper for the conference, South Africa’s education system “still mirrors colonial education paradigms and the hegemony of western thought.” African knowledge and the voices of the indigenous population thus remain largely marginalized.

The Challenge: How to Bring About Curriculum and Mindset Change

These range of issues were discussed at some length during the conference. Speakers from universities in Tanzania, Senegal, Kenya and Ghana drew on “lessons” from their respective countries to highlight how and to what extent they have been able to transform curricula in their countries. Three American academics discussed their programs at Boston College, Howard University, and Northwestern University, including introducing the work of prominent African-American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the important role of historically black colleges such as Fisk, Morehouse, and Lincoln in transforming their humanities curricula by including the scholarly work of African-Americans.

At the beginning of the conference, convener Professor Adekeye Adebajo announced that in 2019 a book from the conference will be published by a reputable African and Western publisher to be disseminated in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa, and in the US. A five page policy brief will also be produced largely for South African policy makers in the education sector, and leading South African newspapers and media will be encouraged to promote discussion and publish articles on the need for major curriculum transformation. Authors from other African countries will be urged to publish articles in their own media and to launch the book at their respective institutions in Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, and the US.  How much these efforts will change education in South Africa in the next five to ten years remains to be seen.

The Bigger Political Picture

The UJ conference took place while South Africa’s government remains in a holding pattern pending the April 2019 nationwide elections. Cyril Ramaphosa was chosen at the December 2017 ANC Conference as interim president to succeed Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign in February 2018—Zuma himself being the successor to Thabo Mbeki. Zuma is widely viewed as having corrupted much of the nation’s institutions to support his lavish lifestyle and to distribute patronage to his supporters. Yet Ramaphosa is constrained by continuing tensions with Zuma’s supporters in the ruling party and reportedly has little room to maneuver or undertake any major new initiative to improve living conditions and opportunities for the vast black majority. There also remains considerable discussion about the proposed land reform involving expropriation of state land without compensation to previous white landowners. While this is still to be implemented, one has the impression that Ramaphosa is proceeding cautiously.

Nonetheless, South Africa remains in a strong position, given its large population and growing economy. It can continue to play a major constructive role on the national and international stage, perhaps most importantly in the African Union and after returning to a two-year seat on the UN Security Council in January 2019 after only a seven year absence.

John Hirsch is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI).