DECOLONISING THE CURRICULUM AT UNIVERSITIES

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01 August 2022

All institutions of Higher Learning made an undertaking to forge ahead with curriculum transformation. It has continued to be a topic of discussion in many institutions of higher learning, but many have very few plans of action if any owing to the decreased pressure from students to plan, implement and review such plans.

Addressing the matter, Dr Sibongile Masuku, a senior lecturer in Culture and Heritage Studies at the University of Mpumalanga (UMP), holds several views on how this can be done.

She believes that interventions for the decolonisation of the curriculum should start at the basic education level. This would entail the training of those that teach teachers how to teach. Decolonisation of the curriculum must take place at the Foundation Phase level and with the Foundation Phase teachers.  

In-service teacher training problems detract from the everyday task of the teacher which is to teach. Hence, the proposal that it should be part and parcel of the teacher training curricular.

Dr Masuku, an educationist, environmentalist and a heritage, culture and creative industry expert who has written scientific papers on indigenous knowledges and multifaceted cultural heritage, speaks profoundly about how language and teachers play an important role in the decolonisation of the curriculum.

She says when teachers find comfort in delivering most of their lessons in local languages in combination with the regulated medium of instruction lingua, then we are heading into the right direction. The colonialities that define most basic education curricular remain unshakeable because most prescribed and support textbooks were written from a colonial perspective.

Bring in academic experts 

This has continued even after democracy, of course you see scatterlings of indigenous knowledge here and there she explains. Decolonisation lingua has crafted most missions, visions and values of schools and academic institutions. These have become the curtains that shield what really happens within academic institutions and schools and most of all in the classrooms. It is almost the business-like usual attitude that precedes the Fees Must Fall call.  

Covid-19 to a high extent undid most of the gains that came with face-to-face teaching that enabled dialoguing about issues that humble the university to seeing itself as one­­ that exists within a community and not an ivory tower island in space.

“Lecturers and Teachers are the ones who deliver lecturers, and therefore, should be given tools that support their interventions at decolonising the curricular. Just telling them what to teach without giving them opportunities to engage with subject matter and experts is problematic.

These are experts from a wide range – those in airconditioned offices to those sitting under the tree shade doing their usual art and craft as well as allowing the environmental education lecturer to visit landfill sites with her/his students. Without enabling these opportunities, we will struggle to decolonise the basic education and higher education curricular,” says Dr Masuku.

“As academic institutions, we need to begin to tailor-make our programmes so that they are relevant in the communities where children come from. For, instance when teaching afforestation encourage learners to grow plants that are indigenous and endemic to that particular locale rather than species that may look pretty but are problematic such as lantana camara – known as sanda nezwe in isiZulu” she says, adding that the initiative to decolonise the curriculum, should have started a long time ago.

“What we see is people writing about decolonisation, but they are not doing decolonisation. I am interested in socio-cultural intergenerational learning and its particular leanings towards indigenous knowledges and relevance to context. How do we learn from elders and how can elders learn from the youth and vice versa?”

Her advice is not to be romanticist about indigenous knowledges but look at their relevance to a particular context. We have a lot to learn from elders about context congruence. For instance, the Zulu people did not make the same grain pits as the Sotho and Tswana people. They made grain pits for sure, but the methods were defined by the soil structure, the type of pests etc. etc.   

“There is a lot we can learn from them within the comfort of where they are.  I am very against this narrative that we must bring elders to the school to teach, there is an embedded arrogance in that. Whereas we can go to the communities and learn. As an apprentice you go and learn with the master, the master does not bring his whole workshop to you. Bringing such experts to classrooms is a beginning I guess, but should not be it all," she says.

Decolonisation is about innovation

Dr Masuku is one of the leading Heritage and Culture experts in the country. She was nominated by the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Mr Nathi Mthethwa, as the National Chairperson of the Culture Thematic Area to the South African National Commission for UNESCO and appointed to that position by the Minister of Basic Education Minister Motshekga.

As a member of a panel of advisers on indigenous knowledges to the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture Dr Masuku, says that she is convinced that government is trying to move away from rhetoric to action when it comes to decolonisation. It needs to be determined to positively alter spaces of higher learning, not by greening them but culturalising them as well.

Sculptures of African role models must be constructed, and buildings and structures must be named after African heros and heroines in all areas of our lives. Names range from the likes of Josias Tugwana, Nkosi Johnson, Credo Mutwa, Thuli Madonsela and so on and on to define our spaces of learning. Decolonisation is not only what happens in the classroom, but it is a holistic concept aimed at Africanisation of our places and spaces.

“The Ministers of Sport, Arts and Culture and the Ministers of Basic Education and the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Training are keenly promoting careers in the art and heritage sectors and wants parents and teachers to encourage their children to choose them as well.

The Deputy Minister of the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Mr Buti Manamela pointed out that there is a tendency to demean the cultural and creative industry sectors as those chosen by those gifted with the use of their hands to craft and driven by passion.

They are considered to engage their brains less than they do their hands. All manner of careers demands an intensive engagement with one’s brain, He said. He further highlighted the many streams of learning for the cultural and creative industries in institutions of higher education and training and that they have more to offer than just academic subjects.”

She further mentions that there is also a legal angle looking at intellectual property, and intellectual rights in terms of ownership of one’s creative work.

“It’s a broad angle rather than one focusing only on what we are misled to believe is using your hands and not your brains.”

In her role as the National Chairperson of the Culture Thematic Area to the South African National Commission for UNESCO, Dr Masuku has been tasked to oversee the Culture and Heritage Conventions that South Africa is a signatory to.

In her role as a lecturer Dr Masuku says that she is not a conventional lecturer and believes that one is an educator and learner and that students are not empty jugs to be filled with knowledge. She pushes them to explore problem solving interventions.

"South Africa has been for many years engaged in problem analysing. We are experts at showing up problems and we now need to challenge our students to take responsibility of conceptualising, planning, implementing and reviewing problem solving interventions.  

Decolonisation is not only about looking behind and picking up what we lost, it is also about innovation, being futuristic and taking up responsibilities than constantly looking to Pretoria for government handouts, The Union Buildings and the seat of parliament in Cape town. Universities and schools need to look at all the facets within which it is centred and ensure that it is one with its context,” she said.


@ Story by Cleopatra Makhaga. Pictures Supplied