In 2011 my world changed. Everything I knew, or thought I knew,came undone. It was a simple conversation with a fellow student, who turned to me and said: “You do know that Mandela sold us out right?”
For 20 years of my life, I had never once heard someone say that. I was horrified, shocked, angry and basically offended on Nelson Mandela’s behalf. I mean, we all knew that this man had given up 27 years of his life, fighting apartheid so that we could be equal. This man facilitated the creation of the rainbow nation that I lived in. The rainbow nation that I was raised in, the rainbow nation that I believed in. It was unfathomable to me that someone could even think that he. Nelson Mandela. The father of our nation sold us out. That is not what we learnt in school.
But I realised that day, that maybe I had actually learnt nothing in school.
I did history in high school and at the end of my matric year it was one of the subjects I got a distinction for. So as far as I was concerned, I knew my shit. My History teacher went above and beyond, history was more than just going through notes or textbooks, there were pictures, we watched films, we spoke freely about the horrors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and Apartheid. We interrogated the Watergate scandal, we spoke about the Jim crow laws, we discussed June 16, we spoke about the IFP and the third force, we spoke about CODESA, we read about Anne Frank. My history essays flowed easily, I was always confident about what I knew about what the world was like before I came along.
I will admit, the only thing I knew very little about was Black consciousness. Steve Biko’s “I write what I like” was one of the supplementary texts we had to read while we were learning about Black consciousness, but I never read that book. I read a few pages, decided I didn’t like it and stopped reading it.
I didn’t like it, because it was uncomfortable. I did not like the way Steve Biko spoke about “The white man” and “the black man”. All my life I went to multiracial ex Model C schools, and categorizing people by race was not the norm for me. In fact, Steve Biko angered me. I did not understand why this man was going against the grain. The ANC’s policy was non-racialism, so who was he, to write about “the white man” and “the black man” and although I had heard that he had some legit things to say, I was unable to get over my discomfort and so to this day, I’ve never read that book.
(Miss P- This was not at all a reflection of your teaching)
Right now in this time of change in South Africa, I wish I had read that book.
One of the things that the current Fees must Fall Movement is calling for is a decolonized Education. And many people have started to interrogate what a “decolonized” education actually means. Before I continue I must make it clear that I am not the keeper of the concept of decolonized education. I dont have the answers, only ideas and a few questions. So take from this what you will.
I was born in Zimbabwe and I have lived in South Africa all my life, and after having sat through 18 years of formal education I think it is both problematic and worrying that I know close to nothing about the continent I live on.
I cannot tell you what the National Anthem of Zimbabwe is, I cannot tell you which countries were once merged as one in Southern Africa, I cannot tell you why Samora Machel was angry and I cannot tell you why the DRC is in crises. I dont know how trade unionists in Zimbabwe and South Africa shaped the struggle. How is it that I went to “a good school”, but I don’t know any of this information. And this not just random information, it is information that is the very core of my being. It is information that I need to understand in order to fully understand myself and to be able to conceptualize and exist in this world that I live in.
Decolonized Education, (whatever, we decide it will be. Because that is how it will happen, it will be a decision that we make) should start at the level of basic education, because If I had never had the opportunity to go to University, which is a reality that many people in this country face, when would I have been exposed to different ideas, who would have casually mentioned that Nelson Mandela sold us out? when would have I read “things fall apart” and how would I have ever understood what Achebe was actually talking about- How would I have ever known that maybe things were actually just fine before colonization came along? How would I have known that African people had their own beliefs and value systems that did not centre around religion- but that worked perfectly fine for them.
Change is difficult and it is uncomfortable, but sometimes what is more uncomfortable than the actual act of change is the language that precedes it.
This may be an overly simplistic and perhaps naïve understanding, but does the call for a decolonized education simply not mean a change of curriculum. Are we not asking for a curriculum that will allow people to live a dignified life? A curriculum that will teach people about themselves, to give them an opportunity to understand who they are, why they are, where they come from and what they could be.
If we think back to Bantu Education, Black children were taught in Afrikaans and only allowed to learn subjects that would educate them just enough for the menial work that they were expected to do in South Africa. And so they asked for change. To learn more, for opportunity, for equality, for dignity. So how is this different?
I don’t understand why or how people can be so resistant to a request of self-definition. I want to learn, I want to know more about the world, but I also want to know about my world. And if that was a thing, then maybe the students who gathered around #TakeWitsBack would have understood how hurtful and angering that sentiment could be to black students who have come from a history of disadvantage, a history of always having had things taken away from them- the right to move freely, the right to organize, their fathers, family members, and essentially the right to just be.
For me, it’s as simple as that really. A decolonized education (or just a different curriculum) is not an insurmountable task and it really isn’t the most outlandish request. I mean, let’s be real if Donald Trump can actually ask people to vote for him, I think it’s pretty chilled that people can ask to learn about themselves.
One day my kids will learn about 9/11, about Israel and Palestine and that’s okay. But they also have every right to learn about the Garrissa attack, they must learn about the murder of Emmanuel Sithole, they must learn about Mugabe and the 5th brigade and even more importantly in this moment in our history, they must learn about how Senate house at Wits University was renamed Solomon Mahlangu house.
Finally, if you google the definition of education you will find the second entry to be:
Education (noun) : An enlightening experience.
I am here for that, how can you not be?