Decolonise Colonial Library In SA, Writes Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi

To participate effectively in South African discussions on educational decolonisation, familiarity with VY Mudimbe and his concept of the colonial library is essential. 

This article will propose and elaborate upon two initiatives that are desperately needed in South Africa, mindful of the impact of the colonial library. 

Observably, the decolonisation of the educational system has been a fundamental demand of student protestors, throughout the recent rallies that have rattled South African universities (Zondi, 2021, p. 245).  

The epistemological dimensions of oppression by colonies are brought to the forefront by this demand. 

However, we should not underestimate the impact and durability of the structure of representations that the idea of a colonial library brought in. 

While reacting to calls for decolonisation it is crucial to fix the colonial library trouble. 

How the colonial library grows as a result of the colonial interaction is explored in Mudimbe. 

According to Wai (2020, p. 3), this trend can be traced back to the need of colonial rulers to establish their dominance by creating a distinct “other” that can be compared negatively with the colonizer. 

The colonial library exemplifies the connection between information and authority; European colonisers’ need to organise and control Africans led them to create a system of “ideological conclusions and semantic theories” (Wai 2020, p. 4) that viewed the European as the superior self (the norm) and the non-European as the lesser other (the exception). 

As a result of this comparison, Europeans tend to view Africa as more contemporary, undeveloped, rural, and uncivilised, while Africans are generally viewed as more traditional, underdeveloped, and uncivilised. 

On the other hand, Europeans associated themselves as civilized, developed, modern, and urban (Wai 2012, 55). By presenting Africa as “a symbol of ultimate otherness” (Gavristova, 2020, p. 83) the colonial library conditions us to think of the continent in this way. 

Mudimbe’s research draws attention to what we may term the epistemic aspect of colonialism’s destructive legacy. 

Further, he demonstrates how the formation of African knowledge contributed to the continent’s subjection at the hands of colonial powers.

Mudimbe’s emphasis on this epistemological aspect of colonialism is a welcome addition to more established debates regarding colonialism’s effects on the mind, the psyche, and the culture.

Taking up the challenging topic of how accurately knowledge represents the perspective and expertise of the individual creating the knowledge is the first possible approach. 

Protesting students have made it apparent that they are dissatisfied with the disproportionate number of white professors and the prevalence of Western scholarship in South African universities. 

Although a rise in the number of black scholars is desperately needed, many analysts on the topic of decolonising university curricula agree that doing so cannot simply mean swapping out white scholars for black ones.

As an example, while Du Plessis & Mestry (2019, p. 3) condemn the shameful lack of black professors in South African educational institutions, they also warn that educational change is a subject that does not lend itself to the clarity of figures. 

This means that we cannot judge how decolonised an institution’s education is by looking at the racial makeup of its faculty. 

Du Plessis & Mestry’s observation underlines how challenging it is to define decolonising the curriculum. 

Including more black academics in the curriculum is only part of decolonising education.

Various responses to Western philosophical ethnocentrism, Mudimbe, and his theory of colonial library exist, and it is important to distinguish between them. 

One possible reaction to the preponderance of Western academia is the promotion of Afrocentric studies. 

By making such a plea, one is implicitly accepting a component of cognitive nationalism, namely the belief that there are essential distinctions between individuals of different geographic locations or, more broadly, between ethnicities. 

As a result, while Western understanding may be considered suitable for and in the West, this perspective rejects it as inadequate for comprehending the African experience. 

Athabile Nonxuba, an educational activist from South Africa, appears to take this line of thinking when he says, they must obtain their schooling from their continent Africa (Hartman et al., 2020, p. 35) in contrast to learning from dead white men.

Lwazi Samoya, another activist, hints at a similar strategy when he says, they are sick of receiving Eurocentric philosophy when outstanding Afrocentric research on Africa is abundant. 

He further explains that they do not require a European-style institution in Africa. 

In addition, African Renaissance Movement asserts that they desire an exceptional African university in Africa (Leshoele, 2019, p. 73). 

These arguments imply that the colonial library’s roots, instead of its contents, are the main source of its problems. 

This position posits that only Africans can have a true understanding of the continent and that all outside scholarship is therefore invalid. 

This view, like Western intellectual ethnocentrism, assumes that Europeans and Africans are fundamentally different peoples with different ways of thinking and, by extension, different ways of producing knowledge. 

For proponents of this view, the best remedy to Western epistemic ethnocentrism is a fanaticism that gives more weight to African than non-African sources of knowledge. 

It’s also possible to argue that one’s identity has nothing to do with one’s ability to develop knowledge, which would be a radical rebuttal to Western intellectual ethnocentrism. 

To hold this opinion is to think that universities should not take into account the social background of their students including their nationality, race, and gender while designing their programs of study. 

The only thing that should count is the standard of the information gained. 

This method implies that those engaged in generating knowledge operate independently from the social environment to describe the world as they observe it without bias. 

This perspective disregards the racism inherent in Western philosophical ethnocentrism by allowing expertise to be generated by anyone, regardless of where they are from. 

However, it ignores enduring debates about socially constructed information, which recognise that knowledge production is constantly influenced by its surroundings in a manner and cannot be reduced to a simple mapping of what appears nowadays, combining phrases with elements in the globe to generate true accounts.

Another intervention is to help learners understand that information is debatable. 

When discussing the colonial library, it is important to remember that even ostensibly apolitical information about Africa is laden with power dynamics and should be argued about, instead of taken at face value. 

To add to this, Mudimbe’s appeal for intellectual vigilance highlights the importance of vigorously contesting both Eurocentric information on Africa as well as information that challenges it. 

To meet the difficulties of the colonial library, educators must train their students to question established assumptions. In the words of Schnall (2019, p. 9). 

Many students enter college with a “nave objectivism” about knowledge. 

It is assumed in this method that the world of evidence can be described, mapped, and predicted in a fashion that is free from the mediating identities, situations, and desires of the human investigator (Schnall, 2019, p. 9). 

This implies that learners are more likely to accept the works of literature they offer as true, or to discard them as untrue or prejudiced, and to seek out what they perceive to be more objective and unassailable options. 

For this reason, many learners in South African universities may not challenge the preponderance of Western literature in their courses if they have not been exposed to arguments about decolonising the curriculum.

Those who subscribe to the decolonising narratives, on the contrary, may claim that instructors should just substitute whatever they see as inaccurate, meaningless, and prejudiced Western publications with what they find out as correct, unbiased, and undisputed Afrocentric accounts. 

I believe that educators have a responsibility to shake the confidence of their pupils that it is possible to find final, objective descriptions of the world. 

Generally, a complex mixture of solutions is needed to decolonise higher learning in South Africa at a moment between or dominated by globalisation and internationalisation. 

First, for universities to determine how they can respond to decolonisation, they must conduct in-depth internal investigations. 

To enable the creation of stronger responsive techniques and decolonisation paths, which would continually speak to situational facts, it is important to take into account the many viewpoints on decolonisation that exist within South African higher education.

Second, the decolonisation process is difficult because of the complex nature of problems in South African higher education. 

The higher learning sector’s response to decolonisation is highly vulnerable because of this burden (Crilly, 2019, p. 7). 

The undertaking would never make it into the classrooms unless significant political influence and will be invested. 

Successes may be seen solely in policy papers, like the case with modification, and may have little to no effect on the higher education environment. 

South African universities also need to improve their economic adaptability, particularly their capacity to produce highly trained professionals for various economic sectors. 

Its goals extend further than just providing a certain academic degree. 

Experts in their fields are qualified and eager to find employment. 

Higher education can be considered economically relevant if it produces professionals who do more than dabble in addressing the challenges facing their fields and societies.

Equity in academic programs and communication between different schools is another form of intervention. 

There are already institutionalised mechanisms and policies in place to ensure that all students and employees have equal access to educational opportunities and are treated fairly. 

However, some institutions have not achieved their fairness targets due to systemic issues stemming from apartheid educational trends in recruitment and advancement, especially when it comes to gender. 

Higher education administration information system data, for instance, demonstrates an absence of black, under-45 South African professors holding doctoral degrees (Essop, 2020, p. 11). 

This raises the issue of whether all black South Africans, including women and people of all ethnicities, and those with disabilities, will be qualified for advancement to professorships over the next several years. 

Higher learning institutions have difficulties in achieving reformation goals despite guidance from the State Department of Higher Learning and other subordinate agencies on a variety of academic programs and personnel compositions. 

However, decolonization efforts in higher education are bound to meet strong opposition for many of the same reasons that have already been mentioned. 

But how the higher education system deals with these difficulties is going to decide whether or not it purges itself of the vestiges of colonial existence. 

Because decolonisation is not a result but a process that must be carefully interrogated and engaged with over time, work on the project must be maintained at all times. 

So let us decolonise the Colonial Library in South Africa.

*The author of this article is Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies (AMCHES). The views expressed by Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi are not necessarily those of The Bulrushes