It is said, “Some people change because they see the light, but most people change because they feel the heat.”
Fascinated by words, I have been intrigued by a phrase being used in student protests currently taking place across the country. “Decolonize the University” is a provocative statement that first appeared in the #RhodesMustFall movement of 2015 and is now a slogan for the #FeesMustFall demands of many students.
My search for the coiner of “Decolonize the University” led me to Joseph-Achille Mbembe a native Cameroonian with a delightful Afro-French accent. Born in in 1957, Achille (pronounced Asheel) is married to Sarah Nuttall the director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) where he is a staff member.
Mbembe’s academic record is in itself a tour de force. With the Sorbonne in Paris as his Alma Mater (PhD 1989) he has worked at Columbia, Berkeley, Yale, Duke and Harvard Universities. He is currently a research professor at the last. He is referred to as a “post colonial theorist” largely because his central work translated into English is titled, “On the Postcolony” (2001).
Given his academic prowess, Mbembe’s writing is dense but powerful and probably best understood by that ironic-comic story that tells of Africans encountering colonial powers. “When we met the colonists, they had the bible and we had the land. They told us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes, we had the bible and they had the land!”
Mbembe’s thought is informed by the French Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary Franz Fanon (1925-1961) who published “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) in which he justifies the use of violence by colonised populations to root out racist and dehumanising colonial structures simply because the coloniser had no qualms about employing violence in conquering native lands to begin with. Mbembe also employs Freudian psychology to recognise the power of symbols, space and place names that imprint the colonisers projection of inferiority on conquered peoples.
However, the theme of Postcolony is to criticise post-colonial governments as much as the colonisers. Observing his native Cameroon, Mbembe argues that modern African governments have not completed the necessary structural and political transformations that take the diversity of present day African metropolitan nations seriously.
Mbembe is not about iconoclasm and overthrow. He is about building inclusive futures. He provocatively states, “Decolonizing the university starts with the de-privatization and rehabilitation of the public space – the rearrangement of spatial relations. It starts with a redefinition of what is public, i.e.,what pertains to the realm of the common and as such, does not belong to anyone in particular because it must be equally shared between equals.”
He powerfully trashes the argument that Rhodes donated the land to the University of Cape Town by asking, “How did Rhodes acquire the land, and from whom?”
This is an intelligent and reasonable argument driving protesting students.