An Afrocentric South African University

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/13/2009

There is a unique situation that now confronts South Africa in the educational arena, one that should never return to confront any society. Institutions that were based on white supremacy, not simple the separation of races, are being challenged to find relevance within a free, democratic South Africa. It is particularly important that educational officials in South Africa raise the fundamental questions of culture, perspective, worldview, and interpretation in the discussion of facts. While all of these ideas are difficult to track in a multifaceted world and in a pluralistic society one thing must be clear and that is the demand for relevance in education is not so much a demand for fitting people to jobs as it is for fitting them to life. Given the latter opportunity people will create their own jobs and find their way in the larger world based on their solid foundation in their own culture, perspective, or worldview. I am interested in this essay in the university because at the level of the university one does not only find training going on but also the production of knowledge, the creation of concepts, the promotion of ideas, and the institutionalization of worldviews. The implications for an educational system that has depended upon the white supremacist political structure for its sustenance intellectually and economically are great. In the first place there will be resistance to change particularly if it is change that will create a more open university and bring ideas and information from other parts of the world. Obviously the South African whites were confident that they could create an educational system that isolated them from the rest of the world in terms of human knowledge while at the same time further isolating the black majority from interactions with other African cultures, the African diaspora, the African past, and the revolutionary movements of the world. The university, normally an institution of intellectual and artistic contact, became a bastion of the same white privilege that cloaked the rest of the nation.

A university is expressive of the best ideas and ideals of a society and represent in many ways the traditions of a people and as such it serves as a fundamental center for the transmission of skills and values, ways of thinking, and optimism for the future. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of black South Africans have been educated in the Eurocentric mode whether or not the education took place in a white or a black institution. The locus of the education has little to do with the results. Since a university bears the mantle of authority and is adorned with the semblance of fact the education that is dispensed is often accepted without question.

Those Africans who have argued and questioned the denial of ourselves and our stories in the context of the university have frequently been failed, suspended, or white-balled. The idea is to mold Africans who have Eurocentric ideas, attitudes, opinions, tastes, and desires, and who therefore are ready to defend those things that are European even if they are antagonistic toward Africans. Every subject in the curriculum of the Eurocentric university is permeated with white supremacy; a student completes the curriculum to his or her psychological peril.

After examining the catalogs and brochures of several major South African universities it appeared to me that in literature very few of the African literary masters appear in the curriculum on world literature. Writers such as Nicolas Guillen of Cuba, Abdias do Nascimento of Brazil, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, John O. Killens, Charles Fuller, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin of the United States, Manuel Zapata Olivella of Colombia, Estupinan Nelson of Ecuador, Leopold Senghor and Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie of Nigeria, Derek Walcott and Wilfred Cartey of the Caribbean should be an active part of the literature curriculum and be studied alongside the very many eloquent Southern African writers such as Wally Serote, Herbert Vilikazi, Alex La Guma, Lawrence Vambe, Bessie Head, Masizi Kunene, Mphahlele, and Stanlake Samkange and many others.

Every aspect of Eurocentric training mastered by African youth contributes to Eurocentric social, economic, and cultural domination if it is not counterbalance by an Afrocentric, that is, African agency, perspective. While a Eurocentric education has validity for the transmission of European culture, it negates most African cultures and values because of its insistence on cultural domination. The fact of the matter is that this notion of cultural domination is based on the belief in African inferiority. I contend that this belief, however deeply rooted in South African society, must be challenged and confronted at every instance. African culture in the 21st century will be, if anything, a critique of domination of the sort imposed by Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries.

What is needed in South African are Afrocentric universities where human knowledge is presented from the standpoint of African people. The attainment of knowledge is a universal quest which is always achieved through one's own eyes or through the eyes of another. Why should it be that Africans are required to master the thoughts and opinions of Europeans before they know the thoughts and opinions of their own people? Why should not there be dynamic centers of education for the thorough exploration of issues of society, psychology, history, mathematics, and legal philosophy as well as every other art or science from the standpoint of Africa? These centers of learning, which may be built on the sites of the old apartheid universities, black and white, should be opened to universal knowledge but should not be factories for the glorification of Africa, as they have been and often are for the glorification of Europe, but rather institutions which find their inspiration in the cultural and intellectual traditions of Africa. As such they will critique even the use of Western names for the social sciences and arts and raise more first order questions about the role of terms such as civilization, education, democracy, and universalism. This is the real business of the intellectual of the new South Africa.

At the present time most South African universities remain inserted into the Eurocentric system designed to maintain the Eurocentric system of world domination. This is the truth despite the fact that Africans are in charge of some of these institutions. It is rather like many of the black colleges in the United States where the mastery of Europe culture has received a premium over the mastery of African culture. One of the greatest educational thinkers in America's history was the scholar Carter G. Woodson who argued in his 1933 book, The Miseducation of the Negro, that most black colleges taught about white music, white art, white philosophies but not about African art, music, and philosophies. While the South African universities may not be as slow to change as the black colleges were when Woodson made his charge about their use of the white model of education to teach black students, it is usefu to remain cautious and wary of any education that does not begin at home. All mature societies educate their children about their own cultures first. Extracting the South African institutions from such a system will be a major task since many people have vested interests in the institutions as they have been developed.

W. E. B. DuBois, the greatest scholar of African descent and perhaps the most significant American intellectual of the 20th century, wanted to see a university where the total learning and cultures of the Africans people were expressed. Prior to his death in l963 Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, discussed with DuBois the possibility of an African university devoted to the cultures and practices of African people. Such a university if constructed in South Africa would have to begin with the African rather than the European model. It would have to have Egypt and Nubia as the classical fountains for education rather than Greece and Rome. It would have to be dedicated to the transformation of the theoretical concepts that emerge out of the African context into real, active, ordinary ways of improving the lives of people. There is the possibility in this of a totally different orientation to human studies.

Such a course is possible now in South Africa but it will take a bold leader or leadership to capture the day and erect the kind of structures that are necessary for advancing the idea in the country.

African symbol