‘The Afrikaners and the Chinese did it - so should we’
Decolonisation is not about ditching Newton, but about mother-tongue instruction, says CPUT’s vice-chancellor
Decolonisation starts with mother-tongue education and indigenous knowledge systems, and according to Cape Peninsula University of Technology vice-chancellor Chris Nhlapo, it’s the key to competing with China and India.
In an interview with Times Select after his appointment two weeks ago to the helm of the largest tertiary education institution in the Western Cape, Nhlapo said decolonisation wasn’t about abolishing Newton, as “sloganeering” detractors are eager to chant.
Having received his doctorate in homogeneous catalysis (read chemistry) from the former exclusively Afrikaans Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (now North West University), Nhlapo said the answer to transforming the education system and universities lies much closer to home than people think.
“For me the key issue is language, and you don’t have to go far; the Afrikaners have done it and people are saying they have done it in a very short space of time, since 1931,” Nhlapo said.
“You can teach someone in Afrikaans up to a PhD level, and you can even publish and submit your results in Afrikaans because there are those ‘tydskrifte’ [magazines] that are Afrikaans. Why can’t you do the same in Zulu? Why can’t you do the same in seSotho? Why are the Chinese doing everything in their own language? I’m going to a conference in China now, they said, yes, you can come but we want to view your paper first so we can translate it into Mandarin otherwise people won’t be able to participate.”Nhlapo also said the answers to many of the problems faced in Africa and the world could be found in indigenous knowledge systems, but the challenge came when academics in countries not known for their universities tried to publish their findings.
“How do we encourage our researchers to publish in publishing houses that are on the African continent and ensure that they still get the same credit? For you to get credits you need to publish in Oxford press or Cambridge press,” he said.
“You could get an obscure publication coming from East Africa that deals with the real issues, untouched, that can actually turn things around. Say, in agriculture, seeds that can withstand severe drought etcetera, because those people have learned ways of surviving in those particular harsh environments.”
Nhlapo joined CPUT in 2008 as deputy vice-chancellor and took charge of building the institution’s research capacity “from scratch”. His strengths lie in research and innovation management.
He said that when he was a teacher in rural eastern Free State, where he was born and raised in the small town of Paul Roux, he found that the public schooling curriculum used examples of cricket to explain momentum.
“But the person has never played cricket and cannot relate to cricket. It’s a very good debate because it talks about critical issues. Decolonisation of the curriculum. Decolonisation of knowledge production. I think what the students are saying, what the scholars are saying, is that it is not true to say all the knowledge that matters comes from the West,” he said.
“We need a sane discussion around the whole question of decolonisation. That does not mean that you would take Newton away as some people that simplify it would suggest. It’s just saying, the context and the examples that you are using should be closer to what people can relate.”CPUT was hit particularly hard by violent protests associated with the Fees Must Fall movement, and the burnt-out security building at the entrance to its Bellville campus is a reminder of how easily something is destroyed and how long it can take to be rebuilt.
Nhlapo said that besides the lecture time that was lost and which had a knock-on effect on the number of people who failed to graduate, there was an even greater effect on research.
Campuses across SA became no-go zones as protesters violently clashed with police and guards, disrupted lectures and destroyed infrastructure, meaning sensitive research projects and equipment were left uncalibrated, and lab animals went hungry.
“With time we will come up with the full impact that 2015, 16, and 17 had. Because from the research I can immediately see a dip to say this is actually due to the unrest,” said Nhlapo.
“It was a very complex matter, but the hope that I have is that all that is behind us now.”
During the past two years, while acting as the university’s vice-chancellor, he started with the “conceptual underpinning” of a plan for CPUT called Vision 2030.
“I am looking forward to completing this plan and rolling it out to enable the institution to respond to the challenges such as the fourth industrial revolution, known as Industry 4.0, sustainable development, and SA’s National Development Plan,” he said.