The decolonisation of universities and the pluriversality of knowledge


The contribution of African intellectuals to the liberation of the continent is not afforded enough attention at universities that have not yet been decolonised and therefore do not advance a pluriversality of knowledge, writes Frank Lekaba.

The famous South African singer Miriam Makeba
petitions the UN Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa in New York in 1963.
Photo: UN Photo/Teddy Chen

Records of colonialism go back thousands of years, but the global dominance of European empires had immense impact, giving them control over most of the world by 1914. Setting out to develop their own economies, the empires oppressed the civilisations of the Global South in particular. This included the suppression of indigenous populations’ lived experiences and knowledge. This impact is pervasive.

Advancing pluriversality
In a 2016 article, Prof Amaya Querejazu wrote that pluriversality “implies not simply tolerating difference, but actually understanding that reality is constituted not only by many worlds, but by many kinds of worlds, many ontologies, many ways of being in the world, many ways of knowing reality, and experimenting those many worlds”.

On a broader level, it means the valuing of various ways of knowing equally. To this end, intellectualism in the Global South should be an exercise in challenging power relations in our societies and ultimately contributing to the building of new societies based on pluriversal knowledge. As universities are theatres of knowledge production, dissemination and consumption, they are the best places to begin building new societies through the work of intellectuals.

In African Intellectuals: Rethinking politics, language, gender and development (2005), economist Thandika Mkandawire defines intellectual work as “the labour of the mind and the soul”. An intellectual is a person who rejects purely linear thinking and who stands for a particular cause in a society. In pursuance of that cause, the intellectual does not shy away from speaking against the injustices perpetrated by like-minded thinkers.

W.E.B. Du Bois, Silas Moleme, Ruth First, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Archie Mafeje, Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko and many other intellectuals theorised about the concepts that shaped passions and visions of Africans for their liberation.

Musicians such as Fela Kuti, Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and Hugh Masekela, shaped the passions for liberation through their works, including artists (poetry and graphite) such as Enoch Sontonga. All of these persons belong to the community of intellectuals who are seen as reactionary and progressive. For fear of the reactionary, publications by Bessie Head, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, Bernard Magubane, and the music of Stimela, were banned by the apartheid government.

The liberation struggle
The struggle for decolonisation and the fall of apartheid in South Africa must recognise the role and contribution of these intellectuals. We can imagine intellectualism without Pan-Africanism; we cannot envisage Pan-Africanism without intellectualism.

It was the intellectuals who, after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, campaigned strongly for the unity of Africans and subsequent formation of the African National Congress in 1912. The United Nations could not imagine how inhuman and brutish apartheid was without the contribution and effort of intellectuals such as Miriam Makeba who awoke the UN General Assembly to the brutalities of apartheid in 1963.

The biggest contribution of intellectuals to the liberation of Africa lies in the imaginations and aspirations of Africans who contributed to the formation of social and political movements for Africa’s independence.

The intellectual in post-colonial Africa
African thinkers have contributed tremendously to the deconstruction of Eurocentric myths about the continent. In 1906, at Columbia University, Pixley ka Isaka Seme challenged the claims of George Hegel that Africa has no civilisation to exhibit. He asserted that an African civilisation would be more spiritual and humanistic. Steve Biko claimed Africa has a civilisation with a human face.

In post-colonial Africa, few countries have afforded intellectuals an autonomous space to theorise and articulate the visions and aspirations of Africans for Africa’s development. Two of those that have are Tanzania and Senegal. In the 1970s, Tanzania was a space for progressive intellectuals deconstructing imperialism, including Issa Shivji, Cheikh Anta Diop, Archie Mafeje, Ibbo Mandaza, and Walter Rodney. Senegal hosts the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which was a vehicle of knowledge production for these titans.

The role African intellectuals played in the liberation struggle and deconstruction of Eurocentrism underscores the point that the work of alternative knowledge production has begun and will continue. What is lacking is knowledge consumption. To this end, it can be argued that this lack of engagement with African intellectuals led to the emergence of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Much knowledge production about decolonisation/liberation and alternative knowledge has taken place outside universities, mainly in think tanks and organisations such as the CODESRIA, the HSRC, and the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. Universities that proclaim to be Pan-African universities, such as the Universities of South Africa, Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg, did not escape the Fallist Movement because they have not embraced pluriversality.


Pluriversality, as defined above, may be realised by taking seriously the words of Vladimir Lenin (1920) to the young communist league: “You can become a communist only when you enrich your mind with a knowledge of all the treasures created by mankind”.

In our context, we can only fully attain liberation if we appreciate all knowledge created by humankind, and accept that no civilisation has reached completeness. As such, the decolonisation of knowledge production and dissemination at universities could take us one step closer to realising a pluriversality of knowledge, a way of liberating the intellectual.

Author: Frank Lekaba, a lecturer at the School of Government Studies,
North-West University

The late Ray Phiri performs with Stimela in Johannesburg in 2007. Many of the band's
songs were banned in the 1980s by the apartheid government.
Photo: Bobby Shabangu, Wikimedia Commons