You Can’t Decolonise Colonial Systems

By Je’anna L Clements


“Decolonisation” is the buzzword these days, and Angie Motshekga loves the buzz.

She has already decided that Shakespeare will be removed from English Literature lists (1), undertaken to make Indigenous Languages a compulsory part of the curriculum (2), and has also set about making school History texts more “Afrocentric” (3). At the recent Basic Education lekgotla in Boksburg she argued that diversification of the curriculum to create more exit points for gifted learners, was also key to ‘Decolonisation’ (4).

The problem is, as with many buzzwords, not many people really understand what ‘Decolonisation’ actually means.

It’s generally a fool’s errand to set about doing something without knowing your business, and all of this activity in the Department of Basic Education (DBE) appears to be taking place without any working definition of the word.(5) As other critics have noted, Minister Motshekga makes her statements about decolonisation along with “very little in the way of expanding on the concept.”(6)

Most importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any DBE understanding of the fact that Colonisation vs Decolonisation is primarily about systems of power and control – not content. Colonial values find expression in content, sure, but unless power relationships are transformed, ‘Decolonisation’ does not take place.

System design, not just its content, makes education ‘Colonial’.

The way that DBE schools currently function makes our education ‘Colonial’ – no matter what content is used. There’s a reason that grass-roots education groups in the days of Apartheid focused on autonomy, community, participation and egalitarianism. Back in the days of The Struggle we met in circles of respect and equality, where every voice could be heard – rather than just having experts lecture passive recipients on revolutionary topics.

School as South Africa still enforces it (with threats of jail for parents who disagree), was a primary tool used by European colonisers all over the world. While the army quelled physical opposition to invasion, school was used to obliterate indigenous culture and brainwash populations into obedience and subservience.

It is important to realise that the content of the curriculum was a smaller factor in the colonising process, than the structure and nature of school in and of itself. Quite aside from forcing children to focus on abstract academia at the cost of real life skills, school in this form:

  • removes children from family and community life , preventing cultural transmission;
  • age-segregates children so that peer-to-peer education can’t function;
  • severely limits play, through which children develop confidence and creativity, and critical thinking, as well as leadership and collaborative teamwork skills;
  • prevents communication and social skills development through forbidding children’s free communication and interaction, keeping them mostly silent, and under adult supervision;
  • enforces competition, preventing collaboration;
  • undermines children’s developing sense of autonomy and empowerment, instilling a deep sense of fear and shame through micro-control practises  – preventing children from following their own physical wisdom around when to eat, drink, move around and relieve themselves; making all of these most personal functions subject to permission from external authority.

All of these features typify the ‘divide and rule’ mechanism of colonial control.

Last but far from least, through the use of curricula, grades and tests, a worldview of ‘one truth’ is asserted, instilling the belief that only one dominant paradigm can be valid. Every statement, practise, thought and belief becomes either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. ‘Truths’ associated with the dominant culture become ‘right’ and any competing paradigm becomes ‘wrong’. We can euphemistically call this education, or we can call it indoctrination, or even more bluntly, brainwashing.

It was (and still is) necessary to use force to make children attend school, since so many indigenous people (and modern families) understand that this kind of ‘education’ is not in their or their children’s best interests. Historically, children were even forcibly completely removed from their families and communities in order to achieve this. These days our thinking is already  colonised to the point that most people mistakenly assume that school is the only way to get educated, and that the education school gives is an effective path to liberation – so we obediently send our children, even when they suffer.

It is important to realise that when ‘decolonisers’ do nothing more than paste in indigenous languages, games, stories, songs, and factoids to create a ‘decolonised’ curriculum, this is essentially just a re-decoration to disguise the re-deployment of the school-tool in the hands of a new oppressor.

To use the colonising system of school in the same format, simply changing the content, is a sneaky way to enculturate and indoctrinate children according to a new dominant paradigm. This is not actual decolonisation. As the saying goes, you cannot decolonise colonial systems. If we still read George Orwell’s Animal Farm at school, our children might realise that the ‘decolonisers’ are the new colonisers.

True decolonisation of education must change not only content, but also all processes and procedures that are inherently oppressive.

Decolonised education must use different systems – systems that are not only respectful, rights-based and humane, but also consent-based.

If any degree of manipulation or force ‘must’ be used against children or parents, to get children into school, we must ask why that is necessary if what is offered genuinely meets their needs and is truly for their benefit.

A child forced against their will, away from real everyday environments to sit in silence under adult supervision learning what they are told, is not free, and is actively having their mind and their being colonised – whether the subject of their studies is the glory of England, or the glory of modern day America, or the glory of Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Paulo Frere pointed out that colonial-style ‘education’ is analogous to banking. A powerful authority makes ‘deposits’ into the empty mind of a powerless learner. This model is inherently colonial no matter what the ‘deposit’ contains. ‘Banking’ style education cannot be used in a decolonised way.

It just so happens that this colonial model also isn’t compatible with that other favorite DBE buzz-phrase, the “4th Industrial revolution”.

Decolonised education is great preparation for the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’.

There’s a reason that cutting-edge business, industry and education increasingly embraces autonomy-based, Heutagogical practises where the learner takes charge of their own learning process, collaborating with peers instead of competing for individual wins. (Pedagogy – which many of us mistakenly believe is core to all styles of education – is actually just a word that describes Frere’s ‘banking’ model. Heutagogy is the best new buzz of all, and well worth looking up! (7))

Obedience-based, content-oriented education simply cannot prepare learners for the skills they need in the 21st Century. The World Economic Forum tells us that the only way to survive the “robot invasion of the workplace”  is to develop our ‘soft skills’ such as people-skills, critical thinking and creativity. (8)

Fortunately, those ‘21st Century’ skills are also exactly what egalitarian, empowering education that is truly decolonised, best supports. Heutagogy makes leaders, innovators, collaborators. We knew that back in the days of Apartheid. We didn’t force our future leaders to sit quietly and take an approved class on how to be a liberator. Imagine if we had!

Sorry to be spoil the buzz, Minister Motshekga.

‘Decolonising’ education by changing content without transforming systems, is like slapping a saddle on your roof rack to convert your car to a horse.

  1. https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/shakespeare-should-fall-from-school-curriculum-professor-8394832,
  2. https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/anc54-puts-compulsory-teaching-of-indigenous-languages-back-on-the-table-12494444
  3. https://mg.co.za/article/2018-12-18-school-history-curriculum-overhaul-mooted
  4. https://ewn.co.za/2019/01/22/motshekga-calls-for-decolonised-education-system
  5. https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/news/motshekga-no-definition-for-decolonisation-of-education-9985044
  6. https://businesstech.co.za/news/lifestyle/294654/minister-wants-to-decolonise-education-in-south-africa/
  7. https://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/a-primer-in-heutagogy-and-self-directed-learning/
  8. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/07/the-skills-needed-to-survive-the-robot-invasion-of-the-workplace