After a recent visit to universities in his home country leading South African intellectual Professor Xolela Mangcu, asks ‘How do we decolonise the curriculum when our young have created their own version of history – when there is no facticity?’

Earlier this month I took the distinguished African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, on a tour of the country’s university campuses. The author’s reception left me wondering why someone who has had such a transformative impact has not been given the Nobel Prize.

As Tawana Kupe, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand said in opening the event on his campus, ‘It is time for the people in Stockholm to do the right thing and award the prize to wa Thiong’o.’ But this is not the reason I am writing.

Unfortunately, Ngugi wa Thiong’o‘s visit was marred by a group of self-professed radicals who demanded that he should ask whites to leave the room. Of course wa Thiong’o refused to go along with the blackmail. I also informed them he had travelled all the way from California to South Africa in order to give a public lecture.

However, they disrupted the meeting when I, as the moderator of the session, asked a white member of the audience to speak. They accused me of traditionalism when I insisted that they should respect older people. As Steve Biko once put it: ‘Lack of respect for the elders, in the African tradition, is an unforgivable and cardinal sin.’

I could not help notice the irony. The very same people who are responsible for leading the decolonisation agenda are looking at African societies and values through western eyes. African ideas belong in a box marked ‘traditional’ that should never be re-opened while they throw around sophisticated philosophical concepts such as Fanonism and Biko-ism. I am not sure Biko would have been too pleased with ‘Biko-ism’. He hated personality cults. But if appending an ‘ism’ is good for Europeans, our fellow radicals seem to think, then it must be good for the de-colonial agenda too, whether that is appropriate or not in the case of Biko.

The idea that white people must leave the room before wa Thiong’o could talk was the most absurd thing I have ever heard. If you want to talk about racism at the University of Cape Town then surely you want the people responsible for it in the room. The tragedy is that they claim their anti-intellectualism was inspired by the founder of Black Consciousness in South Africa, Steve Biko.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Biko questioned the role of whites in black organisations but he never dissociated himself from them. The separation from whites was a strategic decision that had to do with their influence in black organisations, not an end in itself. In interview after interview he reiterated that the goal was a non-racial, democratic society.

Biko and Barney Pityana regularly attended conferences with whites, including the famous 1971 Abe Bailey conference held at the University of Cape Town. Biko formed strong bonds with people as Aelred Stubbs of the Community of the Resurrection in England, newspaper editor, Donald Woods, and Anglican priest David Russell. He worked closely with Dale White of the Wilgerspruit Fellowship Center in Johannesburg and with Beyers Naude of the Christian Institute.

But here is the challenge for the humanities. No matter how much evidence one produces, the students do not feel obliged to believe it. When I told one of them that Frantz Fanon was white, she turned to me and said, ‘well, then, Fanon was a house Negro.’

How then do we decolonise the curriculum when our young have created their own version of history – when there is no facticity? What do we do when ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – from the relevance of African values to the quest for an anti-racist society?

Professor Xolela Mangcu is the School of Advanced Study’s Emeka Anyaoku Chair in Commonwealth Studies, professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and Oppenheimer Fellow at the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is the author of nine books including Biko: an autobiography and The Colour of Our Future, and is currently writing a new biography of Nelson Mandela.

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