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Decolonisation of the education and epistemology systems in Zimbabwe



By Prof Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni

KNOWLEDGE creates reality or epistemology frames ontology.

Basically, epistemology is the philosophical study of the origins, nature and limits of human knowledge and that frames what it means to exist or the nature of being – reality.

Such domains as politics, society and economy are informed and shaped by knowledge.

Even the modern world system and its shifting global orders is an epistemic creation.

Colonialism was underpinned by an active cognitive empire. An empire that invaded the mental universe of its victims and made it possible for colonisation of the mind to happen.

An empire which committed such crimes as theft of history (denying its victims any history), epistemicides (killing of other people’s knowledges), linguicides (killing of other people’s languages and imposition of colonial languages), and culturecides (killing of other people’s cultures and setting afoot cultural and social imperialism).

The consequences of these processes are varied: alienation, pitfalls of consciousness and mimicry (Frantz Fanon); double-consciousness (William EB Dubois), miseducation (Carter G. Woodson), cultural schizophrenia (Ali A. Mazrui), colonisation of the mind (Ngugi wa Thiong’o & Ibekwe Chinweizu), and captive mind (Syed Hussein Alatas).

Perhaps it was after considerations of all these consequences of the operations of the cognitive empire that Steve Bantu Biko concluded that: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.

The crux of the matter here is that for countries like Zimbabwe, which emerged from colonialism with political independence but without epistemological decolonisation, were bound to degenerate into neo-colonies.

Nationalist revolutions without a clear epistemology of liberation were bound to end up as reformist formation only capable of tinkering with the margins of colonialism.

This is the story of Zimbabwe and many other post-colonial countries, especially in Africa. It explains why people are now saying nothing has changed in reality; if there is no epistemological overhaul, there is bound to be continuity or a repeat of the past.

Successful revolutions have to be underpinned by alternative epistemologies.

This is why Nelson Maldonado-Torres, a leading figure in decolonial theory, posited that: “Political revolutions have arguably suffered for not having good epistemologies, and the wrong epistemology can halt a revolution or even bring back the very vices and problems that the revolution seeks to overcome.”

This is very instructive for the Zimbabwean case, whereby those who claimed to have fought for the liberation of the people from colonialism are today behaving in a similar or worse manner than the colonialists — abusing power, tormenting citizens, looting the economy, capturing institutions and indeed personalising the country as their thing (chihnu chedu); a reference which goes to the heart of the rotten epistemologies guiding their conception of power and its ontological parameters.

To move Zimbabwe beyond political independence, the nation must address knowledge and education systems. This is necessary as people cannot use, as Andre Lorde put it, the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

We cannot wish to reinvent Zimbabwe, reconstitute the political and bring about social, political and economic change without having an epistemology that underpins the task of transformation.  

The goes beyond Einsteinian logic that “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking as when we created them”.

This not just about thinking, but about knowledge, which is the foundation of thought.

What has happened in Zimbabwe since 1980 is that Zanu PF simply took over the colonial cognitive empire apparatus and turned it into a postcolonial infrastructure of invasion of the mental universe of the people, including re-writing the history of the nation with itself at the centre.

This included revisionism and distortions of history, not just of the liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, but also of events leading to the take over by colonial invaders and thereafter.

Even the historical narratives being pushed by politicians around heroes of the struggle and statues built to honour some of them betray deep revisionist political narratives, partisan agendas and attendant flaws in our knowledge of this very recent history.

Monuments such as statues play an important symbolic role in capturing history and in people’s lives.

 Each monument is usually built for specific reasons and is intended to serve particular purposes or interests, be they shared, progressive or not.

When independence came in 1980, the first task was to expand existing education and not change it.

There was enthusiasm to increase the literacy rate of the people of Zimbabwe. The question of “literate in what” was never given adequate attention.

There was no attempt to wage a genuine epistemological struggle, yet too much energy was spent rewriting history, from the era of Ndebele King Lobengula (pictured) – who for all the negative narratives about him fought colonial invaders more than any historical figure of the time as he was the most organised and powerful force then – through monumentalised spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda to the war featuring Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe – all liberation struggle luminaries.

Too many colonial and postcolonial myths were told about that history which poison epistemologies and ontologies of our times, hence our knowledge and reality.

A casual historical record check and analysis will show that revisionist tropes dominate our education system about that history and that of the liberation struggle, while it informs political decisions and communication; indeed society’s epistemological frames of the past, present and possibly future.

What pre-occupied the postcolonial government was to increase access to unreformed, let alone overhauled, colonial education, indeed an education for disempowerment, which sought to continue reproducing Zimbabweans as providers of cheap labour at home and abroad.

Education transformation is urgently needed; reform alone is not enough. Epistemological transformation is what is really needed.

Today, most educated Zimbabweans are scattered across the world providing labour to the global capitalist economies.

There was not much focus on changing the philosophy of education besides the talk of “education with production” which was associated with Fay Chung.

Even this idea of “education with production” was never well-thought-out, never clearly articulated and never systematically implemented. In fact, it was a slogan not a philosophical proposition.

This must not surprise us because the social class that ascended to power in 1980 was the native petit-bourgeois elements whom Fanon correctly diagnosed as suffering not only from pitfalls of consciousness, but also from intellectual laziness to think beyond what was introduced by colonialism and what they learnt mostly through rote learning.

This lazy class was easily satisfied with physical replacement of white colonialists in government offices and them proceed with mimicry rather than any revolutionary change.

High literacy rate never translated into inventions and innovations. Rather, a multitude of employment seekers was unleashed onto the world armed with certificates, diplomas and degrees.

This habit is manifesting itself within political elite circles in Zimbabwe, where there is competition to acquire doctorates by any means necessary, while leading the country remains a big challenge, turning around the economy is failing, and nation-building has been abandoned.  

The PhDs – some of which are clearly bought by corruptly paying people to write for the intellectually lazy elites that Fanon referred to – are sought after for political purposes, not transformational knowledge objectives.  

We must as Zimbabweans wake up to the reality that what has been hailed as Zimbabwe’s main postcolonial success, education, based on radical emulation of the British colonial education system rather than any transformational epistemological change which is badly needed.

Most educated Zimbabwean elites are not just proud of their British colonial education, but also mannerisms and accents, just like Mugabe was for all his inflammatory posturing as anti-imperialist and pan-African.

The recommendations of Nziramasanga Commission, which did not even remotely amount to decolonisation, like other commissions in Zimbabwe, were never taken seriously and never implemented.

It was waste of resources and time, meaning even the first steps towards education are yet to be taken.

The current Minister of Higher Education Professor Amon Murwira has brought us back to think deeply about knowledge and education through the initiative known as “Education 5.0” predicated on heritage-based philosophy.

This is a long-overdue and necessary transformative project.  However, this project seems to be already caught-up between the liberatory imperatives of decolonisation of knowledge and the neo-liberal market imperatives of commercialisation and commodification of education.

While the former is about knowledge sovereignty and epistemic freedom, the latter is about internationalisation of higher education.

So already we are heading to the wrong destination.

The possible success of Murwira’s project depends on sequencing and a balancing act.

In the first instance, higher education in postcolonial Africa is born internationalised because of the colonial experience, with many of the universities having been colleges of metropolitan institutions like the University of London.

What the higher education in postcolonial Africa has been suffering from is rootedness in African knowledge systems and relevance.

This is where decolonisation of knowledge and education kicks-in in terms of considering identity and experience of Africa as key elements in the account of what counts as knowledge.

Regurgitation of European social and cultural experiences as well as history as knowledge is a huge disservice to Africa.

Murwira’s intervention is very necessary, but it cannot be delivered by Africans academics and intellectuals who are British at heart/mind and only African/Zimbabwean in appearance.

There is need for investment in responding adequately to Karl Marx’s question: who will educate the educator? 

This takes us to the deeper question of how to deal with “miseducation” and how to make sure educators are open to the painstaking process of learning to unlearn what colonial education has imposed so as to re-learn what is necessary for Zimbabwe.

At the centre of all this is the question of relevance of knowledge and education.

This is why decolonisation of knowledge itself is a necessity because it calls for shifting of geography and biography of knowledge, that is, opening knowledge beyond Eurocentric horizons.

What we need in Zimbabwe is knowledge and education that is not hostage to colonial epistemological disciplinary varieties and  prisons, but is attentive to human problems and challenges, as well as African experiences.

This needs an epistemic revolution not just reform. Human knowledge is expressed through concepts and that’s where the epistemological struggle should begin, not by seeking to recondition, adjust, reinvigorate,  internationalise, or rehash colonial education models.  

This is Zimbabwe’s biggest struggle ahead.

About the writer: Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth, Germany.

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