Pre-Colonial Catalytic Conference – responses from APC Masters students

8 Jun 2017 - 13:45
Pre-Colonial Catalytic Conference – responses from APC Masters students
Pre-Colonial Catalytic Conference – responses from APC Masters students

Five APC delegates – Carolyn Hamilton, Grant McNulty, Himal Ramji, Ayanda Mahlaba and Nqubeko Hlekwana – attended the Pre-colonial Catalytic Conference from 15-17 March, held at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Ellzabeth, co-hosted by the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) and the Centre for African Studies (CAS at UCT). We asked APC Masters scholars Himal Ramji, Ayanda Mahlaba and Nqubeko Hlekwana to respond to the sessions they attended. Their thoughts follow here:

Education Panel Review - Himal Ramji

This piece highlights some of the points raised in the panel discussion on Education at the recent Post-Catalytic Conference, hosted by NMMU, CANRAD, and the Centre for African Studies (UCT), from 15 to 17 March 2017. Much credit must go to the organising team, particularly Dr June Bam and Prof Lungisile Ntsebeza, who provided us with such a strong framework and debate-conducive conditions, in which to explore African histories. 

Polemical public opinions: It is apparent that there are polemically different public opinions on the new CAPS (Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement) curriculum. Some feel that CAPS has regressed back to apartheid and transitional forms of curricula, which were critiqued as highly positivist and knowledge-oriented, rather than learner-oriented. The more vocal attendees of the Conference were of the opinion that CAPS history was still largely Eurocentric in its focus and methodologies. Still, there was some praise for the attempts made to deal with the problems that emerged from earlier post-apartheid curricula.

The position of African precolonial histories in public and educational discourses was of particular concern for the group. There was a sense, throughout the panel presentations, that some apartheid ideologies and colonial historiographies remained firmly in place. While there was critique that a significant portion of academia still undervalues the contributions of Africa to world history and development, this camp was largely absent from the conference. However, the questions from some of the student attendees indicate the residual effects of the continued dissemination of colonial or just plain outdated historiographies in schools and universities, particularly in disciplines outside the social sciences.

From my own research, this appears to be less to do with the curriculum prescriptions than with the affordance of quality support materials (like textbooks) to teachers, particularly in less privileged settings. Often, NatEd 550 (the transitional curriculum in the early 1990s), and even apartheid era textbooks, assessments, worksheets, and sources, make their way back into classrooms. Textbooks themselves are highly ideological, and the attendees of the conference were certainly critical of this, especially since publishing and textbook writing remains in the control of the same groups of academics, intellectuals, and teachers as in the apartheid era. 

Throughout the Conference, the theme of “problematic terminology and concepts” came to the fore. Academic vernaculars appear to be out of sync with one another, with terms like “San” and “Bushmen” holding different positions in different circles, or universities, or disciplines. Similarly, the term “colonisation” was at a point used to describe any movement of a group of people into another region, which, in turn, removes the historic specificity of colonisation. This indicates a great need for further discussion, and the possibility of valuable debate, particularly in public forums like the Conference.

Egypt: My own presentation took the CAPS presentation of Mapungubwe (grade 6), and compared this to the different presentation of the same history in Zakes Mda’s The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (2013). The piece itself was highly experimental, and led in interesting directions. It was, however, in the presentation of Prof Simphiwe Sesanti (UNISA), that the political position of precolonial Africa in CAPS was brought to light.

Prof Sesanti delivered a rousing critique of Egypt in “classical” (colonial) discourses, drawing on the influential work of Cheik Anta Diop to give great thrust to his argument. He emphasised the importance of Egypt – or rather, Kemet – to a reconceptualization of African history. Although he did not discuss the curriculum, it is worth consulting the CAPS documents and textbooks to see how Egypt is dealt with at school level (in the third term of rade 5). From an initial analysis, the content and method of doing history appears largely unchanged from the older styles. Egypt, in CAPS, is largely European, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, but never really African, particularly in the description of regional relations in the CAPS prescription.

Mapungubwe: The topic of Mapungubwe is an expansion of the old NCS content prescription, which was criticised (in the 2009 Review of the curriculum) for trying to cover too much. CAPS narrows the section from Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Mutapa, to Mapungubwe as central, with Great Zimbabwe as chronological successor and comparison. Mutapa has been completely erased from the curriculum.

At the conference – chiefly in my own presentation – the treatment of Mapungubwe in CAPS was criticised for ending with Marco Polo, described as an odd colonial invasion into a precolonial African history. There is a sense, from the conference response to CAPS, that globalisation in the curriculum bears a European centre. Further, I criticised CAPS for its division of the topic into elite-centric categories. I tried to destabilise the CAPS narrative through comparison with Mda’s novel. Whether I was successful remains to be seen, but it became evident that there is a need for the sources of history, and the range of historiographies in CAPS to be expanded to include voices that have been marginalised or silenced, for whatever reasons. It appears that rather than giving voice to the previously voiceless, CAPS acts to accentuate this voicelessness.

Pedagogy:  John Sanni (Stellenbosch) and Dr Kathija Yassim (NMMU) also delivered pedagogy-centred presentations, dealing particularly with the radically constructivist critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, and engaging in potentially more interactive teaching styles. There was a significant move away from old rote-learning styles, towards pedagogies that are more relatable for teachers and learners. There was a sense in the presentations that pedagogy itself needs to be contextualised.

However, due to the nature of the conference – centred on precolonial histories – there was not much scope for a discussion on teacher-training and the actual communication of the curriculum, which are articulated in curriculum reviews as the major shortcomings of C2005 and the NCS.

History as nation-builder, or History as discipline: There appears to be a constant trade-off between achieving the Afrocentric curriculum and achieving History as a discipline in itself, where History is understood as a discipline methodologically rooted in the colonial project. One is left wondering where we actually go from now? How do we teach history: as an empirical discipline or as a political project? And what problems are posed by teaching history simply as one or the other? What do we lose when we only focus on one side of the polemic? We must, as teachers, as historians, as citizens, consider, quite fundamentally, why we actually teach history at schools. We need to find a balance between teaching the discipline of History, and achieving the necessary nation-building imperatives of the national education system. 

Ayanda Mahlaba

The second part of day two of the Pre-Colonial Catalytic Conference featured an all-women panel comprising Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, Professor Pamela Maseko, Dr Babalwa Magoqwana and Professor Carolyn Hamilton. The panel was chaired by Dr Nomathamsanqa Tisani.

Prof Hamilton began the session by looking at the factors that have shaped how we study the long history of Southern Africa. Her paper drew attention to the use of the term "pre-colonial" and the assumptions it entrenches. Disciplinary naming also has very little to offer about the pre-colonial period.

Dr Babalwa Magoqwana, the second presenter, unpacked conceptions of umakhulu. This was to move beyond social policy conceptions of umakhulu that are prevalent in rural areas, but highlight how the former is a repository and institution of knowledge. Her paper borrowed from the works of Tisani, Magubane, Magona and Motseme.

Prof Pamela Maseko, the next speaker, looked at the relationship between culture and language and how western education nullifies what we know (upbringing, lived experiences). She did this by using isiXhosa and explaining that the language does not gender.

Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, the last speaker, grappled with the question of how clan histories have been used to form historical consciousness. She touched on the deep structural problem in South African education, which has meant that black South Africans have lost their idioms arguing that Walter Rubusana's Zemk' Inkomo has been repositioned as being historiographical and not a merely a historical source.

Nqubeko Hlekwana

One of the themes picked up in the presentations was pre-colonial identities and concepts in language. Dr Nomathamsanqa Tisani addressed the topic of definitions and naming. She focussed on the issue of how “pre-colonial” Africans defined themselves and how this should be seen as separate from the way in which colonisers defined them.

Dr Tisani argued the need to challenge "the hegemony of Western knowledge production". She referred to the example of ukukhanya and how it was used to differentiate and later to justify colonialism, from “darkness” to “light” and the “savage”to “civilised”, as well as its relation to Christianity. She also spoke about the loss of indigenous names of animals, plants, and other features of the natural world. She made the point that the European worldview viewed time as linear while Africans viewed it as both linear and cyclical, with its connotations of regeneration.

In discussing understandings of identity and time, Dr Tisani referred to the quote: "I am the earth itself. God made me a chief on the very first day of creation" (Williams, The Journal and Selected writings of Reverend Tiyo Soga), uttered by a man named Mhlehle, as an assertion of his identity in the face of adversity. In a similar way, former president Mbeki asserted his understanding of his African identity and time in his “I Am an African” speech.

Dr Tisani argued for self-definition and self-naming as one of the steps towards consciousness. The title of the conference itself was challenged as perpetuating the idea of viewing ourselves and our history in relation to colonialism, and the need to strive for new terms to repudiate "defin[ing] and nam[ing] a people by dividing up their history, baptising them with new names and re-casting the landscape", perhaps through a process of ukuhlambulula.

Prof Maseko's paper focused similarly on isiXhosa as a non-gendered language and the use of Western paradigms in thinking about how the subservient positionality of women is framed, specifically looking at terms such as amanin and abafaz. By redefining and examining the isiXhosa terms for women used in archival sources, Prof Maseko argued that women's positions in society were not defined by their gender but by other factors including age and kinship. The misunderstanding was an example of colonial views of the colonised being perpetuated.

Both Dr Tisani and Prof Maseko seemed to be saying that we internalise these imposed definitions that are propagated using language.