There is racism in knowledge provision

Knowledge is not stagnant – nor is it absolute. Knowledge is ever changing and is what makes individuals or organisations transform. Now, the question at hand is: Why is it that in organisations such as institutions of higher learning, where the core business is the transferring of knowledge, is there often quite a lot of resistance to transformation? Whether in the courses presented (teaching and learning), the social construct of the university, sports and recreation or, most importantly, the promotion of equality for women and people with disabilities?

To discuss these matters and more, the Vaal University of Technology’s (VUT) Social Justice and Transformation Department held a public lecture on 7 November focusing on transformation in the higher education sector.

The guest speaker was Professor Andre Keet, Chairperson of the Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at the Nelson Mandela University and the Chairperson of the Ministerial Transformation Oversight Committee. As an acknowledged social justice researcher, Prof Keet brings with him a wealth of experience and knowledge on issues of transformation. Titled: “Racism’s knowledge and the challenge of curriculum renewal in higher education”, his lecture explored higher education transformation and the challenges faced within the sector.

“When I talk about racism, it’s not a distinction between white and black, but an ideology that has a hold on all of us. In fact there’s a great possibility that we think and dream in the language of racism or internalised oppression.” These were the provocative words shared by Prof Keet as he started off his lecture.

Prof Keet notes if you work with knowledge, then knowledge dictates transformation, ie, you get to know more things and that information must make you a transformative person – you work at the cutting-edge of getting to know the world. The knowledge that you absorb must make you transform your way of thinking and the way in which you perceive the world.

“But why is it that while we work with such a progressive character (knowledge), we (academia) are one of the most conservative professions in the world? That thing (knowledge) that we work with, can’t shift us into being transformative,” he said. Prof Keet said the only way to delve further into this issue is to view higher education institutions as social entities that have various patterns of inclusion and exclusion almost inherently shaped in the way in which it is structured.

His presentation focused on inclusion and exclusion in relation to the social structure of the institution, from the power relations embedded in the institution of knowledge, to the regulation of student life, their voice as well as staff and student access and success.

The student and staff population is a diverse one, from race and language to culture and all the intricate differences in between. This means there are a number of belief systems, ideologies and theories that come into play for academics when structuring subjects that will be taught in the lecture rooms or transforming institutional knowledge itself.

Transformation must take place in order to create an Afrocentric space and advance the decolonisation of knowledge, broaden opportunities and increase success rates for black students, foster demographic representation on all levels of the academy and across university structures, to stimulate a democratic and non-repressive institutional culture and ensure accountable governance and management efficiencies.

Transformation does not ultimately mean throwing out one ideology for the other; it’s about asking the right questions to bring about a balance in the system. Racism of knowledge means advancing one ideology and excluding the many possibilities surrounding it. In order to move forward and accept change, we need to question what is the racism here; what is being excluded if a particular subject or system is being taught or performed in one way? What can one bring in to make this exclusion a bit less? Knowledge is not about making things complete; it is about showing us that there’s too much that still needs to be explored.

In closing, George Mvalo, Director of the Social Justice and Transformation Department, said this lecture is important because it provides a platform for broader discourse on social justice and transformation, allowing us to have those uncomfortable yet important conversations with each other and ourselves. It is time that our institutions of higher learning accept and implement change that will contribute towards the growth and inclusion of all people.

He further expressed his joy and enthusiasm because it was the first public lecture to take place at the newly constructed African Languages and Disabilities Building at VUT.

“History is being made here at VUT today,” he said with much enthusiasm.

The African Languages and Disabilities Building provides facilities that cater to people with disabilities, with a fully functional braille reading centre. The African Languages Centre is a unit under the Centre for Academic Development (CAD), introduced to accommodate learning in indigenous African languages.

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