Decolonising the University – times of change and reflections on the research process


Land and soil use on a commercial farm: image from:

I will not dance to your beat
If you call plantations forests
I will not sing with you
If you privatise my water
I will confront you with my fists
If climate change means death to me but business to you
I will expose your evil greed
If you don’t leave crude oil in the soil
Coal in the hole and tar sands in the land
I will confront and denounce you
If you insist on carbon offsetting and other do-nothing false solutions
I will make you see red
If you keep talking of REDD and push forest communities away from their land
I will drag you to the Climate Tribunal
If you pile up ecological debt
& refuse to pay your climate debt
I will make you drink your own medicine
If you endorse genetically modified crops
And throw dust into the skies to mask the sun
I will not dance to your beat
Unless we walk the sustainable path
And accept real solutions & respect Mother Earth
Unless you do
I will not &
We will not dance to your beat

(a poem by Nnimmo Bassey)

At the end of September I attended a workshop on the African Anthropocene. This workshop brought together a wide group of people from the region connected to work in the Environmental Humanities. The focus was on building a broader agenda and team interested in scholarship on the African Anthropocene and Environmental Humanities in Africa. A number of inspiring guest speakers attended such as Nnimmo Bassey, Gathuru Mburu and Samuel Nguiffo.  It was a great privilege to meet all of these speakers who introduced their work through telling their life stories about how they came to work in the spaces they do now. All of them have faced enormous challenges in their lifetimes, in the context of harsh political climates. Nnimmo Bassey is the famous poet (see opening poem) and architect who has dedicated his life to social and environmental activism and justice. He is the head of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also runs Oilwatch International. Gathuru Mburu is an amazing ecologist and activist from Kenya. He is Co-Founder of the Institute for Culture and Ecology and part of the African Biodiversity Network, which is a member of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Samuel Nguiffo, a lawyer by training works tirelessly toward stopping the liquidation of the region’s forests for short-term profit. He directs the Center for Environment and Development (CED) in Yaounde, Cameroon. Much of the workshop was dedicated to thinking around social and environmental challenges and injustices felt in the African context, drawing together similarities and difference in experiences and thinking around how to reimagine the problematic approaches of environmentalism which have been heavily routed in colonial legacy – and through this, to think critically about environmental scholarship in the African context.

This workshop foreshadowed the context of the growing student activism in South African universities that began with the #rhodesmustfall movement last year and has over the past month reemerged stronger and spread into a nationwide call to action on the themes of free education (#Feesmustfall) and the decolonisation of universities. Over the past 5 weeks, the country’s universities have become a site for students struggles, which challenge both material and ideological inequalities that still remain the reality in South Africa 22 years after the formal implementation of democracy. This challenging time has thrown universities into some much needed learning and unlearning and questioning of its systems for approaching the project of tertiary education. One of the vital and heated dialogues that has emerged is around the decolonisation of science within the university indicated by #sciencemustfall. At UCT, a group of students have started a Facebook Page called Science Faculty Engagements dedicated to creating dialogue and events around this theme. I have attended some of these discussions, which have ranged from a space of much conflict and clashing of ideas, to spaces where people want to learn more about how this may be possible. Within these conversations, the theme of how to bring traditional, indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing not currently supported more centrally into the curriculum has been vital.  The need to teach the history of science and engage in dialogue about how science has been and continues to be linked to imperialism, colonialism and capitalism has also been widely raised. Student activists ask how we may re-imagine science education and research from a perspective of decolonisation and truly transform the learning in the university and the learning in the faculties of science.

In this post I wanted to reflect on the current political situation at the university. Firstly because it is not possible to be anywhere but engaged in these dialogues at this time. I also wanted to link this to the workshop because they are synchronously linked in the questions that they ask and finally because both speak deeply to the project and the  how it looks to illuminate questions and assumptions within modern systems of agriculture, the development of agricultural technology and how we may ask different questions and to work towards building more nuanced and relevant research around this in South Africa as well as elsewhere.

I was supposed to be in the field at this point, this would have included doing a large part of the Research and Development component of which much is based at universities. I have in the current situation postponed by fieldwork until possibly next week and focused my attention on both getting involved in university discussions and task as well as using this time to reflect on my thinking about the links between the Agri/cultures project, the university and the wider country context.


Rain forest in Cameroon image taken from:


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