In 1929, Belgian Surrealist artist, Rene Magritte completed a painting of a smoking pipe and titled it: The treachery of images. The caption of the image: This is not a pipe (translated from French – Ceci n’est pas une pipe.). When you look at the painting, the first thing your mind is going to tell you is that this is a pipe, but in actual fact it is not a pipe – it is only a picture of a pipe. A pipe is three-dimensional, and the picture two-dimensional, and that is the first point of departure to many realities about a pipe you wouldn’t get from the image, like using the image pipe to smoke. So Rene was right, it is not a pipe. Surrealism questions the perception of reality based on observation, because that observation is usually informed by predetermined barriers in one’s imagination through socialized constructs and so forth.
Let us then through this approach of going beyond perception take the situation of Fees and Decolonisation in South African institutions of higher learning, and analyze the issue deeper than face value.
The ‘Tuition’ Fees
Before we get into deep issues here, we must agree that the problem is not fee increment, but that fees must fall altogether. No one should be paying to access education.
At face value, the universities present the issue of fees as a need to be able to run the institutions efficiently. While it might seem logical, the truth is that it is absolute rubbish. The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the rest of the institutions are businesses, as in they are 49% privately owned. This already takes away the focus on giving out education to it being about making profit, there is a consumer-supplier relationship where the students are seen as sources of income. This right here is capitalism, and it transcends beyond just the institutions of higher learning, it is a cancer that commoditises people – and that commoditisation is inherently racist.
Secondly, the issue of fees is one which American philosopher and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky examines deeply: using debt to create obedient objects of the system: He puts it this way, “students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think.” Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.” – Noam Chomsky
Now this is the reason why education is not free, it is a brilliant way of creating stratification of society among the blacks who are able to acquire this indebtedness of getting trained by the system and those that remain as the lumpen proletariat. You leave university with debt, you acquire another 20 years tie-down to the system in the form of a housing bond, you get a vehicle in debt. What this ensures is that you will be an employee all your life, because missing payments is a crisis on your seemingly “comfortable” life. There’s no time for the revolution, no time for thinking of things like entrepreneurship because the system makes it inherently difficult for entrepreneurs to crack into the economy.
It is not that free education is not possible, but the system of expensive education is a way of control and stratification. It is these indebted blacks who are now by Fanon’s observation closer to humanness by virtue of having been trained better in whiteness who will turn and police the not-so-white blacks with slurs that they are barbaric and need to get civilized.
The reason why education is not free in the USA while it is free in places like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands is the simple reason that in these countries well over 90% of the population is white. This means that they are able to have a socialist approach to
education as everyone living there is considered human by virtue of their whiteness. In these white countries the government finds it easy to have socialist models to housing and education, providing subsidies to many other things that make standard of living of citizenry very high. Then alas, in comes the USA where a huge chunk of the population is black (inclusive of Native Americans descending people) and free education becomes a far cry, there are humans and then non-beings who the comfort of the humans must be built upon. It is not that America can’t afford to make education free for everyone in the country, but in our above analysis we see that the survival of racist-capitalism in America depends on the stratification brought about by expensive access to education, so blacks can be kept as fungible objects and have no time to revolt and collapse racist America.
On Decolonisation of the Education System
Again, at face value one would be inclined to think that the abolishing of fees and the increasing of Black faculty members (academic staff) at institutions will automatically decolonize these institutions. While these are extremely important components in the process, not by a long shot are they the end goal by themselves.
White colonial education is just that, whether you are paying for it or accessing it for free; and white colonial education is just that, whether it is dispensed by a white faculty or black faculty. This then begs the question, how do we then decolonize these institutions?
In a conversation with a black sociologist at Wits recently, I argued that one cannot decolonize Wits as it is. The very fibre of the institution is colonial, as such an attempt at decolonisation is almost as futile as an attempt to uncook a cooked piece of steak or unrot a rotten one. The university is built upon a British model of universities; how it runs and curriculum set up, even how it confers degrees and the graduation gowns that are worn are emulation of Oxford University.
The fundamental problem then is that the epistemological authority and source from which the university holds and dispenses knowledge is inherently white and colonial. There is no amount of “decolonising” that can change this, because to attempt is to then reinforce the fallacy that blacks have no epistemology of their own and as such it is only through white epistemology that knowledge can originate. This is what we reinforce every time we say we need to “Africanise” and “decolonise” white colonial knowledge as if we never had our own knowledge systems before whites.
The only way around this decolonisation thing is to kill, to completely demolish Wits, UCT and the rest of the institutions, and rebuild them on a new foundation of African knowledge in curriculum focus and language because hand in hand with decolonisation is the issue of language. The importance of language in the colonisation process is captured by Fanon in the opening chapter of Black Skins White Masks. This analysis also promptly screams out the fact that decolonisation cannot then take place without reversing the language factor, or it is a futile exercise for so long as you continue in communicating with the language of the oppressors, you support the weight of their civilisation and continuing to denounce the black as a cultureless non-being. Ngugi wa Thiong’o elaborates on the issue of language in African literature in his 1986 book, Decolonising the Mind, after which he stops using English to write his books and uses his native language – Gikuyu.
“When you fail to understand white supremacy/racism and how it works, everything else that you understand will only confuse you.” – Neely Fuller Jr.
We need to deeply dissect the system and our position in it, so as to cartograph a clear way of victory. Sun Tzu says it is prerequisite to understand both yourself and your enemy intricately in order to be certain of victory. Without this understanding, we will find ourselves pudding in this confusion Neely Fuller Jr speaks about, for decades to come.
By Yamkela Fortune Spengane
The writer is a scholar of Black Consciousness and Africana Studies.