Change the world


The systematic erasure of African knowledge has stripped society of values and world views that need to be reawakened through our universities. This is an important undertaking in revitalising the humanities at Mandela University. Heather Dugmore reports.

“When talking about coloniality and the role of educational institutions in including African epistemological frameworks in curricula otherwise dominated by Western knowledge frameworks, people tend to link these to contestations about teaching and learning in the 1980s, or to #FeesMustFall or #RhodesMustFall student protests, or to philosophers like Walter Mignolo or Frantz Fanon,” says Executive Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Pamela Maseko.

“These are credible, but what many don’t know is that the contestations date back to the 1800s in the Eastern Cape.”

In January 2021, the faculty started the Curriculum Conversation Series – a challenge to reflect on practices informing scholarship, and to encourage critical questions such as: Whose knowledge is privileged in the academy? How do we respond to gendered university spaces? How do we reimagine an Africa-purposed curriculum?

“It’s a process during which, for example, we look at the writings in the late 1800s and 1900s of Mqhayi – one of the early African intellectuals – whose writings in isiXhosa were a form of political and cultural resistance. IsiXhosa was one of the first local languages to be systematically written down, a century before Afrikaans,” says Prof Maseko.

Literary treasures

With the advent of missionary education in 1823, black women and men in the Eastern Cape started to articulate, in writing, their discomfort with an education that uprooted their knowledge and values and replaced them with Western values.

“These writings from the early black African intellectuals are mostly in isiXhosa, and in newspapers, which they adopted as platforms to contest missionary censorship of indigenous thought systems, linguistic and cultural values. These archival records are historical data and they are heritage. They are important in presenting an African perspective to African historiography.

“We are focusing on reclaiming these African intellectual histories of the Eastern Cape and arguing for their inclusion in the academic canon. In addition to contributing to the republication of the works of Black South African writers and intellectuals from the 1800s, our aim is to position our university as an archival site for such works, especially from influential oonozala (sources of life) such as Dr Brigalia Bam, who represents the marginalised voices of women in the academy.”

Prof Maseko is currently working with Professor Jeff Opland, co-editing a Literature Series that republishes works from Prof Opland’s private library collection. These include books and works from early newspapers that were historically stored in national libraries, to which black South Africans did not have access, as even libraries were segregated at the height of apartheid.

“Jeff had the privilege of accessing them and collected as much as possible in his personal library,” says Prof Maseko. Prof Opland and Prof Maseko have collaborated with African scholars in translating and editing the writings of several early South African intellectuals and have published eight volumes to date.

Prof Maseko explains that it won’t be a traditional archive “where you put things in boxes and people page through the work with gloves on. We want it to be highly interactive, where people can see the physical archive but also have digital interaction with it. It will be linguistically diverse and feature all South Africa’s languages. The original works will have to be well protected against fire and water damage, given the fragility of the materials, as we saw with the fire that consumed the African Studies archive in Cape Town (last year).”

The archive will be part of the process of revaluing indigenous knowledge and at the same time revaluing the humanities and social sciences and placing them back at the centre of the academy.

“It’s the focal point of how we train our students as people who need to understand the origins of knowledge as power, to value themselves, their heritage and the importance of diversity. This is how we nurture graduates who respond in a humane manner to societal problems and challenges.”

Contact information
Prof Pamela Maseko
Executive Dean: Faculty of Humanities