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On 21 October 1949, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe stood as president of the University of Fort Hare’s student representative council (SRC) and lamented the fact that an institution deemed an independent African university was predominantly guided by a Eurocentric school of thought.

In his speech, Sobukwe – who is celebrated as a doyen of Pan-Africanism – expressed his deep contempt of the status quo, calling for the institution, as an independent and African university, to be “the barometer of African thought”.

Last night, on the 40th anniversary of his death on 27 February 1978, keynote speaker Christine Qunta and respondent Prof Simphiwe Sesanti delved into his ideology and its present relevance at the inaugural Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture hosted by Nelson Mandela University’s Faculty of Education.

Mandela University’s Education Faculty has been one of the key pillars in the institution’s contribution to curriculum transformation and the decolonisation of higher education through its academic and intellectual project.

The lecture topic “The Thought Legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe: Decolonised and African-centred Education in the 21st Century” that draws from his ideology and works, is still very relevant to where the sector finds itself at present.

Sobukwe’s call was given renewed energy by the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall demonstrations of 2015 and 2016, which, in turn,  solicited the drive to reposition the approach to higher education as far as access and decolonisation matters are concerned.

In her keynote address, Ms Qunta analysed Sobukwe’s approach to education within the context of the ideology of Africanism, its utility and relevance for the task of transforming the education system in South Africa from a colonial one to an African-centred one suited for the 21st century.

“In 1949, Sobukwe raised the issue of how a university can be said to be independent when it is governed by European thought and staffed largely by Europeans. That question remains relevant today because the problem in SA is that we do not have African universities, but rather universities that are European but situated in an African country,” she said.

“The reason I say this is because at universities, the medium of instruction is in a European language, the content of the curriculum is about European knowledge systems and excludes all knowledge systems of Africans.

“You can learn about Europe, but you cannot have a situation where the knowledge systems, culture and history of the majority of the people are erased, because in that situation the erasure is in essence oppression. A dramatic intervention is therefore needed from government and it has to relook the concept of autonomy and how it presents a bar to transformation.

“There are different levels to transformation and I’m glad that there is now free education because it will give access. But even if you change all the teachers, demographics of the university and have an all-black faculty, there will still be the problem of content, which is a colonial hangover.

“Sobukwe raised this, saying the role of the university is to serve the community. If the community is African, how do you serve a community when you basically produce students who are culturally alienated because they don’t know who they are?”

In her welcoming remarks, Mandela University Vice-Chancellor Prof Sibongile Muthwa said the memorial lecture was aptly and cogently titled in light of where the sector currently finds itself.

“Our intention with this memorial lecture is to open up a space to juxtapose the works and teachings of Sobukwe with the liberationary purpose of education that we seek to impart as this university, which is named after Nelson Mandela, and one that is seeking to be decidedly Afrocentric in its intellectual project,” she said.

“It is thus a combination and a fortunate alignment of serendipity with our deliberate intention that the lecture is held on the 40th anniversary of the death of Sobukwe and in the year that we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Rolihlahla Mandela.

“As a new-generation university, on course to become a great African university named in honour of a great African leader, it is important that we pause and listen to what the thought leadership of Sobukwe – another significant doyenne of our time – says to us and calls upon us to do.

“What has happened in our sector and in the country has reignited our inquiry into the thought leadership of many activists from the past, particularly in the 60s and 70s, who inspired us.

“The young activists interpreted them in light of the prevailing socio-economic challenges of the continent and the world and we want to take the lead from what has been provided to us – the re-ignition by our students. That is why history is written and rewritten.

“There is no better time to revisit the ideology and ideas of Sobukwe to seek answers as to how we can build a better society for each African child and the generations beyond our time.”

 “Sobukwe argued that institutions of higher learning in South Africa and in Africa should be an embodiment of African thought and aspirations of the people and contribute to a new order.”

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777