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Interview with Suren Pillay: Decolonizing Higher Education

Portrait of Suren Pillay

Student blogger Abiral Chitrakar Phnuyal spoke with Dr. Suren Pillay last semester about decolonizing higher education and the role South African student movements play within South Africa and on a global platform.

Suren Pillay is Senior Researcher and Associate Professor in the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. He leads research there in the Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities and focuses on issues of violence, citizenship and justice claims. He also is Visiting Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and focuses his work around the politics of knowledge in social sciences and humanities in the entire continent of Africa. The Urban Democracy Lab hosted a discussion last November between Pillay and Democracy Now co-host, Juan González, on decolonizing higher education in US universities. Phnuyal spoke with Dr. Pillay to extend that conversation to South Africa.

The following conversation was transcribed by NYU Gallatin students Kai Bauer and Bourrée Huang.

UDL: What sorts of experiences have you had with student protests, across the globe from Rhodes Must Fall to Mizzou, as someone who works in academia? Has it been a point of interest in your work?

SP: I’ve been following a little bit both in the US and in South Africa. I’m interested in the ways the issues seem to resonate and the language is similar, but then I’m also interested in the differences.

UDL: Do you see any particular links between these protests and the decolonization discourse, because it came up during The Fire This Time: Decolonizing Higher Education?

SP: Yes. I would be curious to think more about what the links are and to speak to people who are involved because there is an interesting moment of timing with the issues in South Africa and current campaigns in Europe around colonial statues and pasts. Now we have these issues in the US, and it is interesting to think about the ways in which there is simultaneity between these kinds of questions, but I would be curious to know myself whether people are going on those campaigns and the ways in which these things travel. I would not like to say that one immediately influences the other, but I suspect the ways in which things are circulating at the moment, that there must be some kind of link.

UDL: Could you discuss your experience with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa as an academic?

SP: The universities in South Africa have very different demographic characters and very different resources inherited from their apartheid past. In the Western Cape we have three universities and the most famous probably being the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was created by an endowment of land by Cecil John Rhodes and has historically been a university that has cultivated what we call in South Africa as, “white liberal traditions of thought.” It was also historically earmarked for white South African students who were English speakers. We also have Stellenbosch, which was created for the white Afrikaans speaking students and was quite central to the Afrikaans national movement including producing the intellectual theorists of apartheid. The University of the Western Cape was founded in 1960 to produce a mixed race or “colored” middle class. It was designed to produce people who would be absorbed into the personnel of the bureaucracy.

This was the landscape under apartheid and to a larger extent those divisions still exist. And while there is some collaboration, the professors remained divided at their respective schools. This is to give you the context of how Rhodes Must Fall emerged in UCT and I was watching from the Western Cape and was sometimes invited to engage with the students and speak at UCT.
We had many protests at other universities across the country particularly around class-based issues of fees, but what was interesting at UCT was the protest by a group that was feeling the consequences of being a cultural minority within the institution.

It was interesting because we have been discussing what a post-apartheid university looks like and usually that centers on access to the university. How do we increase the intake of poor, marginalized students? These are all important and ongoing questions, but we haven’t necessarily been asking in the same kinds of ways, like “What does it mean to teach in a South African university?” or “How does who teaches you matter?” The demographic of the student population has changed, but the average demographic of the teaching population has not. What are the implications of that in the classroom, for role models, or with identification of experience?

UDL: At the talk, you said that what needs to be done is that “the other” must be made ontologically indistinguishable. I was hoping you could talk a little bit as to what you mean by that? There’s a part of that which cuts deeper than the political equality mandated by the state, but another that brings up problems of sameness and lack of diversity.

SP: Two parts to that. One is, I would say, that the ways in which I have been describing the notion of Africa is to acknowledge that the South African academy, the society at large, has a history of thinking itself apart from the African continent — that it was culturally apart, that it was politically apart, that it was economically apart. Even though in practice it was economically dependent, we have a long history of mine workers coming to South Africa and a Southern African labor movement to some extent.

However, what we inherited from apartheid is a history of the continent being spoken of as a place out there. So for example when we travel, and I say to colleagues I am going to a conference in Senegal, it is not unusual for somebody to tell me: “Oh, have a good trip in Africa.” It is those kinds of notions that give you a sense that Africa is a place apart from South Africa. We’re beginning to ask questions about what it means to be a university in Africa for example, and what it means to then think about where we locate our Africanness in the institution. One was to particularize the African experience, which existed in particular disciplines and particular kinds of institutions, which we inherited from colonialism. The question is then how do we make the condition of being in Africa part of the mainstream.

But the other part of what you’re asking is what does that imply for notions of sameness. This is where the debate in South Africa is going to play itself out. There is no answer to this at the moment, but I can describe what I think. On one hand we can deal with the history of Euro-centrism by centering on Africa. I think that is a familiar response and one with a lot of history on the continent especially from the 1960s to the 1970s. The other way we might think about this, which offers a more complicated, but more useful way to think about this, which is to get out of the binary of universalism and particularism. That is to say to not counter what we see as the universal of a Western episteme by displacing it with a new universalism of an African episteme.

Another is to think about outward rather than inward. What do you see from an African vantage point? That is to reconstitute the notion of universal, which may be idealistic or a gesture that happens in thought. However, we might want to work towards democratizing the university and we might want to incorporate into that democratization what we would acknowledge as subjugated knowledges, not only from Africa but from other parts of the world as well. However, does one lose itself in a decentralized cosmopolitan that is everywhere and nowhere? That is when one’s location comes into play. What does it look like to see this from being located here? What are the kinds of questions that inflict from being located here? The question of diversity is an awkward one in South Africa because if someone reads the philosophical formulation of apartheid to some degree it sounds like multiculturalism. It is a project of difference. There is a weariness of difference coming out of that history. We have tended to move very far away from difference and have a different history than how it may be deployed in the US. Difference is not readily available as a progressive concept.

UDL: Talking about incorporating or learning from other parts of the postcolonial world, Latin America, South Asia, and so on — has that happened in South Africa and has that happened in your learning? Also, by bringing in other postcolonial scholarship into the academy, how do you mediate the western lens being placed on that knowledge as well, as we try to move away from looking at thing with a western-centric focus?

SP: In a very concrete sense we have a set of political realities and constraints that we must work with. Even within the continent, you run into problems of funding when trying to connect with scholars from Senegal and Egypt and so on. Often times the scholars turn to North American institutions or funders to mediate, so there is a very pragmatic aspect to the financing of these things.

The other question is of how we access this. I think by being aware of the pitfalls of these mediations and by working within them to push them into other spaces that they might now intend to go. I think that we can acknowledge that dominant discourses are defined in ways that we may not necessarily have the power to redefine. We work within and want to destabilize, but whether we can step out of it, I’m not sure.

UDL: You hinted at the shared experience of settler colonialism in the North American continent as well as in the African continent during the UDL talk. Do you have any thoughts or comments about the place of the colonial discourse in the United States?

SP: The one comment I would make as an outsider thinking comparatively is that North America is a place where settler colonialism triumphed and Africa is a place where it has not. What are the implications of that? In Africa, in the Anglophone world there was a distinction between who was a race and who was an ethnicity. If you were a race you came from outside like the Asians, but indigeneity was defined ethnically. So Tutsi became a race because they were outsiders, but Hutu became an ethnic group. These distinctions matter and in a similar sort of way the North American experience is defined through the victory of the races and the struggles in civil rights. From the outside it is very interesting to me that the struggle of the indigenous or the Native American struggle has been displaced. There are solidarities that tend to be built between new immigrant communities that are marginalized with old immigrant communities that are powerful or remain marginalized. However, what would the acknowledgement of the erasure of the Native American question look like within other groups struggling for civil rights? I think this frames the settler colonialism question not only in the context of those who “won,” but also in terms of those struggling for equality. The terms of the struggle for equality remain on the terms of the settler:  in terms of races and equality, not in terms of indigeneity and equality.

UDL: Is the decolonized frame of mind accessible within the idea of the nation state, which is also a production of the colonial model?

SP: There are two issues I would raise there. The first is that there is a discourse in Africa around questioning the borders as colonial constructs and impositions. There is a critique of the arbitrary demarcations and of that history and a sense among some activists and scholars that these borders are the source of some of the problems we have. I think there is some truth to that. I’m less hesitant to go along with it completely because I think that borders, physical or not, are all human construction and the colonial history doesn’t necessarily undermine that. The implication of that is that do we think those borders that cut cultural communities should be turned into states and that the nation state should be cultural, not political? The other is that anticolonial struggles were not initially centered on seeking national independence. So anticolonial struggles were not immediately nationalist struggles on the continent. If you think about the history of Pan-Africanism, nationalism was not the end goal. These debates centered on what is the political community that is helpful for self-determination. They became nation state options, but they were not originally thought of like that. I think it is necessary to keep that question open and that we do not have to work within the territory of nation-state. Of course that legacy of Pan-Africanism has been institutionalized in various regional organizations that do aspire to form a common union as an institutional form that has been created out of a Pan-African legacy. There have been pushes to create regions with less strict borders, but of course we are more inclined to have goods and capital move rather than people, and South Africa is not alone in that.

UDL: As you just alluded to, there is an increase in movements between countries with globalization in general, so in this context, there is a concern that the West still holds the monopoly on both the material and epistemic means of social production. You have written about the difficulties of deciding to become a humanities scholar. Could you talk about that in general and also in the context of being in a globalized academic atmosphere?

SP: What I was getting to was that the ways in which the debate on the humanities, and as we know the humanities has, for quite some time, been under question – is it useful? What does it do? All these kinds of questions have led to its systematic devaluation, underfunding, and closure of departments. And we’ve all in some ways been made to defend the humanities. The debate I’ve been having is about what are the terms on which we will defend the humanities? We need to be both part of the global language and the global project of defending the humanities, and at the same time, we need to think about its particular inflictions in our context. What are the particular challenges to the humanities, and how do these shape how we should be defending it? For example, the privatized funding issues that many of us face should make us critical of independent thought. For South Africa, because of apartheid, you could not defend the humanities as it existed. It is precisely that uneasiness about inheritance that our students are criticizing.

UDL: From the vantage point of New York, which is a very multicultural space and becoming the hallmark of more and more cities, how do you reconcile this location aspect in your epistemological studies?

SP: I moved to New York in 2000 to start my PhD and it was a new induction into knowledge and scholarship from the postcolonial world that I had previously encountered in my country at that time. September 11th happened and that was a reminder that you have an amazing, available world of diversity of perspectives and critical thinking and important political progressive sensibilities and at the same time we all felt our dislocation from defining the public space in the country. It remains that kind of paradox in big cities and I think New York in particular has that kind of character. I think precisely one of the American university’s strengths is its liberal arts education, which has been able to, with all its problems, value diverse types of knowledge. I think something we all struggle with in the postcolonial world is our regional isolation because of funding, resources, and access, but I think it is different in the big American cities and universities, which can cultivate these global sensibilities.

UDL: Thank you Dr. Pillay. Pillay writes a monthly column for Economic and Political Weekly online (EPW) and is published widely in the press for anyone looking to read more from him.