Talks / Teaching

Talk presented at the University of Pretoria’s Conference on Curriculum Transformation: Pioneering transformative curriculum experiments in African-centred psychology

Here are the first 1000 words or so of a talk presented at a conference hosted by the University of Pretoria on January 28 2016. The talk, with the title Pioneering transformative curriculum experiments in African-centred psychologywas given by Kopano Ratele of the University of South Africa. The conference was on curriculum transformation.


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Professor Duncan, Professor Kilfoil and all of your colleagues, I couldn’t be gladder for the invitation and bringing us together for this gathering. Thank you.

My call this morning is simple. It is a call arising from the fact that most disciplines as they are still largely taken up in South Africa continue to freight coloniality, a global Northern gaze, and the alienation of African students and, another degree, African researchers and lecturers. This is very much case in the discipline in which I was trained, psychology. As such, I wish to call us to find ways of teaching, learning, practicing and organising the space of a discipline like psychology, ways that begin with centering this idea and reality called Africa, as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza might say.

Centering, and the related notion of centredness and centricity, is possibly the most fundamental concepts I would like you take home with you. In thinking Africa, Molefi Kete Asante and Manthia Diawara are only some of the people who have assisted me to get to this, or in fact to get the point. Following Asante’s argument for centricity in education[i], my call derives from the position that insofar as nearly all university teachers in this country perpetuate the coloniality that they enjoyed or endured through what they teach, we need a curriculum that centres African students inside knowledge, inside mathematics, history, architecture, information technology, art, psychology, and any of the disciplines they choose.

As for  developing a liberating know-how for reading, watching movies, observing the world, and resisting ideological oppression I have found Manthia Diawarra’s[ii] germinal paper on “spectatorial resistance” instructive. Although it is on film, the article should be in the curriculum of all undergraduate students in the humanities and social sciences. At a minimum it should be given to all black students for extra credit if they get to recognise those narratives that compel or seduce the black subject to identify with racist inscriptions of the black character and sympathise with the violent, colonising perspective of the white male hero. Certainly, it is one I wold prescribe for a course on African-centred psychology.

And so I call on us to consider why, today, in this free country, at this university and the rest of our universities, it is imperative to have something called African psychology (and the adjective African must remain under erasure). By African Psychology I do not mean, to paraphrase Cross’s words, the psychology crafted by black Americans – who, as far as I know, were the first to focus on building an African psychology, but it was one to deal with the predicaments, problems, and dilemmas enveloping their lives in the United States. I mean by an African-psychology a body of knowledge that takes Africa as a default, a location of creating Africa-originated psychology for the world.

The call for an African-centred psychology arises not only because African philosophy, literature, history and politics have shown us the way decades ago, although there is much we have learned from the debates that took place in and gave birth to these disciplines. Rather, to iterate, the call is grounded in the view that the curriculum in psychology and other disciplines in South Africa continues to perpetuate an other-directedness, global Northern perspectives of the world, and the notion of black people as marginal figures and not quite human.

But I need to start somewhere else, which, given the time, is really not advisable.

In October 2015, the National Department of Higher Education and Training hosted the 2nd Higher Education Summit in Durban. As you may be aware, one of the points subsequently underscored by the agreement from Summit was “curriculum change is at the core of university transformation initiatives”[iii]. Okay, yes of course, change is very much needed and potentially very good. But, change what and change towards what?  Who is being changed and who leads change? What do we hope to achieve from a transformed curriculum Does it matter if the intended beneficiaries of are resistant to the initiatives and what do to do about resistance? How then do we change?

Those of you aware of the Universities South Africa (USAf)[iv] contribution to the Summit will recognise that two words in my title, are borrowed from that document: those two almost disposable words – ‘pioneering experiments’ – was what stuck in my head because there wasn’t much that was new from the Summit – except, of course, the urgency of the student voices which could not be suppressed.

In their submission USAf contended that in spite of the multiple challenges of transformation faced by both black and white institutions and many cases of unacceptable practices within the higher education system,

“there are many good practices, pioneering experiments and in some cases, noteworthy breaks in the proverbial ‘glass ceilings’ to be found all across the sector, often led by groups of academics, innovative managers, student organisations and leaders”.


I wanted to hear more of these experiments by academics, managers and students, but alas, that tantalising phrase is all we got. If we are going to adequately change universities and university curriculum such experiments would be instructive – and not only those that are successful and perhaps ready for up-scaling, but also the promising ones and those that have failed. It is my believe that one of the hindrances that has held some of us back is a reluctance or trepidation or resistance to experiment so that we can ‘fail big and fail quickly’ – even though that is one of the gifts political freedom from racist patriarchy has bequeathed us.

To track a little bit further back, USAf’s contention was in response to the 2015 budget speech of the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande[v]. In that speech Nzimande had argued that despite the significance of the student campaigns around symbolism like the statue of CJ Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, we must not conflate such struggles with “more fundamental matters of transformation”. For him the fundamentals were to

“radically change the demographics of our professoriate; eliminate racism, sexism and all other forms of unjust discrimination; improve academic success rates; and expand student support”.


Most pertinent for my talk, Nzimande noted the need to “cultivate greater awareness of Africa” and “transform the curriculum and research agendas.”



[i] Asante, M.K. (1991). The Afrocentric Idea in Education. The Journal of Negro Education, 60 (2), pp. 170-180

[ii] Diawara, M. (1988). Black spectatorship: problems of identification and resistance. Screen, 29 (4): 66-79.

[iii] The 2015 Durban Statement on Transformation in Higher Education, 17 October 2015. Retrieved Jan 25 2016, from

[iv] Universities South Africa (USAf) (2015) Reflections on Higher Education Transformation: Discussion paper prepared for the second national Higher Education Transformation Summit (ANNEXURE 5). Retrieved Jan 25 2016, from

[v] Minister Blade Nzimande: Higher Education and Training Dept Budget Vote 2015/16, 13 May 2015. Retrieved Jan 26 2016 from

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