European Epistemology and an African Philosophy of Education

Published on 4th June 2019

On the 21st of October 1949, Robert Sobukwe delivered a powerful and riveting speech at the Fort Hare University in which he addressed topical issues of the day. Sobukwe’s speech is still as relevant today. South Africa is still grappling with most of the problems that Robert Sobukwe addressed and provided solutions for seventy years ago? Out of all the topics he dealt with in that address, I would like to choose the part in which he challenged European epistemology and quote it in its entirety:

“I had occasion last year and also at the beginning of this year to comment on some features of our structure of which I do not approve. It has always been my feeling that if the intention of the trustees of this College is to make it an African College or University, as I have been informed it is, then the department of African Studies must be more highly and more rapidly developed. Fort Hare must become the centre of African Studies to which students in African Studies should come from all over Africa, We should also have a department of Economics and of Sociology. A nation to be a nation needs specialists in these things. Again I would like to know exactly what the College understands by “Trusteeship.”

I understand by “Trusteeship” the preparation of the African ward for eventual management and leadership of the College. But nothing in the policy of the College points in this direction. After the College has been in existence for 30 years the ratio of European to African staff is 4 to 1. And we are told that in ten years’ time we- might -become an independent University. Are we to understand that an African University predominantly guided by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff? I said last year that Fort Hare must be to the African what Stellenbosch is to the Afrikaner. It must be the barometer of African thought. It is interesting to note that the theory of “Apartheid” which is today the dominating ideology of the State was worked out at Stellenbosch by Eiselen and his colleagues. That same Eiselen is Secretary for Native Affairs. But the important thing is that Stellenbosch is not only the expression of Afrikaner thought and feeling but is also the embodiment of their aspiration. So also must Fort Hare express and lead African thought.”

Sobukwe exposed Stellenbosch University as an incubator of white supremacists and poisonous ideas instead of being a centre of learning. It was also at the same university that the Bantu Education system was hatched. The Bantu Education system was a racist and inferior education system meant for Africans and transferred the control of the education system to the apartheid government. Its aim was to turn the African people into “hewers of wood and drawers of water” as the following quotes indicate:

The white government made it clear that Bantu education was designed to teach African learners to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" for a white-run economy and society, regardless of an individual's abilities and aspirations. In what are now infamous words, Minster of Native Affairs, Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd, explained the government's new education policy to the South African Parliament:

There is no space for him [the "Native"] in the European Community above certain forms of labour. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze.

When the Bantu Education system was mooted in the early 1950’s, then President of the Transvaal African Teachers’ Association (TATA), Zeph Mothopeng, who was Vice Principal at Orlando High School, had been teaching for about ten years. He, Eskia Mphahlele and Peter Matlare protested and were ultimately sacked from teaching. As President of TATA, Mothopeng had travelled the length and breadth of the country mobilising and agitating against Bantu Education.

How would Mothopeng and his colleagues not have challenged the introduction of Bantu Education considering Verwoerd’s and the apartheid government’s condescending attitude and the long term psychological damage this inferior system of education was going to inflict on African students? Moreover, Sobukwe had warned in 1949 about, “…the theory of “Apartheid” which is today the dominating ideology of the State was worked out at Stellenbosch by Eiselen and his colleagues.”

In 1949 the government appointed a commission, headed by anthropologist W.W.M. Eiselen, to study and make recommendations for the education of native South Africans. The Eiselen Commission Report (1951) urged the government to take charge of education for black South Africans in order to make it part of a general socioeconomic plan for the country. In addition, the report stated that the schooling should be tailored toward the needs and values of the cultures of the communities in which the schools were located. The prescriptions of the commission were generally followed by the Bantu Education Act.

A racist white anthropologist – not an educationist - was appointed to study and make recommendations for the education of native South Africans. The subjects of this study were not consulted for their views on the education of their children. Eiselen and Verwoerd both studied for their doctorates at the University of Hamburg in Germany. Verwoerd also attended at Leipzig University in Germany. The education they received in Germany imbued them with the paternalism that informed them “to take charge of the education of Africans in order to make it part of a general socioeconomic plan for the country.”

The aims of these Germany trained scholars were transparent. They wanted to starve the education of Africans of funding something that still happens to the education of Africans and people of African descent throughout the world to this day. They also wanted to control the thinking processes or the culture of the African people. The first thing Europeans do when colonising an indigenous people is to attack their culture as many African intellectuals on the continent and abroad have found out. As I pointed, culture is a people’s thinking processes. It also includes their history and language. They distort history and impose their languages.

Given what Sobukwe said in 1949, the actions of Mothopeng and his colleagues protesting against the introduction of Bantu Education and the utterances of apartheid ideologists, one would have expected that in 1994 the ANC government to introduce a deliberate philosophy of education to counter the racist philosophy of education propounded and introduced in the early 1950’s by Eiselen, Verwoerd et al which Black Consciousness Movement leader Onkgopotse Tiro also challenged in his 1972 University of Turfloop graduation speech.

Alas, this never happened twenty five years after the so-called new dispensation! Not only was there no new philosophy of education introduced but Sobukwe’s teachings were literally expunged from history curriculum. There is nothing in the history books about Mothopeng’s fight against Bantu Education in the early 1950’s. There is also nothing in the history books about Tiro’s continued challenge of the apartheid government and its inferior education system under very difficult circumstances and the way he was brutally assassinated in Botswana in February 1974. Not only has Tiro’s name been excluded from history text books but the South African government is also playing hard ball with the Tiro family by ignoring their Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) application to gain access to Tiro’s security file. The Botswana government is also uncooperative with regards to releasing information on Tiro’s assassination. 

By Sam Ditshego.

sam412d@gmail.com


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