Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

When Linda Johnson and I shared responsibilities for the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity, we had many discussions that were close to the leading topic of the ongoing Africa Knows! Conference for which I am co-responsible, ‘It is time to decolonize minds’. In a recent email message to all conference participants, David Ehrhardt, Marieke van Winden and I shared some preliminary thoughts about lessons learned so far. I reflect on them here.

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

“Of course Africa knows. What a self-evident title for a conference. Why did they select this title?” Those remarks have often been made since the African Studies Centre in Leiden, and its many partners, including the ISS, started the preparations for what was meant to be a three-day conference about knowledge development in Africa, and that has become a three-month virtual meeting place between 8 December 2020 and 24 February 2021 (see www.africaknows.eu). But the conference title is ‘Africa Knows!’, with an exclamation mark.

When research, higher education, and education in general are being discussed, the focus in the past has often been on problems, on lack of quality, on a brain drain, on Africa lagging behind. With the exclamation mark, the conference organizers want to show that the focus will be on the many positive developments in Africa’s knowledge sector and the need to ‘decolonize’ our minds if we (Africans and Europeans alike) think and talk about Africa.

Africa Knows! is also a wink at earlier conferences that the African Studies Centre organized (together with the Netherlands African Business Council) in 2012 and 2014: ‘Africa Works!’, also with that exclamation mark. That title was meant as a counterpoint to the book ‘Africa Works’ (Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, with as its subtitle ‘Disorder as Political Instrument’, 1999) and an emphasis on problems and disasters that so often dominated debates in the 1980s and 1990s. Things are different now; we only need to see it with different eyes, with decolonized eyes.  So let me focus in this blog on the core issue of the conference Africa Knows!: how to decolonize minds.

‘Decolonization’ has elicited a wide range of responses from those conference participants that have attended the conference online thus far. For some, the issue was, and still is, regarded as odd so many decades after most African countries have become politically independent (and some parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia, have never been colonized). Others feel that the impact of colonialism and its institutions should not be overemphasized (it was said to be “just a scratch on the surface of the long history of Africa”), or that it is being regarded as “having taken place too long ago”, or that it takes away the agency (and blame) from African leaders for their policy mistakes and behaviour after independence and places blame on ‘the past’, or on ‘colonials’.

At the same time, many participants said that, even without ever having experienced colonial overlords, colonial mindsets can be influential and long lasting, and many conference participants are convinced that ‘decolonizing (academic) minds’ really is an issue, both for Africans and for Europeans – including from countries that have never been colonizers, or have not been engaged in slavery or supporting ‘Apartheid’. Moreover, it was also raised as an issue for Asians and Americans. So let us try to summarize some of the mindset issues that have been discussed during the Africa Knows! sessions that took place in December 2020.

First of all, we discussed colonial mindsets and practices in academia. We tried to become more aware of the implicit and explicit biases we hold and how they affect our attempts to decolonize our academic practices. The following were cited as some of the main issues we face in academia:

  • Framing the relationship between partners as ‘capacity development’, ‘training’, or ‘helping out’ rather than collaboration. Hierarchies are produced in academia by claiming that partners, particularly those in the Global North, collaborate with those in the Global South in the name of ‘capacity development’, for example.
  • Preferring leadership in research consortia and in project evaluations to be taken by partners from outside Africa. This is linked to the above hierarchization of partnerships that results in the undermining of the agency and capacity of African institutes forming part of research consortia.
  • Preferring to publish in non-African journals and with non-African publishers. This is done seemingly for the sake of ‘high-quality science’, but diminishes opportunities for African journals to rise to prominence.
  • Dependence on ideas, and funding from outside Africa, so evident in many publications about Africa, where indigenous knowledge hardly plays a role, where relevant African ideas are ignored, and where ‘who pays, decides’, so often seems to determine the hierarchies in knowledge production and use.
  • Disregarding scholarly work not written in English (or French). Some journals even refuse to incorporate other languages in the bibliography.
  • Prioritising (first) authorship of non-African scholars in publications. All too often, first authorship is given to the senior, Western scientist rather than to the author(s) who did most of the work.
  • Publishing about Africa without taking note of African contributions in the same field of related fields. Just check out bibliographies of papers you have recently reviewed, and you will see for yourself.
  • Publishing in journals for which others have to pay (behind paywalls). Open access will make a large difference to scholars in Africa and many other places.

We also discussed ways in which mindsets and practices in academia are already being decolonized. Our main conclusion is that we have some way to go in view of the problems listed above. Here are some of the main things we have done or can do to help decolonize academia:

  • Co-create research and innovation in teams with equals.
  • Make use of indigenous institutional strength and experiences, and don’t rely on people and funds from elsewhere.
  • Encourage African leadership in research teams and in project evaluations.
  • Encourage Africans to be first author in cases of joint research.
  • Be aware of available local contributions to studies about African affairs, and use it in teaching and in publications.
  • Make sure that libraries about Africa contain many publications published in Africa itself.
  • Encourage students and authors in African Studies to include many references from Africa.
  • Ensure that all partners contribute financially to research projects, conferences, publications, and other forms of collaboration.
  • Encourage teaching, conversations, and publications in other languages than English, and promote bridging the language divides.
  • Highlight indigenous/endogenous ideas and practices.
  • In teaching about Africa, include more pre-colonial history and more knowledge from and about marginal areas.
  • In African Studies, give recognition to the importance of North Africa and its linkages with Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Put more emphasis on Africa’s linkages in past and present with Asia and Latin America, and within Africa.
  • In encouraging ‘African’ contributions, do not judge ‘Africans’ by their skin colour.

Although our discussions were focused on Africa, we anticipate that similar issues are faced in other contexts in the Global South. Intensified discussions are needed to ensure that no-one gets left behind, particularly as the current global COVID-19 pandemic continues.

About the author:

Ton Dietz (African Studies Centre Leiden, and former vice-chair of the Prince Claus Curatorium, with Linda Johnson as its secretary).

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