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From ‘Dumb’ Decolonisation To ‘Smart’ Internationalisation

The international political and economic scene is poised once again to undergo another shift, as globalisation – its core pillar – comes under scrutiny from multiple corners, including its home base in the United States. Yet, a good number of leading African authorities and public intellectuals still mourn the past, clamouring about and thriving upon decolonisation.

In 2018, Mahmood Mamdani wrote: “It is striking, in the postcolonial era, how little the modern African university has to do with African institutions.” He goes on to argue that the university “draws its inspiration from the colonial period”.

Currently, Africa is home to about 2,000 universities that enrol an estimated 15 to 20 million students who access education through numerous forms of instructional delivery. Some larger countries now have millions of students in their fast-growing higher education sectors.

Analysing, articulating and critiquing the state of contemporary African universities in the context in which they were initially conceived and developed – in other words, under the tutelage of colonial entities and paradigms more than half a century ago – ignores the transformational growth and diversity the continent has registered.

Furthermore, given the rich variety of institutions on the continent, it remains to be seen the kind of African university (good old flagship or a fourth generation university) to which Mamdani is referring.

Universities are universal in their nature, exhibiting a multitude of common inherent traits. It is thus largely the role of responsible authorities and bodies to make them locally relevant and internationally desirable.

In the absence of a direct colonising power, isomorphism remains a dominant force in maintaining the basic and generic institutional traits, ultimately keeping academic institutions generally similar, if not the same – and dominated by Western discourses.

This article argues for a need to transition from archaic and ‘dumb’ decolonisation monologues to contemporary and ‘smart’ internationalisation dialogues that articulate discourses that strategically situate Africa at the centre of the global political and economic scenes.

Decolonisation vs internationalisation: a persistent contestation

More than half a century after the end of colonialism, Africa remains one of the last frontiers to bemoan its institutions’ remaining vestiges of colonialism, but is yet to do its part in terms of ensuring that its universities, as key institutions, are well-funded, effectively governed, professionally managed and strategically deployed.

If colonisation of African institutions is still happening, it may be taking place owing largely to the absence of a resolute and persistent strategic focus on the part of the ‘liberated’, if not a conspiracy of the ‘vanquished’.

At the dawn of African independence in the 1960s, the famous Africanist and founding father of the Republic of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, pronounced on the danger of the lack of a balanced view between what is local and what is international. He observed that there are “two possible dangers facing a university in a developing nation: the danger of blindly adoring mythical ‘international standards’ which may cast a shadow on national development objectives, and the danger of forcing our university to look inwards and isolate itself from the world”.

New centres of economic, political and diplomatic power are emerging, confounding the global world order. A lot has been written on the emerging relationship between Africa and the East, particularly China; but India is also quietly emerging, as are other new players that have no historical colonial baggage. The West, which has been heavily reliant on the United States for its strategic alliance, is reconsidering its position. Europe’s union is also being tested as fringe entities, such as extreme far rights, are emerging as mainstream.

There is a new world order where unilateralism, nationalism and racism appear to be taking root at the expense of multilateralism and global solidarity. As a consequence, the centre-periphery paradigm, and the discourses that underpin it, are increasingly losing their core virtues and meaning and “extant explanatory models have become redundant”, according to S Gopinathan and Philip Altbach.

Likewise, while the academic, intellectual and cultural power bases remain strong in the West, the East is fast catching up as an alternative choice, and an effective competitor for African resources – not just natural, but those of the mind and soul.

Amidst these tectonic shifts, the narrative of decolonisation remains largely the same, still feeding the new generation of Africans with the same, yet relegated, discourse, frozen in time.

In a 2018 article entitled “Alleged espionage and fierce denial: Breaking the silence of the lambs”, I called for the building and strengthening of Africa’s intelligentsia – institutes, structures and bodies – to address the continent’s growing intellectual deficit in relation to its major partners and enhance mutual benefits and partnerships.

Smart internationalisation

As the saying goes, all politics is local and I would argue that all internationalisation, that is, smart internationalisation, ought to be locally grounded and internationally flavoured. The choice one makes in terms of language use in academic institutions is as local as it is international. Curricula, designated readings and projects ought to be as local as they are international.

The essence of academic mobility in terms of study destinations and programme choices also needs to be as local as it is international. Research must be relevant to national and regional realities but ought to be advanced in keeping with international standards and perspectives.

Furthermore, international partnerships and cooperation need to be significant to local realities and needs. Accordingly, the respective local entities – universities, government departments and institutes – ought to strategically articulate their needs and frame them within appropriate international regimes.

Shaping the future

Communism is dead. Capitalism is in tatters. The Cold War was over, but is now back again. Multilateral agencies are in turmoil. Society is facing and is confounded by artificial intelligence. Oh, yes, we have landed on Mars, and have edited the genes of babies.

Yet, some of Africa’s brilliant minds continue to bemoan its past when they should proactively and aggressively endeavour to shape its future. To be sure, the painful reality, history and legacy of colonialism may never vanish – and historians, educators and others need to, rightfully, continue to write, teach and analyse it for generations. However, the realities of the past should not be allowed to thwart the crucial and requisite endeavours of the present and the future.

With due regard to the intellectual prowess of Mamdani, the modern African university is not a community of unitary enclaves reminiscent of the early years of post-independent Africa. When he bemoans “how little the modern African university has to do with African institutions”, it is not clear to which universities he is referring in the vast and ‘differentiated’ community and which do not – and ought not – draw their “inspiration from the colonial period”.

In conclusion, dumb decolonisation must give way to smart internationalisation that advances African academic, economic, social and political interests in the present and the future. It is time to re-focus on creating an enlightened cadre of African intellectuals, scholars and professionals who fully recognise their history but are confident – and competent – in navigating the international landscape in the national and continental as well as global interest.

This is an edited extract of “From ‘Dumb’ Decolonization to ‘Smart’ Internationalization: A requisite transition”, a chapter in Intelligent Internationalization: The shape of things to come, edited by Kara A Godwin and Hans de Wit and published by Brill, 2019.