What does the decolonisation of knowledge mean for black historians? Fellows’ seminar by Jacob Dlamini

15 September 2017

“Student protestors since 2015 have made demands for the decolonisation of knowledge production and the Africanisation of universities – what does this mean for a black historian?” asked Jacob Dlamini. “Implicit in these demands is the idea of an archive of black history that is yet to be tapped. And, that if this archive is accessed, our history and stories would be different.”

dlamini - 1 STIAS Fellow Jacob Dlamini in discussion at an earlier seminar

Dlamini, who is Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University and current STIAS fellow, was highlighting some of the challenges and dilemmas facing a ‘black historian’ to STIAS fellows.

He pointed to the shortages of black professors of history in South Africa. “In 2014 there were only 364 black professors and 2129 white. There are currently about 30 historians of African, Coloured and Indian descent in South Africa and only about 12 of these are women.”

“This small band of black historians is called upon to produce new forms of knowledge by accessing a supposedly black historical archive,” he added. “The idea is that our history would be different if written by black historians. But what is this archive and where is it located?”

“The idea that we need black historians to tell different histories is not a new idea – as far back as the early 1900s there was acknowledgement that a crucial element of our story was missing, that we were seeing a white version of African history,” he continued.

“Calls for the decolonisation of knowledge are also not new. However, no one seems to have any idea what decolonised knowledge would look like. Also we need to ask what we mean by a black archive of history and why there is an assumption that only black historians can access a supposedly black archive.”

“Even the classifications of White, Black, Coloured and Indian are part of the past we seek to decolonise,” he added.

Intergenerational trauma

Dlamini’s project aims to understand how ordinary South Africans remember histories of violence and how their memories are shared across generations.

“Why do individuals who did not experience apartheid personally claim to suffer from trauma as a result of apartheid?” he asked.

“What does it mean to remember your parents’ pain of humiliation when you yourself never experienced that humiliation? And how do these memories become history?”

He pointed out that although the project is about the intergenerational transfer of trauma it is also an attempt to understand how the past has shaped how the discipline of history has developed in South Africa.

“How are historians to make sense of the anger of the born-free generation—those born after the collapse of apartheid in 1994—towards their parents’ generation, as well as the born-frees’ rejection of the political settlement that brought about the New South Africa? Is this anger an expression of historical trauma? If so, how is the trauma of the past transmitted across generations?”

“Research by a number of scholars has found that the born frees rarely talk about past trauma. Instead, their anger and anxieties are about the present. They are about contemporary South Africa,” he continued. “This is what I’m trying to understand. There is also a class dimension to the student protests. Many of the leaders are middle class with no personal experience of apartheid, yet their anger is deep. What stories are these young people growing up with, what do they hear and how is that informing how they see the present?”

Dlamini was also prepared to give the protesters credit. “One of the things the student movement has done a marvelous job in is in calling into question the South African miracle.”

“I believe we have to understand the idea of collective trauma and of post memory. This also means challenging the master narrative, challenging the idea that all black people experienced apartheid in the same way. We must challenge the idea that all black people experienced violence. ”

“This also means challenging the idea that a black historian offers a unique perspective just by virtue of being black – a black interpretation doesn’t necessarily speak for all black people.”

“I think storytelling is where history can position itself,” he said, “but we must question the stories told.”

A personal dilemma

Speaking very personally of his own experiences of growing up in Katlehong on the East Rand, which experienced civil war and the death of about 3000 people between 1990 and 1994, Dlamini pointed to the challenges of telling stories about people you know.

“It’s not only stories of people who died but also stories of the perpetrators – in some cases my childhood friends. Can I? Should I tell the stories, knowing the implications?” he asked.

“Part of me feels the story has to be told. But what gives me the right? People have moved on. They have families. How fair would it be to ask them to revisit the past? They wouldn’t care if I was a historian. They would call me out on it.”

“Do you write and expose people – including yourself – to all kinds of challenges?” he continued. “Does every truth deserve to be told, every taboo deserve to be broken?”

“It’s also an ethical difficulty. There are a moral and legal implications. Very few of the perpetrators of the 25 000 deaths under apartheid have gone to jail.”

“For the average black person in South Africa the face of apartheid was a black face – government officials, teachers, police.”

“Only one senior white person – Eugene De Kock – spent any time in jail for crimes committed on behalf of the apartheid state,” he said. There are people currently walking the streets who have no business being on the streets. But do we want to add to the numbers of black people in jail – there are already more now than under apartheid.”

“I believe one of the failures of the ANC government has been not to prosecute some clear cases of human rights violations for which evidence was brought before the TRC. These cases deserved further investigation. Prosecutions that need to happen have not happened.”

Returning to the current challenge to South African universities and the discipline of history he said: “We must accept the fact that universities are elitist by definition. There are too many people in universities who shouldn’t be there. The challenge is in how to say this. One of the legacies of apartheid is that we lack the language in which to say the unsayable without echoing past injustices.”

“The problem is that in the past black people were told they didn’t belong – they were excluded just on the basis of race and politics. I had to seek special permission to study journalism at a white institution.”

“There is no question that we need more black scholars,” he continued.

“However, the idea that more black professors would mean more black history is false. It’s false to expect the black historian to do the right thing. It’s false that just being black means a historian can articulate the black experience.”

Words: Michelle Galloway, Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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