Towards epistemic justice: casting a southern lens on language, identity and relations of knowing in postcolonial education – STIAS webinar by Caroline Kerfoot

2 December 2021

“Epistemic justice is about challenging unfair treatment that relates to knowledge, including who we recognise as the holders of knowledge and through what languages knowledge is conveyed. I’m interested in approaching the question of epistemic justice through language and linguistic practices,” said Caroline Kerfoot of the Centre for Research on Bilingualism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

“Epistemic justice is primarily concerned with relations of knowing – relations that construct or fail to construct others as knowers and, more importantly, as producers of knowledge. It challenges the epistemic injustices inextricably bound to coloniality, the racialised structures of power and value that survive colonialism and are kept alive in contemporary structures of governance.”

“Questions of decolonisation and epistemic justice in education have taken on increased urgency worldwide, not least in South Africa. Language is profoundly implicated in such questions: language-in-education policies often perpetuate colonial ideologies of who it is that can legitimately know and through what language.”

STIAS fellow Caroline Kerfoot during her public lecture on 25 November 2021

Kerfoot was presenting the third public webinar of the second semester focusing on her work around processes of cultural production in two primary schools in Cape Town where youngsters from groups previously separated by political, social, linguistic, or geographical boundaries construct new ways of living and languaging. Drawing on interactions, interviews and observations from two three-year linguistic ethnographies, Kerfoot discussed the complex ways in which adolescents used their multilingual repertoires to negotiate social and academic identities, rework historical divisions, and reconfigure raciolinguistic hierarchies of value.

“In the process, they forged new relations of knowing and new forms of conviviality from below,” she explained. “These emergent social, epistemic and moral orders suggest that postcolonial contexts such as South Africa where multilingualism is seen as a norm, rather than an exception, can offer an alternative, southern angle of vision.”

But, she quickly emphasised that the South is not a geographic location – the marginalisation of populations based on language exists everywhere.

“Where monolingualism is the norm, the addition of a new language is often an elite accomplishment or cultural capital, but there is also invisible multilingualism which is not recognised, seen as an aberration to be removed and not developed in education.”

“In the South multilingualism is the norm, the basis of everyday interactions and an integral condition of what it means to be human.”

She pointed out that colonial administrative structures mapped languages on to territories without any regard for multilingual language practices on the ground. Language was thus invented and is continually re-invented to suit political agendas. Indigenous knowledge was also translated into colonial languages and rewritten. In this way southern knowledge was repatriated to the North but not acknowledged, creating a monoculture of knowledge.

In a career that has combined academia and activism, Kerfoot was Head of the Language Education Department at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) from 2006 to 2011. Before this she worked as Director of a non-governmental organisation concerned with multilingual education. She has extensive experience of education policy work with the African National Congress’ government-in-waiting, trade unions and NGOs in South Africa.

Her research focuses on the role of language in constructing social difference and inequality in postcolonial contexts. It uses a southern, decolonial lens to investigate how language, race, and other forms of difference are negotiated, resisted, or transformed in multilingual classrooms and playgrounds. It further analyses how learners use multilingual repertoires to negotiate knowledge and relations of knowing.

Classrooms as sites of epistemic injustice

Kerfoot believes that the restrictive, uneven language policies that began with colonialism continue with monolingual policies in education.

“Colonialism is still present,” she said. “The social categorisation of populations based on race and language is still present. Colonialism sends it tendrils into the present through unequal relations of power, knowledge, and language, entangled with other forms of difference.

“The classroom can be a site of exclusion and silencing. A learner may know an answer but can’t say it in the accepted language, therefore their ability to be recognised as a competent knower is taken away, leading to self-silencing. The lack of recognition for certain languages and certain speakers can disrupt the flow of critical ideas and ultimately hinder the development of alternate knowledges.”

“In the 2011 South African census only 2.89% of Black Africans respondents indicated that English was their home language. An estimated 75% of learners are learning in an unfamiliar language. The Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study showed that 78% of South African Grade 4 children could not read for meaning in any language. In 2019, only 37% of learners that had started in Grade 1 twelve years earlier completed their schooling and only 16% obtained a pass for university entry.”

Transformation and alternative models are clearly needed. One such project was the 2007 Western Cape Language Transformation Plan, a co-operative project between the provincial government, the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) and UWC.

The project ran in 16 pilot schools and allowed learners to choose one of three languages – isiXhosa, English or Afrikaans – as their main language of learning up to Grade 6. It resulted in substantial improvements in literacy in these schools.

“Literacy results increased dramatically,” said Kerfoot. “Pupils in eight of the 16 schools wrote their assessments in their chosen language and achieved four times higher scores than in 2005.”

“In some classes English was the medium but pupils could use any language which resulted in the interweaving of all three languages for knowledge production.”

The project also aimed to understand how learners use language to negotiate social and cultural hierarchies and identities. Focusing on one of the schools in Delft on the periphery of Cape Town, Kerfoot pointed out that although 70% of the learners were black, 60% of the teachers and 80% of the administration staff were coloured. The main languages were isiXhosa and Afrikaans.

“Teachers and learners constantly negotiated norms of interaction. Linguistic identities were extremely complex, old and new ways of thinking about race co-existed, and race-bending strategies were used – where sometimes race mattered and sometimes it was avoided completely.”

Despite its success, the plan was shortlived.

“This was a significant moment in education, visionary and strongly research-based. A one-off combination of people and thinking made it possible but it was cut short when political power changed in the province, for incomprehensible reasons.”

Arguments against such attempts at multilingual education are usually based around resources, infrastructure and the lack of trained teachers. However, Kerfoot believes that ideology, political will and erroneous perceptions of economic cost are often the deciding factors.

But the work goes ahead albeit often on the ground.

“Change can expand upwards,” she said. “If we show value, things may start to shift. The central task ahead is about the shifting of reasoning to reflect multilingual realities. It’s an academic debate but can be informed by what happens on the ground.”

She pointed out that the work is happening at project level – for example, the African Storybook Project ( – “this is showing us what is possible but it’s still limited, not fast enough and needs more support to enter new spaces”.

“The current policies constitute epistemic injustice by removing the possibility of sustained epistemic contributions for the majority of learners. The lack of opportunity to learn in your chosen language is an epistemic injustice,” she said. “It can destroy your ability to be recognised as a knower with long-term effects on social and academic identities. It lays students open to long-term trajectories of economic and socio-political exclusion and disadvantage, along with reduced confidence in their own epistemic worth. We need a radical shift, a subversion of the normative order and the forging of new realities.”

“Policies and practices that embrace a multilingual episteme, valuing all languages equally as epistemic resources, can point the way to constructing more just, equitable and ethical conditions for learning.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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