Five takeaways from Mamdani’s UCT lecture on decolonising education


On Tuesday celebrated decolonial scholar Mahmood Mamdani returned to UCT, an institution he once accused of becoming “a new home for Bantu education”. After refusing to set foot at UCT, he returned 16 years later to give the TB Davie Memorial lecture on academic freedom. Here are five key points that the Daily Vox learned from Mamdani’s lecture on decolonising universities.

1. Mamdani only returned to UCT because Rhodes fell and birthed the decolonisation project

In the mid-90s Mahmood Mamdani was the AC Jordan Professor of African Studies at the University of Cape Town and the director of its Centre for African Studies. He was suspended after challenging the university for rejecting his “Problematising Africa” syllabus, which questioned the Eurocentric nature in which Africa was studied in universities. The scandal, which came to be known as the Mamdani Affair, is famous in higher education communities for illustrating the repression of academic freedom at an institution that claimed this as one of its highest values. Mamdani eventually left UCT and refused to return to the institution until this seminar. He made his motivation for returning very clear.

“Somebody asked me, you’ve been away from UCT for 16 years, why now did you decide to come? I said because Rhodes fell,” he told the audience.

Students in the lecture venue pushed for UCT administrators to apologise to Mamdani for the university’s past transgressions, but current vice chancellor Max Price did not offer any apology on behalf of the institution. Some students did not take kindly to Price’s attitude.

“It is not surprising that Dr Price will not apologise to you. We will wait for another 40 years as they did to AC Jordan, another many years as they did to [Archie] Mafeje,  to acknowledge the institutional and systemic racism that black people suffer at the hands of white people. Max Price, you are morally bankrupt!” said student activist Chumani Maxwele.

2. Modern African universities are built on a European model intended to colonise the minds of students and perpetuate a Eurocentric vision of society

Mamdani argued that the African university began as a colonial project. To be “civilised” was to live by European values, frameworks, norms and sensibilities – the university was the frontline of the colonial “civilising” mission. The colonial university’s ambition was to create universal scholars who stood for excellence regardless of context, and who would serve as the vanguard of the “civilising” mission without reservation or remorse. For Mamdani, decolonisation is the undoing of this process.

“If you regard yourselves as prisoners in this on-going colonising project, then your task has to be one of subverting that process from within. This must be done through a series of acts which sift through the historical legacy, and the contemporary reality, discarding some parts and adapting others to a new-found purpose. In short: decolonisation,” said Mamdani.

3. African universities must strive for both relevance and excellence

Mamdani said that during the East-African reform movement in the 1960s an important debate took place about whether the university was the home of the “universal student” or whether it should be a place for the “public intellectual”. These contrasting visions were articulated by academics Ali Mazrui and Walter Rodney. Mazrui called for a university true to its classic vision – the home of the scholar “fascinated by ideas”. Rodney saw the university as the home of the public intellectual – “a committed intellectual, located in his/her time and place, and deeply engaged with the wider society”.

However compelling, these contrasting visions were grounded in one-sided notions of higher education as either relevant or excellent, he said. The challenge was not to choose one over the other but how to bring the two together.

“If universities could be displaced from politics, if knowledge production can be immune from power relations, then place would not matter – but we know that that’s not the case. At the same time, ideas also matter. If they did not, why have a university at all? This is to say that politics is not everything,” said Mamdani.

4. The way for student movements to secure progressive gains made at universities is to ensure those gains are institutionalised

Mamdani said the only way to ensure the gains achieved by the mass mobilisation of students is to institutionalise them within the university.

“If you do not set up centres while you are here, if you do not get faculty employed, if you do not build into the inertia of the university, if your gains do not show in the annual tallying of accounts and expenses – then you have not institutionalised anything,” said Mamdani.

It would be very difficult to secure progress without this, he said, because it would require movements to sustain their levels of militancy and mobilisation, which becomes impossible over long periods.

5. What does it practically mean, then, to decolonise education?

Mamdani answered this question with a practical example of how he teaches at Uganda’s Makerere University. He requires his PhD students to identify a colonial text that was a foundation and reference point that Western academics would draw from. His students have to understand the language of whom the text spoke of, and are not allowed to graduate unless they have research proficiency in two other languages besides English. He then asks his students to analyse and describe the author’s assumptions in deciding what information is relevant.

“What categories is he/she utilising to validate certain information and invalidate other information? And then I say to them, now you use the same information and give me a different narrative than the author. That’s decolonisation,” he said.

Watch his lecture below:

Featured image: screenshot from video


  1. I respect Mamhood Mamdani as a foremost scholar in African politics and society. I have felt greatly inspired by his works in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi history and politics. Decolonization is an old African Universities theme or ideology expressed since the first Pan African Conference, 1900, organized by the late African American foremost intellectual on race relations, W.E.B Du Bois. It further found intellectual support in Frantz Fanon, foremost French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sarte and Michel Foucault. It is about redeeming one’s identity, history, dignity and a sense being with personal destiny. It is a call for evoking the cosmic spiritual energy and inter-linkages among animate and inanimate beings

  2. I wonder what he has to say about the Department of Basic Education’s attempt to withdraw mathematics as a mandatory subject in schools? That’s exactly the type of thing he has been fighting against his entire life. Mathematics is a fundamental necessity for humanity’s progress.

    • This depends on what you define ‘progress’ to be. Is progress ‘economic emancipation’; is it ‘cultural emancipation’; is progress ‘religious emancipation’; is progress all of the above?

      However way you choose define progress to be, then what becomes your priority areas in attaining what you have termed as ‘development’? Say for instance, development (or progress) for me is encompassing cultural and religious liberties , then what role does mathematics apply in this? And even if it applies, should the mathematics be applied to all students with the same intensity of thought and depth of analysis?

      What I am pointing out here, is that there are no answers, only questions. And you should be able to attain peace once you have answered your set of personal questions (which do not necessarily have to be the same to someone else’s).

  3. “Progress” in a societal context is very well defined and has been for at least a century. The metrics used are: Life expectancy, Infant mortality, access to educational opportunities, access to employment opportunities, and general wellbeing. Trying to obfuscate the argument with postmodernist claptrap does nothing to improve the lot of the millions of unemployable South Africans who’s only concern is where their next meal is coming from. We have real problems to solve and wasting our time and effort on unsaleable pursuits is not helping the situation.

  4. I would have thought this would have made it to the list:

    African languages have remained “folkloric”, Mamdani said: not the bearer of a scientific or scholarly tradition. But there is one noteworthy exception on the African continent: that of Afrikaans.

    “It is no exaggeration to say that Afrikaans represents the most successful decolonising initiative on the African continent,” Mamdani said, to murmurs of interest from the audience. He pointed out that it took just half a century of a “vast affirmative action programme” for Afrikaans to be lifted from the status of other African languages to be the bearer of an intellectual tradition.

    “The great irony is that [this success story] was not emulated by the government of independent South Africa,” says Mamdani, with reference to other indigenous South African languages.


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