The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Decolonising knowledge: Can ubuntu ethics save us from coloniality?

ubuntu
  • Prof Piet Naudé
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Reports, Leadership
11 minutes to read

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Article written by Prof Piet Naudé

Why this study?
The state of the education system in South Africa has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years – but usually for the wrong reasons. With thousands of school leavers finding university education increasingly expensive and inaccessible, pent-up frustrations were finally unleashed in 2015 in the #FeesMustFall campaign. Along with demands for the freezing or even elimination of fees, there were calls for the ‘decolonisation’ of education. Resistance to colonial or Western philosophies and traditions being portrayed as the foundation stones of learning and professional success (sometimes referred to as ‘coloniality’) is not unique to African countries. Yet given the continent’s long history of colonial rule and still-lingering after-effects, the ‘decolonisation project’ has been gaining momentum.

Those who wish to decolonise knowledge are concerned that Western schools of thought, worldviews and ethics dominate university and other formal learning curricula, suppressing other forms of knowledge and even implying that they are inferior. Although the literature on decolonisation is replete with examples of how Western knowledge has come to dominate economics, science and commerce, it is more hesitant about what the practical alternatives should be. This paper highlights some of the key issues in the decolonisation of knowledge debate, using African business ethics ‒ embodied in the concept of ubuntu ‒ as a case study.

… individual personhood and autonomy are prevalent in all societies, including those in Africa, which weakens the argument that ubuntu is all about and only about the community.

Research methodology
The literature on the decolonisation of knowledge was extensively surveyed, supported by an analysis of some of the most important writings on the possibility of and prospects for a distinctive form of African ethics emerging.

What did the research find?
Western knowledge traditions have long dominated academic thinking in many parts of the world – even in those countries whose historical development has not been characterised by colonial conquest. Thus, African scholars of ethics will inevitably start their intellectual journey in Europe, studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche and others. Any appraisal of the ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ knowledge systems of Africa – if addressed at all – is inevitably from a Western perspective.

There are three broad models for giving greater prominence to African business ethics: the direct transfer of Western ethics to Africa (transfer model), the translation of Western ethics into an African context (translation model), and the development of a uniquely African system of ethics via the so-called ubuntu principle (substantive model).

In the transfer model (the most basic of the three), Western ethics are accepted as the norm or the ideal and are simply used in an African setting without being subjected to any critical review. In such a case, the works of Kant, Hobbes or Aquinas would, for example, be prescribed as primary reading material in a university ethics course so that the impression of ethics as ‘colonial’ discipline is reinforced.

The desire for autonomy need not be at loggerheads with the value attached to relationships.

Research methodology
The literature on the decolonisation of knowledge was extensively surveyed, supported by an analysis of some of the most important writings on the possibility of and prospects for a distinctive form of African ethics emerging.

What did the research find?
Western knowledge traditions have long dominated academic thinking in many parts of the world – even in those countries whose historical development has not been characterised by colonial conquest. Thus, African scholars of ethics will inevitably start their intellectual journey in Europe, studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche and others. Any appraisal of the ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ knowledge systems of Africa – if addressed at all – is inevitably from a Western perspective.

There are three broad models for giving greater prominence to African business ethics: the direct transfer of Western ethics to Africa (transfer model), the translation of Western ethics into an African context (translation model), and the development of a uniquely African system of ethics via the so-called ubuntu principle (substantive model).

In the transfer model (the most basic of the three), Western ethics are accepted as the norm or the ideal and are simply used in an African setting without being subjected to any critical review. In such a case, the works of Kant, Hobbes or Aquinas would, for example, be prescribed as primary reading material in a university ethics course so that the impression of ethics as ‘colonial’ discipline is reinforced.

In fact, it is ubuntu’s strong tribal character that lies at the heart of factionalism in Africa and corruption based on patronage.

Why is it so difficult to escape from coloniality?
There are two reasons why it is so difficult to escape from coloniality. Firstly, to construct a coherent ethics is a theoretical task. Such ethics is a second-order form of knowledge beyond the implicit, first-order knowledge that people share in their everyday lives. But the moment one starts to reflect on, for example, African indigenous moral convictions, there is no way to escape the long history of Western theories in which such reflection is then couched.

Secondly, what could traditionally be seen as ‘Western’ knowledge against which decolonisation should revolt has – via technological and economic globalisation – become so embedded across the globe that it is simply seen as knowledge and not as ‘Western’ knowledge. When a heart is transplanted in Africa, a vehicle is built in South Korea, and gold is mined in Brazil, the technology and stable scientific knowledge that make this possible have lost their ‘Western’ roots, and have become the way of shared, global scientific thinking with huge benefits to societies.

When a heart is transplanted in Africa, a vehicle is built in South Korea, and gold is mined in Brazil, the technology and stable scientific knowledge that make this possible … have become the way of shared, global scientific thinking.

The value of this research
This study asked some tough questions about the growing call for the decolonisation of knowledge in Africa and removed the usual gloss from the concept of ubuntu – particularly from the perspective of its value as the foundation of an African ethics system. Ubuntu does represent one of the strongest attempts to date to de-centre Eurocentric views and reduce the impact of coloniality, but ubuntu-driven ethics run the risk of reinforcing and perpetuating an ‘exclusive’ mind-set which is reminiscent of the much-maligned colonial era. The ambiguity of propagating an African ubuntu ethic is that – because it is developed in contrast to Western thinking and is expressed in terms that conform to Western academic rules – it may in fact be reinforcing coloniality.

The decolonisation debate is clearly complex and requires further debate and research.

Prof Piet Naudé is the Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School where he lectures in ethics related to politics, economics and business. He holds an MA in Philosophy (cum laude) and a doctoral degree in Systematic Theology from Stellenbosch University.

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