Decolonizing Philosophy : On the protests in South African universities


Behind the violent debates that have shaken up South African universities, it is the whole legacy of colonialism and of the apartheid era that is at stake. This allows Ernst Wolff to question the status of contemporary African philosophy.

South African Universities: a pressurized environment

Seen as docile if not apolitical until then, South African students showed their political commitment since 2015—a commitment that has intensified in comparison to the beginning of the democratic era in 1994. [1] The question of university fees has taken center stage and mobilized students from virtually every university and of almost all political stripes. But much more than that is at stake. The demonstrations of 2015 are part of a growing rejection of the legacy of colonization and of apartheid. The explicit purpose of this movement is to “decolonize” and “transform” universities and academic research. The trigger for all the protests in 2015 was a demonstration against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the most emblematic figure of 19th Century British imperialism, on the campus of the University of Cape Town. As we will show below, the debates on academic philosophy in South Africa summarize the issues at stake in these protests.

During the protests, many journalists drew a comparison with the 1976 student—more specifically high school student—protests, which resulted in the deadly repression of the uprising in Soweto in June 1976. [2] The language used by the young generation today recalls the one used by their grandparents—that of the Black Consciousness movement. [3] But the two movements are very different: the social and political context has changed, the protesters are university and not high school students; some of them are “whites”, [4] the mobilization has grown thanks to social networks, etc.

The protesters’ central claim