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Brechje Meijers en Marishelle Lieberwerth: The lived experiences of (de)coloniality

In October 2023, eleven students of the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH) in the Netherlands and seven students of Stellenbosch University in South Africa participated in an online dialogue about wokeness, coloniality and decolonization. In this blog, a Stellenbosch University student gives an impression of daily life on campus there. Brechje Meijers and Marishelle Lieberwerth (UvH students) discuss their daily realities at university, and compare (de)coloniality as a lived, daily experience versus decoloniality as a side project or metaphor.


BRECHJE: To me, entering a space of live conversation on decoloniality between students of two countries that share a painful past is a crucial part of the process of decolonization. To be able to look each other in the eyes, hear each other's voices, hear the silences, listen and acknowledge each other's lived experiences, and feel confrontation. This is more impactful than reading another academic article on the topic.
During our online dialogue with students in South Africa, Tibah (also an UvH student) and I spoke to two students from Stellenbosch University. Student Phumelele shared with us her experiences of colonial history and its consequences on a daily basis, living in South Africa. She told us how it is ever-present and fundamental, also within Stellenbosch University. For example, their university program is only offered in the ‘former colonial’ languages of English and Afrikaans, while her own mother tongue is the native Xhosa language. She explained the structural inequity this creates for many native speaking communities in South Africa, including some of her friends to whom the university remains inaccessible until today. I feel grateful for Tibah, who took a moment to explicitly acknowledge the intensity and emotionality of what Phumelele was sharing with us.

What seemed to stand out for most students who took part in the online dialogue was the stark difference in which (de)coloniality is visible in our everyday lives. Whereas in the Netherlands, focusing on (de)coloniality often seems to be a ‘side project’, it is an all-around and ‘in-your-face' reality in South Africa. 

STELLENBOSCH STUDENT*: At Stellenbosch University (SU), the majority of people are white, even though whites are the minority in the town of Stellenbosch and in South Africa[1]. The racial imbalance at SU is because tertiary education, as well as accommodation and living costs in central Stellenbosch, are quite expensive — with the economic legacy of apartheid, more white people than people of colour (POCs) are able to afford this. Additionally, because of the different levels of education according to race during apartheid, many POCs have parents that were neither able to help them with their school work, nor fund tutor sessions, meaning that they got lower marks in school (these are just two of the reasons contributing to that). This then contributes to the racial makeup of SU. Also due to the racial education system, the majority of lecturers are white. Generally, many educational institutions will have a majority-white teaching staff and then a Black cleaning/maintenance staff. In most businesses actually, especially service, retail and manual labour, it is very common for the owners/managers to be white and the employees to be POCs — unless the employees are white students working a part time job whilst studying. This is also visible in Stellenbosch and in the campus facilities and businesses.


On the “Rooiplein”, which is a main walkway on campus, there is a statue of Jan Marais, who bequeathed £100,000 "to the cause of education at Stellenbosch"[2], thereby enabling the university to be created. He was born here, but he gained his wealth off the Black miners working in harsh conditions. In my understanding, he would have had generational wealth (and racial privilege) stemming from Dutch ancestors that enabled him to profit off of mining. Many people are against this statue; there were even protests against it in 2016.


Architecturally, many buildings are very old here, including ones built in the Cape Dutch style. Apartheid is still visible, for example: the Arts and Social Sciences building has tinted windows that mostly do not open, which acted as a safety feature against any possible riots or violence during apartheid.


MARISHELLE: Through a small gateway, past bookshelves, I enter the small garden of the University of Humanistic Studies. We come in through the backdoor, rather than the stately front door. The building has old, rigid, heavy windows that sometimes require two people to lift them open and push them shut. There are 11 classrooms, where students call staff by their first names and drink tea and wrap themselves in scarves. It is cozy, it feels like walking through a large, old house. However, I have come to learn that a plantation and slave owner inhabited this building in the 19th century[3]. When I am aware of this, it changes my comfort and my wonder about the impressive elements of the building into discomfort about how this building came to be and what it has held within its walls.


We fill the rooms with talk of meaning-making and humanization, "a meaningful life in a just and caring society"[4], rooted in humanist traditions and values. Yet, as authors such as Anthony Pinn[5] and Sikivu Hutchinson[6] point out, the human in humanism tends to be in accordance with a Western Enlightenment view and humanists tend to disregard white privilege and how humanism has perpetuated racism. Another contrast that can puzzle me.

The curriculum at the UvH is mostly white. Research initiated and conducted by students shows: 95% (in 2019-2020) and 91,7% (in 2020-2021) of the authors on the curriculum were white and 96,6% of them were affiliated with institutions in Western countries[7]. The staff is mostly white. The students are mostly white. More so than I notice whiteness when walking through the UvH, I tend to notice when I encounter a staff member or student who is not white. When we discuss inequality, racism, intercultural communication and such topics, I can sometimes feel a bit alienated and can feel some pressure to offer a case example or expertise. I once joined a solidarity meet-up for POC at the university. The invitation list at that point consisted of 12 staff members and students total. Contemplating how few of us there were was confronting, yet our gathering gave me a specific sense of community that I had not experienced yet at the university – one that went beyond community through (academic) interests or shared values. It was about shared experiences and the mutual understanding it brings. Although coloniality is present in daily life in this country, decoloniality is lacking from agendas or is merely a side project.


BRECHJE: The inaccessibility of Stellenbosch University to many Xhosa speakers highlights enduring colonial academic structures. As a Dutch student, confronting this reality is especially valuable given the embarrassing lack of focus on the Dutch colonial impact on South Africa in our educational system. For me, it raises the following questions: As Dutch scholars, how can we take responsibility and action for this epistemic injustice in South Africa? How does this form of injustice manifest in our own universities and what can we do about it? 

A phrase that has recently echoed in my mind is 'Decoloniality is not a metaphor'[8]. This quote, often shared by activist friends, calls for real action -such as protesting- rather than treating decolonization as a mere theoretical concept. To me, it is a powerful phrase that also hints at the inherent discomfort in the decolonization process. Whereas decolonization as a metaphor can become a performative veil, decolonization as a process requires active confrontation and a persistent demand for a rebuilding of structures. 

Philosopher Franz Fanon saw the decolonization of educational institutions as fundamental in dismantling colonial structures. He argued that decolonizing educational systems involves promoting Indigenous knowledge, critical thinking, and community engagement. Moreover, he describes decolonization as a process of “complete disorder” which in fact cannot be fully understood. In his work Concerning Violence (1961) , Fanon writes:


Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content.”[9]

From the quote and Fanon’s words, I understand that we cannot treat any program or project focused on decolonization as a finite journey toward justice. True decoloniality is not an optional side project but a disorderly, inevitable, and ongoing confrontation with our intertwined histories and present realities. So let’s keep listening to each other’s stories, let’s keep looking each other in the eyes. Not as a symbolic or friendly gesture, not as a side project, but as an integral part of the process of decolonization. To keep each other sharp, not only on what decoloniality exactly means, but especially on how it is being felt and experienced. Actively engaging with each other’s experiences will help us to move beyond symbolism and into the real work of creating a more just,  equitable and decolonial future.

*= The Stellenbosch student in this blog opted to remain anonymous.






5= Pinn, A. B. (2017). When colorblindness isn't the answer: Humanism and the challenge of race. Pitchstone Publishing.
= Hutchinson, S. (2020). Humanists in the hood. Unapologetically Black, Feminist and Heretical. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing.

7= Research conducted and shared via email by Pluralistiek (a student and alumni association focused on decoloniality and intersectionality).

8= There is also an article titled Decolonization is not a metaphor by K. Wayne Yang and Eve Tuck (2012). Yang & Tuck emphasize that the true goal of decolonization is repatriation of Indigenous land and life and that the calls to “decolonize our schools'' or “decolonize student thinking” are turning it into a metaphor by equating it with a pursuit for social justice instead of focusing on repatriation. While they acknowledge these calls to be important too, they warn against the risk of the (former) settler to move to a place of innocence and thereby perpetuating ‘the colonial project’.  

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1–40

9 = This work appears in the book The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon (1961).

Lees ook

In October 2023, eleven students of the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH) in the Netherlands and seven students of Stellenbosch University in South Africa participated in an online dialogue about wokeness, coloniality and decolonization. In this blog, a Stellenbosch University student gives an impression of daily life on campus there. Brechje Meijers and Marishelle Lieberwerth (UvH students) discuss their daily realities at university, and compare (de)coloniality as a lived, daily experience versus decoloniality as a side project or metaphor.