Cape Town Conversations 2: still decolonising after all these years

Why are students’ personal experiences so often marginalised?

Decolonising the jazz curriculum re-emerged as a topic at the March Cape Town jazz festival press conferences, perhaps because the September UCT Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) report opened some specific jazz conversations that still go on. (The report at and some critical comments at ). Musicians who are also university jazz teachers, including Nicole Mitchell, Mike Rossi and John Fedchock, all faced questions about jazz curriculum and learning processes. The issues emerged in a slightly different form at the Mistra Arts and Development imbizo in Johannesburg* in April. How students encounter learning should be central to these debates; often it is pushed to the margins.

Conservatoire questions

Where it all started: fallist protests

CCWG reflected many black students’ experience that the primacy of the conservatoire model of teaching, plus foregrounding a deficit approach (focusing on “what students lack” rather than “what students bring”) and the genres and narratives of the global North, made the South African College of Music (SACM: for fuller commentary see ) feel exclusionary. Some senior faculty have questioned the process shaping the report – see the references above – but have not so far discussed the wider questions students raised, such as:

  • Is it possible to teach South African music formally given that it is primarily produced in informal sites?
  • What space does the music curriculum allow for spirituality as a musical practice?
  • Why do we study music and what do we hope to do with our music?

Those issues continued to lurk in the background when, at the CTIJF presscons, Rossi and Fedchock were asked about incorporating the South African jazz canon into the UCT curriculum. “Every one of our courses has some South African jazz in it,” replied Rossi. He described individual points in the current curriculum where South African jazz is added, and how students are encouraged to seek out and study South African works for themselves outside class. Both men also described the constraints they saw: the need to focus first on developing basic instrumental technique, the numbers of students who must be accommodated, and, said Fedchock, “there’s so much information now you have to get across to students…you have to get through that whole timeline.”

Teaching to deficits: a discredited approach

That’s presumably the US jazz history timeline; the UCT programme does not begin with Khoisan music, which has been foundational and inspirational for many of the city’s leading jazz players and composers including the late Robbie Jansen and Hilton Schilder. And technique matters, but music is more than technique. It embodies lived experiences (including spirituality and community) that can’t be fully explained by a taught unit. Further, universities often undervalue teaching skills for faculty (under-monitor and under-support). More than half a century of educational research demonstrates how employing the deficit teaching model at best fails to build on students’ lived experiences and at worst (often) marginalises them to the point of failure. The first key question still largely unanswered is how the teaching should be done. (For one alternative curriculum approach, see )

Nicole Mitchell was eloquent about the mismatch between jazz and the conservatoire paradigm with its “culture of the winner” and erosion of student confidence: “You’re automatically closing access to those who’ve mastered other musics in other ways”. That’s not a comment on the efforts of any individual instructor; it’s inherent in the model. A respondent referenced above says the CCWG report “demotivates” staff – but it’s not about you, people! It’s about how the process hurts learning. However well intentioned and diligent you are, that won’t change unless the process changes.


The movie Whiplash:  culture of the winner

Don’t just add topics – cut some

The second key issue is that curriculum reform can’t just be a matter of accretive change, as it largely has been. Rossi and Fedchock are right: it is impossible to keep cramming extra bits of South African content into an already overstuffed ‘core’ curriculum. So why not interrogate every curriculum element, including those unquestioningly defined as ‘core’, and actually remove some to make room for others that might be more appropriate for South Africa today? That has always happened in university curricula: we no longer teach that the earth is flat. Why is it suddenly so impossible when the currently privileged elements are in a jazz curriculum? (It was, after all, decolonisation that shaped modern jazz, as Robin D G Kelley discusses at – so why not its teaching?)

At the Mistra imbizo, Wits lecturer Rangoato Hlasane gave an example: the CAPS (secondary school) curriculum for dance demands learning on a sprung floor. “But Pantsula choreography,” he said, “demands dust.” Just adding a token South African dance style to an existing core curriculum is inadequate; a new learning process and new conditions of performance and reception – insight into another lived experience – must be part of the package.

“Pantsula choreography demands dust”

Experience speaks; privilege answers 

What spoke most strongly at the imbizo to the issue of decolonisation were the experiences of black students and teachers. For one researcher, the enforced use of English constructs and categories distorted her findings about African subjects. To decolonise, scholarly spaces must exist for the African languages that offer more precise terminology and contextual understanding. (Think about it: universities allow the sciences their own precise terminological spaces, but elsewhere privilege the approximation — however inexact — of African social, spiritual and cultural constructs into English.)

For a former Rhodes university student, studying in Makhanda (a.k.a Grahamstown) was an experience of “continuing colonialism” As a young black man, he encountered constant challenges to his presence. While the majority of the population struggled with poverty and drought, the city proudly brandished its history as a seat of colonial military oppression and seemed to see its raisons d’etre as primarily the annual National Arts Festival and the university. The first proposal for siting a drought-relieving borehole was outside the Settlers’ Monument, which is festival HQ. That experiential account provoked ire from one audience member who also lived in the city and chided: “Your assertions are strong, but your facts are weak.”

Continuing colonialism: how Makhanda (Grahamstown) sells itself to the world

But that misses the point. Experience is factual: an account of life in a body with a certain race, class or gender. If yours is different, you’re accessing things you might never otherwise learn. How students experience an institution impacts powerfully on their progress. When other human beings narrate their realities, it’s not about you – except that your open ears might help.

(*For a fuller account of discussion at the Mistra arts imbizo, see )

2 thoughts on “Cape Town Conversations 2: still decolonising after all these years

  1. No time to follow all the links but having this discussion in a mature and solution-seeking way is an impressive step forward. I think some of the new thinking is very close to what my approach was from the beginning at UKZN but it took a long time to escalate it into theory and I can’t claim that I ever really did that. Bravo.


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