About the Author(s)

Gerda Dullaart Email symbol
Centre for Teaching and Learning, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

Ydalene Coetsee symbol
Language Centre, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Jean L. Farmer symbol
Centre for Teaching and Learning, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Jennifer Feldman symbol
Department of Education Policy Studies, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Jerome Joorst symbol
Department of Education Policy Studies, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Ruenda Loots symbol
School of Public Leadership, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Marianne McKay symbol
Department of Viticulture and Oenology, Faculty of Agrisciences, South African Institute of Grape and Wine Sciences (SAGWRI), Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Simbongile Ntwasa symbol
Centre for Teaching and Learning, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa


Dullaart, G., Coetsee, Y., Farmer, J.L., Feldman, J., Joorst, J., Loots, R. et al., 2023, ‘Challenges of transforming curricula: Reflections by an interdisciplinary Community of Practice’, Transformation in Higher Education 8(0), a301. https://doi.org/10.4102/the.v8i0.301

Original Research

Challenges of transforming curricula: Reflections by an interdisciplinary Community of Practice

Gerda Dullaart, Ydalene Coetsee, Jean L. Farmer, Jennifer Feldman, Jerome Joorst, Ruenda Loots, Marianne McKay, Simbongile Ntwasa

Received: 22 May 2023; Accepted: 14 Aug. 2023; Published: 15 Dec. 2023

Copyright: © 2023. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Institutional transformation and inclusion have slowly become more prominent in the strategies of historically white institutions in South Africa. Despite these efforts, progress towards these goals has been limited. In this article, we reflect on our conversations about transforming our curricula and teaching practices as an interdisciplinary Community of Practice. Our conversations grappled with the lack of curricular transformation at Stellenbosch University, despite its aspirational transformation plan. We argue that difficult interdisciplinary conversations are key to interrupting our teaching practices and are crucial in the decolonising process. These conversations must be ongoing and enduring, because through sharing our stories we support agents of curriculum transformation in our different contexts. Our conceptual conversations explored various theories about decoloniality, and here we employ ubuntu pedagogy, as well as the concepts of redistribution, recognition and representation from social justice theory. We harness the collaborative energy of an interdisciplinary Community of Practice, with its associated storytelling, reading, writing and reflecting to harness the diversity of personal and disciplinary perspectives. We include some reflective vignettes to illustrate our process.

Contribution: The relevance of this study, beyond our contexts, arises from a gap in the decolonising process, from its theory to its practice. We argue that even a good institutional transformation plan will not guarantee the decoloniality of curricula. More is needed. Systemic change is needed, and difficult interdisciplinary conversations are part of this process. There must be recognition and representation of marginalised voices and specific context-related redistribution of curricula, so that transformation plans and theories can take effect.

Keywords: decoloniality; social justice; ubuntu pedagogy; curriculum transformation; teaching and learning practices; Community of Practice.


In 2015, student protests calling for the removal of a statue of the British coloniser Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus, led to a wider movement (Rhodes Must Fall or #mustfall) that called for universities to decolonise education across South Africa (Bosch 2017). Within Stellenbosch University (SU), a historically white institution (HWI), this movement manifested as ‘Open Stellenbosch’ and provided more traction for the university to explore transformation.

In this context, a few SU staff members across several faculties, from diverse demographics, post levels and disciplinary fields, started a Community of Practice (CoP) in 2020. The CoP was established following a discussion in a professional development opportunity presented by the Centre of Teaching and Learning on the SU campus. Staff members voluntarily joined this CoP with the shared objective of participating in theoretical and practical explorations of curricular transformation.

Most of the CoP members did not know each other before their engagement in this group. Drawing on the tenets of CoPs (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002), the CoP participants shared a common interest in transformation and identified problems to explore within our context. Our initial conversations explored our understanding of powerful knowledge and decoloniality in our respective disciplines and our experiences at SU. As CoP, we shared an orientation towards transformed teaching, learning and assessment, specifically focusing on curriculum content, within the context of SU’s 2019 Transformation Plan. Over 3 years, we formed a trusting, informal CoP with individuals pursuing a shared enterprise (Wenger et al. 2002). Our shared enterprise was the exploration of concepts within our curricula: What is decoloniality? How do I decolonise my curriculum in my discipline? What is my role?

As a group, we discussed aspects of change and transformation in our curricula and our teaching, learning and assessment practices. We realised that decolonisation is necessary but often not well understood, making it difficult to achieve (Matthews 2018:3).

Research process

Our process involved the search for theoretical lenses to guide our reflections on university transformation in our context and curricula, specifically in enabling epistemological access for students (Morrow 2009). Jaakkola (2020:19, 22) describes such a process as theory adaptation. Starting from a focal theory (powerful knowledge, in the case of this CoP) and then problematising it, we soon experienced a conceptual need to supplement it with additional theoretical approaches. We presented our reflections at a SU conference in 2021 and continued to meet during 2022 and 2023, with conversations across various faculties and disciplines represented by the CoP members (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1: A representation of the reflective process and theoretical exploration of this Community of Practice (2020–2023).

Our theoretical exploration journeyed from powerful knowledge (Muller & Young 2019) to ubuntu pedagogy (Waghid 2020), decoloniality and Fraser’s (2007) three-dimensional theory of social justice (Figure 1). We used reflective techniques (drawing and writing) to facilitate interdisciplinary discussions of the focal theories. The CoP was structured by the interdisciplinary nature of the group, which brought a variety of perspectives to our shared goal of transformation to bear on our discussions, ranging from the positivity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to the fluidity of social sciences. Comparison between academics’ teaching subjects facilitated discussion and reflection and enriched our perspectives.

Community of Practice members wrote vignettes about their experiences of the journey to decolonise their curricula. We turned to the vignettes as ‘resources for thinking’ in our context (Beetham et al. 2022:26). The vignettes were thus accepted as ‘personal data’ of each person’s authentic, lived experiences in diverse situations. This process contributed to this collaborative article. We came into the study with our own perceptions and interpretations, but through reflective practice and deliberations, we became aware of others’ perspectives. Over time, this process shaped our collective conclusions.

The CoP emerged in the context of the formal transformation processes at SU (Figure 2). Our engagement in the CoP, as a form of praxis, involved ‘processes of conversation, involvement and engagement as modes of revealing knowledge’ (Gibbs, Angelides & Michaelides 2004:183).

FIGURE 2: A broad overview of events and Stellenbosch University policies that stimulated conversations within our Community of Practice and impacted our reflections.

This approach inspired us to ‘dig deeper, not always to accept the authority of others, but to involve ourselves in experiences in order to know’ (Gibbs et al. 2004:185). After three years of engagement as a group, we continue to grapple with how issues of transformation can be taken up in our teaching, with our students and in our personal capacities. This grappling is demonstrated in a vignette by one of our CoP members who has taught various disciplines, written on the challenges of belonging in academia and now advises on academic development:

‘Whose stories matter? Who is currently ‘present’ in the curriculum? Who should contribute? Acknowledging and allowing student knowledge. But also that students carry with them knowledge from their grandparents, communities, etc. Students should feel that the teaching and learning space and curriculum development process belong to them.’ (Female, CoP member 1)

Our reflections left us feeling that the assimilation of our curricula into the colonial hegemony needed to be interrupted. We explored whether the concept of powerful knowledge (Muller & Young 2019) can contribute to our quest to ‘rid the curriculum of its deformative properties’ without losing its powerful properties of ‘generality, coherence, explanatory power, and capacity to extend horizons’ (2019:197). Although we agree with Muller and Young (2019:210) that the lecturer is a crucial mediator of the transformative capacity of powerful knowledge in a discipline, we were disappointed with their apparent disregard for various forms of knowledge, including the knowledges students carry with them. The criteria of powerful knowledge as existing only in formal, codified, theoretical and generalisable knowledge, places the Natural Sciences at the top of an epistemic hierarchy (Muller & Young 2019:3, 4, 18). Alderson (2020:98), on the contrary, argues that knowledge exists anywhere in any form and does not need to be bounded in ‘single-discipline systems and grammars’. We agree with Whitty (2017:10) that a discipline’s powerful knowledge should articulate with other knowledge forms. Knowledge with power would thus have an impact on professional practices and on the life chances of less privileged students (Whitty 2017:10). We were also disappointed that the theorists of powerful knowledge postponed the thorny issue Whitty raised about how powerful knowledge can best articulate with the life worlds of all learners, making it accessible without boring or alienating them (Muller & Young 2019:211).

Our CoP experienced a sense of urgency to stop alienating knowledges and students, as expressed in a vignette by one of our members of colour:

‘Wanting to share her ideas and thoughts on the topics which touched her soul, mind and heart, and not being able to, made her body hurt. It became more and more stressful to drag herself to the spaces where she knew she would be unheard.

But it was her own fault – How can anyone hear you when you do not speak out, speak up, speak loudly? But she had her reasons. Everyone would always speak down to her.’ (Female, CoP member 1)

Alderson warns that alienation, such as expressed in the above vignette, results when people are treated as objects while knowledge is reified as in the theory of powerful knowledge. Powerful knowledge as a concept ‘reifies knowledge, transforming human activities and relationships (such as of knowing) into an impersonal powerful thing: powerful knowledge’ (Alderson 2020:100). It can become alienating to people when their work is reified as a commodity to be priced, bought and sold while they are treated as objects. These problems of alienation and commodification resonated with us, as one of our members expressed in the following vignette:

‘I am concerned with science, as it is what I do and teach. Can science really give us a complete, objective description of everything-that-was-and-is-and-will-be, distinct from us and our perception of it? Frank, Gleiser and Thompson [2019] say that this image of science is deeply flawed, driven by our urge for knowledge and control. Science these days follows the money and the metrics, the powerful knowledge really is about power, centred firmly in the powerful, monied Western institutions. We’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is a God’s-eye view of nature. My instinctive, unscientific gut tells me this is wrong. My experience of being a scientist, and the scientists I know, tell me this is wrong. There is no distance between us and the knowledge. We ARE the knowledge [Frank et al. talk of the “Blind Spot” of science in which sits “experience, the presence and immediacy of lived perception”]. How to disentangle myself from the powerful knowledge and the power that the knowledge exerts over me so that I can begin to talk about it? Every time I try, I am overwhelmed by the complexity and tangledness of it all. I realise we need to wake up from a ‘delusion of absolute knowledge.’ (Female, CoP member 2)

Instead of reifying knowledge, Alderson (2020:103) connects knowledge to a broader social and cultural context. The power of knowledge depends on human agents, also the lecturer and the students and how they decide to understand and apply knowledge in their social contexts.

Literature review and theoretical framework

To consider alternative forms of knowledge we turned to ubuntu pedagogy as an approach where human interdependence and humaneness are central to knowing and power. Waghid (2020:305) applies to higher education (HE), the African philosophy of ubuntu as sharing, belonging and participation. He emphasises humans in conversation and deliberation, rather than reifying knowledge. This approach supported our CoP’s interdisciplinary process of sharing and collaboration to empower and not alienate students and knowledge systems.

Key tenets of ubuntu pedagogy include social responsibility and cultivating citizenship, deliberative engagement in pedagogic encounters (which might be disruptive and are critical of injustice) and attentiveness to dissonance, others and otherness (Waghid 2020). This shifts the focus of HE from initiating students into knowledge towards autonomous learning in a context of co-belonging and shared humanity. Lecturers would aim to enable students’ co-belonging in pedagogical encounters, empowering them to form their own opinions and identify societal issues that require transformative action. Such co-belonging creates space for students to be critical of domination, to inquire freely and to reflect and change while being connected to others. Ubuntu theory also enabled us in the CoP to be supported in our journey through dissonance and discussion.

Our theoretical journey then turned to Fraser’s theory of social justice. It is derived from distinct obstacles that people experience within ‘parity of participation’ in various contexts. It conceptualises parity of participation as a requirement of justice that ‘permit[s] all to participate as peers in social life’ (Fraser 2007:92). These requirements include redistribution, recognition and representation. We unpack these dimensions later in this article as we discuss how we grappled with theories to support the practical implementation of decolonisation in our curricula and specific contexts.

Ethical considerations

Ethical clearance to conduct this study was obtained from the Stellenbosch University Research Ethics Committee: Social, Behavioural and Education Research (RED: SBE). (No. TL-2022-23578).


The need for curriculum transformation

Higher education pedagogical practices in South Africa continue to draw from Western, Eurocentric views. These practices ‘other’, misrecognise, undermine and dismiss many peoples’ humanity and their sense of knowing, acting and being in the world. This is regarded as epistemic violence on the level of curricula, perpetrated by an untransformed and alienating HE landscape (Ngubane & Makua 2021:2520). Epistemic violence in Social Science research is the act of accounting for a limited number of views and promoting those views as the only knowledge of the world (Boughey & McKenna 2021). Heleta (2016:48) concurs that epistemic violence is an unacceptable form of oppression, directed at marginalised students. Leibowitz and Bozalek (2016) state that there is no complete transformation in HE without redressing the curriculum and re-centring social justice issues such as equal learning opportunities, fair participation and language equity. This means that our curriculum content must include and not alienate our students. One of our CoP members, who teaches Agrisciences and achieved teaching awards and fellowships, describes her realisation that even her best attempts to provide inclusive content and learning spaces still, sometimes, excluded students:

‘I remember how sad I was to my very bones to realise that despite all my efforts and trying to be welcoming, a number of my students were still terrified of expressing themselves, because they thought they did not have the ‘right’ words, and feared they would appear stupid and ignorant in front of their more privileged classmates.’ (Female, Cop member 2)

Studies about student experiences of seeking ‘social inclusion’ and ‘epistemological access’ in South African HE supported students’ call for decoloniality in the #mustfall movements (Ndelu in ed. Langa 2017:22). It was against the backdrop of these contrapuntal national discourses that the CoP members situated their conversations. Our reflections resonated with voices that do not homogenise and assimilate, but are open to a plurality of voices and knowledge systems.

Historically white institutions and access

The notion of widening access and participation in HWIs is complex. Students and staff may gain access physically; however, inclusion does not always mean the inclusion of culture. Once physical access is achieved, for some, alienation happens when curricula are exclusionary and non-representative, ignoring their life-world knowledges (McKenna 2012:52). People with diverse ways of knowing and being, still experience cultural exclusion as universities often retain remnants of patriarchal colonial systems.

Recent media reports in South Africa (Mbao 2022; Naidoo 2022; O’Regan 2022) portray HWIs such as SU as being self-serving, lacking self-interrogation of positionality and blind to socio-cultural responsibility. Universities globally have been critiqued for being slow or failing to develop language policies, curricula, methodologies and theories to create inclusive, accommodating contexts (eds. Pattman & Carolissen 2018). Fataar (2019), highlighting the (mis)recognition of the struggles of students at the post-apartheid university, refers to the exclusionary institutional discourses and practices of South Africa’s universities that continue to prevent the majority of (Black) students from achieving a successful education. This experience of access, which yet excludes and assimilates, is expressed by one of the CoP members in the following vignette:

‘Unaware of the surveillance of his life’s actions which deems him not yet prepared, historically disadvantaged. But provision for his access, and retention which depends on the quick and responsive acting by those who must ensure how life could be shaped around him to make things ‘better’ for him to succeed … his is not to follow through the process, those who are in power will lead it through … making decisions, keeping him under surveillance, perhaps this time he will be heard, he hopes …’ (Male, CoP member 3)

The sense of surveillance rather than agency expresses the dilemma of assimilation.

For Fataar (ed. 2021a), recognising, embracing and aligning with the practices of all students would establish an institutional platform to properly engage students in their intellectual becoming. Such a platform, he suggests, should be based on a view of curriculum knowledge that promotes powerful conversations between disciplinary knowledge, decoloniality and students’ own life-world knowledges. He suggests a socio-epistemic centring of knowledge based on ethical social justice considerations as espoused by Zipin, Fataar and Brennan (2015:32).

There is no equal footing in South African HE. Conditions experienced by students emanate from unequal schooling to disparate current HE practices (Bozalek & Boughey 2012; Soudien 2008). Many HWIs are not sufficiently self-critical around their responses to these issues, and thus reparation is limited or stalled. Where cultural disadvantages intersect with issues stemming from apartheid, challenges and complexities are multiplied (Bozalek & Boughey 2012; Soudien 2008). Reflection and interpretation of the complex issues experienced by students at HWIs are required to highlight problematic areas in need of attention.

Stellenbosch University’s context

In our specific context, SU as an HWI has a particular historical burden as an apartheid university (Grundlingh & Nasson 2018). In the struggle to redress, SU has been an example of how challenging it is to get rid of habitual coloniality. Figure 2 tracks some of the recent events at SU. Its history as a white Afrikaans institution is reflected not only in curricula but also in physical spaces. As the curricula required transformation, the campus spaces also needed visual transformations. Perold and Costandius (2015) published on the transformative potential of collaborative art projects on the SU campus.

In response to the multiple calls to decolonise, the SU Task Team on Decolonisation advised that it cannot be assumed that ‘decolonisation will automatically be present’ (SU 2017a:2). It recommended various components to decolonise, including: restitution and accountability of the university; managerial support; understanding decolonisation terminology; and offering resources and discussion spaces for academic staff to engage in decolonisation in their disciplines (SU 2017a). Stellenbosch University adopted a restitution statement acknowledging its contribution towards the injustices of the past and its deep regret for it (SU 2018). In 2023, SU launched a short-course project to encourage the SU community to critically reflect on the restitution statement and enhance transformation.

As the decolonial discourse spread through various faculties, transformation in specific subject areas emerged. This included disciplines such as economics and business studies, teaching (America & Le Grange 2019), sports science (Cleophas 2020), biomedical research (Van Niekerk 2019) and accounting (Terblanche & Waghid 2020). Learner-centred education featured (Le Grange 2019a), with a focus on the self (Perold-Bull & Costandius 2019) and vulnerability in reconciliation (Grohmann 2020). The importance of different voices in curricula (Le Grange 2019b) as well as varied methodologies of teaching and learning were considered (Becker 2021; Perold-Bull & Costandius 2019). Case studies were examined for ‘decolonial washing’ (Le Grange et al. 2020:26), and Waghid (2021) emphasised that the decolonisation of HE ‘without critique is not possible’.

If one considers scholarly outputs as an indication of transformation, the pace of change at SU seems to have been increasing steadily (see Figure 3). The idea of decolonial knowledge building in HE and within curricula has gained traction (Fataar 2021b) with the curricula in diverse subject areas such as biomedical disciplines (Jacobs et al. 2020; Louw et al. 2021), psychology (Cornell, Kessi & Ratele 2022; Fernández et al. 2021), music (Struwig 2021), sciences (eds. Hlatshwayo et al. 2021), religion (Esau 2021), law (Quinot 2020) and more, being scrutinised recently in the light of decoloniality.

FIGURE 3: Estimated number of publications on decoloniality by academics at Stellenbosch University from 2012 to 2021.

Based on such scholarship and available policies and transformation plans, there seems to be a firm commitment to transformation. However, in 2022, three racist urination incidents at male residences raised doubts about whether these aspirational transformation imperatives had reached the student population and the broader SU culture. In 2022, SU appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate specific racist incidents and the progress of transformation at SU. The Commission’s report (Khampepe 2022) acknowledged that although transformation policies have been put in place at SU, the pace of transformation has been slow. There are still shortcomings and challenges in understanding the lived experiences of staff and students from previously excluded communities. These challenges include issues with institutional culture, residence culture and practices and deficiencies in human interaction. This resonated with our conversations as a CoP, where we reflected that culture eats policy and task team recommendations for breakfast.

The Committee for the Institutional Response to the Commission’s Recommendations was established to run alongside existing SU transformation work. After the committee’s inaugural meeting in April 2023, Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers acknowledged that despite SU’s ‘formidable transformation apparatus… our University remains a place of alienation for [staff and students from previously excluded communities]’ (De Villiers 2023).

Synthesis between social justice and decolonial discourses

In the context of our current challenges after a history fraught with physical and symbolic violence, we looked for a conceptual framework to empower our students with epistemological access. Since the #mustfall student protests at South African universities (2015–2017), there has been renewed interest in themes of decolonisation and social justice in education (Adam 2020). Because of the multiple connotations of the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘decoloniality’, academics are often confused and bewildered on how to address injustices (Matthews 2018:3). Lecturers’ views on justice are often limited to their approach to their students and their pedagogies (Giroux 2003; Keddie 2012). According to Adam (2020:2), social justice frameworks and theories have traditionally been conceptualised by institutions from the Global North, particularly the United States of America, from and for their contexts and worldviews. Superficial interpretations of social justice, based on hegemonic Global Northern intellectual thought and social theories (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2015:485) can lead to misplaced perceptions that equate social justice to economic justice and decolonial movements to Africanisation. Yet, we found that our decolonial journey was enriched by some of the Northern theories of social justice. Lambert in Adam (2020:3) succinctly summarises this multi-dimensional framework for social justice:

Redistributive justice allocates resources to those with less, while recognitive justice respects cultural and gender differences, and representational justice ensures equitable political representation. Adam (2020:3)

While social justice discourses from the Global North mainly focus on the consequences of systems of oppression, decolonial discourses emphasise the sources of systematic oppression and dominance as argued by scholars from the Global South such as Grosfoguel (2007), Maldonado-Torres (2007), Mbembe (2016), Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2015) and Wa Thiong’o (1981). We have captured some of the decoloniality terms in Table 1.

TABLE 1: Summary of focal theories used in the theory adaptation process of this Community of Practice.

For Morreira et al. (eds. 2021:2) decoloniality in pedagogy is an inherently plural set of practices that aim to interrupt the dominant power or knowledge matrix in HE practices. These practices affect what knowledge is considered legitimate and produced via research and then selected for a curriculum (what content is taught) and how teaching, learning and assessment occur (including the social power relations at work). Such plurality has the power to resolve the dilemma of powerful knowledges that disempower, through its intentional interruption of the power or knowledge matrix.

Drawing on Fraser (1996), we also argue for an interruption of dominant power or knowledge practices that allow HE to move beyond access to a recognition and representation component that allows for ‘parity of participation’ (Fraser 2007:92) for all. To consider the how of parity of participation for all, we found Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter’s (2018) development of Fraser’s (1996) multi-dimensional framework for social justice useful in its transformative dimension that resembles decolonial approaches rooted in South African and Global South contexts. Bozalek and Boughey (2012) explain what Fraser sees as the dimensions necessary for influencing peoples’ abilities to act as equals. This resonates with ubuntu openness to an encounter with the other. Redistribution includes the economic dimension as the distribution of material resources that enable people to interact as equals. Redistribution in class could be to make reading material available for all students rather than saying ‘Go research it’. In another example, one of our members intentionally enabled students’ co-belonging by grouping the privileged and less privileged around workplace-based learning projects. Students with a car could fulfil the group role of transport, while students without a car had other equally important group roles, such as community communication or research preparation. While it is important to emphasise redistribution to combat the root causes of maldistribution (Hodgkinson-Williams & Trotter 2018:207), this should not take place without recognition of the cultural and social arrangements to provide equal respect for all participating in society. In class and curricula, recognition could, for example, be implemented through peer assessment, or by enabling assessment choices and diverse answers rather than one task and one correct answer. Recognising diverse assessment responses in class discussions acknowledges students’ lived experiences. If these cultural and social dimensions are represented in the curriculum, there is a potential to then achieve representation, Fraser’s (1996) third dimension of social justice. Representation implies parity of class participation, for instance through ubuntu encounters. We reflected that although students in our classes have access to HE, as a form of Fraser’s redistribution, such access is not fair and equal because of the structural inequalities of apartheid. Thus, lecturers must facilitate the recognition and representation of students’ knowledges.

To this end, our CoP conversations centred on our concern that curricular content is deeply informed by Western ideologies and that curricula need to be restructured so that they are representative and inclusive of the diverse student population in our classrooms. For example, a recognition aspect of the curriculum as shared by one of our CoP members is the inclusion of the fragrance of impepho in the Oenology curriculum, a medicinal plant used in several indigenous knowledge systems. This indigenous plant is widely used in ancestral and other rituals in South Africa. Recognising it as a fragrance reference has the effect of recognising students’ social and cultural frameworks. As such, it recognises the students, in a cyclical process between recognition and representation.

Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter propose a reframing beyond representation (in Adam 2020:3). The term is also used by Luckett and Shay (2017:12) to highlight the need to ‘democratise the process of frame-setting itself’ after South African student protests for free and decolonised education. The dimensions of injustice in our curriculum content and assessment practices are complex and cannot be oversimplified. In this regard, Grosfoguel (2007:213) speaks of the entangled nature of decolonial discourses and how difficult it is to categorise injustices independently with this assertion: ‘Nobody escapes the class, sexual, gender, spiritual, linguistic, geographical and racial hierarchies of the modern, colonial capitalist or patriarchal world-system’ (Grosfoguel 2007:217).

In this article, we reflect on access and power in what we teach. Turning away from powerful knowledge as a theoretical source for curricular transformation, our journey leads via ubuntu pedagogy towards decoloniality with resonance in the conceptual frameworks of social justice. This journey adapted our understanding of the power of knowledge towards decolonial empowerment.


Tertiary institutions by their very nature are symbols of the colonial project (Heleta 2016). At South African HWIs, curricula, processes, structures, symbols and traditions were designed by white people for whites to reproduce whiteness while excluding others and reproducing privilege and power (Brunsma, Brown & Placier 2013:719). While the SU transformation task team recommended that decolonisation at SU should be formalised, its report also states that academics should ‘reflect on the appropriateness of their curricula within the South African and African context’ and interrogate ‘what is being taught, who is teaching, who is being taught’ and the ‘relevance of their curricula for the current environment’ (SU 2017b). In our reflections, this resulted in disrupting habits and accepting change, questioning our assumptions and our power.

At SU, many attempts were planned to make the university accessible to all, but still, the university finds itself in more trouble than progress (Ngwena in O’Regan 2022). The 2022 urination incidents make this discussion more urgent. We propose that the learning philosophy of ubuntu can address some of the implementation challenges in its humility and openness to different forms of knowledge and the encounter with the other. Ubuntu pedagogy enriches class discussions and curricula by building relationships between diverse students and breaking down barriers in the classroom. The intersection between theories of ubuntu and social justice assisted our theoretical exploration as both pedagogical approaches treat students from all backgrounds with dignity and respect (Ngubane & Makua 2021:5). Similar to ubuntu pedagogy, we found that our CoP journey and encounters with each other involved at times awkwardness and discomfort, requiring us to implement ubuntu strategies of attentiveness to otherness in order to facilitate our own learning across barriers.

By 2022, however, it seemed as if the momentum gained from the #mustfall movement was lost in the pandemic upheaval. The pandemic reinforced technological urgencies to enable online learning during the lockdown. It appeared to us as if the impetus for epistemological access was subsumed in the technological access granted to students via computer loans and data connectivity. The technological access enabled by higher education institutions (HEIs) papered over the cracks caused by other, much deeper issues.

The reflective journey undertaken by our CoP resulted in conversations and sharing of practical steps we can consider within our faculties and disciplines to decolonise our curricula and assessment practices. For example, educational interpreting and translanguaging in classrooms were intentionally used by some colleagues to enable some previously unheard voices to be heard. Intentional group allocation to increase diversity within groups was also used to encourage collaboration between students with different skill sets.

Within the complex structures of HWIs, we found that academics have the responsibility and the agency to transform academia and resist curricular assimilation and erasure of voices and knowledges and to encourage dialogical engagement. The nature of scientific knowledge processes is dissent, debate and diversity. We found that an interdisciplinary and collaborative discussion space was essential to find our own various small acts of defiance and liberation.

We align our views to that of Zipin et al. (2015) that decolonisation does not mean a replacement of powerful knowledge with everyday knowledge and a replacement of European research with African researchers, but an inclusive curriculum (making room for other ideas, ways of being in the world, and knowledge forms). In other words, not an either or but a combination of both. A curriculum that, using Fraser’s terms, firstly recognises difference and the qualities that difference can bring to the educational project. In this way, the inequalities that exist in the hierarchies of cultural values that cause groups to suffer from status inequality can be addressed. Secondly, representation can go a long way to decolonise because we acknowledge differences in knowing, acting and being and make them part of our explanations and examples in our teaching content. In this way, we can potentially open a pathway to engage all students in the educational process and in so doing increase access to knowledge. This is where much more work can be done to decolonise in our context.

Within our disciplines, we would like to see a shared understanding of what decolonisation means for the social justice imperatives of the South African constitution, as well as a shared understanding of what it must entail in terms of our institutional plans, curriculum design, teaching and assessment strategies and our commitments to transformation.

Higher education curriculum content and assessment practices are rooted in complex entanglements of colonial hierarchies that are informed by and continue to perpetuate, a series of assumptions that favour particular (Western) epistemological perspectives. As Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter (2018) suggest, we argue for reframing our curricula, institutional cultures and pedagogic practices to embrace differences and produce a discourse for more productive engagements between people.

This resolution of the dilemmas of exclusive knowledge is similar to the engagements proposed in ubuntu pedagogy (Ngubane & Makua 2021:5; Waghid, Waghid & Waghid 2021) as it embraces social values of conversation, inclusion, participation and respect for all and as a pedagogy. Along our journey, we reflected for instance as follows:

To me, ubuntu pedagogy includes the following core aspects:

(a) Africanisation [polyvocal, inclusive, contrapuntal];

(b) personalisation [bringing yourself into your teaching];

(c) studentisation [not the same as learner-centredness, more about including student perspectives, knowledge, voices];

(d) changification [challenging current beliefs and letting go of ‘sunk costs]. ‘(Buller 2015) (Woman, CoP member 2)

And so reflecting we consider: If we accept the definition of a curriculum as ‘a codification of knowledge that is assigned value and legitimacy through well-established institutional processes’ (Jansen & Walters 2022:2), then we must ask whose knowledge enjoys prominence in the modules we teach, how this knowledge is transmitted in our teaching and how we are actively considering what we ‘select out’ and ‘select in’ in our module offerings (Jansen & Walters 2022:6). We envisage that this could be the redistribution dimension suggested by Fraser in Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter (2018). Further, it is important to consider how assessment enables different voices to emerge while retaining rigour.

Are our assessments inclusive? How will we know? What are we blind to? Who will tell us? Are we open to really listening?

Our reflection has led us to consider that the recognition dimension is perhaps somewhat addressed by our university through policy and on a symbolic level, for instance in the changing of building names and in the visual redress of campus aesthetics. However, this transformation does not consistently translate into representation in the content of curricula, nor in teaching and assessment practices. The recognition of the diversity of students and knowledges are transformative, and ubuntu pedagogy can help to reframe representation by disrupting, dislodging and unsettling the powerful knowledges and their status quo.


Our journey to explore theories to enable epistemic access in our curricula has been grounded in our own context. We realised that having interdisciplinary conversations and a community with which to engage are crucial parts of the process of decolonising. We realised that this could be modelled as a pedagogic practice, to develop trust and community. Through our mutual learning, we are better able to empower our students with epistemological access and academic belonging. We gained ways to acknowledge student knowledge in the class and curriculum. We saw how decoloniality is an ongoing process, rather than an end product. Within our CoP, almost everyone had a different understanding of what decoloniality is and how it should be affected. We spoke about decoloniality ‘as a word that won’t stand still’. We found Fraser’s language helpful to process decoloniality in our modules. We have found that an interdisciplinary CoP has been key to our process. We acknowledge that other colleagues, environments and institutions have grappled with decolonising curricula in important and inspiring ways and we learnt much from reading them and sharing lessons learnt in different contexts.

We searched for conceptual and theoretical guidance from theories of powerful knowledge but instead found it in a conceptual framework of combining ubuntu pedagogy with social justice. We found that reframing the power of knowledge remains imperative in our context and that we could make contributions to decolonise that power through the representation, redistribution and recognition of voices and knowledges.

We also found that reflective, interdisciplinary discussions enabled the difficult conversations required in ubuntu pedagogy (Waghid 2021). And in so doing, we formed a CoP where we were supported in our explorations and meaning-making. We found that our encounters and our work were supported by scholarship, by facilitation to hold the CoP together and by supportive SU structures that provided dialogic spaces (and food) for our encounters, such as the Centre for Teaching & Learning, the Transformation Office, a writing retreat and the managerial support we could request in the context of the broader SU support. Our work was also supported by our CoP’s agreements (and disagreements) to set aside time, to reflect, to trust and be patient with each other, to tolerate imperfections, to persevere, to laugh, to listen respectfully and disagree bravely and to discover and change our views.

We became aware, during our conversations concerning our own HWI, of disconnects and a lack of engagement between the institutional transformation plan, the scholars who study and implement decoloniality and the actual social and cultural practices on campus. In this complex and changing context, we could conclude that recognition of students’ life worlds can contribute to decoloniality if those life worlds and such recognition are also represented in curricula. We are aware that our work is limited in our contextual foci, the incompleteness of the list of decolonising scholars we cite and of our method and our inability to involve all our fellow academics and change the whole university and the whole world. Instead, we can engage with tolerance, we can transcend differences, and we can live examples. We hope that the process we have undergone could thus be helpful in thinking through these issues.


Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

All the authors conceived of the presented idea, explored the theoretical foundations, generated reflections, discussed and agreed on the results and contributed to the final manuscript.

Funding information

This research was supported by the S.U. Centre for Teaching & Learning.

Data availability

The authors confirm that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and/or its supplementary materials.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors and the publisher.


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