Humanising the university space through Umrhabulo

Humanising the university space through Umrhabulo
Humanising the university space through Umrhabulo

By Sam Van Heerden

Rhodes University launched the first series of Umrhabulo: Breaking Bread talks, a programme through which interested staff and students converge to discuss the prospect of a university committed to social justice and Ubuntu.

The first event of the series, hosted on Thursday, 14 September, unpacked how teaching practices can be entrenched not just in knowledge, but also in humanity under the theme Humanising pedagogy.

The discussion took inspiration from Bell Hook and intellectual Cornel West, in their book, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life.

The premise of the discussion was the collective understanding that South African universities, and Rhodes, are at a crossroads with constituencies calling for the decolonisation of the university space, a reform of curriculums, teaching methods, and knowledge offering.  

Dr Siphokazi Magadla, Senior Lecturer at the Political & International Studies department, led the discussion together with retired Rhodes University scholar, Professor Michael Joseph, chaired by Nompulelelo Babeli.

“We know that things must change, but we do not know exactly how. Where do we go from here? How do we guard against disillusionment? were the pertinent questions of the evening.

According to Babeli, “our aim is to begin to imagine a university in which students are central, social justice is served, and the African context is fully recognised”.

Western teaching methods were said to play a role in de-humanising and alienating the African child. Therefore, there needs to be an establishment of a safe space for mutual vulnerability.

Dr Magadla sees learning as a space of both passion and pleasure. Drawing on author, feminist and social activist Bell Hook’s work, Magadla views scholarship not as an abstract inquiry, but as community work.

For Magadla, all scholarship is entrenched in traditions, historical debates about society, and complex histories that structure contemporary struggles. In her own work, she attempts to show students that they are also active villagers participating in the act of making sense of the human experience.

She explains: [The image of breaking bread] calls on the various traditions of sharing that take place in the domestic, the secular, and sacred life, where we come together to give ourselves to one another, to nurture life, to renew our spirits, sustain our hope, and to make a lived politics of revolutionary struggles an ongoing practice.”

Professor Michael Joseph, formerly with the School of Languages, differs with Magadla on the role played by classrooms in humanising knowledge. For him, ‘the classroom is not the ideal space for proper debate and discussion’. Instead, the classroom potentially needs to be reworked into a network of voluntary association.

He is inspired by philosopher Paulo Freire, who argues that in an unjust society, both oppressor and oppressed are dehumanised. “However, the way out is not reconciliation with the oppressors. Instead, it is necessary to remove the dehumanising conditions, such as the current institution of the classroom, in order to free both the oppressed and the oppressors,” he argues. 

The principle of humanism is that humans make and re-make the world in which we live. The ontology of anti-humanism is that human beings are passive and empty, and their minds have to be filled by others. That belief is what leads to oppressive situations. 

Magadla acknowledged the challenges of an institution seeking dehumanisation in what seems like an alienated process from general society, but she believes that, “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility”.


Breaking Bread – Umrhabulo will take place once or twice a month.

Source:  Communications

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