10 August 2022 | Story Prof Corli Witthuhn | Photo Sonia Small
Prof Corli Witthuhn
Prof Corli Witthuhn.

Opinion article by Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation, University of the Free State.
Research and research funding have traditionally been dominated by the Global North. Fortunately, there has been an encouraging increase in the recognition of content and research outputs by African scientists and scholars in recent years. It is essential that researchers on our continent now use this forward momentum, enhanced by an increased appreciation of the value of traditional knowledge systems, to take their rightful place in the global research environment with confidence and full understanding of their worth, says Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation at the University of the Free State.

Recognising African scholars

The recent decision by the respected global medical journal The Lancet to reject papers with data from Africa that fail to acknowledge African contributors, has rightfully been applauded by the global research community. This brave act is confirming ethical research protocols that should never have been abandoned in the first place. Even more important than acknowledging the contribution of African scholars, is to recognise the work they produce on its own merit and not to continuously look at it through a Eurocentric lens to gauge its value. Africans should contribute more to global narratives. This would prevent universal issues such as global warming from taking centre stage in the media only when it is relevant to the North, such as this year when record-breaking temperatures were recorded in the northern hemisphere. 

It is an undisputed reality that the research environments in the Global North and Global South constitute two vastly different scenarios. Scarcity of research and development resources and socio-economic challenges are constant factors that African researchers have to deal with, which their Northern counterparts are largely unaffected by. A UNESCO report of 2015 reveals that while Africa accounts for around 15% of the world’s population, money available for research and development accounts for only about 1,3% of global expenditure. On top of that, due to heavy teaching loads, as well as the lack of capacity and expensive equipment, many African scholars find it challenging to engage intensively in research. Apart from isolated centres of excellence, there is an overall shortage of research skills on the continent, inevitably leading to inhibited scientific performance. Africa has limited private sector participation in research and innovation funding, as companies outsource research to holding companies in the Global North. Also, accessing international funding and building the required network of researchers is often extremely difficult due to the cost of travel and flight scheduling on the continent. International donors generally evaluate research based on publication in international peer-reviewed journals. But so often African researchers struggle to get published in such journals for a variety of reasons, ranging from thematic relevance (African researchers tend to focus predominantly on African issues), to language barriers and prejudice.

Adoption of African-centred paradigm

In such vastly different research environments, it becomes problematic to apply Northern Hemisphere notions of what constitutes research excellence to work produced in the Global South. Globally, academics seem to agree that research excellence is influenced by a variety of factors, including political considerations, availability of funding, the ease of building networks, and social and cultural environments in which researchers must work and perform. The quality of research is inevitably affected by economic conditions and the availability of human resources, which makes for an unequal playing field in the Global North and the Global South.

There have been increased calls in recent times for African universities to adopt an African-centred paradigm, so that African researchers can draw their own conclusions, framed by their specific philosophies and experience, instead of being directed by Eurocentric perspectives.

Research quality standards prevailing in the Global North cannot simply be transposed to the Global South without any further contextualisation and customisation. One also needs to be sensitive to the fact that research in Africa is often inspired by pressing localised, societal needs, which can raise questions about global relevance.
Africa’s history of colonialisation, slavery, and oppression has left an indelible mark on its education and research systems. Colonial education did little to build the self-esteem of African scholars. It was in essence self-serving, aimed at creating a skilled labour force in the service of colonial authorities. It can largely be described as ‘vocational training’, with the critical thinking element deliberately removed in order to prevent rebellion and uprising. South African universities have in general responded admirably to the warranted calls for a decolonised curriculum, with most of them having undertaken comprehensive and ongoing decolonisation and Africanisation processes. It remains essential for scholars to recognise themselves in what they are studying. Content should not be based on interpretation from outside but characterised by their own lived experience. Many African educationists are advocating against a complete abandonment of Western educational ideologies, opting for a merging of aspects of traditional and Western education.

Africa’s contribution to global knowledge

Africa undeniably has much to contribute to global knowledge production. In recent years, more and more scholars from different subject fields have become aware of the value of the large body of knowledge and information embodied in traditional knowledge systems, which was previously scorned by traditional science. These knowledge systems, developed over countless generations, are based on individual and lived experiences and explanations of the world. In many cases, they are transmitted through oral traditions from one generation to the next. Recently, we have been fortunate to witness the South African rooibos tea industry sharing profit of R12,2 million with groups representing indigenous peoples of the Khoi and San in South Africa. There is wide consensus that indigenous and Western knowledge systems are not automatically incompatible, but should work in tandem to enhance understanding in a specific subject field.

Africa is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of humankind, with most scientists agreeing that modern humans evolved from the African continent before spreading across the world. Since the earliest times, Africa has been contributing to global scientific knowledge, with abundant evidence of advanced numeration systems, metallurgy, architecture, and engineering that precede those documented in Western civilisations. African educationists are urging that the wisdom encapsulated in songs, artefacts, stories, and poetry should be brought into the higher education and research sphere. An inspiring example of how the world is waking up to the enormous scientific potential encapsulated in African traditional knowledge systems, is the World Health Organisation’s appointment of Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa, the University of the Free State Director of Pharmacology, as chairperson of the Regional Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicines for COVID-19. Prof Matsabisa also heads a flagship research effort at the UFS, which involves the pharmacological assessment of the healing qualities of cannabis, believed to be one of humankind’s first cultivated crops, used in Southern Africa since about 1400 AD for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Systematic medicinal research done by the Department of Pharmacology investigates its use as a treatment for cancer, pain management, diabetes, and hypertension.

Opportunities through technology

Current technological advances and renewed online awareness and engagement are creating opportunities for African researchers to engage with global counterparts and collaborators more effectively and frequently than in the past. Innovative teaching and learning initiatives such as Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) virtual exchanges promote the development of intercultural competence across shared multicultural learning environments, using internet-based tools and online pedagogies. Benefits to African scholars include the development of intercultural communicative competence as well as digital and critical literacies. Often, foreign language skills and interdisciplinary approaches are also honed and developed, with the aim of establishing competencies to create new knowledge in a multicultural and interconnected world. The circumstances have never been more ideal for African researchers to participate and greatly contribute to global knowledge production.

An important prerequisite, though, is to address the issue of the digital divide that threatens to once again exclude researchers from struggling socio-economic communities. A concerted multidisciplinary, multisectoral, and even multinational effort is needed to upgrade communication infrastructure in African countries, facilitate access to data, and provide the necessary education and training to include researchers from marginalised areas.

But before we as African scholars can assume our rightful role on the global stage, an equally vital prerequisite is that we build research confidence. African scholars should know who they are, where they come from, and what they are capable of. And this includes abandoning feelings of entitlement and guilt – replacing it with confidence and a forward-looking vision of effectively contributing to global knowledge production.

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