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23 September 2020 | Story Nombulelo Shange | Photo Supplied
Nombulelo Shange is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology.

Heritage Day is almost here; it’s time to celebrate all the ‘fluffy’, less threatening to whiteness parts of African culture, braai, and sample weird and wonderful traditional food we’ve never tried before. For one day, we go to work in beautiful colourful traditional attires, put on cultural dance and singing performances, and share it on social media. We will have dialogues on ubuntu and how we should use it to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ignore structural oppression in an attempt to save the failed rainbow nation. What will be missing, and what is always missing, is serious discourse on how side-lined indigenous knowledge can and should be used to address poverty, developmental and ecological challenges, our struggling health-care system, and many other modern and historical challenges that South Africa is faced with. 

Decolonising knowledge systems

#FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016 briefly brought the issue of decolonising knowledge systems and, well … everything to the fore. But since the end of the FMF protests, these discussions have been confined to the university space and are not being heard in other important spaces such as workplaces, churches, healthcare structures, schools, etc. Even within universities, students have the sense that their decolonial agenda has been hijacked and turned into a PR activity that pushes reform and minimal systematic change instead of revolution and a total dismantling. And so, indigenous knowledge ends up being manipulated and moulded to fit the Western context rather than being the foundation of the curriculum. 

The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced us into a precarious space, where we have to rethink almost everything about life, our work environment, how we use technology, how we socialise and interact with each other, how we run schools, how we show caring, and so much more. We have an opportunity here to rethink how we can use this disruption and those that will come in future to advance our cultural and traditional medical practices. So much of Western/modern medicine is already based on the cultural appropriation of African knowledge systems, which we as Africans at times look down upon. The appropriation of African ideas is a manipulation that involves stealing African ideas, presenting them as Western, while convincing Africans that the same practices are inferior. One example of this is the story of Onesimus, the African slave who cured smallpox.

Onesimus’ role in curing smallpox

Onesimus lived during the smallpox pandemic of the early 1700s, which claimed 30% of the lives of those infected. Onesimus was sold to Cotton Mather, a New England minister and author. During the pandemic, Onesimus advised Mather that smallpox was preventable. Onesimus shared the details of a common surgical procedure, which helped to prevent smallpox and many other contagious illnesses in Africa. The procedure involved making an incision on a patient’s arm and exposing them to a small amount of the disease to allow the body to build immunity to the disease in a controlled environment while still under the care of the healthcare provider. In the case of smallpox, it was a small amount of pus from an infected person that was rubbed on the incision of the patient being immunised. Mather then ran human trials on slaves and found this vaccine to be successful. The slaves who formed part of his trials were less likely to contract smallpox, and those who did were more likely to recover.

Just like most important black contributions in history, Onesimus’ role was written from the history books, and the credit was given to Mather. Eventually, scientists researched and explored this method, and their discoveries led to modern-day vaccination medicine and technology that saves millions of lives every year. This and other violent historical erasures has contributed to the systemic racist ways in which we undermine African indigenous knowledge and always opt for Western solutions to health challenges, even in instances where the African solution might be cheaper, more accessible, and more effective. 

Traditional healers possess a wealth of knowledge

Fast forward more than 300 years to 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak and global lockdown. Countries such as China, Russia, the UK, and many others involved in trying to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus are still exploring similar methodologies to what Onesimus shared with Mather to fight the spread of smallpox. Locally, traditional healers are frustrated because they are being left out of interventions to tackle the spread of the Coronavirus. In an interview with Sunday Independent, traditional healer Zama Ndebele expressed his disappointment over government’s lack of engagement with traditional healers. Ndebele added that their collaboration in creating a cure or vaccine would be useful and that they possess a wealth of knowledge about different herbs and their uses. Traditional healers are still interested in collaboration despite running the risk of experiencing erasure and exclusion from historical and scientific records, in a similar way to how Onesimus’s contribution was undermined.

Often when the discussion around mainstreaming African knowledge systems comes up, some worry that the quality of knowledge will be weakened. But French philosopher Michael Foucault, whose contributions have been instrumental in feminist and revolutionary discourse, reminds us that knowledge is about power. Foucault says even scientific knowledge is socially constructed. Those who dominate use their power to present their cultural ideas as the only objective scientific truth. 

Prioritise and value own knowledge systems

One positive reflection we should gain from the current global pandemic is that we should prioritise and value our own knowledge systems. We need to do better in investing in our cultural identity and indigenous knowledge. We need to ensure that it can be used as more than just gimmicks to attract Western tourists who expect us to ‘perform Africanness’ for their entertainment. African knowledge systems should be built into the way knowledge is produced, the way we run our healthcare systems, how we build new technologies. We can learn a lot from Asian countries such as South Korea who have done this successfully in many social structures, but more noticeably, in their healthcare systems that surpass even some of the best Western healthcare systems. Doing this can also potentially restore black identity and create a sense of pride as we start to see our practices represented in the mainstream and being labelled as important scientific contributions instead of an alternative. This reclaiming can drive us to juxtapose our knowledge systems with other cultures in ways that uplift and advance humanity. With ecological degradation looming and unknown public health crises lurking in our future, African knowledge systems that often encourage sustainability have the potential to save our lives in various ways.

Opinion article by Nombulelo Shange, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State

 

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News Archive

‘Is the South African university curriculum ‘colonial'?’ asks Prof Jansen
2017-11-24

Description: Jansen readmore Tags: Prof Jonathan Jansen, colonial, university curriculum, western knowledge

From left; Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research; former Rector and Vice-
Chancellor of the UFS, Prof Jonathan Jansen; Prof Michael Levitt, and
Prof Francis Petersen at the celebration lecture at the UFS.
Photo: Johan Roux

One of the critical issues that emerged from the South African student protests during 2015 and 2016 was a demand for the decolonisation of university curriculums. 

A senior professor at the Stellenbosch University, Prof Jonathan Jansen, said the number of people, including academics, who joined the cause without adequately interrogating the language of this protest, was astonishing. “The role of social scientists is to investigate new ideas … when something is presented to the world as truth.” Prof Jansen was speaking during a celebration lecture at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein on 15 November 2017. 

Large amount of knowledge not African

He said the accusation is correct to a limited degree. “The objection, in essence, is against the centring of Western, and especially European knowledge, in institutional curricula.” There is no doubt that most of what constitutes curriculum knowledge in South African universities, and in universities around the world, derive from the West. “The major theories and theorists, the methodologists and methods are disproportionally situated outside of the developing world,” Prof Jansen said. 

The dilemma is, how will South Africa and the continent change the locus of knowledge production, considering the deteriorating state of public universities? “In the absence of vibrant, original, and creative knowledge production systems in Africa and South Africa, where will this African-centred or African-led curriculum theory come from,” Jansen asked. He says the re-centring of a curriculum needs scholars with significant post-doctoral experiences that are rooted in the study of education and endowed with the critical independence of thought. “South Africa's universities are not places where scholars can think. South African universities’ current primary occupation is security and police dogs,” Prof Jansen said. 

Collaboration between African and Western scholars
“Despite the challenges, not everything was stuck in the past,” Prof Jansen said. South African scholars now lead major research programmes in the country intellectually. The common thread between these projects is that the content is African in the subjects of study, and the work reflects collaboration with academics in the rest of the world. These research projects attract postgraduate students from the West, and the research increasingly affects curriculum transformations across university departments. There is also an ongoing shift in the locus of authority for knowledge production within leading universities in South Africa. Prof Jansen feels a significant problem that is being ignored in the curriculum debate, is the concern about the knowledge of the future. How does South Africa prepare its young for the opportunities provided by the groundswell of technological innovation? “In other parts of the world, school children are learning coding, artificial intelligence, and automation on a large scale. They are introduced to neuroscience and applied mathematics,” he said.

Prof Jansen said, in contrast, in South Africa the debate focuses on the merits of mathematics literacy, and what to do with dead people’s statues.

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