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Toward a Pan-Africanist Perspective on Science

By Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi

The #MustFall movements, #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall, that were started by students in South Africa in early 2015 have opened up a chasm of opportunities to address the legacy of the country’s colonial and apartheid history. While the world celebrated in awe the semi-peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, many expectations that were born out of that jovial period have not materialized for, or even trickled down to, the largest parts of the population. It is in this vein that students now call for free, accessible, and decolonized education. This call means that those who have been systematically excluded from mainstream socio-politico-economic activities within the country can no longer be relegated to the ranks of the underclass.

Colonial rulers across Africa and the apartheid government in South Africa, specifically, developed a subservient, unquestioning, semi-skilled, under-educated, and “Westernized” citizenry. This population, in turn, grew and maintained what would become Africa’s largest economy. From the perspective of Western powers, the complete annihilation of indigenous African knowledge, beliefs, practices, and education was essential to the colonial project. This was made possible in the rare intertwining of Western religion and science. For example, within the indigenous pre-colonial Igbo society of east Nigeria, colonial Christian anthropologists’ first lessons and teachings focused on condemning African traditional religion and education for the preferred “modern and civilized” Western education. This meant that across the continent there emerged a culture of implicitly prioritizing the non-African and demonizing the African. Anything European was presented as superior. No person articulated this notion better than the apartheid mastermind and then-Minister of Native Affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd. In a December 1950 address to members of the Native Representative Council, he said, “[…] clearly from its proposition that, in its belief on the basis of an inherent superiority, or greater knowledge … the European must remain master and leader.

Education has become key to attaining liberty and upward mobility. In the African context, education is a primary tool for freedom, which Robert Sobukwe, a prominent South African political dissident who opposed apartheid, called “the right to call our souls our own.” In its current form, education (and I dare say the sciences) in South Africa remains colonial in nature and structure. It leaves very little desire for African children to pride themselves in their indigenous identity, practices, traditions, beliefs, and knowledge.

Furthermore, academia in its current structure is a Western and European construct that seeks to malign, oppress, and strip Africans of their being. In the field of history, for example, South Africans grew up with vast knowledge of events like the French Revolution but a very scant understanding of regional wars and revolutions that were led by African kings such as King Dingane of the Zulu Kingdom. In the field of medicine, indigenous African healing methods that largely rely on natural herbs have been overwhelmingly replaced by Western medicine. In psychology, the idea of an African perspective on psychological analysis is regarded with disdain. Unfortunately, as Steve Biko, who founded the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa in the mid-1960s, argued, negligible reference is made to African-defined systems of “science.” In this context, science as we know it stands in opposition to “Africanisms.”

Recently, a Youtube video went viral of a Cape Town-based university student who called for science to fall. She added that her statement was directed at the Westernized view of how science is defined and thereby taught and learned. Her argument was that science is a product of Western modernity, thus it is not relevant to the majority of African citizens who are seeking an education. Social commentators have argued against this idea by supporting a steadfast grip on the status quo. Some have maintained that the call for science to fall is ridiculous, suggesting that the recent students’ protests were going off the rails. While these commentators acknowledge that science is indeed Western, they oppose an African-centered approach, contending that it is ill-informed (possibly meaning that it would be “barbaric”). This feeds into what anti-apartheid activists contend. Biko wrote in his 1978 book I Write What I Like:

In an effort to destroy completely the structures that had been built up in African society and to impose their imperialism with an unnerving totality the colonialists were not satisfied merely with holding a people in their grip and emptying the Native’s brain of all form and content, they turned to the past of the oppressed people and distorted, disfigured and destroyed it. No longer was reference made to African culture, it became barbarism. Africa was the ‘dark continent.’ Religious practices and customs were referred to as superstition. The history of African society was reduced to tribal battles and internecine wars.”

While acknowledging parts of popular points of view (such as making a deliberate point to remember the colonial roots that are the foundations of our current system of science), I maintain that Westernized science has very little place or relevance for the contemporary African scholar. If science is a means to understanding the world through observations, experiments, and measurement, that means African students understand and see the world through a Western lens. A refocused, African-centered approach to science, which seeks to revive that which is indigenous (including in the fields of history, arts, economics, law, politics, medicine, nature, etc.), is possible only when there is political will—which seems not to exist in South Africa today. To condemn the current students’ calls for a decolonized science because of students’ limited understanding of the social theories they purport to represent further supports my reasoning. First, this sort of argument belittles the student and suggests that students have no grounds on which to stand upon beyond Eurocentric ideals. Second, the very idea and roots of a social theory is not African, so students are not at fault if they do not relate to a theory that is outside of their African context.

Science projects authority; it protects the current order, which has very little room for an alternative conceptualization. The fact that a student who boldly calls for science to fall is accused of indecency, and branded an agitator for expressing her sentiments, gives into the idea that Western science (and by virtue Westernization) must not be interrupted. There is a long-held culture in South Africa, which can be seen in the brutality faced by anti-apartheid activists—Biko was killed under police custody—of not appreciating views that counter the status quo. Interrupting such a system means disturbing the tenure of life; it is to reckon with the realities of history and a move toward an Africanized science. It would further open the possibility that indigenous knowledge of science could be accommodated and catered for in the academic space. The events of the past year’s “fallist” movements indicate that we need to start seeking ways to engage critically with the issue of decolonizing science. The ground is fertile for a scholarly revolution in favor of pan-African-based scientific approaches.

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Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi has a Master of Development Studies degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate and his work focuses on sexual violence against orphaned children and adolescents in townships and their secondary schools. His further interests are youth development, gender-based violence and HIV prevention, student movements, social media, township spaces, and education. He can be contacted at ngidindu@gmail.com.

[Photo courtesy of A. Bailey]

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Anonymous's picture
First step...


In order to decolonize science you first need to decolonize math.
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