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Whose knowledge is it anyway?

Almost 20 years after the demise of apartheid, South Africa has failed to undertake and complete its own knowledge transition consistent with the constitutional ambition of a democratic, just and peaceful society. The legacy of knowledge that constitutes and shapes our learning institutions is in fundamental need of change.

An evolution is necessary, one that dismantles our legacy of knowledge and brings our society into alignment with the values of our Constitution. This reordering in the domains of knowledge development would reconnect South Africa with changes afoot in other post-colonial societies.

Edward Said effectively deconstructed the Orientalist paradigm of colonialism in the Middle East and Walter Mignolo led the process in Mexico of dismantling the colonial paradigm as imposed on South America. In Uganda, Dani Nabudere introduced Afrikology as a guide to reconstructing African epistemology in an attempt to reform the assumptions about, nature of, scope and validity of knowledge. No equivalence exists in South Africa.  

A new world order is taking shape with fundamentally different demands on knowledge development. This new order demands a fundamental shift in intellectual engagement with knowledge. A new approach to learning and what constitutes knowledge would fundamentally challenge the inherited mind-set that made possible the utter devaluation of human life that led to the Marikana massacre.

Critical questions need to be posed to those who maintain, defend and produce the system of knowledge production. The values reproduced through the current system work simply to socialise people into limited expectations. Whiteness and white privilege were "normalised" pedagogically and mediated with all the resources available to sustain an exploitative and unequal society.

Never neutral
Knowledge in any transition from an oppressive past is never neutral.  It is structurally transmitted through a system deeply implicated in a past of inhumanity and injustice.

As one of its original eight priority research projects, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection has undertaken a major study on transdisciplinarity, an approach to research that challenges notions of knowledge that no longer serve their purpose in society. In addition to the research project, titled "The concept and application of transdisciplinarity in intellectual discourse and research", the institution also adopted transdisciplinarity as an approach to its own research work.  

The transdisciplinarity project was undertaken in partnership with the research use and impact assessment unit at the Human Sciences Research Council, with a project team drawn from the Council on Higher Education, the department of higher education and training, Higher Education South Africa and the National Research Foundation.

Case studies were undertaken at a variety of sites, including the Centre for Transdisciplinarity Studies at Fort Hare University, the Sustainable Energy, Technology and Research Centre at the University of the Johannesburg, the science faculty at the University of Johannesburg and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. The project also included an international dimension that explored the application of transdisciplinarity in Romania and Germany.  

A common direction
The University of Fort Hare's Centre for Transdisciplinarity Studies describes itself as having been "founded on the principles of Africanisation, ubuntu, dialogue, community service, critical thinking and social engagement". It asserts its adoption of transdisciplinarity as an "approach to teaching, learning and research that narrows the boundaries between disciplines to allow students in different faculties, departments and programmes to follow a common direction that makes knowledge integrative and holistic and, in so doing, overcomes the limitations of disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity".

The rationale for Fort Hare's adoption of transdisciplinarity rests on the belief that "contemporary political, economic, cultural, scientific and environment challenges necessitate an approach to teaching and learning that can unlock student potential in ways that transcend the constraints of knowledge boundaries".

Among the thorny issues explored by the Mapungubwe Institute's inquiry into transdisciplinarity is whether the systems that produce and reproduce knowledge in a democratic South Africa have succeeded in eliminating the legacy of social exclusion. Has this knowledge system condemned the majority of South African youths to a life of perpetual impoverishment and alienation? It is self-evident that South Africa can ill afford a socioeconomic situation in which the youth has no prospect of extricating itself from social degradation. Has the South African know-ledge economy been permitted to drift without sustainable vision and purpose? Whose agenda and purpose do the current sites of knowledge production serve? Has education in South Africa successfully managed to shake off the shackles of colonialism and apartheid and the self-centredness of a market-dominated economic system? Can we forge ahead without a clear strategy for the transformation of what constitutes "knowledge"?  

The heart of democracy
These questions go to the heart of democracy, its institutions and the nation we seek to build and cohere around common values. The  institute's research on transdisciplinarity has sought to examine these questions through the exploration of a range of issues, such as the relationship between transdisciplinarity, transformation and development.

It also examines the power relations inherent in discourses on knowledge by asking "whose knowledge?" and adopts an inclusive attitude towards indigenous knowledge systems. The project has sought to unpack notions of "universality" as emanating from the West and  deconstruct notions of "mind-set", "traditions" and the connections between language, normalisation and ideology. And it has endeavoured to assess the relevance of transdisciplinarity to the country's development and its potential policy implications for all sectors.  

The demand for transdisciplinarity in South Africa is underscored by a convergence of many pressing transformation challenges: economic, political, social and educational, among others. With the two-year research project drawing to a close, the project team, led by Dr Hester du Plessis of the Human Sciences Research Council, convened a colloquium last week to assess some of the findings and case studies embarked on during its lifespan. It discussed the application of transdisciplinarity in the African context, its usefulness in the field of alternative sustainability and its utility in the construction and application of law in pursuit of social justice, among other findings.

The challenges to knowledge posed by Said's work on Orientalism in the Middle East and Mignolo's in South America did not occur without contestation or dissent. Similarly, the institution's research project, influenced in large part by Nabudere's Afrikology, could make for robust, potentially divisive, but ultimately necessary discourse.

Leonard Martin is head of the faculty of humanities at the ­Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. Email: [email protected]

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