Decolonise science at your peril


South Africa has been in the throes of unprece­dented student militancy over the past 18 months, anchored around the demand for free higher education for all. This and other demands has made this reradicalised student movement the most interesting, important and exciting political development in post-apartheid South Africa.

The call for free education has been accompanied by a wider campaign to change the nature and relevance of education at university. Students also want decolonised education. What exactly this means involves a scattering of ideas — a coherent thesis and end goal do not yet exist.

The debate is necessary, and in some respects encouraging, because students are questioning the ­ideological tenets of university education. But there are worrying trends that demonstrate a lack of historical understanding, an amateurish appraisal of knowledge and a lack of rigour.

The most recent expression of this is a video from the University of Cape Town (UCT) that went viral, in which students were debating the decolonisation of science. In short, the video shows a panel discussion about Western modernity and the place of science in a decolonised African university.

At once the students’ solution to the problem is to reject Western science, render it to ashes and, as one of the proponents in the video proposed, create a new African scientific tradition. The nature of this nonWestern and nonEuropean science is not clear.

Presumably, as was said in the video, it is okay to include elements of traditional folklore and superstition, that in a certain place in KwaZulu-Natal people believe they are able to send lightning through witchcraft to strike someone — and we ought to explain this scientifically, because it happens.

Lightning kills, witch or no witch.

Lost credence

The decolonisation movement against Western science loses credence if it fills its framing of issues with absurd claims about what constitutes decolonised knowledge and what does not. This is true especially if it does not take into account that Western science is the product of contributions from many different cultures and civilisations. We have a right to claim it as our own and use it to our advantage.

When the decolonisation of science becomes ideology rather than science, we are in the era of the Lysenko affair, which afflicted progress in biotechnology in Russia from the 1920s to the 1950s. Lysenkoism refers to the ideological campaign against the science of genetics started by Trofim Lysenko, who was the head of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Essentially, Lysenko claimed feats of genetic transformation that were not provable by science but rather to bolster an ideology that involved false theories and evidence that fitted a specific dogma of science that gained currency during the Stalin era. Lysenkoism led to thousands of Soviet scientists being subjected to the test of dogma. Many were harassed if they proposed counter theories and still more were banished or imprisoned. Lysenkoism lasted almost three decades, setting back the field of genetics and agriculture for many years during Stalin’s reign.

Mindless cleansing and forms of puritanism tried to rail against the laws of nature. But nature always triumphs over banality as the post-Lysenko era in the former Soviet Union had to relinquish spurious dogma for proper science.

It is understandable when there is defacement and disfiguring of colonial symbols, such as the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT. It is seen as a form of cleansing from the taint of the colonial era.

But students are getting carried away when they no longer see decolonisation as a political project, instead using a metaphorical “hair test” to decide what constitutes decolonial knowledge and what does not without having a proper historical understanding of the evolution of science in human history.

It seems, in the video, that any criteria that suits a specific dogma goes, no matter how ridiculous the proposition.

There are scholarly disciplines that cannot be easily racialised and politicised, such as physics, chemistry, climatology and the natural sciences. It is important to acknowledge the debt that humanity at large, including Africa, owes to the pioneers of scientific knowledge and discoveries in many fields, especially the communications technological revolution of the past three decades.

Those same students who are calling for science to fall utilise these devices daily in a variety of ways. They not only enjoy doing so but also often fetishise them.

Digital communication

The internet, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Twitter originated in the West — but they have connected the globe and revolutionised communication across Africa to the extent that we are highly dependent on them today.

Africa is able, in many instances, to leap-frog into modernity faster and at a much cheaper cost than developed economies could in the past. Today, the poorest people have access to cellphones. It would therefore be ludicrous to ignore how we have all benefited immensely from this technological revolution.

These achievements are a big slice of the science some students at UCT are saying must fall. This stance is unrealistic and retrogressive. To regard science, in its broadest sense, as a product of Western civilisation or modernity smacks of a lack of an elementary understanding of the history of the sciences and scientific thought. It is, sadly, born out of ignorance.

It is also important to point out that there are distinct reasons why the West has led scientific discoveries and later the communications technological revolution. This is derived directly from its power in the global capitalist system, the origins of which lie in the accumulation of wealth through successive systems of oppression and exploitation: racism, slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism, spanning several centuries and several continents.

The enormous profits these successive systems generated laid the material basis for the technological revolution, which opened up lucrative new fields of exploitation and profit, and created global companies such as Facebook and Google.

Notwithstanding these roots of the technological revolution, we all utilise these tools and enjoy the benefits they bring.

Part of decolonisation is to appropriate the universal knowledge open to humanity because it does not belong to a specific race or culture, and contextualise it as part of a new agenda and modernity that asserts African political goals, thinking and economic independence.

Let us draw from the prudence of the founding thinker of pan-Africanism, WEB du Bois, who was the first black person in the United States to get a PhD. Du Bois took an open-minded view of science. He spent some time in Germany studying the methods and work of the great sociologist Max Weber.

Du Bois learnt from the best and adopted the scientific methods of sociology to articulate Afro-American experience in the US and lay the basis of his grand project, the encyclopaedia of black history and experience.

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, analyst and author. Saliem Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town

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Ebrahim Harvey
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and author of The Great Pretenders: Race & Class under ANC Rule (Jacana)

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