/ 15 December 2016

​Integrate science, don’t segregate it

Calling for change: Attempting to classify science as  ‘colonial’ or  ‘traditional’ detracts from its purpose — namely the acquistion of knowledge
Calling for change: Attempting to classify science as  ‘colonial’ or  ‘traditional’ detracts from its purpose — namely the acquistion of knowledge

Colonisation is defined as “the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area”.

For a continent such as Africa, this rings true. But, in recent times, following the controversial #FeesMustFall campaign, a new agenda has come to light — the decolonisation of science in South Africa.

If we refer back to the definition of what colonisation is, then the antithesis of it would be to return control and governance back to the indigenous people.

South Africa is no stranger to this concept. In the context of science, and by extension education, I struggle to understand the complexity that seems to surround this topic.

Science can be seen as mutually exclusive to that of politics and colonialism. But its use to drive ulterior motives in both these spheres is not unknown to mankind in general. Science in its absolute essence is merely an acquisition of knowledge, interpretation and application to real world scenarios. It presents itself as a source of information or knowledge generation that is acquired and easily transferred from one person to the next. This can be through various platforms such as direct communication or teachings that have been recorded through time.

Science, like all other fields that contribute to world knowledge, can be described as global but its origin can be ethnic or cultural. Taking into account the multilingual and multicultural footprint of South Africa, facilitators of scientific knowledge to students must also strive to create a platform that allows them to build on knowledge being taught by relating it to experiences they have had.

It is no surprise that, even after 22 years of democracy, South Africa is still in a state of transformation with this. For science, transformation can be slightly problematic. Certain methodologies, core principles and fundamental teachings come from Western-based scientists. Although it can be debated that some Western sciences have their origins in Africa, I shall not discuss it in this piece.

A key example of fundamental teachings can be illustrated through the field of genetics. Gregor J Mendel has been dubbed the father of genetics. His findings helped to establish the rules for heredity, now known as Mendelian inheritance.

The concepts taught to students cannot be ignored, however, core principles can be expressed through local examples. Thus the theory remains “Western” but the application is local.

Does this mean there is no place for Afrocentric science?

Science in Africa and more specifically South Africa is a fast-growing field. We continually strive to improve the health and wealth of this country by improving our healthcare and pharmaceutical standards. South Africa produces top-class scientists.

Professor Himla Soodyall, for example, is an internationally known research scientist in the field of African genetic ancestry and anthropology. She has contributed to many local and international research projects, most notably in her position as the principal investigator for sub-Saharan Africa for the National Genographic project.

Furthermore, the incorporation of Afrocentric knowledge is considered to be a rich resource for a number of scientific research outputs.

The government ensures that should patents be derived from an indigenous biological or genetic resource or traditional knowledge then those who wish to file their application with the patent’s office are obliged to disclose their source of indigenous knowledge. This allows for determining equitable and fair compensation.

We cannot ignore the resources that traditional knowledge brings to the field of science and thus must be catered for. South Africa’s alternative medicine practices such as homeopathy are taught at various institutions around the country.

Furthermore, ethnomedical practices are legislated for by the Traditional Health Practitioners Act and many people still consult alternative non-Western health practitioners.

Can we ignore colonial science?

Whether we choose to admit it or not, “Western” science is an integrated part of South Africa’s science and technology sector. Given the international profile of science, disregarding Western scientific theory and practices would be detrimental to the country as a whole.

This is especially true in a university-type setting where the generation of new knowledge through various research programmes needs to contribute not only to local initiatives but to be able to stand as a formidable player on the international scientific playground, thus attracting global recognition and encouraging futher investment.

A prime example of how Western-based science has helped South Africa is the unfortunate “either/or” scenario that former president Thabo Mbeki applied between Western pharmaceutical industries and traditional medicine. His stance on the matter led to the state failing to provide antiretroviral therapy during his term as president. During this time UN Aids estimated mortality figures for Aids-related deaths to be about 400 000 in South Africa alone in 2009.

Overall, scientific research, be it local or international, eventually becomes global knowledge. Attempting to classify science as colonial or traditional detracts from the purpose of science.

The current setting in South Africa paints a segregated picture between Western science and indigenous knowledge systems.

But a more integrative approach is likely to work best. Institutions of higher learning are making a concerted effort to transform their curricula into ones that maintain the fundamentals, thus allowing one to receive international recognition and to apply such teachings on a more local scale.

Kishen Mahesh is an academic co-ordinator in the department of genetics at the University of Pretoria.