ANALYSIS: How South African universities can tap into the continent’s knowledge systems

Posted on March 02, 2020

South Africa’s higher education sector has experienced turmoil in recent years. Some of it stems from students’ financial woes. Some relates to experiences of alienation in the country’s universities.

Some students, most of them black, have also rebelled against what they see as Eurocentric instruction. As a result, South Africa’s academic institutions are starting to recognise they can’t exclude African knowledge traditions and histories from their curricula.

Apartheid in South Africa excluded black people from most universities. Twenty five years after the end of apartheid, power relations still reflect inequalities and colonial values. As scholars Ronelle Carolissen and Peace Kiguwa argue, experiences of alienation or belonging are shaped by power relations within institutions. As they argue:

“In South Africa black students… despite (their) legitimate student status… continue to experience their rights within universities as conditional, contingent, marginal and circumscribed by the terms of the other.”

This sense of exclusion has its roots in the country’s past. Many students are the first in their family to go to university. Their parents and the generations before them were excluded from higher education, or were unable to afford it. This means that many students aren’t accustomed to tertiary institutional cultures.

My research aimed to find sources of knowledge that help create more inclusive curricula and learning experiences. The goal was to help students feel they belong in South Africa’s universities.

For example, precolonial social and economic organisation seldom features in commerce and political science curricula. And knowledge about trade, agriculture and economics during Africa’s precolonial phase is overshadowed by models inherited from the Global North.

The research

My study considered possible roles that African knowledge systems could play in diversifying knowledge in universities. I found a useful resource in the form of a book about indigenous African institutions by the Ghanaian scholar George Ayittey.

Ayittey is a rich source of African history and insights that can balance Eurocentric modes of knowledge generation. His book highlights African ways of using human and natural resources in all kinds of activity, from agriculture to communal governance, trade or medicine. Examples include:

  • Social sciences: Africa has rich and ample examples of poetry and oral histories accessed through izimbongi (praise poets) and elders.
  • Trade: Reviving precolonial and cross-border trading nodes could stimulate economic growth and reopen dormant African markets that were used for centuries.
  • Medicine: Traditional healers have ancient knowledge of plants which researchers can study.

In well-researched detail, Ayittey sets out the thinking behind social organisation as well as scientific and social pursuits in every region of the continent. He shows how Africa’s precolonial societies were not all alike. Community structures were diverse and ranged from hunter-gatherers to monarchies and village confederacies.

Few scholars have matched the comprehensiveness of Ayittey’s book. He has been invited to economic forums around the world by people who want to learn more about African knowledge systems. Organisations such as the Institute for Security Studies recognise his contribution to the reconstruction of Africa’s social systems. They also note that indigenous ways of organisation have the potential to help prevent and resolve conflict.

Exposing students to this knowledge will give them a greater appreciation of local systems. It will counter any idea of precolonial Africa as a continent that lacks philosophy, culture and systems of social organisation.

University’s responsibilities

African universities have a responsibility to resurrect the continent’s knowledge archives. Not only can they share knowledge practices as highlighted by Ayittey’s book, academics can use multiple languages in teaching and learning. Allowing students to incorporate their own languages into coursework can help students access the African knowledge archive.

Languages reflect cultures. By welcoming all South African languages, university curricula can reduce students’ experiences of alienation and cultivate an environment of community.

Going forward

Ayittey’s book is only one perspective of precolonial Africa. But it reintroduces principles of social and knowledge organisation that were lost in South African universities.

But curricula that draw on Ayittey’s text shouldn’t be presented in an exclusive way. African knowledge and precolonial modes of organisation should be taught alongside philosophies and theories that are used by established scholars worldwide.

Applying Ayittey’s text to mainstream instruction is only one of the methods curriculum designers and instructors can use. But it’s a good resource for incorporating African knowledge systems and organisation into learning experiences.

Oscar Oliver Eybers is a Lecturer in Academic Literacy at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Humanities.

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 24 February 2020.

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