How decolonization could reshape South African sciencePerhaps Ms. Nordling is related to O.J. Simpson’s character in The Naked Gun?
A generation of black scientists is gearing up to transform the research landscape.
NEWS FEATURE 07 FEBRUARY 2018
… Decolonization is a movement to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the disproportionate legacy of white European thought and culture in education. According to advocates, this is not just about increasing the number of black scientists, although such racial ‘transformation’ is an important part of the process. It also means dismantling the hegemony of European values and making way for the local philosophy and traditions that colonists had cast aside. …
Science departments have struggled to define what decolonization means for their curricula and for research. Most are ramping up efforts to overcome the glaring under-representation of black scientists, but what comes next is unclear. …
… Some hail from communities that are distrustful of science. In Xhosa, Zembe-Mkabile’s home language, there isn’t even a word for research. The best approximation, she says, is ukuphanda, which has negative connotations. “It means to search for a bad thing, like a police investigation,” she says. …
In the natural sciences it gets more complicated, because the meaning of decolonization is not well defined and its relevance is contested. Does decolonizing science mean throwing out Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, and starting afresh with indigenous knowledge? Such demands have been made, most famously by a University of Cape Town student in an online video of a campus discussion titled ‘Science must fall?’. Metz says he’s encountered the argument. “Some of my colleagues think that if something hasn’t come from Africa, it’s somehow disqualified.”
But only a small minority of scientists hold such radical views. For most, decolonization of science calls for something more complex and subtle. “Decolonization is going to happen in the mind,” says Siyanda Makaula, a former cardiology lecturer who now works in university governance. Such shifts in thinking could mean, for example, that pharmacology students hear how drugs are being developed from plants their grandmothers used to treat stomach ache. This would show the relevance of traditional culture in modern science and anchor the curriculum in local experience. In other subjects, it could be about highlighting the contribution of non-Europeans, or facing the unsavoury history of a discipline: for example, exploring how medical research had a role in fuelling racist ideas and how these were challenged and overturned. Across the board, it means ensuring that research addresses local problems and challenges.
Makaula thinks that scientists often hide behind their disciplines’ putative universality — that a cell is a cell, whether it belongs to an African or a European, or that the laws of physics apply to all — to avoid the need to question the way they do things. “It’s an excuse they use,” he says. But the point of science, he adds, is to find solutions for real-world problems. And for that, context needs to be part of how science is taught, he says. “It’s about how you teach it, how you apply it, how you make it relevant, so the person can receive it and absorb it better.”
Such refocusing is taking much too long in South African universities, says Makaula. And that inertia is costing the country dearly in terms of black research talent. He sees himself as a prime example. A decade ago, Makaula earned a PhD in cardiology. But repeated brushes with racism and tokenism — being asked, along with other black students, to meet potential funders while his white colleagues could stay in the lab — frustrated him to the point that he left academia. Today, he works for the Council on Higher Education based in Pretoria, a public-sector body that deals with quality control and regulatory compliance in universities.
On the face of it, South African universities are working on decolonizing their academic offerings. Most have created committees to review their curricula — although few have much to show for it. And all are under pressure from government and funding bodies to train and hire more black academics. Research funders are following suit. A few years ago, the Medical Research Council dedicated a significant portion of its largest grant programme to early-career scientists, and added weighting for gender and race. The proportion of the grants going to white investigators has since shrunk, from 72% in 2012 to 37% in 2016. The council is also working on a position statement on decolonization to sharpen its efforts to recruit black scientists, says Glenda Gray, the council’s president (see ‘Three cultures’). It will look at how medical research can draw on social science to become more sensitive to community needs. “You only get true well-being if you understand the context in which the biological happens.”
Some South Africans approach decolonization as a way to rediscover their heritage. … Her superior education and clipped private-school vowels singled her out as “too white” to belong with the black students. But she was also too black for the white students. “I was getting it from both ends.”
Black researchers are rapidly moving into South Africa’s academic spaces. But not all of them are considered ‘black’ by the country’s Department of Higher Education and Training. Researchers from other parts of the world are instead classified as ‘foreign’.
It’s a large and fast-growing segment. One report4 found that although black PhD graduates outnumbered whites for the first time in South Africa’s history in 2012, more than half of them hailed from countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya.
… So foreign black scientists — such as Thumbi Ndung’u, a Kenyan virologist based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban — experience a special kind of alienation. “You can’t completely identify with the local black population. They see you as an outsider. On the other hand, you are not in the white old-boys’ club,” he says.
… In her 2015 article ‘Leadership: The invisibility of African women and the masculinity of power’, Mamokgethi Phakeng writes2 that black women, as well as being marginalized for their gender and race by white society, face opposition from patriarchal African cultures. This “masculinity of power”, she writes, needs to be challenged alongside colonialism and sexism.
… “I ask people, what stories do you tell yourself? Those stories shape the possibilities of what we can do.”
Nature 554, 159-162 (2018)