Getting Decolonisation Right

This article is in response to: African universities must take a critical view of knowledge and how it’s made Some recent conservation biology graduates.From left: Hermenegildo Matimele, Mozambique; Wataru Tokura, Japan; Dr Susan Cunningham, current CBP Academic Coordinator, Angela Ferguson, Zimbabwe; Jennifer Angoh, Mauritius; Julia van Velden,...

921 2
921 2

This article is in response to: African universities must take a critical view of knowledge and how it’s made

Some recent conservation biology graduates.
From left: Hermenegildo Matimele, Mozambique; Wataru Tokura, Japan; Dr Susan Cunningham, current CBP Academic Coordinator, Angela Ferguson, Zimbabwe; Jennifer Angoh, Mauritius; Julia van Velden, South Africa; Elke Visser, South Africa; Jessleena Suri, India.

I risk being branded a hypocrite because I have spent virtually my whole professional life – more than 40 years – studying and researching at, educating within, and helping to constructively transform a ‘specialist’ university institute. Nevertheless, I question the need for the proliferation of (even ‘virtual’) stand-alone academic entities, like the University of Johannesburg’s African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science (ACEPS), for both pedagogical and practical reasons.

With regard to the former, epistemology is an integral part of philosophy sensu lato, and philosophy of science ‘simply’ focuses philosophy on to science. Indeed, ACEPS as it is described is already embedded in the “analytical component” of UJ’s existing Department of Philosophy. It’s like serving a pale of oatmeal with a steak knife. ‘My’ institute only flourished as a formally-recognized Centre of Excellence once it became firmly embedded within the various biology departments (and beyond) throughout UCT. Indeed, without this ‘inclusion’, it would have vanished during the 1970s.

So, by all means, reinforce science philosophy. But resist the temptation to fall into an “us-and-them”, “speaking-to-the-converted”, “I-wouldn’t-have-seen-it-if-I-hadn’t-believed-it” situation. I have argued for strategic inclusion of basic philosophy into science curricula for decades. Without it, even the most brilliant specialist practitioners of science will fail to understand why they do what they do and why some other researchers, philosophers, and university executives want to “decolonize”.

Further on pedagogical grounds, I cringe whenever I hear the words “critical”, “Afrocentric” and ”decolonization”.  Research of all sorts must be initially self-critical and, ideally, be falsifiable by independent research. Otherwise, it is at best scientific ‘advocacy’, striving to prove what you believed to begin with. Thereafter, all ideas are ‘fair game’ and ‘win’ as long as they are the ‘fittest’. If by ‘critical, Afrocentric decolonisation’, the author means “Critical Theory” sensu stricto and/or the ideologically poisonous “Critical Race Theory” affirmatively favouring African-sourced ideas and potentially destructive “decolonization”, he’s proposing to take a long walk off a short pier. This is why I cringed when I read the author’s statement: “Critical thinking about the nature of knowledge, and the way Africa participates in science, is an essential part of the project of decolonisation – if that project is to be a success.” If the philosophies developed by “dead, white, European males” such as Jaques Derrida, Michel Foucault  and Antonio Gramsci are to take centre stage within ACEPS, African science philosophy will take a retrogressive nosedive towards the realm of “post-truth” and “alternative facts”.

With regard to my specialty – evolutionary biology – the DFG-philosophic pathway could lead to assigning credibility to discredited (but potentially popular/politically correct) ideological views such as HIV/AIDS denialism, Lamarck/Lysenkoism (inheritance of acquired characteristics) and creation ‘science’.  If this happens, academic freedom, pursuit of ‘truth’ and rational debate resulting in rejection of nonsense could be replaced by power-based, inward-thinking, dogmatic ideology and endless debate within a contextual morass resulting in nothing but mediocratic-consensus and thought repression. Then one believes the singer, regardless of their songs.

With regards to practicalities, within universities (certainly the University of Cape Town), some centres/institutes have failed simply because of:

  1. inadequate planning before they ‘hatched’;
  2. insufficient resourcing during the development; and
  3. failure to adapt constructively to a changing world.

In the case of ‘my’ institute, in 1985, during its 25th anniversary year, staff, students (past and current), colleagues (local and national) and potential employers of graduates were consulted on changing the institute’s mission statement. This resulted in a radical change from “birds as functional components of African ecosystems” to “conservation biology – with national, African and international perspectives – with three foci: Characterising Biodiversity, Evolutionary Ecology and Maintaining/Utilizing Biodiversity”. Such academic ‘evolution’ requires more than ivory tower thinking and Ubuntu consensus. It requires conceptually competitive debate to the death and a carefully considered ‘plan of business’.

From an educational perspective, the key ‘decolonial’ development was a one-year, MBA-like, coursework and research, M.Sc. programme in conservation biology (the CB Course).

The aims of the CB Course (now celebrating its 25th anniversary) are to produce graduates with a broad understanding of conservation challenges and to provide them with the scientific background and tools to be able to analyse and solve practical, conservation-related (especially Afrocentric) problems. Its focus is on the long-term preservation of biodiversity and more immediate human beneficiation.

During its 24-year history, the CB Course has had a high academic ‘fitness’. More than 80% of the nearly 300 graduates to date have found relevant employment and published about 130 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Thus, in cold financial terms, the CB Course more than earns its keep through the generation of government subsidies for published papers and graduated students.

In terms of government demographics, 25% of CB graduates so far have been ‘black’ and 52% female. They hail from 43 countries, 23 of which are in Africa. Some of the noteworthy graduates found careers as: Deputy Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Programme Coordinator Nature Conservation & Game Ranch Management (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), Head – Biodiversity Network Unit, WWF South Africa, Chief Director – Conservation Gardens & Tourism, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Director – Natal Museum, Professor/Curator of Birds, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, senior lecturer in Geography – University of Stellenbosch, Director and Coordinator: Invasive Species, Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux International and  Director – BirdLife Botswana.

Here is a comment from a current CB student, Elelwani Nenzhelele, who came to us from the University of Venda.  Her research project is being supervised by Professor Timm Hoffman of the Plant Conservation Institution at UCT and Simon Todd, an ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, who himself was was a CB student 20 years ago.

Says Nenzhelele:

“It is important because we learn a lot from each other more than we did in the class. We learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge about conservation issues, culture and traditions from all the people of different backgrounds. It is so nice to be in a diverse class because as much as you think you are different at the end of the day we are the same HUMANS and our common goals is to make a world a better place.”

Indeed, several pairs of CB Course graduates fell in love, married and had families! If that’s not a measure of success, we don’t know what is?

In this article

Leave a Reply


  1. Gillian Benade Reply

    Enjoyable read.

  2. Tim Bester Reply

    Always worth reading…wish I had been on of his students!

Rational Standard
%d bloggers like this: