African Science Renaissance at UWC

On 30 June each year, the African Union celebrates the day of Africa’s Science Renaissance, and it is worth celebrating.

African science is among the oldest known to man. The university at Timbuktu, founded around 1 800 years ago, served as an intellectual hub of knowledge for the continent until the late 16th century. There are older records of mathematical, medical and other scientific scriptures recorded on papyrus and sadly found mostly in European Museums today. The oldest mathematical object in the world comes from a cave in Lebombo, on the border between South Africa and eSwatini, and is estimated to be about 35,000 years old. The ruins of Ancient Egypt show us that Egyptians and Nubians had sound engineering over 5000 years ago. African star lore contains vast knowledge about our place in the universe, and shows that our ancestors scrutinised the night sky with observatories. Furthermore, indigenous knowledge of plants in our incredibly biodiverse environments may well hold the future of pharmacology or even nanotechnology.

Science has a convoluted history. Much scientific knowledge has lost its origins, but has been passed down through oral traditions and eventually recorded physically – sometimes preserved, sometimes only quoted in other works, themselves ancient. Modern science itself is a wonderful opus – its applications have led to a healthier, more comfortable and technologically-driven humanity. 

But these enhancements have not come for free. On this day, we need to acknowledge the role of science in furthering the colonial agenda, for example. What is commonly referred to as “modern” astronomy in South Africa started as a means to map the Southern skies for European navigators trading for one empire or another, and fighting over the world’s resources. Eugenics, the misplaced belief that humanity has superior and inferior beings that can be differentiated genetically, makes no sense but has cost very real lives in the name of science. Modern medicine has progressed in leaps and bounds when, before the evolving field of ethics came into the picture, people were subjected to horrible suffering as experimental subjects. Today still, discriminations remain with lack of diversity in clinical trials, and other manifestations of biases. We see how unequal the world is when we look at where vaccines to curb the spread of the SARS-CoV2 virus are made available, and where they are not, while knowing scientifically that we are not safe until everyone is safe.

The shortcomings of humans yielding the powerful tool that is scientific knowledge have also led to the creation of technologies that have put the world’s environment at risk in the pursuit of wealth, and we are now experiencing the effects thereof. Climate change is unequivocally driven by human activity and the least impact we may have had on any environment may well be in outer space; an environment that our humanity urges us to conquer too – although recent developments, like the satellite megaconstellations that are launched commercially, 60 at a time, already compromise the view telescopes have of the universe, and space debris from human spacecraft need to be monitored and associated risks mitigated, less than 65 years since the dawn of space travel.

So, what does it mean to celebrate African Scientific Renaissance?

Firstly, it is an acknowledgement by all of the multicultural and multiethnic contributions to the global edifice of scientific knowledge. Modern science has no fixed starting point. It has grown organically, its progress at times dominated by African, Asian, Middle-Eastern, European or North American societies. Surely, we don’t know the whole story, and no particular identity can claim science as its own. Instead, we can celebrate that humanity is engaged in the relentless pursuit of discovery, driven by human curiosity and a quest for understanding. From this point of view, science is one way of knowing ourselves and our world, different from other ways of knowing.

Scientific knowledge leads to the development of tools to control our environment and our circumstances, to a certain extent. These tools are often material, such as medicines and technology, but not limited as such. The rise of digital humanities is blurring the boundaries between science and the humanities by adopting scientific methods in the humanities, and vice-versa. In that sense, science lives alongside other ways of knowing in each of our life journeys. Sadly, science has the reputation of being difficult to learn, and is therefore thought not to be as accessible as other ways of contemplating the human condition. At the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the accessibility of science concerns many academics, and initiatives to translate science into African languages for example, are slowly eroding that barrier to entry.

Secondly, it means taking ownership of modern science as an endeavour engaged in by Africans and for Africans, and knowing that Africa-owned science benefits the whole world. Africa is home to some unique natural features – whether plants or mineral resources – telling the story of our planet and holding precious chemical components critical to modern life. Africa is home to the greatest genetic diversity among humans. So, it is not just the cradle of humankind, but may well be its future as well.

This translates into a new historical perspective, less dominated by the global North. When historical archives are not available in the traditional sense, indigenous knowledge systems provide us with a window into the accumulated knowledge of African populations, acquired over millennia. It is time that indigenous knowledge be recognised as a relevant body of knowledge, not as a historical anecdote. Sure, we now have more accurate ways of measuring time than observing the stars by eye, but when the pharmaceutical industry discovers a new active molecule in a plant long used for its health benefits, we need to protect that knowledge as legitimate and share in its benefits.

At UWC, many scientists work with indigenous knowledge. For example, a team in the Department of Biotechnology is working to understand the anti-tumor activity of certain molecules found in the well-known honeybush. The South African National Bioinformatics Institute has developed a laboratory information management system specifically for genetic data which is being adopted across Africa and works to ensure that the right systems of governance are applied to African genetic data in the interests of  science by Africans, for Africans. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer for Knowledge in Africa (GAMKA, meaning Lion in some Khoi/San languages) and a new world-class scientific facility that has just been built by the experimental nuclear physics team at UWC. Located at iThemba Labs, it consolidates South Africa as a world-class destination for fundamental science. Similarly, UWC is heavily involved in the Square Kilometre Array, the global mega radio telescope under construction in the Karoo, providing ‘the best of both worlds’ indeed – pairing the pristine skies of South Africa with global leadership in science done with the telescope.

Thirdly, it means doing science right: respectfully and inclusively. Science must be carried out critically, but must also be critically scrutinised. Science keeps teaching us that diversity is our biggest asset, and we must learn that lesson. Through our diversity we find resilience, adaptability, humility and grace. May we also find wisdom in science, because science without wisdom is what gives us weapons of war and tools of suffering and abuse. Positive transformation of the scientific community is high on the agenda at UWC. Many of the university’s academics and leaders are there because they personally fought for the rights that we all benefit from today. Remembering the struggle, they work hard with students to reform the curriculum. UWC regularly renews its Institutional Operating Plan to be truly inclusive and create opportunities for graduates, and it aligns its priorities with the National Development Plan. The evolving role of science in eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030 is constantly revisited, and the university is deeply rooted in its communities, promoting stakeholder engagement in research, among other institutional strategies.

Finally, it means reflecting on African science and finding the wisdom to do right in the future. Science is a fantastic discipline, driven by human curiosity, and it has enabled us to discover so much about the universe, our world and ourselves. In the Physics Department, a team is developing a “Science for Development” course for Honours students, with the hope of developing science as a lens through which to see the world as it truly is. This means taking scientific methods learnt in one context – a lab or a subject, for example – and being able to see its manifestations in the world. By the end of the course, the students should be able to look out their window and see that it is the laminar air flow that makes the condensation above Table Mountain create lenticular clouds, and then be able to look at the traffic and see that one more lane may not ease congestion because it doesn’t affect the viscosity of traffic as a fluid phenomenon. These students will be able to look at the side of the road and see the importance of green corridors in networking habitats for the maintenance of biodiversity in a built environment, and then see that the proximity of housing in a township can be interpreted as a mean free path – the average distance traveled before a collision – for pathogen propagation. They will be able to see the phases of the moon and Venus and visualise the ecliptic plane in 3D, or smell the ocean and consider how ocean spray potentially contributes to the acidity of topsoil.

In conclusion, join UWC in celebrating the day of Africa Science Renaissance by honouring all Africans, in the past, today and in the future, who contribute to the public good that is science.

Carolina Odman – 30 June 2021
Originally published on the UWC website