Akin Jimoh 00:11
Hello, welcome to Science in Africa, a Nature Careers podcast series. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. I work and live in Lagos. And I’m passionate about promoting science and public health journalism in my native Nigeria and across Africa.
In this series we explore the practice of science in this wonderful continent, the progress, the issues, the needs, and in the words of the African scientists who are based here.
In this third episode, we explore decolonizing science in Africa. We start in South Africa, a country where you could say colonizing powers held on longest. And we centre the discussion around a significant event when the statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town.
Paballo Chauke 01:13
My name is Paballo Chauke, and I am a training and outreach coordinator for bioinformatics, at the University of Cape Town. I’m also a PhD student in the environmental geography health sciences department at the same university.
So I’m South African, born and bred in Pretoria. However, I decided “Let me go to the coastline to study. It’s the best institution in South Africa, but also in Africa. And it’s part of the top 200 in the world. And I’m very passionate about science. I’m passionate about learning and becoming something in the world because I wanted to become a scientist. Let me go to UCT because this is where my mind is going to be shaped.”
And walking into UCT in 2010 for me was a shock, because I am Black, and I’m South African, where the population of this country, I’m the majority in terms of numbers.
But I was in a campus where I wasn’t seeing myself, either In my class (I was one of few Black people). The people that were teaching me were not Black people. The only Black people were cleaners and, and, like, sort of supporting staff. But academics were mainly white. Mainly white men, even. Not just white but white straight men.
And even though I didn’t have the language to describe what I saw, because I was like 18-19, I was like, this is weird. And this is not okay, that in a country, in a university that claims to be in Africa, there’s not a presentation of Black people.
So I wasn’t represented. I felt like an imposter, like “What am I doing here? Am I good enough to be here? Are they doing me a favour? What’s happening? Why am I here? Because I’m not seeing people who look like me, who speak like me, who are in this institution.”
Akin Jimoh: 02:54
There was this thing that happened in 2015. It has to do with taking down of a statue. And which statue was that?
Paballo Chauke 03:03
There was a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, at the University of Cape Town, that was taken down around 9 April 2015, if I’m not mistaken, after like, a month or so of protests by students at the University of Cape Town.
Akin Jimoh: 03:18
Do you know, the statue is part of history, so to say. Why was it taken down?
Paballo Chauke 03:24
Well I mean, obviously, there’s, there’s been a lot written about this. There’s academic journals and newspaper articles written about this, sort of explaining why the statue was removed. There was a lot of debate about it as well, because it cost money to remove it.
But also people were saying, “What’s the point of trying to erase history?” And that was not what we were trying to do. The protesters were not trying to sort of erase history, actually, they were trying to underline it, and sort of highlight the pain and the suffering that history has caused in the present as well.
Akin Jimoh: 03:57
So when it was taken down, you were there? Can you go back and, you know…What were the things that happened, you know, while watching, you know. Can you take me there?
Paballo Chauke 04:11
it was a sunny day in Cape Town, and it started with….because we had colonized (I use that word) the administrative building for the Vice Chancellor, the former Vice Chancellor, Max Price, of the University of Cape Town.
So we walked from middle campus to upper campus. So the University of Cape Town is on a mountain. So when you’re at middle campus, you are at the bottom. So essentially, you have to walk up as though you are walking upstairs. And you are doing that because UCT is on a mountain. Protesters, like hundreds of us had placards and wearing T shirts saying “Rhodes must fall.” And they were singing and chanting. So South Africa has a history of singing and protesting and dancing. So if you don’t know, if you think we are enjoying ourselves and we’re happy, but we are actually angry but we’re singing and smiling. That’s how we express, sort of, our pain, through singing and dancing.
Obviously, we knew on the day that the statue was going to be removed. So we went there. There was a group prayer, there were speeches.
So I want also to highlight that protesters were not just mindless people protesting and things. We were doing readings. We had workshops. We had lectures, we actually invited lecturers and speakers and we were debating and we were thinking. So it wasn’t just, “Oh my God, Rhodes must fall, the statue must fall.”
There was theory and practice behind why the statue must fall. The students were informed about why this must happen. There isn’t just an emotional, “Oh my God“, the statue must go. We read books. I Write what I Like by Steve Biko. Books by Toni Morrison, and Malcolm X, and Audre Lorde. We were philosophical, sociological, we were thinkers. People must know that “Rhodes must fall” was a thinking movement. So we’re thinking, we’re moving, we’re speaking, and we prayed. Then we protested up to where the status was. And obviously the crane came. And it was, I mean, (you should google the pictures).
It’s very….and it’s good. There was so many people. There were like thousands. I think other people joined from, not just from the University of Cape Town, I think other people joined from different parts of Cape Town, just to see, because no one expected.
And it was Black people, coloured people, white people, different ages, children, old people, activists who fought apartheid, people that were just born the other day were there. And I think, for me, everybody was just like singing and chanting and celebrating, and there was that.
It was like, like ancestors were there. It felt as though the slaves that built the history of Cape Town, and who are buried there, and no one wants to talk about it.
We’re saying, we are fighting back, that this is obviously a small win, but it’s something, and it’s showing that unity, you can actually sort of address the issues that killed us. The issues that keep us suppressed and buried without anyone knowing.
So it was like, it was a cathartic moment. I mean, I personally cry, and I don’t cry a lot. I mean, I get cut by knives, and I don’t cry. But that day it was “Oh my god.” It was like a a release, there was like a cascading moment of like a waterfall.
Emotions took over, emotions took over. And that wasn’t just me, men and women were all crying and chanting and singing and celebrating. And I’m sad to know and note that that moment, lasted for like a week.
And after that, things were sort of swept under the carpet. People were being recruited, silenced. And, and it’s sad to watch. But I think that for me shows what’s possible. And it was like a breakthrough.
Shannon Morreira: 08:02
My name is Shannon Morreira. I’m an anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. I was born in Zimbabwe, and I now work in in South Africa. And I teach on an extended degree social science program as well as teaching in undergraduate anthropology and postgraduate anthropology. And my research is really concerned with, with knowledge systems, the production of knowledge systems, how we make knowledge, how we value knowledge, and the ways in which, in which colonialism has has impacted on that historically,
Akin Jimoh: 08:39
Look, for people who don’t know, who was Cecil Rhodes? And why was his statue taken down in 2015?
Shannon Morreira 08:48
So Cecil Rhodes was born and raised in England and came to Southern Africa in the 1870s, as a young man, as a teenager. He was a very successful businessman, primarily through mining.
But what Rhodes did that’s had such a lasting impact on Southern Africa, was that he combined his economic interests in the colony with political interests. So he was a very strong imperialist. He had a huge strong belief in expanding and consolidating the British Empire.
And the company that he founded and ran, The British South Africa Company, which had a royal charter from England, was really integral in combining economic and political colonialism across much of southern Africa.
Rhodes became prime minister of the Cape Colony in the 1890s. And while he was Prime Minister he really took very strong steps to to turn Black Africans into members of a labour pool, who were essentially dependent on colonial industrial capital, in order to survive.
So moving people from one way of life into into another.
Akin Jimoh: 10:06
Yeah. So he was powerful?
Shannon Morreira 10:10
He was very powerful. And he’s remembered now as as, a man who sort of defines a moment in which a huge amount of dispossession occurred.
So from that height, to the statue being taken down, what were the events leading to this? You know, because it’s, I mean, it’s like someone held in high esteem. And then this happened.
Shannon Morreira 10:29
So the statue that was taken down, it’s kind of, in a in a very central position at the University of Cape Town. And the reason why it’s there is that the land that the University of Cape Town is situated on was was donated by Rhodes estate.
So it was after Rhodes’ death it became the university. The statue has actually been contentious for a pretty long time.
So as long ago as the 1950s, there were Afrkaans nationalists who protested against the statue, because it was a statue of a British imperialist, through into the present into the postcolonial moment where for a number of years, prior to 2015, there had been sort of recurrent moments of student protest against the presence of the statue on the campus.
And really what those protests are about are about institutional culture at UCT, but also the wider sort of societal culture within South Africa as a whole.
And it was really just questioning why, in the present moment, or in 2015, as it was, why would we still have a statue, a memorial, a form of celebration of someone that had, through his power, kind of brought about significant, harmful change to large numbers of indigenous South Africans?
So yeah, so the protest movement, which started at UCT, then went national, then went international began with this, this moment of a statue. Of a particular statue, of a particular man who obviously was standing as a symbol for a lot of wider issues.
Akin Jimoh: 12:09
You entered on something that has to do with emotions and stuff like that. What changed, you know, on that day, physically and emotionally?
Shannon Morreira 12:20
So the fall of Rhodes, the bringing down of the statue was really just the start of a number of quite difficult and transformative years at the university. So protests continued, and deepened.
One very strong arm of the protests that you’ve just touched upon was this recognition of, of the role of emotion in teaching and learning, and the role of emotion, particularly in a postcolonial setting, in dealing with a lot of, of the subjects that the disciplines cover.
So yeah, so there was a long period of engagement, where protests continued, protests deepened, engaging with lots of issues also, faced by post apartheid South Africa, so not just by the university itself.
So thinking about cultural knowledge of what constitutes, yeah, what constitutes knowledge, what constitutes education? What should art look like in the post colony? At the same time, with a whole lot of economic concerns at a moment of economic decline globally, and in South Africa.
So a lot of concerns from students about what is the university education actually for? What is this going to do for our country, or for ourselves, at the end of the day? And also a series of political concerns about the failures of, sort of, post apartheid ANC policies around non racialism?
So yeah, so a lot changed quite slowly and in some ways, very slowly, from the perspective of the lifecycle of a student I think. Quite quickly from the perspective of the lifecycle of an institution.
So changes in leadership, changes in building names, shifts with regard to, sort of cultures of teaching and learning, what we expect from students, what we expect from staff.
And again, this yeah, there’s strong recognition that the university doesn’t just need to be a place of rationality, but that we also need to accept a lot of the positionality and reflextivities and emotions that exist within that space.
Akin Jimoh 14:27
To many Black South Africans, the room for the statue was hugely symbolic. It represented another step towards decolonising, or taking back some ownership, Black African ownership, of that university.
In other African countries, this process of decolonization of academia happened decades ago. It is painful to hear how the colonial legacy is so persistent.
So to the core of, from what I understand, the core of the movement, you know, events leading to bringing down the statue has to do with some form of discrimination, issues of carryover from apartheid, and so on and so forth.
Is the situation in terms of discrimination, and some of the things that alluded to then, is it changing now? And if it’s changing, how much has changed?
Shannon Morreira 15:33
So to some extent, I’m really not sure that as a white academic, I’m the right person to answer that question. So, I mean, I have a permanent post at the university, I’m at associate professor level, I’m a white settler within South Africa.
To me, it looks like there have been some positive changes, but that they’re quite slow. So there have been changes in leadership, there have been changes in policies and structures. There have been changes in yeah, just in the ways in which colleagues relate to one another, etc.
But to me, it also it does look like there’s still a long way to go. Also, just because of the nature of South African society as a whole. So who it is that reaches the level of university education, those sorts of things.
But I also sort of have to recognize that even in that I’m, I’m speaking from a position of privilege, and there’s probably a lot that I don’t necessarily see that happens within the university space.
Akin Jimoh 16:29
Yeah. If I may ask, from your, from your vantage point, I say, a white staff member teaching predominantly Black students? What are the challenges you face, or you’ve you’ve, or you’ve come across?
Shannon Morreira 16:47
So the challenges are all mostly good challenges, productive challenges. So there was a point in time during the protest years in particular, when, really when my identity, my personal and political identity as a white academic in the country in the university, was very deeply challenged, but I think it was challenged in in very productive ways.
So some of those challenges were to do with institutional concerns. So, sort of being a white academic on a program that’s only open to Black students, for instance, which is really intended within the university structures and the national government funding structures, it’s intended as positive discrimination.
But in a post apartheid context, with all of the sort of power discrepancies that have been inherited, it’s not experienced as positive discrimination by students.
So yeah, so there have been some really important challenges, I think. To, to thinking very broadly about, about positionality, as a white academic, within a university, and as a white settler, within a postcolonial society.
So thinking about the university in terms of course content, pedagogy, what languages we teach in, etc, but also thinking about all of this hidden social capital that’s carried by whiteness in South Africa, and by different forms of privilege.
And so I think one of the biggest challenges that has been in this place, and in this space, is that the, yeah, that within contemporary South Africa, that the positioning and privilege that comes often with whiteness, or with particular class positions, isn’t surfaced and isn’t recognized.
And what Rhodes Must Fall did was to very clearly surface all of the sort of fractures that were in place within society. And I think that’s been enormously valuable within the university as a whole, in getting white academics to recognize the ways in which racialization works within South Africa.
And how, how it still privileges some of us and actively disadvantages others. And I think once you have that realization within the university, within society more broadly, the biggest challenge is to sort of sit down and ask yourself what your role is in this space.
So when do you be an active citizen? And when do you just sit down and keep quiet? So I think that’s that’s the ongoing challenge, maintaining a reflexive awareness of, when you work with the structures and when you just step out of them.
Akin Jimoh: 19:29
So what does the future hold at the University of Cape Town?
Shannon Moreira 19:33
I think the future feels quite positive to me. I think in terms of research work, there’s so much interesting stuff happening in terms of teaching changes, there’s really exciting stuff happening.
So for example, I, I have white colleagues who are working within affinity groups on a really regular basis to recognize their racial biases, which is something that I can’t imagine happening at UCT a decade ago, widely anyway.
And I’m involved in research projects that are sort of interested in extending concepts and categories of analysis from the Global South, rather than using concepts and categories from elsewhere.
We’re seeing more and more excellent postgraduate students graduating, making their mark on the academy from a sort of African/South African perspective.
So there is there is, yeah, there are lots of lots of positives to the future. And I think positives that will, yeah, bring about different, different kinds of change.
But the work is, of course, always, always ongoing. And not everybody sees the future as bright. So I do have colleagues who see the changes that are happening at UCT as too fast or sort of dangerously radical, but the majority actually see it as too slow, and sort of bogged down in the inertia of institutions.
So I have a colleague, a fabulous colleague, in the Department of Social Anthropology, Francis Nyamnjoh, whose phrase that he uses is that we are “nibbling” at the resilient colonialism in our institutions. And I think that’s yeah, that can only be a good thing.
Akin Jimoh 21:05
You know, the title of this podcast is Decolonizing, African science. What does that mean to you?
I suppose what it would mean to me is that in Africa, we have inherited a particular formal knowledge production system, so which we see in universities, but also in civil society, in business, etc.
But Africa also has very rich informal knowledge making spaces, so things that sometimes get called indigenous knowledge systems, for instance.
And these are still here, still exist very much within contemporary modernity. They’re fluid, they’re iterative, they’re responsive, as any form of knowledge making is and will be.
So I think if we think about decolonization in African science, it’s not saying throw out the contemporary knowledge systems we have, but it’s saying, build them up, diversify them, so that other knowledge systems can be brought in as well.
Akin Jimoh 22:10
The title of this podcast is Decolonizing Africa. What does that mean to you, Paballo?
Paballo Chauke 22:18
That means a lot of things. So first, I want to start by saying that I am worried that we throw away, or throw around, the word decolonization. It’s become meaningless in my view. It’s become bastardized.
It’s become a buzzword. It’s become something that people just throw around to get cookie points as being transformed or open minded.
And I think true decolonization, either of African science or of Africa in general, is not going to be the way people have presented it over the past few years, particularly after Rhodes Must Fall. The word and the theory has come back to life. But I’m worried that people think it’s all going to be strawberries and cream, it’s going to be peaceful, it’s going to be nice, and people want to feel good, people want toi feel comfortable.
And I think decolonizing African science means losing some academic giants, that we are present currently, globally. It means questioning their science, it means admitting that science is not objective. It means we have to tackle the history and the politics behind science, that we usually use science as “Trust the science, science is better than religion. Science is pure science is good knowledge.”
But if you really go back who finds, science who were the scientists in the past, who came up with eugenics, who, literally science has been used to kill and destroy the world. And I think, until we get to a point of admitting that we’ll never decolonize science globally or in Africa, as well.
Akin Jimoh 23:57
Are there examples you can draw from other African countries, you know, like, what drives you, you know, as a South African?
Is this something that is more or less local, or is something that is Africa-wide, you know, because I know, every Nigerian if we’re in a room, for example, people know, where we carry ourselves, and so on, and so forth. So what drives you?
Paballo Chauke 24:23
What I mean, I’m driven by a lot of things, but as I said, from the beginning, I think my passion for Africa, I mean, I, when I say that, I’ve travelled to multiple African countries, and I have friends from all over and I read works from all over Africa, particularly because I think we’ve been silenced for too long, we’ve been divided for too long.
I think one of the issues as well that we face in South Africa, for instance, is how, sort of due to apartheid and colonialism, our people tend to be very xenophobic, and I think a lot of that comes from ignorance.
So for me, it’s like in small ways, trying to show sort of how important it is to be united as Africans, not just as South Africans. Because I think other issue is some people think we are exceptional as a continent. And I’m like, maybe if you traveled a bit more you realize that there’s more to this continent than being in South Africa.
But I think then it’s how do I make sure that as an aspiring academic, I collaborate more with other academics from Africa? Because I think our goals are made to want to collaborate with people from Europe and from America, because that’s the standard.
But how do I make sure that I collaborate with Akin from Nigeria, or, you know, I mean, Tenasha from Zimbabwe to write a paper on something published in Nature or in Science Direct. Just to make sure that we change the African narrative. We improve the African education system, because I’m passionate about many things.
But I think education for me will be a solution to many of our problems. And I think most of our people are ignorant. And education for me, it’s not even just about going to University of Ibadan, or University of Cape Town.
There’s local knowledge systems, there’s different ways of learning and of teaching that don’t include formal ways, or standard ways of doing. And I think I’m very passionate about sort of just in my small ways and my little ways, collaborating with other Africans and improving the continent for the better.
Akin Jimoh 26:16
Well, as South Africa continues to nibble away at colonialism. I think the lesson for African countries to continue the process of decolonization is to collaborate and create partnerships within the continent rather than instinctively reaching for the old colonial powers.
Now, that is all for this episode of Science in Africa podcast. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. Thanks again to Paballo Chauke, and Shannon Morreira. And thank you for listening.