In the face of increased globalisation, preserving and promoting the value of South Africa's indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) for the benefit of current and future generations is more important than ever before.

In the African context, "indigenous knowledge" and "traditional knowledge" are used interchangeably to refer to a body of knowledge entrenched in African philosophical thinking and social practices that have evolved over thousands of years.

Given the rich cultural heritage of indigenous communities in South Africa, and the country's abundant diversity of plant and animal species, IKS has evolved to express people's understanding of their relation to their environment. 

The Department of Science and Technology, the custodian of the country's IKS programme, has embarked on a number of initiatives to make sure this knowledge is preserved and profiled – and at the same time revisited and re-examined, so that it can be harnessed for community-centred development and the further accumulation of knowledge.

Last year the DST partnered with the Department of Basic Education in Mpumalanga to popularise IKS among the youth, particularly those with an interest in physical science and mathematics. The departments ran an essay writing competition aimed at Grade 10 and 11 learners in the area.

The initiative was launched at the 2017 IKS Expo that took place at Mbombela Stadium under the theme "Indigenous Knowledge: Protecting it for Future Generations". The competition sought to ignite interest in IKS as knowledge that is valuable while testing learners' understanding of the concept. It also aimed to bridge the gender and generational divide, as the future and sustainability of IKS lies with younger generations.

The results of the competition were announced recently and the winning learners were awarded their prizes in March. The initiative unearthed huge writing talent among schools like Reggie Masuku Secondary in Ermelo, Vukuzenzele Secondary in KwaMhlanga and Shanke Senior Secondary in Hazyview.

Njabulo Thomas Matsana from Reggie Masuku Secondary scooped top honours for his essay, in which he appealed to elders to stop treating indigenous knowledge as a closed treasure trove. Njabulo won a full scholarship – covering tuition, accommodation, meals and textbooks – to study for a Bachelor of IKS degree at North-West University or the University of Venda.

Mmathapelo Themi Matshika from Vukuzenzele Secondary was the deserved winner of the second prize, with an essay that focused on the protection of indigenous knowledge and how traditional medicine can and should be preserved for future purposes.

Mmathapelo, who won a partial scholarship covering tuition and accommodation to study IKS at university level, thanked the Department for affording her this opportunity. The 17-year-old from KwaMhlanga encouraged other learners to work hard and to be committed to their school work. 

Shanke Senior Secondary School in Hazyview doubled up with winners in the third and fourth spots. Sandile Trevor Shilane walked away with a laptop, while Vuhlari Pride Mkhatswa won a partial scholarship covering tuition to study for a Bachelor of IKS.

Unable to contain their excitement on hearing the news, Sandile and Vuhlari were full of praise for their mentor, Dr Alfred Mensah, who guided them through the process. They both urged their fellow learners to participate in similar competitions, advising them to "research their projects very well and interpret their work in their own way, because such competitions require confidence".

Dr Mensah reminded learners that the only secret to success is hard work.  He thanked the DST for hosting the competition and said he hoped the Department would continue with such initiatives as they served to enlighten and motivate learners.

Nontobeko Goodness added to the accolades for Reggie Masuku Secondary, claiming fifth place in the competition and receiving a smartphone for her efforts.

Mafika Nkosi is the head of department for Social Sciences and Life Orientation at the Ermelo-based school, which accommodates 1 125 learners from Grades 8 to 12.  Nkosi said his role involved making learners aware that modern technology is not isolated from IKS.