The Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, has urged indigenous knowledge holders to protect their knowledge from misappropriation.


Speaking during a panel discussion hosted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in partnership with North-West University in Pretoria yesterday (25 September), the Minister warned against unethical behaviour by researchers who exploited indigenous knowledge without acknowledging the holders.


"We should address this issue and become firm. Researchers who approach communities for their knowledge must exercise basic principles of research and disclose upfront the purpose of their research and produce appropriate documents to prove their authenticity," the Minister said.


The panel discussion formed part of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems International Conference, which opened yesterday under the theme, "Protecting indigenous knowledge towards socio-economic development".


The three-day event has brought together over 250 participants – including delegates from as far afield as Brazil, Germany, Jamaica, Nigeria and Uruguay – to discuss issues around the legal protection of indigenous knowledge.


The conference comes hot on the heels of the approval by Parliament of the Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge (IK) Bill. The legislation seeks to provide legal protection for knowledge generated and owned by communities, including medical practices, the production of food products, cultural expressions, songs and designs. It is expected to go a long way towards placing communities at the centre of the process of commercialising indigenous knowledge.


Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said that, not so long ago, it would have sounded bizarre for anyone to suggest that indigenous knowledge needed protection, or that it could be harnessed for socio-economic development.


"This is because knowledge produced by indigenous communities was, for the longest time, regarded as no knowledge at all," the Minister said. "The process of developing knowledge by indigenous communities was regarded as illegitimate and invalid, and therefore whatever knowledge would have been organised and accumulated using this process was looked at with suspicion."


The Minister said one of the strategic focuses of the IK Bill was the development of a regulatory policy framework for the accreditation and certification of IK holders and practitioners.


"This marks a substantial step towards ensuring that IK holders' and practitioners' skills, experiences, learning and practices are legally recognised. Processes are under way to make this a reality," the Minister said.


During the first day of the conference, participants decried the effective theft of their knowledge by unscrupulous researchers, saying they received no acknowledgement in research papers, and earned no royalties, while others reaped the benefits.


Dr Lily-Rose Mlisa, project coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Documentation Centre at the University of Fort Hare, said communities should not be seen as sources of data merely, but should earn royalties from the knowledge they generated and shared.


"In addition, an appropriate budget should be set aside for the development of indigenous knowledge systems, and not only for academics – especially if we want the participation of young people," Dr Mlisa said, referring to the high rate of unemployment among young people in South Africa.


Dr Mlungisi Cele, the Acting CEO of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, said the conference was also an opportunity for the IK sector to make inputs on the current debate on land ownership in the country. He also urged the sector to comment on the new draft White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, so that their views were also represented there.


Prof. Philip Iya, of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Centre at North-West University, said the role of the university in IK was to enhance mutual respect and academic awareness, thus closing the distance between indigenous communities and formal learning institutions.


"The action plan emerging out of the conference will inform how indigenous knowledge as a component of science can be used to contribute to the knowledge-based economy," said Prof. Iya.


Various IK practitioners are exhibiting their products as part of the conference. These include African natural (herbal) medicines, IK-based cosmeceuticals (for health and beauty), IK-based nutraceuticals (for nutrition and food security), and IK-based health infusions (beverages and teas).


Issued by the Department of Science and Technology.


For more information, contact Veronica Mohapeloa at 083 400 5750 or Thabang Setlhare at 072 659 9690.