Address by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, on the occasion of the UNIZULU inaugural conference on African thought held at Bon Hotel Waterfront Richards Bay - 17 November 2022

Director General of the Department of Higher Education and Training, Dr Nkosinathi Sishi;

Chairperson of the UniZulu Council, Ms Nomarashiya Caluza; Vice Chancellor and Principal, Prof Xoliswa Mtose

All Deputy Vice Chancellors present

Senior management of the University;

Distinguished guests’ speakers; facilitators and respondents; Representatives from USAF;

Trade Unions representatives; Students Representative Council; Distinguished guests;

Members of the media;

Ladies and gentlemen

 

Good Morning

 

Introduction :

 

It gives me great pleasure to address what I understand to be the inaugural Conference on African Thought at my alma mater, the University of Zululand.

 

My formative undergraduate years were spent here, a place which is close to my heart, not only because its deeply personal imprint it has left on my own social and political imagination, but also because UNIZULU’s history epitomizes the spirit of the oppressed to turn that which is designed for its subjugation into a source of emancipation.

 

 1. Conference Theme:

It is my understanding that the rationale for this conference stems from UNIZULU’s Strategic Plan. According to the organizers, your aim is to transform UNIZULU “into an authentic African university where epistemologies of the Global South and indigenous African knowledges are privileged. As our contribution to the broader struggle for the total emancipation of African people, we are taking bold, deliberate and calculated steps to renegotiate and re-contract with our local, provincial, national, continental and planetary publics through a paradigm shift from the alienating colonial model”.

 

This is indeed a bold and ambitious set of goals – which from the onset I should say I fully embrace and support. The process of privileging epistemologies of the Africa and the Global South, in my view, requires a multiplicity of inter-related tasks:

 

  • Firstly, the process of reclamation, restoration and promotion of a radically alternative world view requires a systematic and planned strategy of capacity-building, orientation and mobilization of the university scholarly community (students and academics) to consciously develop new paradigms, bodies of knowledge and modes of teaching and learning. This is not an easy, and certainly not a once-off task.

 

  • Secondly, it will require UNIZULU to locate its efforts within a wider network of universities both in South Africa and progressive locations in the Global South – particularly, but not only the BRICS networks, Latin America and crucially, our wider continent. This means, per definition, that your pan-Africanism must be linked to a broader progressive internationalism;

 

  • Thirdly, it should also be clear that any process of reconstruction will require a process of contestation and disruption of dominant paradigms, ideas and narratives – thus implying that this community must actively engage in public discourse. In my political language, we call this Umrabulo;

 

  • Fourthly, the very act of linking your search for new epistemologies to “the broader struggle for the total emancipation of African people” means that you have to link the knowledge production project to the struggles of local communities for social, economic and political emancipation.

 

The tasks of constructing and promoting pan-African knowledge systems is not merely a scholarly and intellectual process. If it is to find its true potential, it must be an engaged pan-Africanism in which your work must be infused within wider mass struggles and social consciousness raising. This will require university intellectuals working in partnerships with local and regional communities in co-creating radical alternatives to prevailing orthodoxies.

 

 

Finally, I should also point out that pan-African knowledge systems can only flourish in the context of a supportive ecosystem – networks of institutions, centres, departments, writers and professionals, editors, publishing houses, investors etc. Without this support system it cannot hope to survive and come of age. I can simply point to the symbiotic and circular economic networks into which English-liberal and Afrikaans intellectual traditions are woven.

 

 2. Universities, African Epistemologies and Transformation:

 

It has now been some 27 years since the transition to political democracy in South Africa and there is no doubt that tremendous progress has been made in many aspects of the higher education system inherited from apartheid.

 

We have a new legislative and policy landscape, a single, more integrated and responsive system, new quality assurance system, a unique student financial aid system, massive investments in infrastructure, including student housing, significant growth in access and success of black and female students, and still slow but significant changes in the demographic profiles of our academics. Nonetheless, despite these positive material

 

and institutional landscape of our higher education system, we still face formidable challenges in the transformation of the intellectual foundations of our university system.

 

 

Our higher education system, as you know, has evolved over the three major historical periods – colonialism, apartheid and more recently, the democratic era.

 

 

Most of our 26 universities were formed under colonialism and later, the apartheid system. This historical context shaped the dominant social relations of knowledge production, knowledge forms, curricula, teaching pedagogies, research orientations and academic and institutional cultures at these institutions.

 

 

The fundamental design features (if you like, DNA), internal social structure, institutional cultures and modes of knowledge production of all our universities have been, and in a large measure remains to be, based on the English-liberal arts ‘model’ transported by the British settlers during the long period of colonial rule.

 

However, this did not prevent the emergence of other intellectual traditions

 

– partly as a result of shifts in political power. For example, the rise to power of Afrikaner nationalists in 1948 paved the way for the vigorous promotion of Afrikaans Christian-nationalist intellectual traditions; and the post-1960 period also saw the establishment of many so-called homeland (bantustan) universities – which also evolved distinctive intellectual and institutional cultures. Nevertheless, the English liberal arts epistemic traditions have tended to remain dominant – mainly because they were

 

locked into and supported by, a much wider, multinational Anglo-Saxon knowledge economy.

 

These official epistemic doctrines have of course been challenged throughout our history by students and insurgent intellectuals. This was the case in different periods of our history – for example, the rise of African nationalist and pan-Africanist ideas at Fort Hare in the 1930’s and 1940’s, black consciousness in the 1970’s, and Marxist and African humanist ideas that found its way into several of our universities during the 1980’s.

 

What made these insurgent epistemic traditions distinctive is that they were rooted in social and political struggles waged by students, academics, communities and workers. At the core of these struggles was a strong desire to transform what Paulo Freire called the Pedagogy of the Oppressed into a Pedagogy of Emancipation – one focusing on social justice, radical equality, democratic citizenship, etc. In one of the struggle languages of the 1980s - People’s Education for People’s Power!

 

These insurgent epistemic traditions, in my view, were always political, and always rooted in mass struggles. This is of course not unique about the South African experience.

 

The political nature and societal character of knowledge production has long been recognized by liberation movements and articulated in the writings of leaders such as Julius Nyerere (Ujamaa), Amilcar Cabral (Culture and liberation), Franz Fanon (colonial subjectivity), Patrice Lumumba (African humanism), Thomas Sankara (anti-imperialism) and many others. What made these ideas resonant was that they were rooted in wider mass movements, and not simply (as important as it is) among

 

university scholars. Taken to its logical conclusions, a radical pan- Africanism is therefore also one aimed at disrupting and transforming dominant relations of power in society as a whole.

 

I hope the ideas of pan-Africanism being debated at today’s Conference will be progressive and internationalist in orientation – examining different approaches that can interact with other traditions of thought particularly those committed to:

 

  • Social justice and class equality;

 

  • Anti-racism and anti-imperialism;

 

  • Gender equality and non-patriarchy;

 

  • Participatory democracy; and,

 

  • Ecological justice and sustainability.

 

It is for this reason that I contend that a progressive pan-Africanism must place anti-racism, gender equality and anti-imperialism as its core.

 

 3. The Crisis of the Present World Order and Limits of the Neo- Liberal World View:

 

One of the remarkable things about the global capitalist system has been its capacity – at least to date – to have survived many serious ruptures and crises over hundreds of years, despite deep-seated internal contradictions.

 

There are of course many reasons for this, not least the use of force. But its ideological power should not be under-estimated. It has been a central source of its own reproduction – promoted by powerful corporate interests,mass media, political parties and through our educational systems. In this narrative, neo-liberal capitalism is presented in trans-historical terms (as if it has been with us forever), as ‘natural’ and without any ‘workable alternatives’.

 

However, in recent years this system and its central tenets have been in serious crisis, especially after the global financial crisis of 2007/08. Whilst there have been previous crisis periods in the history of capitalism, what makes the present-day crisis serious, arguably, is the existential risks it poses not only to capitalism itself, but the future of the planet.

 

Colleagues, we are meeting at a time when the world is being battered by a series of convergent crises – of neo-liberal economic globalization, ecological sustainability and social reproduction (inequality) – which collectively and cumulatively register all the hallmarks of a generalized global (planetary) crisis.

 

As the crisis deepens, we are also witnessing elites in powerful nations relentlessly stoking all sorts of geo-political tensions, most notably with China, presumably to deflect attentions of their domestic publics from the real problems.

 

The roots of the crisis are to be found in the most successful (and most destructive) economic system in the history of modern economics – capitalism. Despite its many stunning achievements, as Karl Marx so forcefully described in Das Kapital (1867), this system has also presided over accumulation strategies which, over the last 250 years or so, had begun to push many of the earth’s life supporting systems to a series of ‘tipping points’ – global warming, destruction of forests to make way for mass agriculture, pollution of terrestrial ecosystems, acidification of the world’s oceans, etc.

 

These ‘tipping points’ point to what Marx tellingly termed a ‘metabolic rift’– a rupture in the interaction between humanity and the rest of nature following the destructive forms of capitalist production, thereby threatening the life-giving systems of the earth.

 

The current planetary-scale crisis is unprecedented in that it poses an existential threat to the future of all humanity. At its core, as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has starkly warned, has been steadily rising levels of global warming (climate change), unmistakably induced by human social and economic activity over the past 205 years of global industrial development.

 

Whilst there are natural drivers of climate change, it is now widely accepted that human factors have directly altered the biophysical dynamics of the earth.

 

Neo-liberal elites argue that the capitalist system might be imperfect and generating inequalities over time, but they claim there is no meaningful or workable alternative. They also espouse claims about human nature – that we are ‘hardwired’ to be selfish, greedy, competitive and that the fittest will survive. I contest and reject this ontological claim.

 

The historical record is replete with much longer periods than the recent history of capitalism demonstrating an alternative set of values on the basis of which our species survived over 300 000 years - cultures of cooperation, sharing, caring and solidarity.

 

In fact, the first humans, Africans – our great ancestors – could have only survived their incredible exodus across the continent into what is now known as Europe and the New World, some 70 000 years ago, on the strength of cooperation and solidarity.

 

The values are held onto by Africans across the continent still today – Ubuntu, sharing, communalism and compassion – and can be directly traced back to this great historical experience. In my view, neither the essentialist claims about human nature and the inevitability of capitalism stand up against the critical scrutiny of history.

 

 4. Knowledge Production, Innovation and South Africa’s Current Crisis:

 

The South African economy, which is deeply integrated into this new global economy, is facing stark challenges with legacies of social inequality and economic exclusion built over three centuries of apartheid- colonial history.

 

Today, there is widespread agreement that substantial changes must be made to overcome deep structural barriers to economic participation by black people in the economy. There is also agreement that we require a capable development State.

 

However, the most important requirement, in my view, is to create space for millions of our people to reclaim their sense of agency over their own lives – in the production of food, energy, education, community safety and security, in sustainable livelihoods. We need a capable State as a partner working with, but not to displace or usurp the crucial role to be played by citizens – communities - in shaping our common futures.

 

If we are to overcome the serious existential challenges facing our people – the multiple crises of climate change, energy, food and social reproduction – our entire developmental model must be one rooted in a mass-based participatory approach.

 

We must therefore dismantle patronage in all its guises and forms. And we must place the role of grassroots organizations of youth, women, elderly, traders, local businesses, workers, etc. at the centre of our development model.

 

In this context, capacity-building through knowledge and skills are of critical importance. It requires an education system that reflects and transforms the realities of the lived experiences of our people. It must be rooted in African realities, drawing on the cultural and social ingenuity of our ways of being and solving problems at a local level.

 

This ingenuity, as I once again remind you, is rooted in a long history of survival predating the colonial experience by thousands of years. It is in this context where African pedagogies and technologies come into being as they are organically rooted in what people already know – deeply- embedded ways of being and knowing and passed from one to the next generation. Colonialism and apartheid certainly disrupted and distorted many of these ‘ways of being and knowing’, but it did not destroy it.

 

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, our domestic economy had already passed through two consecutive recessionary quarters, marked by major job losses in key economic sectors, including financial and manufacturing sectors. The pandemic simply added fuel to the fire.

 

Faced with the prospects of catastrophic failure of the domestic economy as a result of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Government introduced the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Programme (ERRP). It provides the framework for wide-ranging efforts to renew and transform our stagnating economy.

 

The ERRP of course draws its inspiration from our Constitution and National Development Plan which provides an overarching and long-term vision of the future South Africa by 2033. The State is identified as a key driver and enabler in promoting the policy goals set out in the NDP and ERRP.

 

But we must acknowledge that the State itself has been severely weakened by ‘state capture’ and corruption in recent years. Whilst major steps are being taken to reverse these shortcomings, it will probably take many years to recover and rebuild critical capabilities.

 

Renewal and transformation can only work if we build long-term social and economic capacity at grassroots level rooted in the daily experiences of our people. A top-down approach to development simply will not work.

 

The valuable role that UNIZULU must play in building social capabilities in this context cannot be over-emphasized. But it must promote this role in alliance with other universities, TVET and Community Colleges in tackling the big existential challenges.

 

Working together to cooperate and share resources in the pursuit of common goals is vital, and a core value and organizing principle of African epistemologies. Cooperation and sharing in goal promotion are necessary also if we want to achieve economies of scale and impact.

 

There are of course a whole range of different ways in which UNIZULU can pursue developmental goals – that is, in addition to its core mandates of educating and training students. In the interests of brevity, I will simply highlight three areas by way of example, in which you can play a seminal role in line with the goal stated by this Conference.

 

Firstly, there is the challenge of achieving a ‘just transition’ in the transition from carbon-intensive to more climate friendly forms of energy.

 

This is a challenge common to all developing countries of the Global South. To build sustainable sources of renewable energy production and supply at local level, organized in micro and meso-level grids, is going to be key to a future likely to be disrupted by climate events.

 

This university must build African knowledge systems to support the production of solar-energy and green hydrogen-energy, and form part of the wider national efforts by Government to promote long-term energy security and sovereignty.

 

The Hydrogen SA Roadmap strategy announced by Cabinet earlier this year provides major strategic opportunities to all our universities to join hands in the national effort to secure our energy futures.

 

Our academics and students must therefore join hands with local government and other stakeholders in Kwadlangezwa and Richard’s Bay areas to pioneer local energy production networks for future resilience and energy sovereignty.

 

Secondly, South Africa, like developing countries in the Global South, are facing severe challenges of food security especially in working class and poor communities due to climate instability and corporate greed.

 

Under neo-liberal economics, the world’s food production systems had been increasingly corporatized, with a few giant multinational monopolies dominating almost every part of the food production and trading value chain.

 

The Bio-Economy Strategy of the Department of Science and Innovation (current under review by NACI) provides exciting new opportunities for the use of IKS to promote food sovereignty. It focuses on building the resilience and adaptive capabilities of community-based (township, village) economies based on localized food production, trading and cooperative networks.

 

The bio-economy strategy specifically promotes IKS innovations to produce ecologically-sustainable and circular-economic food, medicinal, cosmeceutical and nutraceutical products and services at local level.

 

It is hoped that UNIZULU will target its Faculties of Science, Arts and Commerce to actively engage in this space as it opens up huge opportunities for novel experiments, student entrepreneurship and enterprise development rooted in the cultures and ecologies of local

 

communities. It also offers opportunities to forge new solidaristic and cooperative networks of organic intellectual, students and local communities to build strong local social capital to promote secure and sustainable futures.

 

A third example of new opportunities in which UNIZULU could really play a highly innovative role is that of the development of indigenous languages using AI (artificial intelligence) tools now increasingly available in the market.

 

After a recent visit I undertook with a large delegation, including Professor Mtose, to Silicon Valley in the US and meeting with Google Deep Learning, I am convinced that we can rapidly accelerate the development and use of indigenous languages - drawing on machine-learning and deep-learning tools – in both social and commercial life.

 

As you know, language is the most powerful transmitter of cultural and social values, and its future development beyond social communication is vital if we are to foreground African epistemologies – as the Conference seeks to do.

 

UNIZULU is in a unique social setting to drive the digitization of indigenous language tools and linking such efforts to work being done at other universities in this respect.

 

Finally, I have to say that one of the things that pains me deeply in recent years has been to witness the neglect and degradation of public and community libraries, including here in our Province.

 

I recently visited a public library in Pietermaritzburg and was alarmed to find out that they lacked basic digitization equipment to copy and preserve precious archival material of our history, yet it is one of the few libraries of record in our country. Perhaps UNIZULU can team up with other institutions like UKZN, DUT and MUT to collaborate with local government and department of Arts and Culture, to save our public and community libraries.

 

Having focused on these local examples, I must reiterate the central argument that a progressive tradition of African knowledge systems can only succeed in reaching its true social and economic potential if it is joined up with a wider set of pan-African and pan-developing world alliances. I want to briefly cite three areas where I think much work has to be done:

 

  • In 2023 South Africa is Chairing the BRICS network and we will have an opportunity to expand this network and its impact on the struggle for an inclusive multilateral global system – not one based on unilateralism, military aggression and imperialism;

 

  • Efforts to  establish  a  new  Pan-African  University  dealing  with continental policy studies, an initiative led by Professor Ibbo Mandaza and other colleagues, to train next generation policy- makers able to tackle the ‘grand challenges’ of African and South- South cooperation and solidarity; and,

 

  • My own wish to work towards an African Research and Innovation

 

Foundation to work across the continent to drive game-changing

 

breakthrough science and technology innovations to underpin the quest of the African continent to break free from the grip of neo- colonial dependency, imperial patronage and under-development.

 

 5. Concluding Remarks:

 

In conclusion, may I reiterate that a progressive pan-African and South- South knowledge paradigm requires us to be an engaged scholarly community, aspiring to be organic (not comprador) intellectuals rooted in the lived experiences of the masses.

 

It also requires an open, self-critical intellectual disposition, able to place its world view firmly on the ground whilst selectively appropriating, adapting and assimilating the insights and experiences of other world views that are compatible with its historic interests. In my language, this is the dialectical materialism that must underpin the quest for a new progressive Pan-African and South-South agenda.

 

I have sought to raise epistemological issues through concrete challenges facing the world, our continent and our country. Generating theories from analysis of concrete conditions is as equally important as concrete actions being informed by theoretical clarity. Lenin put it aptly, “Theory without practice is sterile, and practice without theory is blind”! This still remains an important point of departure for African epistemology!

 

May I wish you well with this promising Conference!

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