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Southern African Regional Colloquium on integrating
indigenous African knowledge systems into
Higher Education.

UKZN has hosted a one-day Southern African Regional Colloquium on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) focusing on methodologies and epistemologies for IKS research, teaching, learning and community engagement in Higher Education. 

The IKS  Research  leader, Professor H O Kaya, welcomed the 100 delegates indicating  the colloquium was meant to share ideas and experiences on how  to promote indigenous African ways of knowing and knowledge production  which had  been marginalised  by  Western  knowledge systems over the  years.

Kaya said IKS would only have a meaning if it contributed to the improvement of the lives of the African people, especially the poor. It was a challenge for Higher Education to facilitate this  process.

In an interview he said: ‘It will not be easy because a number of decisions will have to be made regarding how we take an oral tradition and record it without losing its vitality and dynamism, how we ensure it is correctly interpreted and used, and how we make sure we are inclusive and yet relevant and authentic.’

Indigenous knowledge systems are the long-standing traditions and processes of specific local communities which encompass the skills, innovations and belief systems of people in their respective environments and communities.  They are usually the product of the environment in which they are created, and represent years of accumulated wisdom and practice within a certain community.  

As speaker after speaker mentioned during the colloquium, these collected wisdoms were often lost or replaced by artificial colonial systems which did not work as well in these particular contexts.  It was important, therefore, to study these and reclaim those that would improve the lives of ordinary Africans.

‘We can view this as our third wave of liberation, said Professor Nelson Ijumba, UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research).  ‘The first wave was political freedom, the second wave was economic freedom, the struggle now is to restore indigenous knowledge to its rightful place in Africa.  We should have IKS

 in health, governance, agriculture, religion – all aspects of daily life.’

Professor G M Nkondo, advisor to the Minister in the Department of Water Affairs, struck a practical note when he said that this was a serious discourse on a major subject that required a pragmatic approach:  ‘We must ask ourselves: “How does IKS improve a person’s ability to do, or to be?”  Our starting point should be:  “Is a person better off with IKS?”

‘Let’s move away from nationalistic notions of identity,’ said Nkondo.  ‘This is going to be a very difficult and challenging study – South Africa has 11 languages and one assumes there are several different knowledge systems, and IKS turns on a number of different and complex histories.  How do we therefore negotiate the value of IKS in a poly-epistemological system?  And one cannot under-estimate the difficulty of translating different languages.  So ethics should be the first principle of research.’

‘The issue of propriety rights over indigenous knowledge was a crucial aspect,’ said Professor P J Kabudi of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.  ‘Indigenous people were never given property rights over their knowledge.  And subjugation by colonists has led to the alienation of indigenous cultures.  The challenge now is the recapture of this wealth of knowledge, but without losing the context.  So communities must be seen as partners, not merely sources of information.’

Mr J S Rai of UNESCO warned against Universalism:  ‘It is the belief that there is only one set of values, practices and beliefs.  IKS shows there is more than one way of looking at things.  But knowledge must be functional, this is not about recovering lost wisdoms but about the plurality of human genius and concepts.  We need common goals, but different approaches and methods.’

Dr M Murove of UKZN said knowledge should be context-specific otherwise it was just parroted.  ‘There is no point in recording information without its context,’ he said, ‘otherwise it loses its meaning.  There is this idea that knowledge is spread to the world from Europe,’ he continued.  ‘We need to reverse this trend and show that many types of knowledge systems originated in Africa.  I believe that indigenous discourse is a quest for world recognition.’

Researcher Ms W Martins delivered a lively case study in traditional law, saying that there had always been pre-colonial systems of justice that had been suited to their communities, and that in many instances nowadays they were more acceptable and accessible to rural people than formal law.  Issues of language, community dynamics, restorative justice – these were elements of traditional law that were now being adopted. 

Professor Nceba Gqaleni gave case studies where traditional medicine had been hi-jacked by the pharmaceutical industry.  ‘There is supposed to be integration with traditional medicine, but this has been limited,’ he said.  ‘Our way forward is to monitor safety and efficacy of traditional medicines, increase access and improve rational use but this is going to require a completely new way of thinking.  We must encourage people to write and publish in their own language, and we must respect their copyright and intellectual property rights. It is not one-way traffic, we have to be partners.

‘The doors of UKZN have been opened,’ said Gqaleni, to the applause of the delegates. 

* The Integration of IKS into the core business of UKZN i.e. research, teaching, learning and community engagement, has been identified as a signature project of the University. Management supports the IKS project in terms of funding, infrastructure and human capital, and will work in partnerships with other Higher Education institutions such as DUT, Unizulu, NMMU and Fort Hare to promote it.