Decolonisation of knowledge and the fourth industrial revolution

By Saurabh Sinha and Shireen Motala

This article first appeared in The African on 09 September 2022.

Seven years after the #FeesMustFall protests broke out and swept across some South African universities, questions continue to linger as to whether, and how institutions are responding to the renewed calls for decolonisation of knowledge and higher education.

The year 2015 was a turbulent time in higher education, and the decolonisation call arose as part of an increasingly broadening transformation agenda, ignited by the call for fee-free education. Yet, the call for decolonisation of knowledge in this field was unclear.

At the height of the protests, we got to engage with some students who shared their viewpoints.

One student indicated, “Well, engineering has been around for many centuries, but has it adequately contributed to building equality, if at all?” Another student said, “Indigenous knowledge systems have been excluded, and the identity of knowledge does not always reflect black students.”

These questions provoked a flurry of responses, but what was clear from the debate was that there was not a single answer to the question about decolonisation and engineering; it was rather collective perspectives that required reflection.

One is tempted to draw an analogy with the field of language studies. One of Africa’s foremost authors, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has written extensively about the association of identity with language, the language one speaks as a child and grows up with. Could we learn from this in engineering?

Could so-called complementary courses in the engineering curriculum contribute to building a sense of identity and ownership among South African students, and hence play a role in decolonising the study of engineering?

In South Africa, the curriculum structure of engineering programmes is premised on international engineering accreditation accords. The curriculum structure or model provides for core engineering knowledge in combination with complementary courses. The purpose of these is to build the mindset for thinking “outside the box”. The latter can include courses in the humanities and social sciences, disciplines where students might find themselves owning widely disparate knowledge. This might include positioning engineering as an enabler to society – for instance regarding improved water quality has contributed to better health.

While this model exists and is enforced by accreditation bodies, complementary courses are generally customised “for engineers”, and their depth is somewhat limited. The primary reason is arguably the busy timetable structure of students in terms of completing their core engineering courses. Despite these time constraints, there are multiple avenues and pathways to effect curriculum and pedagogical shifts without compromising the engineering components. For instance, pedagogical shifts can be brought about through choice of examples, such as the Great Zimbabwe, for students pursuing civil engineering.

“Decolonisation of knowledge” itself is broad and subject to multiple interpretations, the one extreme being that the existing curriculum should be replaced altogether. Another perspective on decolonisation is to embrace a plurality of knowledge epistemologies in the belief that this will further indigenous knowledge systems, embed a variety of identities and, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o would put it, ‘decolonise the mind’. In this regard, excellence in solutions that emerge locally could be recognised, for example, the introduction of prepaid mobile services in the ’90s. Of course, the call to include indigenous knowledge systems is not unique to South Africa; it has also arisen in other parts of the world – Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.

The call for decolonisation led to opportunities for debate and discussion. In some engagements, the proposal to replace one body of knowledge with another seemed to polarise participants rather than move them towards consensus. “Decolonisation” remained and remains open to multiple interpretations.

University-wide the call for decolonisation led to the development of courses such as African Insights (AI), which offers students multiple perspectives on Africa through reading, fiction, poetry, and other impactful narratives. This module was also included for engineering students. Community-based projects began to integrate themes of equality, diversity and inclusion, which later influenced the way in which senior undergraduate projects could be transformative. Several other curriculum changes occurred.

Fast forwarding to the present day, one asks, “So what happened to the decolonisation of knowledge?”

This question surfaced as the call for universities to brace themselves for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) became more prominent. Does this then mean that the “decolonisation of knowledge” has disappeared or is no longer at centre-stage?

There may be two or more answers to this: (i) university education (knowledge epistemologies) develops continuously – at times pedagogical changes occur and, at other times, deeper focused curriculum introspection is required; (ii) 4IR and the decolonisation of knowledge may be two sides of the same coin.

In the article, we have already used the acronym AI to designate the module African Insights. In the context of 4IR, we use AI to signify Artificial Intelligence. However, just like Ubuntu, these acronyms and words can mean multiple things. Ubuntu is Mark Shuttleworth’s open-source operating system innovation, but of course, also takes forward the value-system of working together (“I am, because you are”) – which, incidentally, is how open-source software is developed. The “food” for an “AI system” is often data. Because data collection systems have disparities, bias inadvertently develops.

Foregrounding equality, diversity and inclusion enables a greater possibility (“4IR for good”). In our thinking, one could bring together the two AIs – African Insights and Artificial Intelligence – as we journey towards the next phase, towards augmented intelligence (that is also intentionally “AI”).

The authors hold a view that the approach to “developing engineering solutions” cannot be left to chance, but must rather promote transformative thinking upfront. In the transformative approach, transdisciplinary engagement can transcend thought paradigms. For example, an inclusionary approach would engage with diversity of various kinds – technical, demographical, geographical, etc.

This approach also widens thought towards solutions with local relevance, but with the simultaneous possibility of being globally competitive.

Many of these innovations ideate close to us, reflect our flora and fauna, the depth of the TauTona (one of the deepest mines in the world), the marine life of our coast, Maropeng (Cradle of Humankind), the clicks of the isiXhosa, and so on. The concomitant commitment to 4IR and decolonisation of knowledge may enable a holistic approach – one that places society at the centre and inherently seeks social justice.

*Prof Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, UJ. 

*Prof Shireen Motala is a social scientist and the SARChI Chair: Teaching and Learning, UJ. Both write in their personal capacities.


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