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Africa’s long-kept secret
Posted Thu, 03 Mar 2005

Until recently, ancient sub-Saharan Africa was seen by its colonisers as devoid of rational thought, culture and technological innovation. Indications to the contrary were systematically contorted, downplayed or blatantly hidden in a quest to preserve the belief that civilised existence was the sole preserve of people of European origin. However, archaeological evidence is challenging long-held notions about the intellectual abilities of ancient Africa. By Derek Hanekom

As if to join hands with the renewed quest for an African Renaissance, Africa’s ancestors, through the archaeological remains they bequeathed to their posterity, lay claim to inventing what makes human beings human. The Blombos Cave findings indicate that symbolic thought – the ability to identify and create representations – did not only occur in Africa, but originated at least 40 000 years before it was “discovered” in Europe.

This discovery turns the history of knowledge and preconceptions about Africa on their heads, while providing a spectacular backdrop that resonates with the findings of the Great Walls of Zimbabwe, the Mapungubwe civilisation and the Timbuktu manuscripts. A joint Mali-South Africa bilateral project, aimed at deciphering the potentially rich scientific content of the Timbuktu manuscripts, is currently being negotiated.

Before the “long dark night” lamented by the great Kenyan entomologist Professor TR Odhiambo, there is no doubt that Africa, perhaps for millennia, saw a succession of highly civilized cultures where learning, technology, science and trade thrived.

Since the turn of the century, the upsurge of optimism for the renewal of Africa has become almost palpable. The last few years have seen Africa embarking on bold and groundbreaking actions to dismantle the pillars of poverty and set in place the political architecture that will spearhead levels of social and economic development never seen in the continent since its colonialisation.

Departing from the established trend to rely on the wholesale export of its rich natural resources, the continent is looking to the resourcefulness and innovation of its people to drive its development. This is exemplified by the importance given to science and technology by the African Union’s Constitutive Act, governance organs and programmes, NEPAD being a particular example.

The continental plan for science and technology brings together the collective efforts of the AU Commission, NEPAD Secretariat and the African Ministerial Council for Science and Technology (AMCOST) behind a flagship programme that focuses on areas of scientific research that are crucial for Africa’s development.

The plan, less than a year old, already has borne fruit in the establishment of several continental initiatives. The African Laser Centre is a virtual network of several research labs in Africa that collaborate in joint programmes to stimulate innovation in laser technologies and their applications.

The African Biosciences Initiative has begun setting up nodes in each of the five regions in Africa that will forge networks of cooperation in life sciences and biotechnology with emphasis in agriculture, health, environment and industrial manufacturing.

An initiative is underway to expand the African Mathematical Institute (AIMS) into a network of regional centres spread across the continent. Earlier this year, the first batch of 30 graduates from 14 African countries graduated in Cape Town from the AIMS high-quality post-doctoral programme, following intensive nine-month tutelage by some of the world’s best mathematicians.

Apart from these initiatives, a process is underway to develop a comprehensive business plan for science and technology, complete with budgets and timeframes, by end of January 2005.

The plan will be constructed on the basis of the 12 flagship programmes identified in the NEPAD Plan of Action, focusing, in addition to the areas mentioned above, on joint research programmes in technologies related to energy, materials, space, post-harvest, manufacturing, water, indigenous knowledge and information and communication technologies.

The cornerstone of the plan entails the creation of centres of excellence and continent- wide networks thereof in identified fields, where critical masses of human capacity and other resources would be concentrated and supported in driving programmes spanning the knowledge chain, toward innovations that make sense to Africa’s economies and her social development agenda.

Africa’s science and technology programmes need to urgently address the paucity of research and development infrastructure that is severely lacking on the continent, as well as the critical shortage of human resources. While addressing these problems would be an achievement on its own, it would not be sufficient without visionary national S&T; policies and legislative environments that promote the stimulation of innovation and its management.

These challenges demand high quality leadership in science, technology and innovation. The NEPAD S&T; Plan described above has built-in mechanisms to address these problems.

Currently, an expert team is developing an African Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicator Initiative which will involve the creation of institutional and human capacity in the compilation and analysis of the STI indicators as well as play an observatory role to track the progress made as the African S&T; Plan is being rolled out.

An encouraging trend has been the formulation of S&T; policies and the establishment of dedicated structures for managing S&T; at government level within individual countries. Some Regional Economic Communities have embarked on S&T; collaborative programmes. SADC’s Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) outlines strategic priorities for S&T.;

Projects of cooperation that are being planned include regional public understanding of science, engineering and technology and policy development for government officials and other S&T; managers.

As was the case in ancient African civilisations, science and technology could open possibilities for serious business. Bioprospecting on the immense biodiversity of the continent has the potential to unlock multi-billion dollar industries in medicinal plants, indigenous foods and agro-processing, to cite but one example.

As we ponder the critical role of scientific research and technological development in driving Africa’s economic renewal, the crucial significance of sound leadership in Science and Technology strongly emerges. Apart from top-notch research scientists, engineers, innovators, technologists and industrialists, African countries individually and collectively require competent S&T; policy makers who can manage the complexities of national innovation systems.

We need managers who can develop and strengthen individual research institutions and position them to contribute to and benefit from regional networks. In addition, we require S&T; diplomats who have the political finesse to navigate the intricacies of multilateral cooperation, to forge the kinds of partnerships that would make NEPAD work.

These men and women, including those lost through the “brain drain” in the Diaspora, earnest to contribute to Africa’s development, must be able to enthuse and energize their counterparts in pursuit of shared goals.

Leadership of this calibre has often manifested itself on the continent in the past. It is time that we nurture in abundance the raw talent as it emerges, so that we may rise to confront the challenge of science and technology for Africa’s development.

Derek Hanekom is the Deputy Minister of Science & Technology in South Africa

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