In this paper, the paradoxes and difficulties attending the notion of indigenous knowledge in South Africa are reviewed and an alternative dialogue about intellectual
heritage is proposed. Beginning with a survey of debates on ‘indigenous knowledge’ and sciences in India, Australia and Latin America, the discussion
draws attention to differences in regional discussions on the subject of knowledge diversity. Turning to the South African context, the paper foregrounds contradictions
in the debate on traditional medicines and the sciences in relation to HIV. The bifurcation of ‘indigenous knowledge’ and ‘science’ is argued
against. Debates on both indigenous knowledge and science within the critical humanities in South Africa have been characterised by denunciation: an approach which does
not facilitate the important discussions needed on intellectual heritage, or on the relationship between sciences and coloniality. In dialogue with current
research on the anthropology of knowledge, strategies are proposed to broaden the possibilities for scholarship on knowledge, sciences, and different ways of
understanding the world.
Since the formalisation of South Africa’s indigenous knowledge policy in 2004, ‘indigenous knowledge’ has become prominent in
national discussions on
the content of the sciences and humanities that undergird policy, education, medicine and law in a democracy. Yet the particularity of South
war – between traditional medicine and science over antiretrovirals for HIV and AIDS – has generated an intellectual climate that has
made it very difficult
for South African scholars to think outside the framework of established positions, canons and criticisms. A significant impoverishment of debate on
the possibilities for
postcolonial (or decolonial) scholarship in South Africa is the consequence with which South African academics now need to grapple. Yet such a
debate is needed both in
the sciences and the humanities if universities are to be able to respond to the continued marginalisation of African intellectual heritages in the
region. The question
is how to begin.
This review is the report on a 3-year series of workshops and seminars at the University of Cape Town that have sought to explore the debate about
in South Africa. Engaging with a wide range of scholars, particularly in the global south, the project has explored a range of approaches to the
challenge of confronting
the entanglements of sciences, capital, regional intellectual heritage and colonial history. The review begins with a broad overview of regional
debates on indigenous
knowledge systems, in India, Latin America and Australia, followed by an account of the contradictions that attend the South African science war
over traditional and
natural medicine with respect to antiretrovirals. Thereafter, various approaches that the project has begun to pursue in order to open up the
conversation on intellectual
heritages in South African scholarship are explored.
Regional comparison of indigenous knowledge debates
The ‘indigenous knowledge movement’ has been vocal in making an argument for the recognition of the plurality of knowledge, yet often
via an argument that
asserts a universal indigenous knowledge in counterpoint to that of ‘the West’, as if San knowledge in the Kalahari and Cree knowledge
in Alberta are much
the same. Notwithstanding its globalised language, regional debates on indigenous knowledges differ starkly, and a review of them underscores the
ways in which particular
national and regional concerns play a role in establishing what is considered ‘indigenous’.
In India, for example, the legacy of the partition has generated a situation in which debates on traditional knowledge are deeply affected by
nationalisms.1 Notwithstanding India’s leading role in mobilising global intellectual property law to prevent
biopiracy of traditional medicines, it has
also produced several leading scholars on knowledge whose work is critical of the assumption that indigenous knowledge should be reworked to fit
into global discourses
on development, data management and
These scholars make a range of arguments that are pertinent to the South African debate. Several argue that the sciences in India have adapted to
the framework of
capital, when what is needed are sciences that attend to poverty and ecology.8,9 A prominent
theme is the need for
postcolonial discussions on philosophy to
extend to the sciences whilst simultaneously offering a critique of the ways in which an attempt to engage traditional knowledges risks reinscribing
fundamentalism. Nevertheless, in the context of India’s violent history of religious intolerance, arguments that try to take account of the
contextual basis of
sciences have come under fire: postmodern science studies, the argument goes, have invited an uncomfortable alliance with Hindu supremacists. While
profoundly with that analysis,10,11,12,13 it is of
interest that the
discussion parallels arguments in South Africa and the USA in which attempts to situate
science in a social context are seen as playing into the hands of religious fundamentalists or cultural traditionalists.14 Science,
in such a view, has
nothing to do with coloniality, governance or capital: it is pure knowledge, and the political costs of the social study of science are too high.
While India has led the way in formalising traditional knowledge patents to strengthen its status as an emerging economy, the ideas that undergird
that project are
also vigorously debated.15 Reddy16 problematises the idea that traditional medicine
pharmacologically active ingredients and that global
intellectual property law offers an appropriate framework for the protection of traditional knowledge. She argues that while digital archival
projects like India’s
Traditional Knowledge Digital Library might serve to protect knowledge at the level of patents, they may not secure against the thriving trade of
These are important criticisms, and deserve careful study in the context of the South African state’s very close engagement with the
architects of India’s
traditional knowledge policy.17
The critique of the idea that legal concepts of property and personhood match local indigenous equivalents is similarly prominent in Australian
debates on traditional
knowledge and science.18 In contrast to the Indian debates which navigate religious nationalisms, the Australian
debates reflect the
indigeneity within the Australian legal framework19,20 and they evidence careful navigations
of the contexts in
which notions of culture and difference come to
be asserted. Innovative studies of indigenous knowledge and the sciences are evident in the work of Helen Watson Verran, a philosopher and historian
of science, who
explores generative approaches to ‘working different knowledges’ in contexts where knowledges are in question – such as in firing
regimes of natural
landscapes – rather than offering accounts that lean towards ethnological assertions of
identity-based knowledge.21,22,23 Her interest in knowledge
practices is echoed also in the work of David Turnbull, who is based in Melbourne and whose research sites span four continents and encompass
in the USA, mapping and navigation sites in Polynesia and Aboriginal Australia, medieval architecture sites and databases of diverse knowledges.
of work makes a sustained argument that a focus on the transfer or movement of knowledge is a more productive approach to knowledge studies than
collection of (apparently) fixed facts and artefacts, because, he argues, it is in the movement of knowledge that proof is offered, innovations
effected and agreements
reached about the nature of reality.24,25
Connell’s26 Southern theory similarly engages knowledge debates across the global south. Calling for
the social sciences
and humanities to engage
a philosophical canon that is global, her work draws deeply on African philosopher Paulin Hountondji whose rejection of the terms ethnophilosophy
and the indigenous
finds confluences with Australian critical thinking on
Debates on knowledge in Latin America share the Australian and Indian emphasis on intellectual property, which reflect, in many senses, the
efforts of the World
Intellectual Property Organization to formally request governments to protect indigenous knowledge. Led by environmental activism in the Amazon,
traditional knowledge debates in Latin America are dominated by debates on environmental knowledge that have two remarkably different strands.
The first offers a vigorous defence of Amerindian environmental knowledge and lands, but it tends to ignore the ways in which its tools for that
Amerindian philosophy. So, for example, geographical information systems are used to collect ecological knowledge even though those exclude the
that are central to Amerindian ecological thought. Another example is in the assumption that intellectual property law is based on equivalent
notions of personhood,
ethics and ownership.
The second strand offers a vigorous critique of globalised knowledge as the contemporary face of
coloniality.31,32,33 It questions the assumptions that
cartography and modernist notions of personhood can convey Amerindian knowledge, and proposes that Amerindian intellectual heritage does not
have to be subsumed into
modernist thought in order to make sense.34 Of interest is that this strand of argument finds convergence with
the criticisms of
modernist thought that
appears in the work, cited earlier, of Australians Helen Verran and David Turnbull.
The relatively uncritical use of maps and legal frameworks in sectors of Amazonian activism reflects the urgency of land rights activism in the
past two decades, which
has sought to establish land rights where those have been eroded, and human rights where local people have been treated as expendable. Clearly,
those struggles have
been vital. But the dilemma for Amerindian activists has been that the conceptual infrastructure that has been used to serve indigenous
peoples’ political goals has
been drawn predominantly from modernist concepts of space, time and personhood. In this regard, contemporary Brazilian anthropology has
sought to develop an approach that
works with Amerindian theory, and which offers a critique of modernist intellectual heritage. Eduardo Viveiros
de Castro35,36 offers a lead in drawing an
analytical framework from local ideas themselves. He offers a valuable riposte to the assertions that indigenous knowledge stands as either the
antithesis or the mirror
of science. Difference requires the kind of translation, Viveiros de Castro suggests, that presents it neither as completely the same nor as the
complete opposite of the
philosophy that comes to us via the European Enlightenment. The conceptual infrastructure of the translation, in other words, ought to come from
the ideas under
Latin American scholars whose work pursues similar lines include Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena who is exploring the recent
inclusion of the rights of
nature in the constitutions of the states of Ecuador and Bolivia.37 Her work considers the implications of
different versions of nature
in historical archives
and in scientific databases.38 Argentinian anthropologist Mario Blaser argues that multicultural environmental
activism needs to let go of
the idea of
culture, and rethink the idea of nature.39,40 Both Blaser and de la Cadena draw on the work
of Bruno Latour and
Isabelle Stengers whose critiques of modernist
thought open a way to thinking outside of its dualisms.
Thus far, this brief account of regional debates on indigenous knowledge and the sciences demonstrates a number of points:
• Debates on intellectual heritage in India, Latin America and Australia extend to curricula at universities, within faculties of science
as much as within
faculties of social science.
• These debates pose important questions about the interrelationships of states, sciences and publics in all three contexts.
• Unease with the assumptions about knowledge and culture that undergird the concept of indigenous knowledge occurs in all three contexts,
albeit for different
• Conversely, in all three contexts, there is strong interest in working with different intellectual heritages.
• Apparent in all three contexts and prominent in two of them is an approach that includes questions about the intellectual heritage of
modernity – in the
sense in which enlightenment has bequeathed to contemporary universities an ontology of nature versus culture, mind versus body, subject versus
object and self versus
The politics of drawing traditional thought into universities and governance in Latin America, Australia and South Asia, however, are very
different to the conditions
closer to home in South Africa. Here the debate about indigenous knowledge and universities has been caught up in a science war that, like its
equivalents in Europe, the
USA and India, has counterposed ‘hard science’ with a version of ‘science studies’ – with catastrophic results.
Former president Thabo Mbeki
saw traditional medicine as the antithesis of an exploitative Western pharmaceutical industry. The conceptual opposition generated a
deadly ‘either–or’ – either African medicine or Western science – that undergirded the South African
state’s failure to provide
antiretrovirals during his presidency. This failure contributed massively to an AIDS mortality figure of well over
3 million41 –
by the account of UN
AIDS, some 310 000 in 2009 alone, which translates to a mortality rate of almost 850 people every day in 2009. That grim figure and
its relation to postcolonial
knowledge debates sets up an extraordinary responsibility for scholars anywhere who seek to pursue the value of alternative intellectual
As is the nature of many an issue that is reduced to polemic, the South African debate is characterised by contradictions and unexpected
Perhaps the most surprising continuity is that bitter opponents have pursued much the same strategy: to expose their opposition’s core
ideas as invented,
constructed and appropriated. Where Mbeki’s AIDS denialists cast virus science as a construction of something that did not exist,
their opponents in the humanities
and sciences have cast ‘traditional medicine’ and ‘indigenous knowledge’ as construction of realities that did
Contradictory alliances have come to define the terrain. AIDS activists’ defence of a pure science, apparently untainted by any human
interests, has put its
supporters in an uncomfortable alliance with ‘Big Pharma’. Indigenous knowledge proponents’ defence of a pure traditionalism,
apparently untainted by
any human interests, sets up an uncomfortable alliance with elites who use the idea of ‘tradition’ to insulate themselves from
‘inside’ (‘cultural pollution!’), and criticism from ‘outside’ (‘you have no right
Paradoxes, too, abound. Where Western science was criticised in policymakers’ speeches, their budgets have set up laboratories to prove
the science of African
herbs to the world. Where critics in humanities faculties fled from ‘othering’ (framing groups of people as the opposite of the
with groups to whom the speaker’s ‘self’ belongs) inherent in the concept of indigenous knowledge, their alternative
strategy of ‘saming’
(seeking to avoid ‘othering’ by doing the opposite: explaining people’s behaviour and choices with a ‘just
like me’ argument) left
unquestioned exactly whose ‘self’ was being universalised and whose was being assimilated.
Such paradoxes stage familiar dramas. On the side of indigenous knowledge, public argument in South Africa all too frequently stages the
debate as a matter of achieving
cognitive justice between only two players – the West and the rest. Cognitive justice is a movement with profoundly important goals,
and it has made important
contributions to scholarship on knowledges in Australia and New Zealand, India, Latin America and South Africa. The argument generally
takes one of two forms. The first
is an argument for multiple kinds of knowledges, taking the view that multiplicity in itself is important. Of course it is. But where
the argument takes as foundational a
cultural divide between scientific and indigenous knowledge, it becomes troubled at best:
• It can argue that all knowledge is ‘ethnic’ or cultural. This argument calls for greater tolerance
(without questioning the frames in terms of which ideas of ethnic difference emerge), and makes the case that science is also ethnic.
This argument is for cultural
relativism: that ‘one’s truth depends on one’s culture or identity or perspective’.
• A related form of the argument is that all knowledge can be shown to contain elements of science, in which case the focus of scholarly
effort and activism becomes
a struggle to extend the status of science, including testing with the tools of formal science, and lobbying for recognition, government
protection, and so on. The research project that this generates is that of identifying ‘matching perspectives’. Its major
shortcoming is that it offers no
grounds for a critique of the sciences that it uses in its trials. Moreover, intellectual heritage that does not match the epistemology
of the sciences is ruled out.
Each of the above approaches constitutes a moral argument. They call for the equality of knowledges based on the assertion that either
all ways of knowing the
world, including the sciences, are belief, or all are knowledge. Many indigenous knowledge scholars and activists transpose the frame
offered by modernist knowledges:
facts are values, knowledges are beliefs, ‘nature’ is actually ‘culture’, cultures are like nature, and so on.
(It is worth noting that the
proponents of the cultural diversity approach often use the analogy of the value of biodiversity, which makes the rather troubling assertion
that different cultures are
like different species. This is a very similar argument to that which was used by apartheid’s ideologues.) Yet transposing the colours
on the chess board, to use an
analogy, does not change the frame. Arguments that invert the modernist dualisms – facts or values, knowledge or belief, nature or
culture – leave the
structure of those ideas intact.
It is important to note that there are significant trade-offs in accepting the idea of culture as given, because it is bound up in the
origins of European romantic
nationalism. Without a critique of culture, the study of different ways of knowing is unable to comment on the complex enmeshing of
capital, governance, science,
global law, history and nationalism in the production of difference. What it can offer, however, is a circular argument: cultural
difference is because of culture.
Inevitably, such an argument proposes a stark division between ‘Western culture’ or ‘Western science’
and ‘African (or other)
An example is in the South African study offered in Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ wide-ranging collection of papers on regional knowledge
Another knowledge is possible. The author, Thokozani Xaba, whose wider body of work makes an important contribution to knowledge
debates in South Africa,
Africans [in South Africa] find themselves constantly destabilized while the benefits derived from the holistic approach and the egalitarian
nature of indigenous
medicines are not being realized. Instead, Africans are subjected to modern practices, among which are the invasive techniques
of ‘scientific medicine’.
Despite its publication amid the South African AIDS crisis in 2008, the article makes no mention of the debate between traditional
medicines and antiretrovirals in
South Africa. The argument relies on the identification of an authentic African tradition that is separate from Western science. Yet,
is it not the case that where the
state plays a role in ‘proscribing’ and ‘normalizing’ traditional healing (p.344) via bureaucratic regimes of
examination, assessment, committees, outcomes and deliverables, that traditional practices are profoundly
transformed? 43,44 The writer also calls for greater
investment by the state in research on traditional healing, in ways that rethink conventional practices in the sciences. While that research
is important and
appropriate, there are significant difficulties in setting up ‘authentic culture’ as the touchstone of the argument. Firstly,
it relies on a particular
definition of ‘culture’ to define the debate: a definition that is deeply rooted in the intellectual heritage of the European
Enlightenment. In my view,
a critique of that set of ideas is profoundly important in rethinking the ways in which African history is written. Secondly, there is
little space, in an argument
that takes ‘authentic culture’ as a given, either for the criticism of tradition, or for traditions of criticism.
Like his wider scholarship, Xaba’s article45 raises the important issue of medical pluralism. Yet,
science war and his more
recent challenge to scholars to rethink the relationship between knowledge and democracy, the approach underscores the need for a
scholarship on knowledge that will
rethink the terms of the knowledge debate, and explore whether ‘science’ and ‘indigenous knowledge systems’
are indeed the most useful concepts
that can be deployed for the purposes of policy and university transformation. The unintended consequences that have attended the
South African science war point to a
situation where an analysis that leaves these categories unquestioned, forecloses the possibilities for generative dialogue on
intellectual heritage. The second half of
this article will return to these questions.
The breakdown in dialogue on African intellectual heritage in South African scholarship also has much to do, I suggest, with the inheritance
of a style of criticism
in the critical humanities that insists its work is done by ‘outing’ associations and interests. The insistence on the part of the
critical left in
denouncing ethnonationalism without engaging the politics of knowledge that regional thinkers on indigenous knowledge have highlighted,
creates intolerable conditions
for scholars like Xaba who swim against the tide of ideas that is the heritage of the post-apartheid critical humanities in South Africa.
In sum, notwithstanding its very important contributions in highlighting the relationship between coloniality and scholarship,
the ‘cognitive justice’
movement has not set its horizons wide enough. In uncritically accepting the conceptual structure of modernity, its capacity to offer different
thought is curtailed.
When ‘culture’ defines the terrain, it brings with it the romantic notion of ‘Being’, in which nationalist sentiments
reframe the experience of
being in a collective (simply being together) as ‘the Being of togetherness’, in the words of
Jean-Luc Nancy.46 That
the ‘thingification’ of identity that Aimé Césaire decried in the 1950s in his resistance to
ethnology.47 What forms of collective
presence, or networks of
association, were at
play in the precolonial era? At what historical point did people begin to think in the tidy social boundaries that are implied by the
idea of ‘culture’?
The argument that I am offering has several points of agreement with the critical humanities. Yes, the idea of ‘indigenous
knowledge’ is often ahistorical.
Yes, it may rely on a kind of culturalism that draws heavily on the colonial vision of culture as comprised of genealogies and
blood ties. Yes, it is often the case
that ‘indigenous knowledge movements’ assert an historically problematic notion of ethnicity that may well serve the interests of a
class of elites, and yes,
it is troubling to see the use of tradition to insulate indigenous knowledge discussions from criticism. Such criticisms are well
noted. Yet they are not the sum of
what can be said about different knowledges and ways of knowing. The focus on identity politics within South Africa’s critical
humanities is, I suggest,
misplaced. By limiting the critique to the way in which the idea of ‘culture’ is politically constructed and appropriated to
one or other identity
(whether ethnic or otherwise), the argument loses its way. Such an argument may have been of value in an era in which culture and identity were
central elements of
apartheid ideology. But South Africa’s contemporary science wars have shifted the fight out of the terrain of culture and social forms,
of ‘nature’ itself: what is real, what is rational, what is science, how is nature known, whose sciences ought to prevail in a
democracy, and so on. It is
appropriate for Parliaments to question in what sense the sciences can claim to define nature, reality and truth. But where the argument begins
to be resolved by an
identity politics of knowledge – ‘Western’ or ‘African’ science – a democracy that depends on science for
policies, policing and
judgement is indeed in deep trouble. Activists, in such a context, have not found in scholarship the tools to mount an effective response, and
have met the state’s
efforts to assert an identity politics of nature by denouncing interests and associations and beliefs rather than reframing its questions, and
grappling with the
intellectual heritage of scholarship itself.
If nothing else, the South African version of the science war teaches that scholarship by denunciation is a toxic game. The recognition that
it was with much the same
tools of argument that Mbeki asserted that AIDS was a social and political construction has enormous consequences for those of us in the critical
humanities who were
schooled to detect and ‘out’ interests and associations of powerful elites. But the struggle over knowledge that has come to be defined
knowledge’ cannot be adequately described as culturalist, or ethnonationalist, or fundamentalist, or a movement of political elites, or the
marginalised. If South
African scholarship is to move beyond the current impasse, there is a need for recognition that the idea of ‘indigenous knowledge’
incorporates claims to identity or efforts to incorporate financial gain, but also indexes a challenge to central ideas of modernity: including in relation to
notions of personhood in medicine and jurisprudence, to notions of ecologies, to notions of well-being, and to what it means to know or believe
or imagine. Once one
recognises the language of indigenous knowledge as a resistant appropriation of the language of difference, and that it is not solely the
advancement of interests that
is at stake but an interest in the possibility of different worlds other than those defined by the Cartesian dualisms (mind–body,
nature–culture, and so on),
it becomes possible to escape the paralysis of a debate confined to whether or not ‘indigenous knowledge’ is a ‘thing’
that is or is
not ‘real’. A rich range of literatures informs the possibilities that are opened by such a shift in approach, and in the remainder
of this article I set out
four interrelated conversations that illustrate possible approaches for researchers who hope to engage with a wider intellectual heritage.
In re-reading aspects of the indigenous knowledge debates as a resistance to the available frames of modern
first possibility emerges: that
at times the very ‘things’ under discussion may be different.
Many South African fishers, for example, offer accounts of the ocean as a partner to whom you listen and with whom you have a
relationship.49,50,51 The ocean,
in this view, is not the one known in oceanography as a water mass characterised by currents and temperature. Neither is it the ‘ocean’
that is known by
ecosystem service assessments, for example, as something that can be valued by price tags. Nor is it the kind of ecosystem proposed by popular
documentaries as one that
does not have any people in the picture. It is also not the ocean that is the means of production, in stock assessment science, of calculable
quantities of a single
species of fish. Fish, too, might be understood differently: many fishers speak of the intelligence of fish, and do not see them as the
unintelligent and unresponsive
forms of life that appear in annual catch quotas.52,53 Thinking in this way, it becomes
possible to understand
that what people understand to be nature –
whether ocean or fish – might be very different. Yet a fisher’s ‘ocean-as-partner’, or ‘fish-with-intelligence’
does not necessarily
need to be ‘converted’ into ‘fish or ocean as objects’ in order to ensure their conservation. As fisheries
management moves toward an ecosystem
approach to fisheries that includes a consultative relationship with fishers (in terms of the Convention on Biodiversity), the partnership
that many fishers describe
when they speak of the sea and fish is a resource for embattled marine conservationists that has no price tag.
Much as the ocean can mean different things to fishers, it can also mean different things in the sciences. A marine biologist who has fished
for 40 years can know the
ocean in ways that even he or she cannot communicate in a quota committee that only allows decisions to be based on natures that can be
represented in calibrations and
quantities. A marine ecologist might see the sea very differently from the stock assessment scientist, in much the same way as a fisher
who acquires access to
industrial-scale extractive capacity might begin to think quite differently about fish. The point is that the ‘natures’ that
are in play are not based on
someone’s cultural (or ‘stakeholder’) identity, but on their actual interactions with sea and fish. ‘An object does not
stand by itself,’
write Marianne Lien and John Law, ‘but emerges in the relations of practice’54. The shorthand
term for this insight is that of a ‘relational
Such an insight reflects the beginnings of a paradigm shift in a dialogue on the nature of knowledge in the humanities and
sciences.55,56,57 Working with it,
public consultations on marine conservation might begin to move the conversation beyond a pedagogy that aims to secure compliance with science,
to projects that explore
different ways of knowing the marine environment. With sufficient time for generative
dialogue58,23 about different
ways of knowing the sea, including how to
evaluate knowledges, the management of the marine ecosystem as a commons might begin to be a reality in specific locales. This conversation would
be very different from
the one that is currently polarised between knowledges that are presented as identity-based (‘fishers’ and ‘scientists’)
that are ‘cultural belief’ versus ‘natural science’. Where the terms of the debate categorise knowledges as different
before the parties have
spoken a word to each other, there is very little chance of discovering the linkages and partial connections that might begin a new conversation.
Indeed, it is perhaps
partly for this reason that rather than securing the active cooperation of fishers, marine conservation efforts have to date provoked a great
Questions of public involvement in the generation of knowledge are central to the work of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, although in very
different ways to those
proposed by former president Thabo Mbeki in a speech in January 2012.60 Together with
Michel Serres61,62, amongst others, these writers have
developed a corpus of work that is critical of a dominant scholarly heritage which severs ‘nature’ from ‘culture’,
from ‘knowledge’. Major resources include Latour’s We have never
been modern,63 Pandora’s hope –
Essays on the
reality of science studies,64 Politics of nature – How to bring the sciences
into democracy65 and Latour and
Weibel’s Making things public: Atmospheres of democracy.66 The philosopher of science Isabelle
Stengers, who may be known
to readers of this
journal through her work on chaos theory with 1977 Nobel Prize for Chemistry winner Ilya Prigogine,67 has written
extensively on the
sciences, much of
which is newly published in English: see The invention of modern
science,68 Cosmopolitics I,69
and Cosmopolitics II,70 which includes a long essay on
quantum mechanics alongside another on what she calls ‘the curse of tolerance’ (Who wants to be tolerated? she asks). These
conversations point to a
reconceptualisation of knowledge as constantly produced and reproduced in interactions. Knowledge, in this view, is not the acquisition of
unmediated facts, nor is it the
unmediated apprehension of intellectual heritages or indigenous knowledge. There are always mediations – and as such, knowledge studies
are at their strongest when
focused on careful study of how knowledge objects come to be generated. Such an approach is not a cultural relativism but instead brings to
conversations about the
democratisation of knowledge an attention to the ways in which research processes bring particular realities into
being.64,55,54 Isabelle Stengers, for
example, attends to the ways in which the knowledge economy hastens us to identify ‘things’ in our research products, missing
qualitative aspects like
vitality and well-being (a point which I shall pursue later).31 Her work is reminiscent of the problem that Aimé Césaire pithily formulated decades ago in his rejection of colonial thought. ‘Colonisation = thingification,’
he wrote.47 For
scholars seeking to rethink the relationship between the university and all that falls beyond its rooftops – still so often modelled on
Greek temples, even here in
Africa – what does it mean to allow the possibility that there are ways of knowing the world that are not easily rendered in the
language of objects and
The problem of translating complex relationalities into ‘things’ is central to current South African debates on African knowledges.
Two examples suffice.
Sangomas’ (traditional healers’) insights into the consequences of social relationships for health and disease extend beyond the
notion of health as the
property of an individual person and their biochemistry. Similarly, different understandings of what it is to be an ethical person generate
markedly innovative approaches
to conflict resolution where jurisprudence is understood in relation to uBuntu.71,72 In both
cases, although one
example would be taught in a law faculty and
the other in the health sciences, an approach grounded in relational ontology assists in shifting the focus of the debate away from whether or not
things are really real
or really belief, toward a discussion that recognises that notions of what it means to be a person are profoundly important for legal and medical
practice, and for
questions of care and nurture in the sciences.73
Rethinking the split of mind and body, so dominant in the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment, offers a second arena of enquiry on
knowledges and ways of knowing.
Scholarship on knowledge is increasingly turning attention to practice-based knowledges that are not easily rendered as numbers. By contrast,
technologies – like
geographical information systems, databases, heart rate monitors – can produce what a court of law might regard to be ‘justified
true belief’. How might
scholars account for the ways of knowing that exist in the hands of the midwife who reads the birthing belly with her hands? How might she
defend what she knows in a
court of law where her accusers accuse her of ‘malpractice’ because she did not generate a constant stream of numbers from a foetal
heart rate monitor that
would have tethered the labouring mother to a hospital bed? Under what conditions of argument would her accusers acknowledge that years of
experience in obstetric
medicine builds a very similar sets of skills, which obstetricians prize as much as they do the patterns emitted from their heart rate monitors?
At the core of this
argument is the recognition that some ways of knowing lie outside the terrain of formally accredited knowledge, in many cases not because they
are not justifiable but
because they rely on forms of sensory data for which technologies which might measure them have not yet been developed, and because knowledge
that is hard to quantify
or write down is hard to work with in dialogues between the sciences and non-formalised, embodied knowledges. Yet the difficulty of those kinds of
may happen between fishers and marine conservationists in much the same way as between midwives and obstetricians) is not because the knowledges
in themselves have some
radical cultural difference. The difficulty of translating these kinds of different knowledges is because the sciences have inherited 300 years
of tradition: to remove
almost all bodily senses except the visual from its ways of knowing. The enumerable – that which can be counted – counts as evidence.
between law, technology, writing and knowing, in this scenario, comes up for scrutiny. The realisation is provocative: archives, databases and
that which is visible within a particular intellectual heritage, or scholarly orientation. Technologies, in other words, bring particular knowledge objects into
being. The implication: programmes of research that look for generative dialogues across knowledge traditions can work towards grasping different
different evidentiaries, and perhaps need to be bold enough to rethink what it is that technologies could be measuring. In order to pursue this
kind of innovation, the
methodology is ethnographic: detailed, careful attention to how people know what they claim. A recent work that explores this approach is that
of anthropologist Tim
Ingold, whose book Lines: A brief history74 offers a critique of technologies of data collection.
Ingold’s project attends
to the ways in which
modernity relies on data-recording technologies – such as cartography, musical notation and architectural drawing – that in the name
of objectivity remove
movement and embodied senses (other than the visual) from the notation of information. Ingold’s project yields many possibilities for a
re-engagement of the
humanities, sciences, technology, and ways of knowing that have not found their way into curricula.
Reasons for knowing: Scales, models and visual arts
The observation that different knowledges emerge in relation to technologies also is pertinent to thinking about scales and models. Fishers who are
familiar with specific
bays can comment on changes in the availability of fish in qualitatively different terms to those of a scientist assessing average catches in
latitude-longitude.75 City people battling with urban flooding have an accumulated local knowledge, both social
that may be very different from
the hydrological models and hydraulic sciences behind flood-risk estimation and management.58 Climate scientists
are working with 30-
to 50-year scales, but
decision-makers in Parliament are often working with a 4-year electoral timeframe. Different scales, in other words, are not just about data
compression but reflect
different purposes people have for knowing and therefore different knowledge objects (or differently known relationships) are in the models.
Different reasons to know
produce different objects of attention, or different facts – or, to use Latour’s phrase, different matters of
The map is not the
territory but a convention for imagining it. If ‘knowing’ in the sciences involves what epistemologist Catherine Elgin calls
– ‘reorganizing a domain so that hitherto overlooked or underemphasized features, patterns, opportunities, and resources come to
light’77– then it becomes possible to open a much more nuanced debate over the uses of the
imaginative arts, scales and
models in dialogue with
different ways of knowing. These kinds of arguments offer a bridge for scholars who want to explore the possibilities of different ways of
knowing. The late Emmanuel
Chukwudi Eze argued for understanding varieties of rationality. ‘Reason is not a thing,’ he wrote, ‘but rather a field
of mental acts in perception,
understanding, and explanation, including the frameworks of comprehension and justifications of the field
untimely passing is a
great loss in this field, and his posthumously published work offers an important commentary on understanding rationalities in relation to
rationales for knowing.
Building on these insights it becomes possible to offer a critique of the knowledge economy itself, in which rationality and the sciences and
many contributions on
indigenous knowledge are often framed by the calculative logics of capital. For Isabelle Stengers, the kinds of knowledge produced in the knowledge
universities subsist in a particular relationship with capital, monetary logics, temporal logics, added value, and other controllables), are
unable to deal with the
unsettled, the unnameables, the ways of knowing that are part of life and care – in short, the aspects of knowledge and knowing that are not
‘thingified’.47,79 These aspects include, for Stengers, the care and nurture of a
academic argument that is able to attend to that which
people find nurturing, and life-giving: the qualitative aspects of well-being that the ‘knowledge economy’ is unable to measure in
familiar kinds of
enumerations, and which it therefore fails to notice.73
Stengers’ comments provoke many questions on what one might call South Africa’s ‘ARvsARVs’ (African Renaissance vs
AntiRetroVirals) polemic. In
this, an important local question is: in what ways does the South African science war, with its stark positions on science and traditional
medicine, set up conditions in
which discussions of care and nurture and nutrition become ‘dissident science’? In what ways does this in turn contribute to the
conditions of thought that
allow a diabetic patient to spend a day in a primary health-care clinic and receive four successive drips but no food? (This experience was related
to me by an elderly
Black woman after she was treated in October 2010 at one of the Day Clinics in the greater Cape Town area.) The point is not to blame-shift,
from one side to another,
but to recognise that stark polemic makes for stark choices, and that sometimes the polemic itself is caught up in that which undermines nurture,
care and well-being.
Stengers’ call is for academics to stop developing ever cleverer denunciations of one side versus another, and to open a dialogue about a
different ecology of
knowledge that might offer researchers a way of moving past the destructive fallout of the science wars.
Stengers’ work also provokes questions about the entanglement of indigenous knowledge with the knowledge economy in emerging markets like
South Africa, India and
Brazil. For example, once particular molecules have passed their clinical trials and are defined as traditional medicine (or ‘TM’ in
abbreviation), the trademarked TMTM constitutes a new knowledge object that takes on a very particular life in national wealth
creation projects whether in
South Asia or South Africa, in Black economic empowerment projects, and in global networks that hold together pharmaceutical chain stores,
streetside vendors, rural
museums, biopiracies and nascent ethnonationalisms. Without question, wealth creation is an important part of redressing the historical injustices
that are built into the
knowledge economy. Yet I think the question needs to be asked as to whether the TMTM approach has become a new form of ‘
renders unnameable exactly the sorts of vitalities and ways of knowing and being that constitute the indigenous resistance to the global economy.
Such a resistance is
evident not only in Latin America,48 but also in the ‘slow science’ movement in
And it is evident in courts in South Africa
where judges like Yvonne Mokgoro and Albie Sachs have sought to rethink the principles of jurisprudence in ways that reflect principles of ubuntu
alongside questions of
The current South African policy on indigenous knowledge systems82 is, I propose, heavily invested in the
neoliberal knowledge economy.
The model evinces
a trade-off: it gets space in the Department of Science and Technology and in some universities, but in a way that all too frequently sets it
apart as ‘African
knowledge’ which, because of its very separateness, has very little capacity to challenge what Bruno Latour calls the ‘three
goddess sisters of reason
in the knowledge economy’, namely, ‘(technical) efficiency, (economic) profitability and (scientific)
And yet it is
precisely the different ecologies of knowledge, and different iterations of reason and the reasonable that inspire much of the indigenous knowledge
movement. How might
scholars recover this critique, and offer a different kind of intellectual hospitality?
In my view, the difference begins with the recognition of the entanglement with capital in current state-led approaches to indigenous knowledge in
South Africa. Once
that is on the table, it becomes possible to ask different kinds of questions, and to develop a different intellectual project.
Might ‘indigenous knowledge’
be pursued via an investment in the commons rather than the stock market? In this scenario, what kind of dialogues about knowledges might be
possible, where knowledge is
not understood to be part of democracy because diversity is tolerated, but because there is democratic dialogue on the tools of testing, criticism
and innovation? How
might the capacity to test knowledge and ways of knowing be rethought, and rekindled? What aspects of knowledge lie outside the realm of
monetarisation? What kind of
practices lie outside of laboratory testing? What aspects of knowing resist quantitative research? What kind of public spaces are opening for
criticism of patriarchal
elites? Under what conditions could the humanities and sciences be able to support the emergence of these new conversations?
All of the above approaches make a case for critical engagement with the current policy on indigenous knowledge in South Africa. Such an engagement
the assertions, currently enshrined in the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy, that ‘indigenous knowledge’ exists primarily as a static
with the potential for wealth creation in the knowledge economy, and that formal science and its associated technologies are the only way to measure
and define knowledge.
Much more interesting and productive, I think, is to pursue a critical enquiry into intellectual heritages, including the ways in which the project
scholarship continues to defend a particular kind of divide between knowledge and belief that emanates from the battle to separate church and state
in Europe so long ago.
Is it necessary to continue to fight that battle in the way that we do? How might we re-read the peace treaty between church and state of that era,
and instead of
continuing that crusade (to separate ‘dark belief’ from ‘the light of knowledge’), to consider the applicability of its
principles in other
spheres such as the intersection of knowledge and capital, or knowledge and coloniality, or knowledge and race? Having done so, what fresh insights
might be gained on the
emergence of the distinct categories of ‘indigenous knowledge’ and ‘science’?
Beyond a knowledge politics of ‘cognitive justice’ and the TMTM that bear such a burden in the global race for World
Intellectual Property and
patents, could the possibilities for intellectual debate expand if the questions posed under the troubled banner of indigenous knowledge are
reimagined as a debate
about intellectual heritage, including that of modernity? Would publics find new spaces for re-tooling criticism and innovation? If scholars work
in ways that nurture
different ecologies of knowledge, might dialogues begin to imagine alternative vitalities that speak to different notions of public health and
jurisprudence? Might it be
possible, by engaging with different knowledges and ways of knowing, for postcolonial universities to find the resources to mount a serious
challenge to the three
goddess sisters of reason in the knowledge economy? If scholars are to strengthen the relationship between the national indigenous knowledge
systems agenda and current
dominant forms of knowledge, debate on these kinds of issues is worth the trouble.
This paper reports on an ongoing project and owes a great deal to participants in the Contested Ecologies project at the University of Cape Town in
the many international guests who have offered orientation to regional scholarships. Without attributing to them any responsibilities for errors or
comments on an earlier draft of this paper I thank Mario Blaser, Josh Cohen, Brenda Cooper, Annie Holmes, Susan Levine, Munyaradzi Mawere, Robert
Nhemachena, Steven Robins, Dianne Scott, Crain Soudien, Isabelle Stengers, Peter Vale and the anonymous reviewers for this journal. Funding for
this work is gratefully
acknowledged from the John F Sawyer Seminar programme of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, and the Africa Knowledges Project attached to the
Programme for the Enhancement
of Research Capacity (PERC) at the University of Cape Town, funded by the Carnegie Foundation.
I declare that I have no financial or personal relationships which may have inappropriately influenced me in writing this paper.
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