Reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures
When the invitation came for me to address the third OR Tambo Memorial Lecture, I was not certain if I was the best person to deliver this lecture.
I literally looked at the framed pictures of me and President OR Tambo to trigger the memory of the conversations we had when I was barely a teenager. My decent recollection of my conversations with him was of the first MK conference in 1991, but I could only remember his amused recollection of my feistiness when we sought him out, as leaders (and leaders being the operative word) of the pioneer movement — Masupatsela — towards the drafting of OAU Children Rights Charter — that feistiness is better off not regaled even as an anecdote in this lecture.
I accepted the invitation to speak, guided by the words of OR Tambo when he said: “It was always my desire to strike new ground and help to lend weight, where it was most required.”
I am, therefore, here to lend my albeit small weight and hope to contribute to the discourse on this critical and compelling topic: “Reclaiming Africa's Intellectual Futures”
This is not just a call to action; it is a proclamation of the importance of restoring Africa’s intellectual legacy, rekindling its potential and securing a brighter future for the continent.
We gather to discuss this compelling topic in honour of the legacy of a remarkable individual, a visionary leader and a tireless advocate for African intellectualism, President-General Oliver Reginald Tambo. President OR Tambo’s life work has not only left an indelible mark on the struggle for freedom, equality and justice but in the advancement of African intellectual thought.
With luminaries in this room and many books written about OR Tambo, I do not dare to think I understood him better. Born on October 27th in 1917 — he would have turned 106 this year. In his time, OR Tambo understood that knowledge, education and critical thinking were the most potent weapons against oppression and injustice. Throughout his life, he demonstrated the power of intellect in the fight for freedom and equality. Thirty years after OR Tambo’s passing, Africa is still fighting for its freedom from wars and economic subjugation. Africa, often referred to as the cradle of humanity, boasts a rich history of intellectual achievements that spans millennia. From the great libraries of Timbuktu to the advanced medical knowledge of ancient Egypt, Africa has been a wellspring of innovation, wisdom and progress. However, history has witnessed moments of exploitation, colonisation and systemic neglect that have robbed the continent of its intellectual glory.
1. Historical context
To understand the importance of reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures, we must acknowledge Africa’s historical context. Africa, with its rich history, diverse cultures, and abundant resources, has long been a source of inspiration and intrigue. For centuries, Africa has been the victim of colonisation, slavery and exploitation and the continent’s intellectual contributions have often been overshadowed or overlooked. The dark chapters in history of Africa have often overshadowed the intellectual achievements of African societies. It is imperative that we move beyond this historical burden and give due recognition to the intellectual traditions that existed long before external influence. It is high time we acknowledge and amplify the voices of African intellectuals, scholars, and visionaries and recognise their critical role in shaping the continent’s future.
Since we cannot reclaim the future without acknowledging the past, this may require the rewriting of Africa’s intellectualism including amplifying the contributions of Timbuktu to global intellectualism, particularly during the height of the Mali Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.
For those of my age and younger, Timbuktu became a renowned centre of learning, with numerous universities and libraries. It attracted scholars and students from various parts of Africa and beyond. It was home to an impressive collection of manuscripts, many of which contained valuable knowledge on subjects like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and literature. These manuscripts were meticulously preserved with the contribution of
former President Thabo Mbeki. The city (yes, Timbuktu was a city — and this debunks the notion that cities are a creation of our colonisers), fostered a rich tradition of scholarship and education, with scholars contributing to diverse fields, including Islamic theology, jurisprudence and the sciences.
In addition, Timbuktu’s intellectual vibrancy facilitated cultural exchange between Africa and the wider world, contributing to a deeper understanding of various cultures.
Timbuktu scholars made notable contributions to astronomy and mathematics, advancing knowledge in these fields. Overall, Timbuktu’s role as a centre of learning and its contributions to various intellectual disciplines had a lasting impact on the global intellectual landscape, enriching our understanding of history and knowledge.
2. Global contributions
African intellectuals have made significant contributions to various fields, from literature to science and technology and they have left an indelible mark on the world. We must recognise and celebrate these achievements, not as exceptions but as part of a larger tradition of African intellectualism.
1. Imhotep (2667—2611 BC), Egyptian polymath.
2. Muhammad Abduh (1849—1905), Egyptian jurist, religious scholar and liberal reformer, regarded as the founder of Islamic Modernism.
3. Sameera Moussa (1917—1952), Egyptian nuclear scientist.
4. Ahmed Zewail (1946—2016), Egyptian-American scientist and awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for laser studies in femtochemistry.
5. Ismail Mustafa al-Falaki (1825—1901), Egyptian astronomer and mathematician.
6. Aziza Baccouche (1976–), American physicist and filmmaker born and raised in Tunisia.
7. Fatsah Ouguergouz (1958-), international law scholar and judge of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
8. Rachid Yazami (1953–), French Moroccan scientist best known for his research on lithium ion batteries.
9. Mo Ibrahim, (1946–), Sudanese-born British mobile communications entrepreneur and engineer.
10. Mohamed Osman Baloola (1981–), biomedical engineer who works on diabetes monitoring
11. Nashwa Eassa — the nano-particle physicist.
12. Mohamed HA Hassan (1947–), mathematician and physicist.
13. Ibrahim Njoya (1860 — 1933), ruler of the Bamum people, in what is now western Cameroon credited with developing a semi-syllabic Bamumscript which evolved from the rudimentary pictographic script to a more advanced logo graphic script, which he later refined to the semi-syllabic script known to the world today.
14. Pelkins Ajanoh, Cameroonian graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, invented a novel technology for calibrating radars for self-driving cars, while pursuing an internship at General Motors.
15. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, Congolese microbiologist, investigated the first Ebola outbreak, and was part of the effort that discovered Ebola as a new disease. In August 2019, he led the research that discovered the most effective treatment for Ebola, mAb114, working with other researchers at the INRB and the National Institute of Health Vaccine Research Centre in the US.
16. Alexander Anim-Mensah, Ghanaian-American chemical engineer, inventor, and author. He is known for the contributions towards the field of membrane science and technology.
17. Mohammed Bagayogo (1523—1593), eminent scholar from Timbuktu.
18. Cheick Modibo Diarra (1952–), Malian-born aerospace engineer who contributed to
several Nasa missions such as Mars Path Finder, the Galileo spacecraft, and the Mars Observer.
19. Ahmad Baba (1556—1627), medieval West African writer, scholar and political provocateur. Ahmed Baba was one of the greatest African scholars, he was also known as The Unique Pearl of His Time.
20. Abioseh Davidson Nicol, biomedical scientist and physician who discovered the breakdown of insulin in the human body, a breakthrough for the treatment of diabetes.
21. John Farrell Easmon, physician who coined the term “Blackwater Fever” and was the first to link the disease directly to malaria.
22. Catherine Obianuju Acholonu (26 October 1951 — 18 March 2014), Nigerian writer, researcher and former lecturer on African Cultural and Gender Studies.
23. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born 15 September 1977), Nigerian writer whose works range from novels to short stories to non-fiction.
24. Yemisi Aribisala (born 27 April 1973), Nigerian essayist, writer, painter, and food memoirist.
25. Nnorom Azuonye (born 12 July 1967), publisher, theatre director, playwright, poet and advertising professional.
26. Seyi Oyesola, Nigerian doctor, who co-invented hospital in a box
27. Bisi Ezerioha (born 1972), Nigerian engineer, racer and former pharmaceutical executive who has built some of the world’s most powerful Honda and Porsche engines.
28. Bennet Omalu (born 1968), Nigerian forensic pathologist, who discovered a neurological deterioration that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease while conducting an autopsy on former NFL football player Mike Webster.
29. Suleiman Elias Bogoro is professor of animal science, specialising in biochemistry and Ruminant Nutrition.
30. Christiaan Barnard (1922—2001), South African cardiac surgeon, who performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant.
31. Hamilton Naki a black gardener who went on to work in the animal laboratory at UCT and assisted Barnard in the research effort that preceded first human heart transplantation.
32. Sydney Brenner (1927—2019), South African biologist, who won the 2002 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.
33. Allan McLeod Cormack (1924—1998), South African-born American physicist, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
34. Mulalo Doyoyo (born 1970), South African professor, engineer and inventor.
35. Trefor Jenkins (born 1932), human geneticist from South Africa, noted for his work on DNA.
36. Tshilidzi Marwala (born 1971), South African scientist and inventor.
37. Thebe Medupe (born 1973), South African astrophysicist and founding director of Astronomy Africa.
38. Philiswa Nomngongo, professor of analytical chemistry and the South African research chair (SARChI) in nanotechnology for water.
39. Himla Soodyall (born 1963), South African human geneticist, known for genetic research into the peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa.
40. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, South African HIV researcher.
41. Elon Musk (born 1971), CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.
42. Mamokgethi Phakeng (1966) is a South African professor of mathematics education and a former vice-chancellor of UCT.
43. Erasto B Mpemba (born 1950), Tanzanian scientist and physicist who discovered the eponymous Mpemba effect, a paradoxical phenomenon in which hot water freezes faster than cold water under certain conditions.
Reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures means teaching our youth both at basic education level and institutions of higher learning about these giants. It is not only an act of commemorating them but reaffirming the place of Africans in the narrative of excellence and inspiration
3. Diverse perspectives
This is also a reaffirmation that Africa is not a monolithic entity but a continent with a multitude of cultures, languages and perspectives. These diversities have given rise to a vast array of intellectual thought and creativity. From ancient African empires and kingdoms to contemporary thinkers, the intellectual wealth of the continent is vast and varied. By reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures, we empower the continent’s scholars to share their unique perspectives with the world.
We are still to write about the contributions of the kingdoms of Monomotapa, Mapungubwe, Kongo and Great Zimbabwe among other Africa kingdoms.
4. Cultural preservation
It is important to write about those contributions because Africa’s intellectual heritage is deeply connected to its cultural traditions. Efforts to preserve and promote these traditions can help secure Africa’s intellectual future. Added to this must be the preservation of indigenous languages, oral histories and artistic expressions. Speaking of Africa’s traditions, it is important to remember that Africa has often been portrayed through stereotypes that do not do justice to its complex reality. By reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures, we challenge these stereotypes and present a more accurate and dynamic image of the continent.
5. The role of education
Education is a cornerstone in the reclamation of Africa’s intellectual futures and challenging the stereotypes about Africa. By investing in quality education systems, we empower the next generation of African thinkers to build on the achievements of their predecessors. This includes fostering critical thinking, research, and innovation. Intellectual progress is often born from open, inclusive dialogue. It’s essential to create platforms and spaces for African intellectuals to engage with global conversations. This exchange of ideas can lead to innovative solutions to local and global challenges. Collaboration between African intellectuals and their counterparts worldwide can lead to the development of new ideas and solutions.
Encouraging partnerships can help harness the full potential of Africa’s intellectual capital.
The time has come for us to reclaim Africa’s intellectual futures. We must recognise that the intellectual wealth of Africa extends far beyond its past achievements; it is a vital force that can drive our progress in the 21st century.
I would like to propose some key steps we must collectively take to achieve the reclamation of Africa’s intellectual futures:
1. Investing in education: Access to quality education is the cornerstone of intellectual progress. We must prioritise education from early childhood to higher learning, ensuring that every African child has the opportunity to realise their potential. This investment will create a generation of critical thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers. We today know from Census 2022 that 60.2% of children are in early childhood learning but we are concerned about the 5.3-million children are not in ECD.
For this reason, we are working on measure to ensure their participation. Today, I would have been proud to report to President OR Tambo, that 30 years later, the number of children with no access to schooling has declined to just 6.9% and the number completing grade 12 has also increased to 37.6% from a mere 16.3% in 1996, and post school graduates has grown to 12.2%. As we commit to leave no-one behind, we challenge universities such as Unisa that it’s next 10 and not 150 years, must find mechanisms to ensure broader access to quality and relevant post-school education. The relevance of education is important if South Africa addresses the high population of not in education and not in training youth. We must all take a leaf out of the book of OR Tambo, who when confronted with a large influx of young people fleeing the country, he established the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SoMaFCO) in Mazimbu, Tanzania.
2. Preserving cultural heritage: Africa’s intellectual heritage is deeply intertwined with its diverse cultures. We must preserve and celebrate the vast array of languages, traditions, and oral histories that have been passed down through generations. These are repositories of knowledge that can inspire contemporary solutions. It was during the Covid-19, that we appreciated the value of indigenous knowledge systems and indigenous medicine. Here in South Africa, we relied on mohlonyane, and Tshiumbe-umbe among others to battle the virus.
3. Promoting research and innovation: Africa has a wealth of untapped potential in the fields of science, technology, and innovation. Encouraging research, providing support for inventors and entrepreneurs, and creating an environment that fosters innovation will allow Africa to compete on a global scale. We probably do not know about Prof Mulalo Doyoyo and his inventions because we throw the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) when it comes to government support of local innovations, in particular from black innovators and inventors. When confronted with this, I often ask — where was the PFMA when government adopted the Zoom platform in 2020?
4. Engaging the diaspora: The African diaspora is a vast source of intellectual capital. We should actively engage with the African diaspora to tap into their knowledge, expertise, and resources, and encourage them to contribute to the continent’s development. This contribution is not on the basis of charity but it is because Africa is the next theatre of global development both in terms of human resources and resource processing. Those who seek to disrupt Africa’s development can only delay us but they will never derail us. Therefore those of African descent can only stand to benefit when they have meaningful contributed to the development of the continent.
5. Advocating for inclusivity and gender equality: Africa’s intellectual future can only be truly reclaimed if we ensure that all voices are heard and all individuals have an equal opportunity to contribute. This means promoting gender equality and diversity in all sectors, and
6. Collaboration and partnerships: Africa should seek collaborations and partnerships with the global community. International co-operation can facilitate the exchange of ideas, resources, and expertise that will drive intellectual progress.
Reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures is not just an aspiration; it’s an imperative. The world is changing rapidly, and Africa must take its place in shaping the future. As we move forward, let us remember that Africa’s intellectual legacy is not just about the past; it’s about the present and the future. It’s about harnessing the power of knowledge to address the challenges we face, from climate change to healthcare, from economic development to social justice.
Together, with dedication, resilience, and unwavering belief in Africa’s potential, we can and will reclaim Africa’s intellectual futures. The journey is challenging, but the destination is worth the effort — a continent that not only remembers its intellectual legacy but forges a new and brighter path ahead.
As we commemorate the life of Oliver Tambo, let us be inspired by his legacy. Let us continue to champion African intellectualism, recognising that the future of the continent depends on the power of knowledge, critical thinking, and unity.
Let us strive to make education accessible to all, nurture diverse perspectives, and seek solutions to the challenges that Africa faces today. Oliver Tambo’s life exemplified the synergy of political activism and intellectualism. He demonstrated that the struggle for justice and equality required not only courage but also intellect, not just action but also reflection.
In conclusion, reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures is not just about recognising the past but about shaping a brighter, more inclusive future. Africa’s intellectuals have much to offer, and their contributions are vital for addressing the complex challenges of our time. By supporting and celebrating Africa’s intellectual voices, we contribute to a more equitable and intellectually rich world.
Let us embrace this opportunity to learn from, collaborate with, and empower African scholars and visionaries, ensuring that their voices are heard and their ideas are acknowledged on the global stage.
Happiest 106th birthday President OR Tambo.
• Khumbudzo Ntshavheni is a minister in the Presidency