Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Mbeki’s problematic take on the ‘democratization of knowledge’

Mbeki’s problematic take on the ‘democratization of knowledge’.
By Takura Zhangazha
On Monday January 16 2012,  former South African President Thabo Mbeki made a key note opening presentation on the ‘Democratisation of knowledge: The Role of knowledge in the Betterment of society’ at a conference held under the same theme by the University of  Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa.  It was a presentation  that on the face of it appears either too philosophical or too abstract to rouse the public interest. 

 The former point is probably the more prominent given the fact that Mr. Mbeki no longer holds influential political office neither has he stated any intention to do so again.  Regardless, the truth of the matter is that the pursuit, acquisition, production and dissemination of knowledge is at the heart of human existence. And this makes not only the presentation by Mr. Mbeki  but the convening of the Stellenbosch conference itself relevant to our time.

In his presentation it is evident that the former South African president is alive to this fact.  In being so, he accuses those in positions of global political, socio-economic  and financial influence of essentially creating ‘false knowledge’ around internationally important issues. These include what he perceives to have been knowledge dishonesty about the war in Iraq, the NATO intervention in Libya, the global financial crisis and the ‘H1N1’ flu outbreak amongst other examples he gives of 'false knowledge'. 

As would be expected the South African media immediately latched on to the issue of how in his speech Mr. Mbeki argued that ‘false knowledge’ caused the downfall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadafi . But to dwell on this point might miss  the central arguments in his presentation.

The interesting aspects of Mr. Mbeki’s argumentation is not only to be found in the examples he cites such as the ones I have referred to above. Instead they are also found in the emphasis  he makes concerning the undemocratic nature of knowledge production in the world in the political, economic and natural science spheres of global existence.  

Indeed most of this knowledge is generated in the West with Africa generally following  rather blindly and with complicity in the former's footsteps.  And this is perhaps where the former South African president begins to mix up his argument and begins to muddle the progressive points that he essentially intends to make.

This is because outside of the broad framework presented by Mbeki, there is the primary problem of Africa’s acquiescence to Western hegemony, either via its own leaders or it’s inability to persuasively address its fundamental challenges with a demonstration of understanding the continents placement in world history or in contemporary times.

As an example of the acquiescence that I mention, after his address Mr. Mbeki demonstrated a disdain for the social media platform twitter and partly defined it as an inadequate platform for engagement with knowledge for the improvement of societies. In short, he thinks it is a poor substitute for knowledge production or dissemination. Such an argument is a case of too little too late because the internet and social media platforms are increasingly popular (across Africa) methods of disseminating information on knowledge that all world governments tend to want to keep from their citizens.

 And this is where the issue of hegemony reverts. The primary challenge in seeking to ‘democratize knowledge production’  is not so much  a political solution as it is a holistic (cultural, technological, economic  and historical) one. The internet is not intended to undermine ‘genuine’ knowledge, it is a product that accentuates access to knowledge.  For the African, the primary problem is ‘who’s knowledge is it anyway?’ And why does a sizable proportion of our continental population take to this knowledge as do ducks to water? 

It is also clear that in his argumentation, Mr. Mbeki skirts  the challenge that  ‘mimicry’ in the process of acquiring, pursuing or even refusing knowledge has presented to independent African states. By mimicry I refer to the general enthusiasm shown by the majority of Africa’s post independence leaders to generate a culture of seeking to arrive at being viewed as equals with the knowledge ‘gate-keeping’ western other. And once satisfied they have 'arrived', not seeking to go any further or create new consciencious African centers of knowledge. This was done largely at the expense of seeking solutions that had context and true application to African circumstances.

An example of this was the simple shift by African leaders and liberation movements from being negotiators with both the capitalist bloc and the socialist bloc to becoming lackeys of the former via economic structural adjustment programmes and an opportunistic embrace of neo-liberalism. To that extent, where former president Mbeki correctly argues about the undemocratic nature of the dissemination, sharing and distribution of knowledge, he is at risk at doing so without a holistic summary of the historical challenges and African leadership complicity around the same.

And its understandable why he has avoided that particular issue. It would in part indict him, the ANC and other African liberation movements or governments. The indictment would not in any way undermine their respective triumphs, but it may in the end indicate that in the aftermath of our collective African independence victories, we have continued swaying from the revolutionary path in search for knowledge that benefits us temporarily and undermines our equality as knowledge producing global citizens. In short, we have failed to negotiate for knowledge and with knowledge on firm historical and ‘knowledge of selves’ grounding.

We continue to play second fiddle to others  primarily because in our contemporary times, the acquisition of leadership or knowledge in our societies  has been less about what the Guinea- Bissau and Cape Verde leader Amilcar Cabral referred to as the ‘return to the revolutionary path’ of making our own history. Instead, and tragically so, it has focused too much on seeking to demonstrate an ability to make a post-independence  history that is all too similar to that of those who today have continued to orchestrate a dictatorship of knowledge.
Ends//Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity and this article first appeared on Please acknowledge this.