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Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy

8 min read. The disruption caused by Wiredu’s insertion of an African presence in philosophy foreshadows a crucial logical progression, one that demands that philosophy must turn against itself in order to be representative of an African cosmology.

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Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy
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In conceptual terms, decolonisation is very important to previously colonised peoples because they seek to establish a fresh historical continuum, thereby fostering a sense of collective dignity, restoring forms of blemished consciousness and then equipping themselves with the necessary tools to face the future with renewed vigour.

Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, is an important voice in the discussions on decolonisation in Africa. The tenor of Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation is by and large pragmatic – he interrogates the divide between tradition and modernity in African contexts.

Colonialism, in spite of its various modernist aspirations, was often pursued with incredible degrees of violence largely inflicted upon the colonised. Therefore, decolonisation had to incorporate a therapeutic component in healing broken selves and indeed broader forms of consciousness.

Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, is an important voice in the discussions on decolonisation in Africa. The tenor of Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation is by and large pragmatic – he interrogates the divide between tradition and modernity in African contexts. Here, this pragmatism comes to the fore. Wiredu does not unduly romanticise the supposed beauty of ancient African cultures and traditions; instead he is selective in accepting parts of them that he finds useful and repudiating others that impede Africa’s development. For instance, Wiredu is not uncritical of aspects of Akan traditional culture that he deems to be counter-productive, nor is he eulogistic in relation to unhelpful or unnecessary Western methods. What he attempts, instead, is a sort of cultural synthesis between Euromodernity and a traditional African culture. This conceptual approach has been very influential in most of Anglophone Africa, particularly in West Africa and East Africa.

Undoubtedly, his significance has been restricted to largely philosophical and academic circles. This development is somewhat curious. It appears that philosophy is, in many cases as well as regions, quite distant from everyday concerns. Philosophy is a significantly metaphilosophical discipline that reflects reality from a safe Platonic contemplative distance. The Athenian origins of Western philosophy obviously do not address the urgencies of African existential dilemmas and this is probably one of the reasons that African philosophy sometimes appears not to be in the forefront of the social processes of decolonisation in Africa.

African philosophy, as such, seems removed from the hotbed of decolonisation even when Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation provides an undoubtedly important approach to the topic. For philosophy to obtain relevance to the practices of everyday life in Africa, it has to be embedded in and defined by everyday struggles and experiences. However, not all philosophical trends in Africa are seemingly removed from everyday realities. For instance, the Southern African concept of ubuntu is constantly bandied about in the public realm as opposed to being limited to the discourses circulating only within ivory towers.

Afrocentricity

Afrocentricity is another African(ist) orientation in philosophy that seeks to embed itself within everyday African consciousness in a more or less direct way. Wiredu has not engaged with this trend in African contemporary thought and practice. As such there has been a – for want of a better term – schism between academic philosophy and non-academic intellectual practice, a trend that mirrors what exists in black America where academic luminaries based within the academy are hardly known outside it whilst Afrocentric thinkers become, in the eyes of the public, learned folk heroes precisely because they engage constantly with their communities on a wide range of burning issues. Thought, as it were, has to be imbued with a measure of social activism and transformational potential otherwise the divide between the ivory tower and the community remains unmediated.

Wiredu’s entire corpus unearths, albeit unwittingly, the distance between Western philosophical traditions and African systems of thought. And this distance can be quite enormous depending on the historical approach one adopts.

Wiredu is aware of the other traditions of African contemporary thought that seek to bridge the divide between academic philosophy and folk thought, as exemplified by the contributions of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who were termed philosopher-kings by the Anglophone school of African philosophy. All the aforementioned African freedom fighters-turned-political leaders combined the conceptual and practical aspects of decolonisation under one overarching imperative to forge an existential vision for the decolonised African.

Wiredu’s entire corpus unearths, albeit unwittingly, the distance between Western philosophical traditions and African systems of thought. And this distance can be quite enormous depending on the historical approach one adopts. Afrocentricity encourages a robust engagement with the African historical past in order to discover the true meaning of philosophy, which in Afrocentric terms can only be located in ancient Egypt. Such an Afrocentric conception of philosophy exceeds the ordinary boundaries of Western philosophy. Wiredu’s understanding of philosophy is clearly not Afrocentric in the usual sense of the term but in spite of its Western analytic framework it attempts a recuperation of the African subject as a central object of discourse. Here, the African subject suddenly finds him/herself within a Western – and often alien – canon of rationality. The mere incongruity of this presence disrupts the “normal” dynamic of analytic philosophy and then announces the frightening possibility for a multiculturalism that is fundamentally alien within that philosophic equation.

These layers of disruption within a supposedly “pure” canon of Western philosophy is what Wiredu accomplishes with his work. By daring to introduce an African presence into a lily-white canon, a discomfort arises, one that preempts other conceptual possibilities that ultimately question the meaning and limits of philosophy. The African subject thus finds him/herself entrapped within a Western philosophical vocabulary that necessarily constrains his/her discursive agency, notwithstanding the realities of being ensconced within an ostensibly African voice, in this case, Wiredu’s own voice.

One is compelled to return to the immense possibilities of Afrocentricity, which seeks to recover the purity of the African voice. Wiredu’s work, which represents the introduction of an African voice into a Western philosophical canon, in this sense, constitutes a conceptual revolt. Afrocentricity, on the other hand, promises a total revolution, a liberation from the traumas and limitations of conceptual schizophrenia, whereby an African subject is forever reduced to agonising over the discomfort and ambiguities of a superimposed philosophical lexicon.

Afrocentricity is all about a complete ethical and conceptual transformation, with the African subject being the nucleus of such a transformation. In this way, the transformation exceeds being merely a disruption; it is essentially an alteration of consciousness and cosmology, and the recovery of a pure – or lost – conceptual voice.

By interrogating the overarching tradition/modernity dialectic, Wiredu has announced cultural synthesis as a pragmatic approach. But it seems the benefits of this conceptual approach would have been better realised in the fields of cultural studies, and other related discourses. African philosophy seems to have lost a considerable amount of momentum. Even though the African presence constitutes a disruption within the Western philosophical canon in the manner in which Wiredu announces it, this disruption, as pointed out earlier, does not entail a complete transformation of the philosophical tradition that hosts it.

Afrocentricity is all about a complete ethical and conceptual transformation, with the African subject being the nucleus of such a transformation. In this way, the transformation exceeds being merely a disruption; it is essentially an alteration of consciousness and cosmology, and the recovery of a pure – or lost – conceptual voice.

These remarks about the outcome of Wiredu’s work are based on observations that stem from “post-colonial” African life. Such a context is never predictable as the nightmares and astonishing potentials being witnessed in contemporary Africa must be far removed from the dreams the likes of Nkrumah, Senghor, Nyerere and Ngugi wa Thiongo had for the continent.

In the African continent, as states fail constantly, ethnic strife erupts and millions are displaced through wars, migrations, disease and famine. Thus an all-too-familiar picture of the beleaguered continent is further lodged in our minds, one that panders to convenient and uncritical stereotype. But within this seemingly unsalvageable scenario we see instances of astounding resilience, colour, strength and creativity, such that outstrip our conceptual vocabularies. Cultural synthesis as understood by normal philosophical diction does not quite capture the forms of life in constant transition that the inhabitants of Africa battle with daily.

These supposed random and chaotic fragments of African existence are paradoxically a liberation of the African voice, a dervish of presence which colonialism had done everything to deny, suppress and ultimately, destroy. Such a presence constitutes a grave existential antithesis to philosophical equilibrium, and therefore, decorum. In reality it ought to be more than just a disruption in order to realise its true potential; it had to be, in an Afrocentric sense, a complete transformation of concept and consciousness in a manner that repudiates all existing philosophical discourses, except those discovered (and recovered) through a largely Afrocentric project.

An African cosmology

In identifying frames of reference that suit the decolonised African subject, discourses, such as cultural or ethnic and race studies, appear to be better positioned than philosophy. One of the reasons for philosophy’s limitations is its innate reluctance to question and undermine the basis of its attitudes in relation to the African subject. In other words, the African subject is compelled, with little or no voice, to find its locus of muteness within an invariably Western philosophical canon. Within this philosophical straight jacket, its potential for manouverability is significantly curtailed. If indeed it is able to acquire a voice, it is one that is mangled, lacking in confidence and ultimately unrepresentative and self-defeating.

But all around us within the continent, there are cacophonies of voices, unruly regimes of representation, disclosure and iconicity, clashing, jarring, refusing to be curtailed and silenced, bursting forth in variegated hues and displays until the senses experience multiple stages of sensory overload. It becomes evident that we have no vocabulary to describe this state of affairs that constantly threaten to overwhelm our abilities to cope with, classify and assess phenomena. Instead of philosophy and normal theoretical language, we find succour in constant eruptions of music, dance, and the ever-revolving institutions of the “palaver” and in other forms of conviviality that may emerge suddenly and then disappear only to reappear is somewhat altered conditions in ever-mobile cyclicity, and shifting bases of transformation.

In these constantly moving and evolving forms are to be found our rough and ready conceptual implements that would make academic philosophers wince, recoil and depart for more stable social conditions where they are able to find comfort in jaded vocabularies.

It is tempting to state that philosophy loses its powers in Africa unless it resorts to the language of pathology, that is, at least, a certain understanding of philosophy, which paradoxically, Wiredu is able to employ in his project of conceptual decolonisation. However, what I have pointed out are the limitations of acquiring and maintaining a liberated voice within that fraught conceptual milieu. At best, that constrained voice constitutes a disruption within “normal” universal philosophical momentum. But essentially, what we require more than ever is a complete transformation of the conceptual apparatus so that we are able to embrace more fully our essential realities rather than being alienated and stymied by them at a fundamental conceptual level.

The disruption caused by Wiredu’s insertion of an African presence in philosophy foreshadows a crucial logical progression, one that demands that philosophy must turn against itself in order to be representative of an African cosmology. There has got to be a more inspiring way to capture myriad sounds, languages, voices, dialects and tropical colours that characterise African existence. Instead, under the structures of analytical philosophy (and other similar traditions), what we see is a retreat by philosophy from this reality. By doing so, it disqualifies itself as a medium of expression for non-Western experiences and instead launches an offensive by labeling everything African as barbaric, or at best, unformed, non-descript and unnameable. Being a philosopher of the proper sense of word, Wiredu obviously despaired of the possibility in effecting a negation of philosophy. What isn’t clear is whether he read philosophy’s limitations in the manner described in this brief article. But even if he senses its fundamental limitations, he never quite attempts to transcend them in a radical manner.

Afrocentricity, on the other hand, attempts a total re-fabrication of the entire conceptual apparatus dealing with the African subject as an experiential and philosophical being. This wide-ranging operation works at many levels in the following ways: a re-consideration of the question of African historiography; a re-evaluation of the place of the African subject in history; a thorough-going re-positioning and realignment of the discipline of philosophy incorporating its pre-Athenian locus and orientation in order to transcend the bounds of philosophy itself in its contemporary form.

Essentially, this kind of operation constitutes a considerable advancement on Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation. In this manner, the haunting occasioned by deep loss, collective psychic disequilibrium and severance, and a psychological misalignment with a superimposed cultural order are downplayed for more vigorous engagement with the internal momentum of pre-colonial African history. The point, is, how do we deal with traumas of loss without the usual recourse to collective amnesia? Afrocentricity suggests that this is wholly possible. Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation appears to be lacking the psychological resources to cope with the traumas of loss and the unremitting despair caused by the diminution or even erasure of identity, and so in establishing a conversation between tradition and modernity, the African subject still has to avail him/herself of lush means to deal with chronic agonies of cultural disconnect that are in turn provided by Afrocentricity and its multi-pronged approaches to cultural reconstruction on a massive scale.

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Sanya Osha is a philosopher, novelist and poet living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications include the novels, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), and On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch, the volume of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread (2013), and the work of scholarship, Dani Dabudere’s Afrikology (2018).

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When Family Means Business

9 min read. Family-owned businesses are the backbone of the global economy yet many do not survive one or two generations. DARIUS OKOLLA provides a glimpse into large family-owned businesses in Kenya, and assesses their fortunes in an uncertain political and economic environment.

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When Family Means Business
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The Korean economic landscape is dominated by chaebols, Americans have conglomerates, the Japanese have Zaibatsus, Germans have Mittlestands, while Kenyans have, well, let’s call them Mamols – a cluster of faceless, powerful, family-owned enterprises whose stake in the economy is massive and diverse and which form the core to the competitiveness of the Kenyan economy. Mamols, the word derived from native Dholuo for tendril-like tentacle plants that intertwine their way into multiple nearby vegetation to form a strong mesh-like interconnected undergrowth.

Kenya’s economy, as currently constituted, represents a feudal-like family economy dominated by a few well-capitalised family-owned units at both the top and mid-tier. At a glance, the majority of the 7.4 million small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in Kenya are conventionally family businesses owing to their initial source of capital, ownership and day-to-day operations.

A chaebol, or in our case a mamol, is a large industrial firm that is run and controlled by a founder and his or her family. Their internal make-up is that of a large number of diversified affiliate brands, products and markets under a patriarch whose power over the business operations often exceeds legal authority.

There are significant differences between Japanese aaibatsus, Korean chaebols, Kenyan mamols, and American conglomerates, key among them being the source of capital. The aaibatsus organised around a bank, chaebols were prohibited from owning a bank, their American counterparts go to Wall Street, while Kenyan mamols rely on internal revenues and private equity for growth.

The constitutive nature of these businesses is any profit-making venture patronised by two or more family members in its workforce and the majority of ownership or control lying within that family. Traditionally, such corporate structures place the founding patriarchs and matriarchs at the helm and family members in ownership positions, allowing them to exert direct control across the board. Family-level investments are known to tap into the general social immobility of capital, which tentatively guarantees that if properly transitioned, the resources can stay within the family for anywhere between five and six generations.

Family-owned businesses are the backbone of the global economy. The Conway Centre for Family Business estimates that 35 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are family-controlled across the full spectrum of firms, from small niche outlets to major brands. In fact, family businesses account for 50 per cent of the U.S. gross domestic product, generate 60 per cent of the country’s employment, and account for 78 per cent of all new job creation.

The East Africa region has a wide array of such firms, which shrewd private-equity investors can explore in the medium to large segment with market caps of between $10 million and $100 million. The research firm Asoko’s data identified over 10,000 firms in this revenue bracket across a diverse range of markets in East and West Africa.

The Conway Centre for Family Business estimates that 35 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are family-controlled across the full spectrum of firms, from small niche outlets to major brands.

Unsurprisingly, only a handful of the thousands of family-owned firms in Kenya reach elite status or provide strong products, brands, and services across the region, thus significantly influencing the export basket. Extrapolation of local studies indicates that there are 645 family-owned firms earning between $10 million and $100 million annually in East Africa, with nearly three out of every four of these companies being Kenyan, followed by Ethiopia, at 17 per cent, Zambia, at 5 per cent, and Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, at 2 per cent each. Asoko’s research further identified 490 family-owned Kenyan firms earning annual revenues in excess of Sh1 billion across a wide range of industries; of the 490, 14.3 per cent, or 70 companies, earn more than Sh5 billion, 22 of which earn over Kshs 10 billion every year.

Within these hallowed halls of prime family-owned enterprises that churn premium products, there exist complexities and contradictions cutting across the family-business divide in which virtues and vices on one end diffuse to the other end with speed and ferocity. Much more intuitively, their very nature as family-owned businesses results in unique models of starting, running and decision-making, the end result of which is usually a surprising litany of dilemmas: political interference, their worries about work and sibling rivalry, inheritance squabbles, and most of all, the fears for the heirs.

Locally, the roughly 500 sprawling family-run conglomerates with at least $10 million in revenues are the understated cornerstones of Kenya’s economic, political and social landscape. Taken together, they make up the silent pillars of the nation’s versatile economy and include the likes of KenPoly, and ICEA Lion, with Ramco being among the oldest of them all. Unlike the globally renowned family-owned firms like Walton, the Korean Chaebols or Japanese corporate giants, most African Kenyan Mamols in particular, prefer to court as little publicity as possible partly because corporate culture generally abhors uncourted publicity given the landmines of publicity.

The PwC 2018 Family Business Survey indicated expected revenue growth in 82 per cent of the family-owned enterprises – a major feat in this era of fiscal constraints and declining exports in the country occasioned by high energy costs and over-taxation. The top obstacles to surmount are corruption (72 per cent), accessing the right skills and talents (52 per cent), prices of inputs (52 per cent), competition from cheap imports (52 per rcent) and the pressure to innovate (50 per cent).

Locally, the roughly 500 sprawling family-run conglomerates with at least $10 million in revenues are the understated cornerstones of Kenya’s economic, political and social landscape. Taken together, they make up the silent pillars of the nation’s versatile economy…

These massive firm’s opaque and often unexamined governance and ownership structures and oversized influence, coupled with their cosy relationship with regulators, often lends credence to fears of influence-peddling. No doubt, as the fiscal condition of the political economy under the Jubilee government tightens, it will cast an intense spotlight on these firms, just at the time when many are navigating murky generational transitions. Absent are clear models of generational transition of wealth acquired and sustained through the patriarch’s political or social patronage, which leaves the heirs ill-prepared for their inherited fortune.

Given the nature of our political economy, most of these firms rely on close cooperation with the political structures for their operations, inducing decades of political goodwill, and support. The guarantee could be in the form of subsidies, loans, and tax incentives only imagined by their rivals. That the president, cabinet secretaries, and top bureaucrats can trace their political fortune to the attendant patronage of family capitalism gives the best glimpse of these firms’ impact in our political infrastructure.

In Latin America, family capitalism is at its most efficient in the pursuit of political power and using tentacled connections to launder public and private resources. In Argentina, the family-owned firm’s goal is political conquest with presidential and gubernatorial positions as the ultimate prize.

In keeping with the largely conservative investment decisions of these investors, 60 per cent of them populate the agricultural, industrial and manufacturing sectors of the economy. A survey by consultancy firm Knight Frank shows that these clusters have allocated 25 per cent of their investment portfolios to equities, 22 per cent to property and 22 per cent to cash or cash equivalents, with only 3 per cent in private equity and another 3 per cent in luxuries stuff such as art, wine and luxury cars.

Given the nature of our political economy, most of these firms rely on close cooperation with the political structures for their operations, inducing decades of political goodwill, and support. The guarantee could be in the form of subsidies, loans, and tax incentives only imagined by their rivals.

Curiously, Kenya’s leading family-owned enterprises are still within the first three generations of ownership, a fact tied to the barely 60 year-old independence in this 100 year-old plantation. Large industrial firms like Ramco, which traces its roots back to precolonial 1940s, signals a growing sustenance and entrenchment of these Mamols into the heart of the nation’s political economy. Ranci is currently chaired by one of the sons of the original patriarch who is subordinated by members of the third generation, a feat replicated by only one other company, which is on its third generation of leadership from within the family.

Lots of other mamols are still being ruled by first- and second-generation leadership and often silently face precarious generational transitions. Surprisingly, about 17 per cent of the top family-owned conglomerates have a succession plan ahead of the global 14 per cent average. The generational divide, coupled with increasing complexity and diversity of skills that the firm needs as it grows, predisposes the second or third generations who take over the reins of family businesses to be more open to outside investors, and hiring of experts. Globally, just 30 per cent of family businesses make it through the second generation, with only 13 per cent passing three generations, which is the context within which lots of these huge Kenyan firms exist.

What’s their story?

As the founders phase out, there’s the compelling case of having fantastically wealthy heirs dealing with wealth that is inherited rather than earned, which may predispose them to hubris. The perpetuation of the firm is not a great deal more fulfilling to them as it was to the founders. Despite being vibrant contributors to the economy, family-owned businesses face corporate governance issues, political wheeler-dealing and flaky succession plans whose overall impact limits the company’s lifespan. In total, just over half of Kenya’s family businesses reported having a succession plan in place, with two-thirds indicating that the next generation was already part of the business.

The litany of generational differences, fraying and differing visions of the future and emerging challenges and gaps compel the patriarchs to invoke external talents to increase the talent pool available for operations. Consequently, a more recent survey has revealed that family businesses in Kenya are in robust health, with revenues expected to continue growing in four out of every five firms.

According to the Finnish Family Firm Association 2009 report there are three prime ownership models in these family-owned firms: first, the owner, active in governance with three overlapping roles as manager, family member, and owner; second, the owner, non-active in governance, is a family member and owner; and third, non-owning, active in governance family member has two roles as owner and as manager. A non-family member active in governance can be a member of the board or management; also a non-family member can be owner as a capital investor or as a managing director who owns shares of the family firm.

Then there are the family members, who have no role as owners or managers and who are typically spouses (in-laws), trustees and next of kin. Relatives of most of Kenya’s stock market billionaires prefer to stay out of the public limelight, avoiding governance roles, such as directorships, in the portfolio companies where their families control major shareholding.

The Family Business Survey 2018 shows that the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE)’s main value proposition to mamols – visibility, access to financing and a divestment platform – appeal to the 46 polled companies whose turnovers range from Sh500 million to more than Sh10 billion. Eighty-five per cent of the Mamols rely on internal cash and 83 per cent on bank lending/credit lines, while 59 per cent prefer private equity at a higher percentage than the global average of 39 per cent.

What complicates analysis of these behemoths is that Kenya is known to have a large group of politically-connected superrich families who have hidden their wealth in trusts and a labyrinth of companies to evade taxes. In 2015, a list of 191 individuals and 25 offshore companies linked to Kenya was leaked from the Mossack Fonseca legal firm and published in what came to be known as the Panama papers. The companies and individuals held the cash equivalent of over Sh15 trillion laundered and transferred from Kenya. 

The dark side of family businesses

During the United Nations International Day of the Family in Nairobi, Justice Aggrey Muchelule said that the Family Division has resorted to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in the quest to resolve the over 13, 000 succession cases over family-owned assets left behind by parents, spouses or other benefactors. Court and political battles over large firms and other properties left to heirs of prime family-owned firms in Kenya pop up regularly even where there is a will. Few of these cases arrive at amicable solutions.

The properties in dispute range from shares to money stashed in banks and tax havens abroad and businesses and other assets, but land still remains the most contested asset; some of these cases have been unresolved since the 1980s. Mbiyu Koinange, James Kanyotu, Gershom Kirima, Jenga Karume, and JM Kariuki’s families are among the affected as the Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority (UFAA) has had to seize their dividends and shares following family feuds over ownership and succession.

Despite their tenacity, the family business model often tends to undermine its own longevity, profitability and efficiency through political favouritism, succession by unfit heirs, endless feuds, and sleaze, including excessive and unnecessary luxury spending on the company’s tab. Examples of drastic declines in family fortunes can be found in Russia and the Middle East.

Locally, while addressing the family of the late Murang’a-born oil tycoon Thayu Kabugi during his burial, President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose family has a major controlling stake in the Kenyan economy, reflected that assembling an estate worth billions of shillings was not a simple task as it takes a lot of struggle, toil and back-breaking work. “But we are seeing a situation whereby families of these icons of our economy go after each other’s throats days after the demise of their economic fortune heroes. That is not the way to go and I would urge all families to desist from such tussles,” he said.

The looming political and economic crises simultaneously plaguing the country has exhausted the country’s political-economy’s capacity to self-correct. A major hit to the economy, the population bulge, massive corruption, and the upcoming elections and referendum will reorient the list of families that control the national pie by raising a few while sinking others. It shouldn’t be lost to us that those who’ve stashed Sh15 trillion abroad stand a better chance of surviving the storm and snapping up the auctioned assets at dirt-poor prices and entrenching their family capitalism for another generation.

Despite their tenacity, the family business model often tends to undermine its own longevity, profitability and efficiency through political favouritism, succession by unfit heirs, endless feuds, and sleaze, including excessive and unnecessary luxury spending on the company’s tab.

An annual study was released ahead of the 2019 World Economic Forum that shows that globally wealth is consolidating back into the hands of a few, with 26 billionaires owning as much as the lower 3.6 billion people in the world. Combined with declining social safety nets, the family business model remains the short-term cushion and guarantor of social mobility for large swathes of the population.

Family businesses range in size, turnover, ownership structures and profitability, from small roadside stalls to behemoths straddling national boundaries. Despite all the squabbles and relational upheavals, family businesses remain a critical means of wealth transfer and generational transition of wealth, opportunity and income.

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Agency, Possibilities, and Imagination: Countering Myths about Africa’s Past

11 min read. Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, and to debunk myths about Africa as a place that did not innovate or create.

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Agency, Possibilities, and Imagination: Countering Myths about Africa’s Past
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“We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”Saki Mafundikwa

In Crazy Normal, Trevor Noah makes a joke about South Africa that I think applies to all of Africa. In his sketch, Africa responds to the world moving in one direction with, “Okay…we’re going to go that way,” pointing in a different direction. The ‘rest-of-the-world’ is perplexed and Africa reassures, “No, don’t worry, we’ll find you there.”

What Trevor Noah illuminates is the ‘elsewhere-ness’ of Africa. Africa has impressive political, economic, social-ecological and cultural diversity – a diversity that is often un-understood for its defiance to being mappable by narrow Euro-American standards and statistics. So much so that Africa is today more often described in negatives than in anything else: lack, poverty, failed, corrupt and crisis being some of them.

But being elsewhere is not being nowhere. Studying Africa’s history is sense-making of this reality and truth, especially for Africans who have grown up in colonially inherited institutions, and are therefore at risk of reproducing an inherited scarcity mentality and inferiority complex. Engaging with precolonial and colonial African history is to remove inherited glasses, whose field of vision limits the scope of where and how ‘being’ is possible.

I discuss here three interlinked reasons for historical study of Africa: agency, possibility and imagination. Recognising Africans’ agency allows recognition of the worlds Africans create/d and opens up imagination for the continued creation of African worlds. At a time of ecological, political, and socio-economic crisis, this is not just about reclaiming identity, but also about regaining footing to create and determine the new worlds coming.

Agency

Africa’s history has been human history for the 200,000 years that homo sapiens have been in existence. This makes African history the longest history of all the world. Precolonial African history makes up about 99.8 per cent of African history for the earliest colonised African entities, Madeira and Canary Islands (1420 and 1496, respectively), Kongo (1472) and South Africa (1652). Indeed, the term ‘pre-colonial history’ is a shorthand that centres European colonialism as Africa’s defining feature, rather than the 99.8 per cent of history preceding it.

Locating Africans’ agency through history counters the erroneous idea propagated by Western scholars that Africans had no history prior to Europeans. Interrogating multiple archives, including documents, environments, materials, practices, language, oral history and more shows Africans in their full range of humanity, a beginning point from which one can ask questions about what happened in the past rather than making assumptions.

Reflecting on the history curriculum I learnt in high school, I noticed that there were gaps. Kenyan history was taught separately from ‘world history’, and in it, we learnt about some ethnic communities’ cultural institutions; the Indian Ocean Trade emphasising Arab and Portuguese influence; and colonial encounters. Following the discussion of the local emergence of the homo species, history quickly propelled to a ‘world’ stage, represented by various linearly progressive revolutions: Neolithic-Agrarian-Industrial. These were described in a manner as to make one aspire to the ladder of progress they represented, but not to see what they left out – the gender and class stratifications and colonialism and slavery, and their ripple effects on injustice in the world today.

The curriculum only returned to focus on the local when there were particular interactions with foreign entities, such as with Portuguese influence on the East African coast in the 15th century, and with the later European colonisation of the African continent in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Between species evolution in East Africa hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago, and present-day Kenya, the only significant events taught had foreigners as the main characters: Arabs, Portuguese, British. Indigenous history was limited to an ahistorical view of some ethnic groups’ customs.

Such gaps make significant processes, events, and local agents invisible in the history of what would later become Kenya, thus creating an incorrect view that only foreigners were and can be agents of Kenyan history. This negatively biases students’ view of their own agency in affecting history, making it appear as though Africans ‘froze’ while history was happening elsewhere, and only re-entered history upon contact with foreigners.

This experience speaks to a larger institutionalisation of silences and misrepresentations. The bias is evident in policies and popular media that undermine communities’ indigenous livelihood strategies and knowledge, depicting them as destructive and in need of reform in the interests of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ agendas, both of which are largely driven by foreigners and benefit a minority elite while harming a majority. These policies and narratives do not engage with indigenous histories to show the many ways in which Africans have been agents in engaging with and changing their environments with a variety of impacts, and not simply as passive responders.

They also don’t engage with colonial history that would show how Africans’ agency was hidden, diminished or skewed, and thus entrench denigrating and dangerous received wisdoms. For example, in learning about the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme in school, no mention was made of it being inspired by an indigenous irrigation system by ilChamus peoples, nor was there a discussion of the reasons why ilChamus practised irrigation, how they managed to produce significant surpluses, and how and why they turned to other livelihood strategies, and with what effects. There was also no mention of the subsequent exclusion of ilChamus peoples from the ‘modern’ irrigation scheme when it was started.

Breaking the silence around indigenous Africans’ agency through integrating precolonial history into institutions, such as schools and the media, in ways that do not fall into either essentialising or negative stereotyping would counter damaging racist bias that Africa was a blank slate awaiting discovery and awakening by Europeans, or a ‘wrong’ place awaiting correction by the same.

Possibilities

In 2017, I studied permaculture, an environmental design-with-nature system articulated by the Australian Bill Mollison. The techniques and system, for which I was paying $400 to learn, I later found out, are part of a repertoire of indigenous agro-ecological techniques and social ethics developed and practised in various parts of Africa and elsewhere. These origins were not acknowledged in the teaching, and fellow students, myself included, were enthused by the ‘new’ knowledge we were gaining.

In my exploration of ecological, economic and social restorative technologies, I encounter a number of these systems articulated by Westerners drawing on often unacknowledged and/or unrematriated indigenous knowledges and practices, including those from this continent. Permaculture, as already mentioned, holistic rangeland management, a reformulation of pastoralists’ ways of working with livestock, family constellation therapy drawn from Zulu family healing techniques, bodywork techniques in process-oriented psychology, some drawn from unnamed Giriama healers, and restorative justice circles celebrate their often white, often male ‘inventors’ and have courses you can pay good sums for to learn these technologies.

Colonisation infused with ‘scientific racism’ placed Africans at the bottom of a ladder of humanity. It was unthinkable that Africans accomplished anything remarkable or constructive. This ladder perpetuated the myth that Africans don’t know and must be taught. Our knowledge and technologies are repackaged elsewhere and sold back to us at a premium, and we don’t recognise them. A permaculture practitioner I met in Tanzania, for example, confidently told a room of American undergraduates that there were no sustainable indigenous African food growing techniques except in her Chagga community. As Saki Mafundikwa comments, “We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”

By bringing agency and possibilities together, studying African history can reclaim our humanity and world-making over 200,000 years of living. Tracing past creativity, innovation, technologies, and their lifeworlds re-presents innumerable possibilities of being and doing. Importantly, it helps Africans step outside of disadvantageous psychological, economic and technological dependency.

Histories of indigenous food provision illuminate the variety of technological skills, and knowledge-based practices in use in different parts of Africa, how these developed, and where they were curtailed by colonial officers, thus hampering their efficacy. Looking only at agriculture, indigenous irrigation technologies, such as dams and irrigation canals, were/are in use in Marakwet, Pokot, Baringo, and at Engaruka in East Africa for many decades if not centuries.

Other forms of water management, including mulching, cover cropping, pit planting, terracing and weather manipulation, were in use across the continent, as were fertility technologies to manipulate soil chemistry, such as burning and tilling in of weeds and crop residues, creating areas of high fertility dark earths, using animal manure, and managing insects such as termites. Practices such as mobility, fallowing, and cultivating or encouraging a diverse range of plants and plant varieties harnessed land and climate variability. The latter also selected plants for taste, maturation, ritual suitability, colour, drought and pest tolerance, effectively making indigenous African farmers crop scientists par excellence.

Social-ecological innovations, like building partnerships across livelihoods to harness symbiotic benefits, were also food provision innovations. There are several examples of pastoralist-cultivators-forager partnerships, such as between the Maa-Agikuyu and Mukogodo-Maa peoples in East Africa, and Bambara-Fula and Bambara-Maure peoples in West Africa. Interrogating the development, context, and practice of these and more food provision technologies would illuminate useful knowledge for continued innovation. Histories of food provision would also include pastoralism and foraging, which are marginalised in popular and political discourse, perhaps because they are less easily dominated by capitalist commercialisation for export and state benefit.

Archaeological research indicates the depth of indigenous sciences knowledge in various parts of Africa. The bronze sculptures of Igbo-Ukwu that were created using the lost-wax technique and dating prior to 1000 AC (after Christ) are unique for their age, fine pattern detailing and technological skill. Similarly, Africans independently developed a wide range of iron smelting techniques (more diverse than anywhere else in the world) – including some unique in the temperatures they achieved – invented in central Africa at least 4,000 years ago. That indigenous African technologies, such as pyramid building in Kemet and Nubia, are yet to be deciphered, are a testament to their depth of skill and innovation. The presence of such sciences counters the received wisdoms that there is nothing to show for Africa in terms of indigenous innovation.

Remarkable rock art is found in many African countries. These art forms were created using a variety of techniques and intents. Rock art also informs historical understanding of human movements. Saharan rock art from a wetter period than the present indicates the likelihood that Kemet (Ancient Egypt) was formed from people migrating from a drying Sahara. Rock paintings and a 100,000-year-old paint laboratory in southern Africa demonstrate the manipulation of various materials (including ochre, blood, egg yolk, shells, bone marrow and fats) to create different coloured paints, and the development of varied painting techniques, including fine line brush paintings, finger, and hand paintings, and the use of art to depict and enact complex cosmologies and healing arts.

The diverse ways in which Africans made worlds are openings for diverse ways of being and for understanding Africa’s technological legacy. They are also a basis for the imagination of alternatives to the present moment.

Imagination

Africa’s colonisation ushered in a period of global homogeneity that solidified a global political (the nation-state) and economic (capitalism) template that has so dominated the global imaginary of the following 150 years that it seems nearly impossible to imagine alternatives to it. This has come with grave consequences, including the climate crisis we in Africa are increasingly going to bear the brunt of. Pre-independence African history is a key to breaking the totalising nature and lure of the present moment.

Studying pre-colonial and colonial history enables understanding of how the world’s narrative came to occlude Africa’s abilities and possibilities, and how this continues into the present. Looking at this history by focusing on agency and possibilities makes one realise that Africa’s pasts are not ‘less than’ but a resource to be built on.

Formal schooling, which focuses mainly on Africa’s post-independence history, can lead to feelings of impotence and resignation that make one believe that that is how things are in the present are how they will forever be. Engaging the 99.8 per of African history to know that things can be different – that as an African one is an agent, and that there is no dearth of examples of knowledge and skills from Africa – allows one to imagine something else in the present, and to “dare to invent the future”, as Thomas Sankara challenged.

Breaking the lure of the present moment involves countering the notion of African timelessness through attending to change in our pasts. For example, though we are often presented with African traditions as though they have been static, we know that practices are fashioned to respond to the goals of a group of people, and that both goals and practices can change. For example, many Bantu communities moving into eastern and southern parts of the continent did not practise circumcision as part of their rites of passage for young people coming of age. Circumcision was added onto pre-existing practices that varyingly included seclusion, adorning the body with clay and other emollients, ancestral and nature rituals, instruction from family, clan or community elders on new life responsibilities in adulthood, and the celebration of successful passage. Circumcision was added to pre-existing rites often as a result of mixing with non-Bantu communities who practised this, possibly due to, or to enable, intermarriages. Using analysis of divergences in words and ideas, historians show how even this inclusion waxed and waned with increasing and decreasing contacts with other communities.  

Indigenous history provides an arena to destabilise European Enlightenment divides such as nature-culture, mind-body disciplines, and anthropocentric notions of agency, all colonial inheritances that continue to define the present and contribute to the ongoing crisis. The practice of acknowledging those who came first, including land and forest spirits, is common in various African communities. When Anlo-Ewe peoples migrated into lagoon areas in West Africa, they incorporated ritual knowledge and the sea deities of neighbouring peoples, thus enabling them to develop a maritime fishing tradition, which was previously non-existent amongst them.

African symbologies, syllabaries and alphabets, such as Adinkra, Nsibidi, Chokwe veves, and Ge’ez scripts, illuminate communities’ values as well as the design and communication principles used to communicate them. These carriers of peoples’ aesthetic thought and principles can be used today both as reminders and harbingers of alternative futures, as Saki Mafundikwa, a graphic designer, and Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author, are doing.

Breaking the lure of the present moment also entails complexifying grand narratives through attending to histories of the particular and of change. For example, Sundiata Keita is famed as a great ruler of the Mali Empire. A charter he pronounced upon ascending the throne is celebrated as one of the first ‘constitutions’ in the world, contemporaneous with the Magna Carta, and lauded for its humaneness because it instructed that slaves should get one day off a week and own the property of their bags. Sundiata, in fact, reinstated slavery, which the guild of hunters had abolished a few years earlier in a charter they delivered. This history points to the fact that life, and therefore history, is processual and encourages a shift from linear progression and teleological thinking.

Indigenous African polities demonstrate heterarchy as a form of societal organisation in which power is diffuse and vested in multiple spheres and people, none more important than the other, thus entrenching checks and balances. One person could belong to their family or clan lineage, an age-set group, a secret society, a knowledge or crafts guild, a deliberative body (e.g. council of elders), and a spiritual practice (e.g. a spirit medium or devotee) at the same time. Each of these institutions performed activities necessary for the health of the whole community rather than for the importance of single individuals, be they chiefs or kings. Amongst the Nanumba and others, chiefs were farmers like any other community member. Equally, deposition of leaders when they did not meet the reciprocal obligation to work for the health of the community was practised, as were migrations to start new communities in new areas.

Among the Alur, the power of the central polity increased rather than decreased as groups separated and left to start their own political formations. The hunter’s charter and ‘egalitarian/stateless societies’ like the Igbo of West Africa also provide examples of alternative political models. These different ways of organising the political can open up a discursive and praxis imaginary of the political that goes beyond the nation-state.

In many indigenous African societies, people, relationships and the knowledge embedded in them were more valued than material goods. The global capital system, however, has steadily devalued people, especially knowledgeable Africans who are placed at the bottom of a hierarchy, even while the system profits off the knowledge they hold in agriculture, medicine, knowledge production, and various other domains. In Equatorial Africa how much knowledge one had, understood as skilful generative action (not information) was highly valued. At present, however, extractive control over people, and the Earth, not the ownership of knowledge (productive skilful action) is what is more highly valued. A reframing of wealth using indigenous concepts of knowledge and skill might change how we organise our economies and societies, re-appreciating both the time and knowledge inherent in agroecological food production, craftwork, and forms of artistic production. It can also provide pathways out of global capitalism.

Statistics about Africa’s rapid urbanisation abound. Valuing and integrating indigenous forms of urbanism might hold answers to the challenges this presents. For example, urban agriculture was an integral part of several indigenous urban centres. Encouraging and supporting urban agriculture in African cities today might allow us to create cities that feed themselves. The floating city of Makoko in Lagos lagoon was settled 200 years ago. Today the ingenuity of design, construction, and socio-economic life in Makoko is under threat of demolition for ‘development’. A historical understanding of living in Makoko, coupled with an appreciation of the layers of knowledge and skill represented might allow imagination of indigenous urban development. Indeed, the residents of Makoko have been innovating it for 200 years already.

Conclusion

Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, to challenge the privileging of whiteness and Europeanness, and to debunk myths about Africans as people who are destructive or unchanging. It allows us to illuminate diverse possibilities of human living to build on against the hegemony of a present moment that unsees and devalues us. For Africans, studying African history is an opportunity to trace the stream of African living for the last 200, 000 years.

Unseeing was a colonial predicament. There is no reason why we must continue with these glasses on.

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Gen Z, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and African Universities

16 min read. The 4th Industrial Revolution is only one of many forces forcing transformations in higher education. As such, we should assess its challenges and opportunities with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety, neither dismissing it with Luddite ideological fervour nor investing it with the omniscience beloved by techno-worshippers.

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Gen Z, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and African Universities
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Like many of you, I try to keep up with trends in higher education, which are of course firmly latched to wider transformations in the global political economy, in all its bewildering complexities and contradictions, and tethered to particular national and local contexts. Of late one cannot avoid the infectious hopes, hysteria, and hyperbole about the disruptive power of the 4th Industrial Revolution on every sector, including higher education. It was partly to make sense of the discourses and debates about this new revolution that I chose this topic.

But I was also inspired by numerous conversations with colleagues in my capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kenya Education Network Trust (KENET) that provides Internet connectivity and related services to enhance education and research to the county’s educational and research institutions. Also, my university has ambitious plans to significantly expand its programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the health sciences, and the cinematic and creative arts, in which discussions about the rapid technological changes and their impact on our educational enterprise feature prominently.

I begin by briefly underlining the divergent perspectives on the complex, contradictory and rapidly changing connections between the 4th Industrial Revolution and higher education. Then I seek to place it in the context of wider changes. First, in terms of global politics and economy. Second, with reference to the changing nature of work. Third, in the context of other key trends in higher education. Situating the 4th Industrial Revolution in these varied and intersected changes and dynamics underscores a simple point: that it is part of a complex mosaic of profound transformations taking place in the contemporary world that precede and supersede it.

As a historian and social scientist, I’m only too aware that technology is always historically and socially embedded; it is socially constructed in so far as its creation, dissemination, and consumption are always socially marked. In short, technological changes, however momentous, produce and reproduce both old and new opportunity structures and trajectories that are simultaneously uneven and unequal because they are conditioned by the enduring social inscriptions of class, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity and other markers, as well as the stubborn geographies and hierarchies of the international division of labour.

The 4th Industrial Revolution 

As with any major social phenomena and process, the 4th Industrial Revolution has its detractors, cheerleaders, and fence-sitters. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life.

Critics dismiss the 4th Industrial Revolution as a myth, arguing that it is not a revolution as such in so far as many innovations associated with it represent extensions of previous innovations. Some even find the euphoric discourses about it elitist, masculinist, and racist. Some fear its destructive potential for jobs and livelihoods, and privacy and freedom as surveillance capitalism spreads its tentacles.

Those who espouse its radical impact say that the 4th Industrial Revolution will profoundly transform all spheres of economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is altering the interaction of humans with technology, leading to the emergence of what Yuval Noah Harari calls homo deus who worships at the temple of dataism in the name of algorithms. More soberly, some welcome the 4th Industrial Revolution for its leapfrogging opportunities for developing countries and marginalised communities. But even the sceptics seek to hedge their bets on the promises and perils of the much-hyped revolution by engaging it.

In the education sector, universities are urged to help drive the 4th Industrial Revolution by pushing the boundaries of their triple mission of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement. Much attention focuses on curricula reform, the need to develop what one author calls “future-readiness” curricula that prepares students holistically for the skills of both today and tomorrow – curricula that integrates the liberal arts and the sciences, digital literacy and intercultural literacy, and technical competencies and ethical values, and that fosters self-directed and personalised learning. Because of the convergences of the 4th Industrial Revolution, universities are exhorted to promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching, research and innovation, and to pursue new modes of internationalisation of knowledge production, collaboration, and consumption.

Changes in the global political economy

From Africa’s vantage point, I would argue there are three critical global forces that we need to pay special attention to. First, the world system is in the midst of a historic hegemonic shift. This is evident in the growing importance of Asia and the emerging economies, including Africa and impending closure of Euroamerica’s half a millennium of global dominance. Emblematic of this monumental transition is the mounting rivalry between a slumping United States and a rising China that is flexing its global muscles not least through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Those who espouse its radical impact say that the 4th Industrial Revolution will profoundly transform all spheres of economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is altering the interaction of humans with technology, leading to the emergence of what Yuval Noah Harari calls homo deus who worships at the temple of dataism in the name of algorithms.

The struggle between the two nations and their respective allies or spheres of influence marks the end of America’s supremacy as the sole post-Cold War superpower. The outbreak of the trade war between the two in 2018 represents the first skirmishes of a bitter hegemonic rivalry that will probably engulf at least the first half of the 21st century. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How should Africa manage and position itself in this global hegemonic shift?

This is the third such shift over the last two hundred years. The first occurred between 1870-1914 following the rise of Germany and its rivalry with the world’s first industrial power, Britain. For the world as a whole this led to the “New Imperialism” that culminated in World War I, and for Africa and Asia in colonisation.

The second hegemonic shift emerged out of the ashes of World War II with the rise of two superpowers, the former Soviet Union and the United States. For the world this led to the Cold War and for Asia and Africa decolonisation.

Can Africa leverage the current shift to achieve its long-cherished but deferred dream of sustainable development?

As the highest concentrations of collective intellectual prowess, African universities and researchers have a responsibility to promote comprehensive understanding of the stakes for Africa, and to inform policy options on how best to navigate the emerging treacherous quagmire of the new superpower rivalries to maximise the possibilities and minimise the perils.

More broadly, in so far as China’s and Asia’s rise are as much economic as they are epistemic – as evident in the exponential ascent of Asian universities in global rankings – the challenge and opportunity for our universities and knowledge production systems is how best to pluralise worldly engagements that simultaneously curtail the Western stranglehold rooted in colonial and neocolonial histories of intellectual dependency without succumbing to the hegemonic ambitions of China and Asia.

Second, world demography is undergoing a major metamorphosis. On the one hand, this is evident in the aging populations of many countries in the global North.  China is also on the same demographic treadmill, thanks to its ill-guided one-child policy imposed in 1979 that was only abolished in 2015. On the other hand, Africa is enjoying a population explosion. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25. Africa is expected to have 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent of the world’s population) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent of the world’s population) in 2100.

What are the developmental implications of Africa’s demographic bulge, and Africa’s global position as it becomes the reservoir of the world’s largest labour force? The role of educational institutions in this demographic equation is clear. Whether Africa’s skyrocketing population is to be a demographic dividend or not will depend on the quality of education, skills, and employability of the youth. Hordes of hundreds of millions of ill-educated, unskilled, and unemployable youth will turn the youth population surge into a demographic disaster, a Malthusian nightmare for African economies, polities and societies.

As the highest concentrations of collective intellectual prowess, African universities and researchers have a responsibility to promote comprehensive understanding of the stakes for Africa, and to inform policy options on how best to navigate the emerging treacherous quagmire of the new superpower rivalries to maximise the possibilities and minimise the perils.

The third major transformative force centers on the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution. During the 1st Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century, Africa paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of Euroamerica. Under the 2nd Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, Africa was colonised. The 3rd Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neocolonialism for Africa. What is and will be the nature of Africa’s levels of participation in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Will the continent be a player or a pawn as in the other 3 revolutions?

The future of work

There is a growing body of academic literature and consultancy reports about the future of work. An informative summary can be found in a short monograph published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “The Future of Work: How Colleges Can Prepare Students for the Jobs Ahead”,  it is argued that the digitalisation of the economy and social life spawned by the 4th Industrial Revolution will continue transforming the nature of work as old industries are disrupted and new ones emerge. In the United States, it is projected that the fastest growing fields will be in science, technology, engineering, and healthcare, while employment in manufacturing will decline. This will enhance the importance of the soft skills of the liberal arts, such as oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, intercultural competency, combined with hard technical skills, like coding.

In short, while it is difficult to predict the future of work, more jobs will increasingly require graduates to “fully merge their training in hard skills with soft skills”. They will be trained in both the liberal arts and STEM, with skills for complex human interactions, and capacities for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience.

In a world of rapidly changing occupations, the hybridisation of skills, competencies, and literacies together with lifelong learning will become assets. In a digitalised economy, routine tasks will be more prone to automation than highly skilled non-routine jobs. Successful universities will include those that impart academic and experiential learning to both traditional students and older students seeking retraining.

The need to strengthen interdisciplinary and experiential teaching and learning, career services centres, and retraining programmes for older students on college campuses is likely to grow. So will partnerships between universities and employers as both seek to enhance students’ employability skills and reduce the much-bemoaned mismatches between graduates and the labour market. The roles of career centres and services will need to expand in response to pressures for better integration of curricula programmes, co-curricula activities, community engagement, and career preparedness and placement.

In short, while it is difficult to predict the future of work, more jobs will increasingly require graduates to “fully merge their training in hard skills with soft skills”. They will be trained in both the liberal arts and STEM, with skills for complex human interactions, and capacities for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience.

Some university leaders and faculty of course bristle at the vocationalisation of universities, insisting on the primacy of intellectual inquiry, learning for its own sake, and student personal development. But the fraught calculus between academe and return on investment cannot be wished away for many students and parents. For students from poorer backgrounds, intellectual development and career preparedness both matter as university education maybe their only shot at acquiring the social capital that richer students have other avenues to acquire.

Trends in higher education 

Digital Disruptions  

Clearly, digital disruptions constitute one of the key four interconnected trends in higher education that I seek to discuss. The other three include rising demands for public service and engagement, unbundling of the degree, and escalating imperatives for lifelong learning.

More and more, digitalisation affects every aspect of higher education, including research, teaching, and institutional operations. Information technologies have impacted research in various ways, including expanding opportunities for “big science” and increasing capacities for international collaboration. The latter is evident in the exponential growth in international co-authorship.

Also, the explosion of information has altered the role of libraries as repositories of print and audio-visual materials into nerve centres for digitised information communication, which raises the need for information literacy. Moreover, academic publishing has been transformed by the acceleration and commercialisation of scholarly communication. The role of powerful academic publishing and database firms has greatly been strengthened. The open source movement is trying to counteract that.

Similarly far reaching is the impact of information technology on teaching and learning. Opportunities for technology-mediated forms of teaching and learning encompassing blended learning, flipped classrooms, adaptive and active learning, and online education have grown. This has led to the emergence of a complex melange of teaching and learning models encompassing the face-to-face-teaching model without ICT enhancement; ICT-enhanced face-to-face teaching model; ICT-enhanced distance teaching model; and the online teaching model.

Spurred by the student success movement arising out of growing public concerns about the quality of learning and the employability skills of graduates, “the black box of college”—teaching and learning—has been opened, argues another recent monograph by The Chronicle entitled, “The Future of Learning: How colleges can transform the educational experience”. The report notes, “Some innovative colleges are deploying big data and predictive analytics, along with intrusive advising and guided pathways, to try to engineer a more effective educational experience. Experiments in revamping gateway courses, better connecting academic and extracurricular work, and lowering textbook costs also hold promise to support more students through college.” For critics of surveillance capitalism, the arrival of Big Brother on university campuses is truly frightening in its Orwellian implications.

There are other teaching methods increasingly driven by artificial intelligence and technology that include immersive technology, gaming, and mobile learning, as well as massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the emergence of robot tutors. In some institutions, instructors who worship at the altar of innovation are also incorporating free, web-based content, online collaboration tools, simulation  or educational games, lecture capture, e-books, in-class polling tools, as well as student smartphones and tablets,  social media , and e-portfolios as teaching and learning tools.

Some of these instructional technologies make personalised learning for students increasingly possible. The Chronicle monograph argues for these technologies and innovations, such as predictive analytics, to work it is essential to use the right data and algorithms, cultivate buy-in from those who work most closely with students, pair analytics with appropriate interventions, and invest enough money. Managing these innovations entails confronting entrenched structural, financial, and cultural barriers,and “require investments in training and personnel”.

For many under-resourced African universities with inadequate or dilapidated physical and electronic infrastructures, the digital revolution remains a pipe dream. But such is the spread of smart phones and tablets even among growing segments of African university students that they can no longer be effectively taught using old pedagogical methods of the born-before-computers (BBC) generation. After spending the past two decades catering to millennials, universities now have to accommodate Gen Z, the first generation of truly digital natives.

Another study from The Chronicle entitled “The New Generation of Students: How colleges can recruit, teach, and serve Gen Z” argues that this “is a generation accustomed to learning by toggling between the real and virtual worlds…They favoir a mix of learning environments and activities led by a professor but with options to create their own blend of independent and group work and experiential opportunities”.

For Gen Z knowledge is everywhere. “They are accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner…They are used to customisation. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.”

For such students, the instructor is no longer the sage on stage from whom hapless students passively imbibe information through lectures, but a facilitator or coach who engages students in active and adaptive learning. Their ideal instructor makes class interesting and involving, is enthusiastic about teaching, communicates clearly, understands students’ challenges and issues and gives guidance, challenges students to do better as a student or as a person, among several attributes.

For Gen Z knowledge is everywhere. “They are accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner…They are used to customisation. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.”

Teaching faculty to teach the digital generation, and equipping faculty with digital competency, design thinking, and curriculum curation, is increasingly imperative. The deployment of digital technologies and tools in institutional operations is expected to grow as universities seek to improve efficiencies and data-driven decision-making. As noted earlier, the explosion of data about almost everything that happens in higher education is leading to data mining and analytics becoming more important than ever. Activities that readily lend themselves to IT interventions include enrollment, advising, and management of campus facilities. By the same token, institutions have to pay more attention to issues of data privacy and security.

Public Service Engagements 

The second major trend centres on rising expectations for public engagement and service. This manifests itself in three ways. First, demands for mutually beneficial university-society relationships and the social impact of universities are increasing. As doubts grow about the value proposition of higher education, pressures will intensify for universities to demonstrate their contribution to the public good in contributing to national development and competitiveness, notwithstanding the prevailing neoliberal conceptions of higher education as a private good.

On the other hand, universities’ concerns about the escalating demands of society are also likely to grow. The intensification of global challenges, from climate change to socio-economic inequality to geopolitical security, will demand more research and policy interventions by higher education institutions. A harbinger of things to come is the launch in 2019 by the Times Higher Education of a new global ranking system assessing the social and economic impact of universities’ innovation, policies and practices.

Second, the question of graduate employability will become more pressing for universities to address. As the commercialisation and commodification of learning persists, and maybe even intensifies, demands on universities to demonstrate that their academic programmes prepare students for employability in terms of being ready to get or create gainful employment can only be expected to grow. Pressure will increase on both universities and employers to close the widely bemoaned gap between college and jobs, between graduate qualifications and the needs of the labour market.

Third is the growth of public-private partnerships (PPPs). As financial and political pressures mount, and higher education institutions seek to focus on their core academic functions of teaching and learning, and generating research and scholarship, many universities have been outsourcing more and more of the financing, design, building and maintenance of facilities and services, including student housing, food services, and monetising parking and energy. Emerging partnerships encompass enrollment and academic programme management, such as online programme expansion, skills training, student mentoring and career counseling.

Another Chronicle monograph, “The Outsourced University: How public-private partnerships can benefit your campus”, traces the growth of PPPs. They take a variety of forms and duration. It is critical for institutions pursuing such partnerships to determine whether a “project should be handled through a P3,” clearly “articulate your objectives, and measure your outputs,” to “be clear about the trade-offs,” “bid competitively,” and “be clear in the contract.”

The growth of PPPs will lead to greater mobility between the public and private sectors and the academy as pressures grow for continuous skilling of students, graduates, and employees in a world of rapidly changing jobs and occupations. This will be done through the growth of experiential learning, work-related learning, and secondments.

Unbundling of the Degree

The third major transformation that universities need to pay attention to centers on their core business as providers of degrees. This is the subject of another fascinating monograph in The Chronicle entitled “The Future of The Degree: How Colleges Can Survive the New Credential Economy”. The study shows how the university degree evolved over time in the 19th and 20th centuries to become a highly prized currency for the job market, a signal that one has acquired a certain level of education and skills.

As economies undergo “transformative change, a degree based on a standard of time in a seat is no longer sufficient in an era where mastery is the key. As a result, we are living in a new period in the development of the degree, where different methods of measuring learning are materialising, and so too are diverse and efficient packages of credentials based on data.”

In a digitalized economy where continuous reskilling becomes a constant, the college degree as a one-off certification of competence, as a badge certifying the acquisition of desirable social and cultural capital, and as a convenient screening mechanism for employers, is less sustainable.

Clearly, as more employers focus on experience and skills in hiring, and as the mismatch between graduates and employability persists or even intensifies, traditional degrees will increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities will lose their monopoly over certification as alternative credentialing systems emerge.

As experiential learning becomes more important, the degree will increasingly need to embody three key elements. First, it needs to “signify the duality of the learning experience, both inside and outside the classroom. Historically, credentials measured the learning that happened only inside the university, specifically seat time inside a classroom.”

Second, the “credential should convey an integrated experience…While students are unlikely to experience all of their learning for a credential on a single campus in the future, some entity will still need to help integrate and certify the entire package of courses, internships, and badges throughout a person’s lifetime.”

Third, credentials “must operate with some common standard… For new credentials to matter in the future, institutions will need to create a common language of exchange” beyond the current singular currency of an institutional degree.

The rise of predictive hiring to evaluate job candidates and people analytics in the search for talent will further weaken the primacy of the degree signal. Also disruptive is the fact that human knowledge, which used to take hundreds of years, and later decades, to double is now “doubling every 13 months, on average, and IBM predicts that in the next couple of years, with the expansion of the internet of things, information will double every 11 hours. That requires colleges and universities to broaden their definition of a degree and their credential offerings.”

All these likely developments have serious implications for the current business model of higher education. Universities need “to rethink what higher education needs to be — not a specific one-time experience but a lifelong opportunity for learners to acquire skills useful through multiple careers. In many ways, the journey to acquire higher education will never end. From the age of 18 on, adults will need to step in and out of a higher-education system that will give them the credentials for experiences that will carry currency in the job market.”

In short, as lifelong careers recede and people engage in multiple careers, not just jobs, the quest for higher education will become continuous, no longer confined to the youth in the 18-24 age range. “Rather than existing as a single document, credentials will be conveyed with portfolios of assets and data from learners demonstrating what they know.”

Clearly, as more employers focus on experience and skills in hiring, and as the mismatch between graduates and employability persists or even intensifies, traditional degrees will increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities will lose their monopoly over certification as alternative credentialing systems emerge.

Increasing pressures of life for lifelong learning will lead to the unbundling of the degree into project-based degrees, hybrid baccalaureate and Master’s degrees, ‘microdegrees’, and badges. Students will increasingly stack their credentials of degrees and certificates “to create a mosaic of experiences that they hope will set them apart in the job market”.

As African educators we must ask ourselves: How prepared are our universities for the emergence and proliferation of new credentialing systems? How are African universities effectively integrating curricular and co-curricular forms of learning in person and online learning? How prepared and responsive are African universities to multigenerational learners, traditional and emerging degree configurations and certificates? What are the implications of the explosion of instructional information technologies for styles of student teaching and learning, the pedagogical roles of instructors, and the dynamics of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption?

Lifelong Learning 

The imperatives of the digitalised economy and society for continuous reskilling and upskilling entail lifelong and lifewide learning. The curricula and teaching for lifelong learning must be inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary. It entails identifying and developing the intersections of markets, places, people, and programmes; and helping illuminate the powerful intersections of learning, life, and work. Universities need to develop more agile admission systems by smarter segmentation of prospective student markets (e.g., flexible admission by age group and academic programme); some are exploring lifelong enrollment for students (e.g., National University of Singapore).

Lifelong learning involves developing and delivering personalised learning, not cohort learning; assessing competences, not seat tim,e as most universities currently do. “Competency-based education allows students to move at their own pace, showcasing what they know instead of simply sitting in a classroom for a specific time period.”

Lifelong learning requires encouraging enterprise education and an entrepreneurial spirit among students, instilling resilience among them, providing supportive environments for learning and personal development, and placing greater emphasis on “learning to learn” rather than rote learning of specific content.

As leaders and practitioners in higher education, we need to ask ourselves some of the following questions: How are African universities preparing for and going to manage lifelong learning? How can universities effectively provide competency-based education? How can African universities encourage entrepreneurial education without becoming glorified vocational institutions, and maintain their role as sites of producing and disseminating critical scholarly knowledge for scientific progress and informed citizenship?

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the 4th Industrial Revolution is only one of many forces forcing transformations in higher education. As such, we should assess its challenges and opportunities with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety, neither dismissing it with Luddite ideological fervour nor investing it with the omniscience beloved by techno-worshippers. In the end, the fate of technological change is not pre-determined; it is always imbricated with human choices and agency.

At my university, the United States International University (USIU)-Africa, we’ve long required all incoming students to take an information technology placement test as a way of promoting information literacy; we use an ICT instructional platform (Blackboard), embed ICT in all our institutional operations, and we are increasingly using data analytics in our decision-making processes. We also have a robust range of ICT degree programmes and are introducing new ones (BSc in software engineering, data science and analytics, AI and robotics, an MSc in cybersecurity, and a PhD in Information Science and Technology), and what we’re calling USIU-Online.

 

This article is the plenary address by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza at the Universities South Africa, First National Higher Education Conference, “Reinventing SA’s Universities for the Future” CSIR ICC, Pretoria, October 4, 2019.

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